The Story of Activation
Straight out of Africa. The techniques that can change the way we assess injuries in America have an unlikely origin. It all started with the innovative methods of South African therapist and avid surfer Douglas Heel.
“I’m a curious kid,” Heel says. The founder of the activation techniques that would evolve into SAT, Heel studied physical therapy for 6 years at the University of Cape Town, worked as a therapist in the United Kingdom and founded 3 practices in his native South Africa before reaching a crossroads in his own career.
“Like a naughty child, I was always asking why, why, why,” he says. “I was teaching stuff for doctors and at conferences, things I had been taught in school, and thinking, ‘This stuff’s really bad.’ So my students and I started trying new things.”
Over a period of years, Heel and his students began discovering and mapping new pressure points throughout the body. His approach was simple: Always measure results. Always ask how the patient feels. Keep doing what works.
“I’ve been teaching this for 11 years now, always adding and taking away,” Heel says. “The more I’ve taught it, the easier it’s become to understand. At first it was just ‘hey, isn’t the body cool – I do this, and you become faster or stronger.’ But now it’s really become a philosophy.”
The Birth of Be Activated: Team USA
That philosophy made its way to the United States in 2012, when Dr. Tom Nelson hosted one of Heel’s “Be Activated” courses at his medical office in Illinois.
“I couldn’t believe he was serious at first,” Dr. Nelson recalls. “This South African guru type walked in, took his shoes off and asked me, ‘What if 90% of what you think you know is wrong?’ I almost threw him out of my office.”
Instead, Dr. Nelson lay down on the table for his first activation – and experienced something that would change his life. Within months, Dr. Nelson had made activation a regular practice both for himself and for the high-school football team he helped to coach.
“I had to decide the best way to introduce this muscle activation technique to 120 football players and 23 coaches,” Dr. Nelson says. “I knew I had to keep it simple and keep the other coaches on task with incorporating it into their practice plans. It took us 3 years to really get it right.”
The result was developing a self activation program, an approach so simple an entire team could be taught to do it in a few minutes with no direct contact from trainers. Dr. Nelson created a simple tool – the self activation stick – and players used the sticks to self activate as part of every warm-up.
“We almost stopped using the word ‘injury,’ Dr. Nelson says, “because after activations most players could return immediately to practice or play. And winning back to back state championships in 2014 and 2015, after 4 years of building these philosophies into the program, was a dream come true.”
Teaching and consulting
Today, Heel and Nelson are both focusing more heavily on teaching others what they’ve learned.
Douglas Heel’s Be Activated courses are normally held twice annually in the Midwest, with trainers and coaches from athletic programs across the United States attending alongside doctors, chiropractors and physical therapists who want to learn his techniques for their own programs and practices.
Dr. Nelson’s focus remains specifically on helping U.S. trainers and sports programs incorporate the Be Activated philosophy into their own environments. The challenges are unique: How do we explain activation to skeptical students or parents? How do we win over coaches and administrators unfamiliar with the work of Douglas Heel? How do we keep dozens of coaches and hundreds of players on the same page, season after season?
Dr. Nelson addresses questions like this through his team training and seminars, as well as through posts on this website. To learn more, and to be notified when the next Be Activated seminar comes to the U.S., join Dr. Nelson’s e-mail list.
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After investigating the SAT process, I scheduled an appointment with Dr. Tom. Looking back, I was skeptical for sure, but was willing to try anything for the sake of improvement. I distinctly remember the muscle-testing results before activation, and then seeing them after. Immediately after activation, I felt loose. There was no tightness, and I felt peaceful after “belly breathing.” The next day we had an invitational race, and I felt the best and was the most focused during that race. I ended up finishing 5th, right behind some of the nation’s best runners, 7 seconds off my personal best. I became a believer as the results were seen immediately for me!
I walked into Dr. Nelson’s office unsure of what to expect – and left completely amazed. The ankle pain I had been dealing with for nearly a year and a half had completely disappeared. I was in my first ballet class since my appointment with Dr. Nelson when suddenly, something in my mind just clicked. I was able to find those muscles my teachers were always talking about.
I was a former collegiate and professional hockey player. During my career I suffered 3 concussions in 9 months. Despite resting and allowing ample time for normal recovery, I continued to have tightness in my neck, headaches, and eyesight issues. Shortness of breath was a common occurrence. My family and friends even noticed a difference in my behavior and a decrease in my level of sharpness. When I met with Doctor Nelson I experienced immediate results. He fixed a disconnect between my brain and muscles so that I could perform tasks that required using multiple signals. Through his activation therapy, the tension in my neck and upper shoulder regions is gone and I no longer have headaches. My vision is more acute and my ability to focus is back to normal. I have become more positive, energetic, and upbeat.
Before activation, I found myself injury prone as well as very inconsistent during my practices for track/cross country. I suffered from inconsistent practices and pained muscles and joints, but after one session of activation with Dr.Tom, I felt brand new, refreshed and explosive. I went from not qualifying for top seven my first cross country season to being the #1 runner the following year for both seasons, being an individual state qualifier and school record holder for the 1600-3200. Activation has truly changed the way I run and compete and it’s a great tool for any athlete. I activate every day before anything I do, whether it’s mental or physical.
In November of 2014 I was diagnosed with mononucleosis and the parvo virus. The severe pain caused me to miss the whole 3rd quarter of school and my whole wrestling season. My days consisted of therapy, specialists and hospital testing. I was referred to a pain doctor, as at this point I had zero quality of life. He referred me to Dr. Thomas Nelson for a new type of manipulative therapy. At my first visit with Dr. Nelson, he explained what he does and he started treatment. When he was done I jumped off the table and I was able to run without pain for the first time in 3 months. The work Dr. Thomas Nelson is doing is amazing and a breakthrough that should be known to all. I’ll be forever grateful to him. I have my life back!
Going in for an activation with Dr. Nelson the day before the ACT was one of the best decisions I could have made. The increase in my breathing and visual awareness helped me to stay focused and relaxed during the four hour long testing period. I went up 4 points from my previous scores. I can’t thank Dr. Nelson enough for his help in building my future.
Self Activation helped me recover from an ankle injury, drastically increasing its stability. It helped to clear my mind and improved my focus on the court. Following my activation sessions, I have found that my play quality has increased dramatically. I have experienced a much higher quality of life, both on and off the court, thanks to daily Self Activation.
In my last football season I suffered a Grade 1 sprain in my left knee. I was unable to play with it until I went to Doctor Nelson. After my activation I felt like a new person; I was able to play the next week and I felt just as good as new. The Activation Process and Doctor Nelson have impacted my life tremendously. I Self-activate to stay balanced, strong, focused and to avoid injury. Plus, it puts me one step ahead of the competition. Buffalo Grove HS, Class of 2017, Football and Baseball
My wife and I noticed Daniel moving better during games after being activated in your office. His drives to the basket were much stronger and smoother than we had seen before in his whole career.