Tight end Brandon Myers in one of the Buccaneers' Cryo chambers.*
- "The number-one ability in football is availability."
Dirk Koetter, head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said those words on Friday, just after his team's second practice of training camp. In this case, he was speaking about the chemistry that quarterback Jameis Winston and wide receiver Mike Evans are trying to build, and how that's only possible if both players are on the field together as much as possible. Two days earlier, Evans had spoken about his own extra efforts to avoid the soft-tissue injuries that had cost him a bit of field time at various times in his first two NFL seasons.
Koetter's line may be a hoary bit of coach-speak, but like many such adages it lives on because it contains more than a small amount of truth. The best player in the game can't impact the scoreboard from the sideline. Thus, keeping its players *available for practices and games is one of the most important goals of any NFL team.*
*All of which is why the topic of "recovery" is so crucial, and why some teams, like the Buccaneers, are willing to devote every available resource to that aim. In a more specific sense, that is also why there is a brand new space at the back of the Buccaneers' training room that looks a little bit like a time machine laboratory.
One of the three Cryo chambers at the Bucs' facilities.*
"Right now, across the NFL, one of the biggest issues is recovery. That's imperative," said Kevin Luhrs, Buccaneers' Team Sports Dietician. "It's a big topic of discussion between all teams. If it's going to help the players, even just by a percentage, that's already an edge, and we're going to do it."
Just in time for the start of training camp and the arrival of 90 men who will be conducting daily two-hour practices in oppressive heat and humidity, the Buccaneers have installed three "Cryosaunas" at their state-of-the-art headquarters. Tampa Bay is just the third NFL team to have cryosaunas on site, and the first to have three of them.
Also commonly referred to as "cryo chambers" or "cryotubs," the three seven-foot-tall metal tubes are an advanced alternative to the cold tubs ubiquitous to every team facility. They use liquid nitrogen tanks to rapidly cool down a cylindrical chamber…and the athlete within. By making use of this technology, Buccaneer players can replace a 20-25 minute soak in a cold tub with a 150-second cryo session, and with ultimately much better results.
In a way, these futuristic-looking chambers are time machines, in that they seriously turn back the clock on how long it takes to treat dozens of sore players.
"It's just about getting an edge," said tight end Brandon Myers, who was first in line for the cryosaunas after practice on Friday. "Especially during camp and into the season, anything you can do to get an edge is a positive. Guys are taking advantage of it. I think we're the only team that has three of these, so it just shows the commitment the Bucs have to getting guys on the field and keeping them on the field, and that will hopefully turn into wins."
The liquid nitrogen utilized by the cryosaunas converts to pure nitrogen gas within the chamber when it hits air in a valve. The chamber is typically cooled down to negative-200 degrees or so before the player enters it, and that cooling-down process only takes a few minutes. The player stands on an adjustable platform with his head and shoulders outside of the chamber, and with socks, gloves and underwear protecting his extremities.
Standing in the chamber quickly lowers the player's skin surface temperature by 30-50 degrees, which causes messages to be sent to the brain that stimulate regulatory functions. It's a different reaction than what occurs in a cold tub, which is why the recovery effect can be greater.
"When you get into the chamber at negative 200-240, it's too cold for the body to comprehend," Luhrs explained. "The brain sends a signal to the rest of the body to go into survival move. The reaction constricts the blood flow in all of the limbs, arms and legs, and all that blood goes to the core and into vital organs like the heart. That process enriches the blood with oxygens and nutrients and flushes out toxins. When you get out of the chamber and the blood vessels dilate again, that blood goes back to the limbs and now you have enriched blood that speeds up the recovery process.
"In contrast, when you get into a cold tub, the brain views that as uncomfortable rather than a threat to survival, and it sends more blood to the limbs. That cold tub also penetrates deeper into the muscle, whereas in the chamber it's just on the surface of the skin. It's not a penetrating coldness, which is why the treatment is only for two-and-a-half minutes."
A handful of Buccaneer players experienced a cryosauna last year when visiting the facilities of Dr. Tommy Rhee, who became the team's chiropractor in 2015. After hearing about its benefits but finding them a bit difficult to believe, Luhrs visited Rhee's office and tried it for himself after a heavy workout had left him sore.
"To say I was skeptical would be an understatement," said Luhrs. "I was beyond skeptical about this cryo chamber and how it works. I wondered if I'd really even notice anything. I didn't really feel anything right after the session, but the next day was different. I felt like I had never even touched a weight the day before. Absolutely no soreness. I've been in cold tubs many, many times, and I've always felt sore the next day. When I didn't feel sore the next day, I realized, 'Okay, there's something to this.' I tried it a second time, a third time, a fourth time – same results. I know I'm just one subject, but our players who had tried it loved it too."
Myers was the first Buccaneer to try out the new Cryo chambers.
Luhrs shared his experience with Licht and Head Athletic Trainer Bobby Slater, both of whom had already looked into the technology, which has been around in some form for three decades. Licht and Slater were sold, too. Licht authorized the very sizeable investment in the cryosaunas because there's a very obvious connecting line from the benefits it provides to better results on game day.
"This is essentially a very player-focused approach, and I think Jason Licht and Dirk Koetter have really bought into what we're trying to do as a training staff," said Luhrs. "If you invest in players' recovery, that's going to show up on the field, and that's going to lead to winning more games.
Though some of this took place in 2015, the actual installation of the three cryosaunas only began last Sunday. The contracted company worked nearly around the clock for more than two days to get the devices in place, after which Luhrs and the rest of Slater's staff received training on their operation.
Just as many people find cold tubs difficult to bear, the extreme cold of the cryosaunas can take some getting used to. There is no danger, however, as long as a few obvious precautions are adhered to. Players can't wear jewelry or wet clothes into the chamber, as they will freeze instantly. And the cryosaunas automatically cut off after two-and-a-half minutes so that the cold never penetrates below the surface. The visuals are dramatic, as nitrogen gas – which makes up about 78% of the air that we breathe – spills out of the top of the chamber and around the player's head, but the process is actually quite simple, and thankfully brief. Myers likened the experience to sitting out in the cold woods while on a hunting trip.
"Sitting in the cold tub for 10 minutes, I mean, it will get you together," said wide receiver Donteea Dye, who was next in line after Myers. "But this? This is way more efficient, a lot quicker."
Buccaneer players have been enjoying some of the NFL's most advanced technologies since the team moved into the new One Buccaneer Place in 2006. Staying at the forefront of those advancements requires continual investments, however, and those are investments that Licht and the team's ownership are more than willing to make. In addition to the cryosaunas, One Buc Place also now features a brand-new and elaborate "recovery bar" in the players' lounge for the quick production of helpful shakes and snacks. No stone is left unturned when it comes to helping players remain available and at peak condition.
"What we really wanted to focus on this year – and I think that I can speak for Bobby and the rest of the training staff – is investing a lot into the recovery of the players," said Luhrs. "Not just the cryo chambers but even with the recovery bar we put in and with the training camp schedule was arranged. It's a commitment on our part, too. We're here for the players whenever they might need us."