The recent leg injuries suffered by star athletes such as the Warriors’ Kevin Durant (torn Achilles) and Klay Thompson (torn ACL), and Duke’s Zion Williamson (knee sprain) have all occurred when their feet have pushed off against the hardwood of the basketball court.
All three could perhaps have avoided those significant injuries through a commercial offshoot from the research labs of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Sports Engineering, Inc. is endeavoring to mitigate injury risk in athletes by reinforcing the key point of contact between athlete and floor: the sneaker. SEI’s SmartSpring technology is based on work by mechanical engineering professor Chris Brown and his students.
SEI has so far created an early prototype, and has plans for an advanced version to be ready for further testing later this year. The sole of the shoe features adjoined circular springs made of flexible polymer—dubbed the “goat’s head” both for its shape and for WPI’s mascot. The springs will remain rigid and transmit force for athletic performance up until a certain point. When the force reaches a potentially injurious threshold, the springs then begin to absorb it instead.
“You can store the energy in the spring at a constant rate as opposed to an increasing rate,” Brown said, adding: “The shoe recovers before you can put your foot down again, so it’s back into its original configuration. And the player might not even know that they’ve been protected by the shoe.”
Brown was an All-American skier at the University of Vermont in the 1970s. His racing experience informed his post-doc engineering research in the materials department at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Among his endeavors there was a project that culminated in a presentation to the International Society for Skiing Safety in 1983 about how to prevent ACL injuries in skiers.