At the MLB Players Association’s executive board meeting two years ago outside Dallas, Dave Winfield noticed an unusual piece of equipment in the corner of the room. A black metallic handle extended from a long blue arm that was attached to a bulky gray stanchion. Winfield, the Hall of Famer turned union advisor, first thought it might be an automated boom mic to record the session.
No, he was told, the device was a new technology for training. Winfield looked closer and grasped the handle. Exercise equipment typically isolates muscles and operates along a fixed path, but this device glided across different planes. “I moved it through a few of the motions and felt the resistance,” Winfield recalls, “and I said, ‘I know what you have here.’ ”
Since 2015, Proteus Motion has been making these machines while trying to create a new category of sports training that uses 3D resistance and software to collect troves of data. Instead of measuring athleticism in terms of bench presses and squats, the Proteus System allows athletes to execute their on-field motions in the gym, including swinging a bat, pitching a baseball, rowing, and swinging a golf club or tennis racquet. The software tracks every movement and applies machine learning to guide users toward better efficiency of motion. (The sensation feels similar to training underwater. Indeed, the name Proteus hails from Greek mythology—the son of Poseidon, god of the sea.)
The company’s founder and CEO, Sam Miller, expanded upon an early idea from his father, Larry, a visiting scientist at MIT, who built a prototype in the family’s Boston-area basement in the 1990s to try to understand and replicate human movement. But when Winfield grabbed the handle, he instinctively understood its purpose because he’d used a similar device during his MLB career.
“It immediately harkened to the time 30-plus years ago,” Winfield says.
At the University of Minnesota in the early 1980s, the school’s pitching coach, Steve Sagedahl, and a young exercise physiologist, Bob Wolfe, had teamed up to create SST, or Sport Specific Training. The pair crafted bespoke attachments to a Cybex fitness machine to imitate swinging and throwing motions. “We modified some existing rehabilitation equipment to enable me to go through the movements of my sport and the speed of the sport with what we called accommodating resistance,” Winfield says. “I was using this as one of the primary pieces of equipment to train while I was playing professional baseball. I would duplicate my swing with resistance and the speed, and I’m loose. So you’re not wasting energy, you’re not wasting time. And you’re reaching your training goals.”
Winfield began using SST prior to the 1984 season, using a mobile unit to warm up before every game at Yankee Stadium. That year, he had a career-high .340 batting average with the New York Yankees. As Sports Illustrated detailed at the time: “Winfield says he became a better hitter because of an almost mystical weight/exercise program known as Sagekinetics, developed by a former minor league pitcher named Steve Sagedahl. The Sagekinetic machines simulate the batting and throwing motions of baseball, building both strength and speed.”
Sagekinetics later became known as SST, which Winfield hoped to bring to market. Sagedahl and his co-creator, Bob Wolfe, received a patent for the invention in 1986, working under the company name of Winfield Sports Training, Inc. (Wolfe was an exercise physiology student at the University of Minnesota and briefly played for the Golden Gophers’ Division I baseball team.)
Though developed on a parallel track, Proteus feels like an improved reincarnation of that equipment. “It is,” Winfield says. “Now, with the advancements that you have in technology, computerization, analytics, comparing data, all those things—it’s even better than before.” Winfield even offers a Darwinian analogy: “It’s like two different animal species—one, let’s say it developed in North America, and one in the Galapagos Islands. They’re very close to one another, like cousins or something.”
Adds Miller, “There were literally, like, two people in the world in the last two decades who actually built something that’s very fundamentally different from training and recovery equipment. All the innovation we see is on the content side—put a sensor on a bike or use a cable machine and put a screen on it. We believe that those tools are flawed, and there’s a better training modality. This opens up an entirely new way to measure strength and muscle performance.”
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During SportTechie’s visit to Proteus’ New York headquarters in December, Miller explained why he had so few employees in the office that day. “Our software team is out sick,” he says. “It’s two people.” The team is small but growing thanks to a recent infusion of investment money: a $3.8 million round that included Winfield, the late former NBA commissioner David Stern, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, the Hospital for Special Surgery, and former MLB pitcher Chris Capuano, who also works for the MLBPA. (Proteus Motion was previously known as Boston Biomotion; HSS, a world leader in orthopedics, previously conducted validation studies for Proteus.)
