KIRK LACOB, ASSISTANT GENERAL MANAGER, GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
The Golden State Warriors Championship rosters weren’t built overnight. There have been architects, otherwise known as the General Managers, Coaches and their staffs, who have poured much of their life’s work into building out those rosters. There’s a lot of energy and effort that goes into cultivating and training a championship caliber team to get them battle tested and ready to defeat all opponents.
Throughout history, there’s always been a bit of risk associated with being great. A team like the Warriors doesn’t achieve three NBA Finals appearances and two Championship titles in three consecutive years without taking several risks. Those brave architects of the team have had to trust the team’s most precious resources, their athletes, to test new theories or use new innovative technology with hopes that the data insights that technology brings will give them just the edge they need to build a legacy.
For Assistant General Manager at the Golden State Warriors, Kirk Lacob, taking risks on innovative technology comes naturally to him. He’s a young forward thinking thought leader in the Sports Performance Technology space and a former Stanford graduate with ties to Silicon Valley. For Kirk, it’s a no brainer when it comes to testing out new technology on the Warriors players if it’s going to become part of the secret sauce that’s going to help his team stay at the top.
The Warriors have been very sophisticated with their approach of adopting new technology. They’ve used Santa Cruz as a testing ground to try new things out to see what works and what doesn’t. They then use those insights to figure out what they’d like to integrate into the next level to help them win.
We sat down with Kirk to pick his brain about his experience of embracing Athos with the Santa Cruz Warriors as well as how he’s gone about getting players to adapt to technology and where he thinks the future of this unique space is going.
EMBRACING THE COMPETITIVE EDGE
What drew you to Athos?
KL: I think what originally drew me to Athos was I’ve always looked for something that I call noninvasive. It might not be the right term, but that’s what I always called it. Part of the problem with traditional wearables, and it’s not any of the faults of these companies, it’s just where the technology was, but you’d have to wear these bulky sensors and that’s an issue. If an athlete notices something is on them, it’s going to impact them even if it really shouldn’t. You know, having a large sensor like on your chest can’t actually affect your ability to run but there’s a psychological component to all this stuff and if an athlete feels uncomfortable, they’re not going to perform the way they normally would or they’re going to blame the sensor if anything goes wrong. So what I think is great about Athos is that they’ve developed something that you’d be wearing any ways. These athletes are used to wearing compression gear anyways. That’s key because our goal is to have something that really doesn’t impact their ability to do what they need to do but still gathers data. And that’s what first drew me to Athos and obviously the science that they’ve worked on behind the scenes, the data analysis is really intriguing.
Why is it important to know muscular stress?
KL: I think muscular stress is one of those things we just don’t know a lot about with players and it’s key. We’re really good about knowing how they feel after, especially after an injury, like really good at getting imaging and seeing exactly what’s going on or running a stress test. We’re ok at knowing what’s going on beforehand, we can run all sorts of baseline tests, but we don’t know a lot yet as a whole about what’s going on while an athlete is working out. I think that’s really important because if you can say this is how an athlete looks before they start, that’s great you know pretty black or white if they should be doing this activity or not and after you can know if they should have done it or maybe you should have sat them out but what we need to know is where is that red line? Where is that yellow line? How do we know when they can maybe push themselves and get a little more out of this activity. But most importantly, we don’t want to get them to a point where they can potentially get injured or re-injured. So it’s a very fine line and this is helping to define that line which I think is very important going forward.
Why implement Athos at Santa Cruz?
KL: Santa Cruz was a perfect fit for Athos because it really is our testing ground in a lot of ways. One of the top things I like to say for people who work for us in Santa Cruz is “Be aggressive, go out and do things. I’m going to give you a lot of autonomy.” I don’t even work there anymore, I just kind of oversee it to make sure things are going the right direction. But, we’ve told all of those people when you make a mistake, it’s ok. This is not a million dollar mistake, don’t go out there and be reckless, but if you make a mistake, it’s ok just like it’s ok in real life. But these are thousand dollar mistakes instead of million dollar mistakes. If we try something out and it doesn’t work, it’s not the end of the world. If we try something out here and it doesn’t work, that’s a major issue. So it’s given us a chance to try things. Also, the way that league is, it moves so quickly, it allows us to rapidly prototype and go through things a little quicker. We have more practices there than we do here. We have different types of players coming through. So, there’s a lot more opportunity to try things out and you know I think a big focus is going to be on rehab. And a lot of times we have guys in Santa Cruz who are big rehab assignments. Maybe they had some horrible injury in the past that’s led them to not be in the NBA and now we can really focus on getting them healthy as opposed to quickly returning to play to win games.
