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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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.
Mateo Nunez