Health & Wellness

Sports Science Helps Mahopac Athlete Recover from TBI

Dr. Peter Gorman, right, instructs the 9U baseball team as Coach Anthony Sacco looks on. Credits: Dominick Depole
Ryan Sacco does the balance test while standing on a round object as brother, Justin, instructs. Credits: Dominick Depole
Members of the 9U team play a game that helps reaction time on the field. They form a circle and throw a squishy ball at each other’s chests. If a player drops it, he’s out. Credits: Dominick Depole

MAHOPAC, N.Y.— When he was 13-years-old, Mahopac student Justin Sacco suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) while playing modified football. His father says he was a mere 15 minutes from death.

But following surgery after becoming paralyzed on the left-side of his body, it only took Justin a year to eat, walk, and run once again.

“My whole goal after the surgery was just to play football again,” said Justin, who is now 16. “I just told myself that I wouldn’t let this stop me. That was my drive and always in the back of my mind. Anytime I felt like slacking off, I thought of it as motivation.”

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Dr. Peter Gorman, president of Micrograte USA in Mahopac and a long-time resident, was instrumental in Justin’s rehabilitation process, implementing the same cognitive and physical exercises that thousands of professional athletes go through each year. It was once an exclusive place for Navy Seals and Nike clients to train, but is now open to young Mahopac athletics.

Amazed by the steady results Justin saw at Microgate, his father, Anthony Sacco, decided to prepare his 9U baseball team (with the Mahopac Sports Association) for spring by having them train with Gorman twice a week since November. The results have been monumental.

“From November until now, you can see everything change,” Anthony Sacco said. “They are hitting the ball with much more power and seeing the ball well. They are more agile when fielding a ground ball and their footwork is impressive.”

All of Gorman’s athletes training for any sport are assessed through brain-speed exercises, but are also taught proper balancing mechanics to grow faster and more coordinated.

“As strength coaches, we make sure that we are looking at the child’s development and that they are better balanced, timed, and coordinated in their movement patterns,” Gorman said. “We look at brain speed and cognition knowing that all sport is a decision based movement entity.”

Anthony’s team practices an exercise called a “double-decision activity” each week, which helps with deciding whether to swing at a baseball—choosing images of trucks and cars that flash on video monitors and matching them with flashing lights that surround the screens. Concentration is key to speeding up the decision-making process at the plate, and that’s just what the exercise helps with.

“You are only as strong as your weakest link,” Gorman said. “What’s the sense of knowing your bat speed and exit velocity if you don’t have the brain speed to detect the ball in the first place? We found that after 10 weeks of training, the average brain speed in this office is 65 to 89 milliseconds. You need 225 milliseconds to recognize and hit the ball.”

Another useful exercise is called synchrony, which is when two athletes try to “capture” as many green lights as possible. The athletes line up as infielders would be on a diamond and then dash forward to tap whichever of five lights is blinking.

The trick is that after the players tap a light, they must backpedal a few feet to where they started. With different lights going off at random times, the two students often need to change zones to avoid bumping into one another.

“The baseball season is more important to them,” Assistant Coach Gino Segarra said. “If somebody is lacking in something, they police one another in order to get better.”

The young athletes also practice balance control at home by trying to stand up with one foot in the air with their eyes closed. They even use a phone-app called Brain HQ to increase brain speed.

“I had no idea it was going to be like this,” said Matt Bentivegna, one of the baseball players. “But it’s really helped me a lot and the team is going to be better this season.”

Physical speed in each leg is also measured in a short sprint to determine whether there is balance in acceleration so they can steal bases.

“The best thing that this did was create a team,” Assistant Coach Jim Bentivegna said. “They are now a bonded group. My son is very excited; it’s all he’s been talking about.”

Unable to play football again, yet thrilled to help his younger brother Ryan’s team progress, Justin now assists the kids in the training that he went through himself.   

“I incorporated what I learned to help these kids learn,” Justin said. “In the beginning, I was just here for myself. In the end, it’s about making the kids better athletes.”

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