How important is technology’s role in Return To Play efforts?
KL: As an Assistant General Manager, it’s my job to get athletes healthy and to Return To Play. We need to win games and to win games we need to have healthy players. Anything we can use to get an edge is very important. I think if I put on a different hat and that’s my fan of the game hat, I just want people healthy. I want the best players playing, I want them playing a lot and I want them playing all the time. What you don’t ever want to see is a great player go down with an injury that could’ve been potentially avoided or at least we could’ve put him in a better position to not have gotten injured. So the more information we have on these guys, the better. I guess those two things are really aligned. The fan and the assistant, only difference is one of them has to do with joy and one of them is a job. But I think that’s really the crux of it.
Does technology give you an edge on the competition?
KL: I do think so, I think it’s really important because there are so many moving parts in sports and the reality is you want to make the best most informed decisions you can. Technology allows us, in a lot of different ways, to come up with objective measures of really anything. When it gives you an opportunity to gather more data, you’re giving yourself better information. Doesn’t mean you’re going to make a better decision, it’s still on you, but it gives you the data to potentially make a more informed decision.
Has technology helped the Warriors to achieve success on the court?
KL: It’s absolutely that type of thinking that allows us to be successful. The idea that there’s no stone unturned, that we’re going to look through every possible option and decide what makes the most sense for us. There could be some great technology out there some great ideas, but they’re too cost prohibitive or too labor intensive and they’re not really worth our time to up that percentage. But I think that our willingness, our ability to use our resources to gather more resources is really valuable.
ADAPTING TO TECHNOLOGY IN THE FRONT OFFICE CULTURE
How do you get athletes on board?
KL: I think that’s a really important question, how do we get guys to buy in? I think the most important thing is you can’t attack every situation as if it’s the same. You can’t go to every player or every coach with the same message because everyone is different, they think about things differently because of past experience. I think that it’s important first to get your messaging right and to know the subject that you’re approaching, but I think as a general rule of thumb you use similar thought process to I can tell you that this won’t hurt you. Then you prove it to them. Explain that none of this will hurt you, but it might help you. And if they can make that leap of faith then that’s great, that’s your first starting point. Then the next thing becomes if it might help you, this is how exactly it might help you and you really have to empower them to use that data. Then the last thing is really putting an emphasis on the fact that we don’t want anything invasive, athletes are inherently thinking of things all the time. There’s’ a psychological component to everything they do and you don’t want to make them feel distracted so it’s very important that you come to them with a plan and an idea where they can see some sort of actual results but also aren’t going to be bothered by it while they’re competing or training.
How great is it to have guys like Andre and Steph as great tech advocates on the team?
Having guys like Steph and Andre who are real forward thinkers is great because not only are usually open to trying new things or even bring new things themselves to the table, they’re also occasional champions with other athletes and there’s no better referral than from an athlete to an athlete who says you know this is something that doesn’t really bother me and I got some interesting data from it. Even better if they say they’ve seen whatever improvements here or there that they might attribute to it or at least think could’ve had some sort of contribution to it and that’s really key.
What metrics have you been monitoring with your athletes?
