FOXBOROUGH — On the surface, the exercises Kyle Rodenhi used to get a read on Veronica Dalton’s 55-year-old body seemed simple enough.
He asked her to tilt her hips without moving her torso. He told her to cross her arms over her chest and move her shoulders from side to side without moving her hips. Then he asked her to do the opposite, moving her hips without moving her shoulders.
Then he walked over to Dalton’s golf bag and reached for a couple of clubs.
He gave her the 6-iron and kept the 5-iron for himself.
He held the club over his head, demonstrating what he was about to ask her to do: squat as low as she could, feet flat, with her club over her head (as opposed to out in front of her).
She shot him a glare and said sarcastically, “Do I have to get back up?”
Rodenhi wanted to get a feel for everything, from Dalton’s posture, flexibility, and balance, to her proprioception.
“My what?” she asked.
A retired state trooper, Dalton was in a car crash 20 years ago. She was parked in the median and was hit by a driver who had fallen asleep at the wheel while traveling 80-90 miles per hour. There were no broken bones, she said, but “I couldn’t even walk for almost a year. It was all muscular.”
There was a reason the Mass. General Orthopaedics Sports Performance Center caught her eye when she passed by a stand for it at a local golf tournament. From what she gathered, it could help her better her swing by bettering her body. So she paid it a visit at Patriot Place.
“Part of having an injury to this extent is you think it’s never going to get better, so I’d rather do the golf, go home and take some Aleve, and live through it,” said Dalton, who lives in Norwood and golfs primarily out of Falmouth Country Club, after picking up the game seriously three years ago. “But when I saw what these guys were offering, I’m figuring if they could show me how to swing properly, that’s what I was hoping these guys could help me with.”
What she and Rodenhi did was essentially basic physical therapy. But before that, 50 digital markers were placed all over her body. She walked into a room where she was surrounded by a halo of 22 infrared motion analysis cameras ($20,000 each), plus a few other high-speed cameras that took nearly 2,000 frames per second ($60,000 each), and stood on five force plates. She entered a high-definition golf simulator, not unlike those you can find at courses and pro shops around the country.
But it wasn’t being used to get Dalton more distance off the tee, but rather being combined with other data accumlated at the center to see how physical issues manifest in her swing. The aim was to improve fitness more than technique.
After existing as a research entity for two years, the center opened to the public in April. In all, the technology cost more than $1 million. Dr. Eric Berkson, the director of the center, said the goal isn’t just to treat patients, but to push the limits of medicine.
“The question then became how can we not just treat injuries but avoid injuries,” Berkson said. “Then, once we had an injury, how do we look back and say, ‘What caused this, and are there things that we can do to prevent it?’ That really led to the same type of thinking within our own patients, and then ultimately to the creation of the Sports Performance Center.
“Our answer isn’t, ‘Fit your golf clubs better,’ ” Berkson said. “The [key] component here is your whole body fitness, and by improving flexibility and strength and power and balance and proprioception, all these different things, we can make it more safe for you to golf. And by avoiding injury you’re more likely to see performance improvements in these areas, as well.”
Patients such as Dalton can come in and be evaluated by a specialized physical therapist such as Rodenhi, who is focused primarily on golf. They leave with not just expert training, but also with a wealth of information about their body and swing, including a 3D video that shows where the different forces, stresses, and pressures are most prominent in their body, providing patients easy-to-see answers to questions about their body and giving them an idea of the adjustments they can make and exercises they perform going forward.
In the case of a stiff back, Berkson asked rhetorically, “How does that show up in terms of rotational velocities in your hips? Are you more likely to pull a hamstring? How are you likely to compensate in your golf swing when you have that stiff back? Are you putting extra stress on your shoulder because your back is stiff?”
Being a physical therapist, Rodenhi said 75 percent of what he sees in patients is back pain. But it’s even greater among golfers, and it affects their swing and overall performance.
“So, life and golf puts stress on our back,” Rodenhi said. “But the ideal golf swing and golf mechanics puts the least amount of stress on our back. So, the things that are going to help your back not to hurt are also going to help you to play better.”
The best analogy Rodenhi used for how this works is one in which the patient is a stock car, the golf instructor is the driver, maximizing results on the course, and the team at the Sports Performance Center are the mechanics, who get the body running better through exercise.
As they worked, Rodenhi continued to test Dalton’s body. He asked her at one point to stand on one leg with her eyes closed for as long as she could without losing her balance. He told her that the average golfer on the PGA Tour could do it for 25-30 seconds, Tiger Woods included.
She could do it with confidence, but she noticed that her knees would wobble every so often. The session became less about golf and more about health, which is the point.
“The more I’m talking to you,” she told him, “the more I’m thinking of doing things to help my back so I don’t live like this anymore.”