There are more than a dozen Proteus machines in use by select clients. The University of the Pacific was the first client; the Los Angeles Dodgers were reported by the book MVP Machine to be another, and the Yankees’ newly hired director of player health and performance, Eric Cressey, ordered one for his independent training center, calling Proteus “a game changer for us.” A physical therapist working for Cressey writes that the machine has broad utility for performance training as well as rehab: “It measures and tracks data on hard-to-measure patterns to assess an athlete’s progress, provide biofeedback, and train rotational sport athletes along the force-velocity curve in a safe way.”
Each Proteus machine is assembled in a workshop at LaGuardia Community College in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens, which houses the NYDesigns incubator program. “Until a couple months prior, there’s a good chance that every single system we’ve built has my personal blood on it—not joking,” Miller says. “We wouldn’t tell our clients that, but [I’ve been] definitely heavily involved.”
A half-finished machine sits in the corner of the room with its outside covering removed, exposing the base’s innards. Several 45-pound weights are stacked on top of each other. “That’s how we feel about weights,” Miller says with a laugh. “They’re literally holding it in place on the floor.”
The machine’s resistance is magnetic and consistent, Miller says, naturally encouraging the human body to self-organize, sequence movements and produce them more efficiently. Proteus users can develop and program their own movement patterns in addition to the hundreds already included. All of this makes the training experience personalized and, Miller believes, accelerates the motor-learning process.
“The configuration of the mechanical system is definitely complex, but somebody could come along and rebuild that if they devoted a lot of time and money to it,” he says. “But our IP is designed so that they can’t do anything with that because the secret sauce is all the software controls and the robotic system, which is how we get 3D resistance and measurements.”
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Beyond his father’s basement tinkering, Sam Miller’s childhood rehab figures prominently into Proteus’ origin story. He suffered from osteochondritis dissecans—a painful joint condition—in his knee and Sever’s Disease in his foot. (Sever’s is an inflammation of a growth plate that causes heel pain in youth.)
Miller spent long hours rehabbing his legs, wondering whether his prescribed isokinetic exercises were actually helping. “None of this is translating to sport,” he says, reflecting on the long-ago rehab. “None of it is doing anything other than just isolating specific parts of my body.” Whether it’s physical rehab or strength training, Miller sees a big gap between those exercises and on-field performance.
It’s the same reason why Winfield was immediately drawn to SST after being introduced to Wolfe and Sagedahl during the offseason back home in Minnesota. “Whenever he would talk about the machine, he’s got an innate ability to understand it and talk about it in really understandable terms,” Wolfe says. “And he’s really good at communicating the salient features of this kind of training.” Similarly, Miller refers to Winfield as “one of the thought leaders” in functional movement training.
“I looked at my sport as my occupation,” Winfield says. “It was a game. It was a science. And it was a business. A game, yeah, we all know baseball. But the science, I was always looking for ways to improve my performance and be able to play constantly at a high level. And that was ranging from nutrition, exercise, sleep, you name it, and these kinds of workouts.”
Wolfe says the SST machines that Winfield Sports Training created were used at times by the University of Minnesota baseball and hockey teams. He says the athletes who trained regularly with them reaped benefits—a 10% increase in slapshot speed for hockey players—but the machines eventually went idle. Wolfe believes the lack of coaches trained to instruct athletes on SST was the issue. He later sold the machines to a local training center, Acceleration Minnesota, where they remain in use.
Winfield says he wasn’t in a position to underwrite the development of SST by himself. Wolfe later bought out his partners to take full possession of the patents; he continued tinkering as a hobby but also ran into cost issues and resistance from prospective clients not wanting to take a risk on a new piece of equipment.
Proteus, however, hit the market at a more favorable time and was armed with the latest advances in software to track and compare data—what Miller hopes will be the true market differentiator. “That’s our future,” Miller says, “the software and analytics.”
In the American College of Sports Medicine, researchers from the University of the Pacific have already begun publishing a series of small studies correlating Proteus analysis with on-field performance of the school’s baseball players. “We’re not saying right now that it’s predictive,” Miller says. “We’re not saying right now that it’s going to identify your injury risks, but we do have millions of data points, and we are really just trying to validate them and carefully roll them out in a way that’s undisputed. . . . We’re just building credibility and validation, step by step by step.” In other words, they’re getting stronger and learning how to master efficiency.