KL: We’ve tried to monitor as much as we can of course with the caveat being only with the players who are comfortable with it. For now, that’s really all in practice too which is a limited data set so we’re mostly getting baselines during pre seasons when we practice the most, then during the season as we practice and of course we’ve been fortunate enough to go pretty far the last few years so we kind of stop practicing altogether because we’re saving up for such a long run. So we’ve measured as much as we can with these guys whether it’s heart rate, vo2 max type of things, respiratory system, we’ve measured things relating to movement, speed and compared that to historical data to see if someone is accelerating quicker, faster or slower. But, it is hard given some of our current issues and frankly, the final thing is we need the players to buy in. If they don’t want to buy in that’s fine, it’s completely their decision. But I think it’s important long term that we continue to get more data in those areas. So we do rely on what I call inferred data which is obviously not medical as much as it is movement based. So a lot of that is just cameras to optically track and then kind of infer loads based on things that we already know about a player’s body. It’s better than nothing, it’s not ideal because those aren’t real strong. There’s a lot of margin for error there but that’s really what we’re doing today and our hope is we continue to run more beta tests in Santa Cruz on things and hopefully one day these are things that will be improved throughout sport across the board and athletes will feel comfortable using this data on their own outside of what a team is doing or they’ll feel open enough to work with a team on things, but like I said, it’s something that needs to be thought through and everyone really needs to be in agreement for it to really work.
What would you say to a GM who’s resistant to using technology?
KL: I would say why? Why are you being resistant? I’m not telling you to go and just black and white, you must use any technology and data to inform all your decisions. I’m saying, why wouldn’t you at least take a look? Like I said, if it means even a 2% better decision-making process, that’s a win. You don’t necessarily see it because unfortunately, things are ultimately results oriented so either it happens or it doesn’t. But it doesn’t mean you thought about things the right way and I think you’ll see in the long run, that if you continue to make the right decisions or at least learn from it, you’re going to have a better result. As long as it’s not cost or resource prohibitive to an extreme degree there’s really no harm in trying.
THOUGHTS ON THE INTERSECTION OF SPORTS AND TECHNOLOGY
What does the Sports Performance Technology future look like to you?
KL: I think it’s going in a really, really cool direction. Obviously, there’s going to be a lot of legal issues around a lot of this because the data is coming from other people and people have rights to their own medical data. But I think the best part is we’re getting better technology that gives us less of a margin for error and more concrete good data. That can only be a good thing, I think it’s going to also help us learn more about how human body works which are really cool and I think goes well beyond basketball or sports. These are obviously large resource institutions but if we can continue to produce things that work at scale, why couldn’t we go and use these things in some other medium and help everybody. So that’s kind of my long-term pie in the sky goal is to hope that some real good comes out of this for the world, and if not we’ve got really cool things that we can use for basketball.
What would you love to see improve or advance quicker in this space?
KL: There are probably two places I’d put an emphasis on. One is the sensor side and that’s actually gathering the data. That’s going to continue to improve and I think that’s going to be great because it’s going to give us a smaller margin of error and it’ll give us more accurate information which will allow our decisions to be a little more informed. The other side is actually analyzing the data. There are so many great things happening in the data science world, whether you look at things like AI machine learning or you look at just large data manipulation. We’re getting better at actually sifting through this giant data. That’s really key, you can have as much data as you want but if you don’t know what to make of it, it’s completely useless. You might as well not invest in it. So what I think is great is we’re starting to see larger data sets over a larger period of time which means that we’re probably not going to have small sample size theater over here. At worst, we might find there are still large blips, but we’re also able to better analyze it and more quickly. I think real time analysis is going to become really big at some point and that’s really exciting too.
If you could collect data on something else in a practice or game what would it be and why?
KL: I think there’s a lot of things out there that I would love to be able to see more and part of it honestly is we just have to improve technology. But I think there are so many readings we get from the body I really do believe that musculoskeletal stuff is extremely important going forward. So I would love to get a holistic data set in real-time and to be able to compare it to something that’s more historical. I think that is more time dependent than anything else because I think the technology now exists to do those sorts of thing, Athos is a prime example. We just have to continue to collect the data and do the analysis so that as we collect more data it’s very meaningful in real-time. That would probably be my number one thing. I think the only other thing I would love to see tested would be to figure out how people’s minds work. That’s what I would really love to see. How quickly you’re able to think and how quickly in real-time someone is able to react to certain things. That’s more general curiosity than helpful at this point, but I could see a future where that is really helpful and we can start to train those things a little better. I think that even a split nano second of thinking and reacting can be immensely beneficial.