If you've ever pondered which Olympic gold medalist you could have been, one Silicon Valley technology company wants to help solve the mystery.
Sports Potential, in Palo Alto, Calif., has developed a series of tests and sophisticated software to calculate an individual's aptitude for a wide range of sports--from baseball to bobsledding. After a two-hour test, the company's Web-based software can illustrate a subject's physical traits, such as body composition, power, speed, agility and endurance, and compare the results with people in the same age group.
The software then matches those findings with recommended sports, based on the qualities of elite athletes in those sports. It can also give individualized pointers for how to train for tennis, for example, if someone is a big tennis fan without the natural-born traits to be good at it.
"If you didn't have the hand-eye coordination for baseball, basketball or football--all sports that kids in the United States are commonly introduced to--you'd think you were a klutz. But it's just that you haven't found the right sport yet," said Steve Spinner, founder and CEO of Sports Potential.
The program, called Sports Potential Assessment (SPA), was introduced last summer for anyone age 13 or older, and it's beginning to show up in athletic clubs and clinics around the country.
But the best niche for this service may be with sports-obsessive parents. In April, the company will introduce a service for children 8 to 12 years old at recreational centers, schools and summer camps. The program can assess whether a child is cognitively and physically prepared for up to 38 sports and includes coaching tips online for how to prepare for each. Results of the test flow into a child-focused site, which kids can interact with and use to keep records, and another site for parents, which outlines a child's strengths and areas for improvement.
The mind-body-Bradley connection
Spinner himself always wanted to stay fit in order to best his family's genetic tendency toward obesity (his parents died of the disease). A finisher of an Ironman triathlon, which combines a marathon with a 100-mile bike ride and a 2.4-mile swim, he found his talent for running by luck and a dare from a high school running coach, who spotted his speed on the soccer field.
Sports Potential's best-known backer is Bill Bradley, former senator, one-time presidential candidate, Olympic gold medalist and star basketball player.
In a stroke of luck, Bradley and Spinner were traveling on the same plane from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco following the Thanksgiving weekend in 2002. Spinner wrote Bradley a note, pitching the Sports Potential concept and inviting him to visit seat 17B in the coach section of the plane. Two hours later, Bradley came out of first class and visited him under the watchful eye of surrounding passengers.
Within two months, Bradley had invested in the company and joined as chairman of its advisory committee. Sports Potential has raised $4.5 million from individuals, companies and venture firms, including Bradley's Allen & Co, Thomas Weisel Venture Partners, Siebel Systems and CNET Networks, publisher of News.com.
Marketing Sports Potential's service may have its challenges. Dan McDonough, fitness director of the Pacific Athletic Club in Redwood City, Calif., said his club's trainers tested the service and used it briefly six months ago, but it didn't catch on.
One reason was cost. The SPA test can cost anywhere between $175 and $225 at health clubs, schools or parks and recreation centers that administer it. For a children's Sports Readiness Assessment (SRA), costs will range from $125 to $150.
"It's a bit expensive and a long, involved test. And a lot of older athletic clients didn't see how it applied to them," said McDonough. "But I could see it would be a valuable tool for some markets, like parents to see where their kids stand--like, 'Hey you've never tried lacrosse; how about lacrosse?'"
Jim Martin, vice president of channel relations at Sports Potential, said the company is developing a group-oriented format that could lower the costs for participants.
The software is a game of math.
Software development was led by Steve Fleck, a former sports physiologist for the U.S. Olympic Committee and former head of its physical conditioning program. Fleck created a comprehensive test toin various fields. Once it had data on the athletes, as well as data from top field organizations, such as the U.S. fencing or swim team, it began to work with Stanford University's biostatistics lab on a formula for calculating an individual's athletic ability.
Taking the test can be described as a cross between a physical talent IQ test and a summer camp challenge. The evaluation is non-invasive, meaning that Sports Potential doesn't useor brain imaging equipment. It includes tests and measurements to assess 14 different traits, including power, endurance, foot speed and coordination.
But before administering any physical tests, the company starts with a 30-minute online questionnaire, asking questions about family history in sports and attitudes toward team and individual activities. Next up is a simple pulse-taking. Last on the list is a measurement of body composition.
No doubt, the test brings out the competitive edge. The quiz for assessing concentration, which asks recipients to point to and call out numbers from 1 to 100 on a random grid of all numbers within a minute, can stump many people who make it only to number 10.
Balancing your feet on a wobble board for 30 seconds is also harder than it looks. For women, apparently, completing just one pull-up or the flexed arm hang for more than five seconds can be challenging too.
Speed, agility and endurance tests include a 25-meter sprint and what's called the one-turn agility run (people are timed by how fast they can make a turn and return past the finish line). A subject also has to run a lap of 20 meters within a set time limit, with the allowed time getting shorter after each lap. At the point when the runner can't meet the limit twice in a row, the endurance race ends.
For his part, Spinner's own tests told him he could have had been a contender as a speed skater with his speed, height and thigh girth.
"My favorite thing is to find the sports you wouldn't think of," he said.