Describing the intricacies of the human body in motion is a language unto itself.
And for Danielle Langford, a young girl chasing her basketball dreams in the early-1990s, unlocking the true meaning of all that jargon was a constant source of fascination, something she herself realized every time the bumps and bruises the journey led her visit her physiotherapist’s office.
Langford, in fact, would ask ‘why?’ so many times about so many different aspects of her physical therapy treatments, that perhaps it’s no surprise that after all these years, she has been able to figuratively crack the language’s code, in effect translating the two distinct dialects of injury treatment and injury prevention into a kind of every-person’s tongue, one which she now speaks to some of the most famous athletes in the world.
“I didn’t like being injured, but I loved going to physio,” laughs Langford, 39, the former Simon Fraser star guard who earlier this month joined the NBA’s Golden State Warriors as the organization’s Manager of Player Rehabilitation. “In ninth grade, on Career Day, I spent the day with my two physiotherapists.”
Fast forward to a Golden State practice court earlier this past week, one whose walls drip history and tradition with photos of the famed Run TMC and, of course, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.
Langford’s posting is one whose job description includes getting on the court with Warriors players in teaching situations, a scenario easily enhanced by the fact that the former point guard finished her college career in 2004-05 by leading Simon Fraser to a perfect 38-0 record and a national title in which she was selected its championship game MVP.
“My passion is linking a person’s athletic movement to their sport, so the fact that I play with the guys on the court, working with their sports-specific movements, is a big piece of what I am doing down here,” Langford continued from the Bay Area this past Tuesday, the same day the Warriors officially opened training camp ahead of its 2021-22 pre-season opener Monday against the Portland Trail Blazers. Golden State will open the regular season on the road Oct. 19 against the Los Angeles Lakers.
“We dribble together and we talk about balance and where your body is,” continued Langford, who in addition to her work with the players on sports-specific movement, also oversees injury rehabilitation. “So I’ll pass to them, and have them practice landing properly and all of that.”
That’s likely a mass over-simplification, but as long it helps those on the outside understand one part her of her new posting a little more clearly, Langford’s OK with that, because as you’ll learn, a huge part of what she’s all about is not only getting straight to the heart of the matter with anyone she happens to be working with, but doing it in the most relatable and human way possible.
“We were looking for a special individual who understands the elite-athlete environment and is able to connect and gain the trust of athletes at this level, but also be humble and confident to know what they don’t know and defer to others,” said Warriors’ VP for Player Health and Performance Rick Celebrini, who was already familiar with Langford’s capabilities as a physical therapist from their past time together in B.C. at Fortius Sport and Health.
“She has a passion for what she does, an understanding of the player-centric model, and a holistic approach to player care and performance,” continued Celebrini of Langford, who with her husband Gareth, whom she met at physiotherapy school in Australia, are raising their two young children Oliver and Madeline.
“And her understanding and experience in basketball,” adds Celebrini, “was an invaluable attribute.”
THE MEANING OF MENTORSHIP
In the late summer of 2005, Dani Langford was freshly arrived at her first career crossroads.
In March of that year, she had closed out her college basketball career in storybook fashion, not only earning all of those aforementioned plaudits on the highest stage of Canadian university basketball, but doing it on a Simon Fraser team coached by her father Bruce Langford, one of the most decorated coaches in Canadian women’s basketball history.
Ignored at every turn for a spot on either the CIS national first and second all-star teams that season, Dani Langford triumphed nonetheless, with a 13-point, 10-assist, one-turnover performance in a 70-60 national championship finals win over Winnipeg, one which seemed to finally award tangible value to a player who could always stuff a stat sheet with intangibles.
But what was next for her?
Following her dad into the family business of coaching? Or following her heart and going back her ninth grade career day?
Curiously enough, her actions would point her way.
Back in the summer of 2005, Celebrini was a physiotherapist who had gained notoriety for his work with the Canadian men’s alpine ski team at the 1994 and 2002 Winter Olympics, and so when Langford learned that he would be putting Victoria-native Steve Nash through his paces during an off-season training session in Simon Fraser’s old West Gym, she mustered up the courage to hang around.
“Funny story,” Langford remembered. “I went up to introduce myself and said ‘Can I ask a few questions?’ and when I did that, Rick stepped back and Steve Nash stepped forward. Now, as many questions as I did have for Steve Nash, at that moment, it was more from a physio standpoint.
“So I said ‘I’d actually like to ask Rick some questions,'” Langford continued. “They both laughed. There was no disrespect for Steve Nash. I started chatting with Rick, and then right after that I wound up applying for physio school.”
It’s a first-meeting worth recounting as it served as the meeting point of an eventual working relationship she would go on to forge with Celebrini at both Fortius and now at Golden State.
His wisdom has been key, as has the interest others have taken in Langford along her journey. In fact finding acceptance from a group of like-minded individuals so willing to both share their knowledge and encourage her own thought process has empowered her to do the same for others.
Mentorship, she says, is something she has never taken lightly.
In the years since 2008, when she has returned full-time to North America following her time in physiotherapy school in Australia at Perth’s Curtin University, Langford credits both Deb Treloar and Carol Kennedy at Vancouver’s Treloar Physiotherapy for providing her with so much foundational education and guidance.
As well, through her time at Fortius with Celebrini — and through an initial introduction from Rick brother, physiotherapist Randy Celebrini — Langford has been able to forge a special bond with none other than Alex McKechnie, the Toronto Raptors’ Vice President of Player Health and Performance, globally renowned for the innovation he has pioneered within his profession.
“With all my mentors, on Mentorship Day I send ‘Thank You’ notes,” says Langford. “I keep in touch. I don’t let them forget me.”
GROWING UP IN THE BREADBASKET OF B.C. COACHING
As far as origin stories go, can there be a better portent to the future than, as mentioned earlier, a Grade 9 girls basketball player, who for her Career Day destination, chooses a visit to her physiotherapy office?
And how much better does that story get when those very physiotherapists — Greg and Jennifer Bay — have actually maintained a lifelong relationship with her, to the point where they have not only become mentors, but professional colleauges?
Ask Greg Bay about his remembrances of times now a quarter-century down his therapeutic road, and his first impressions have come full circle in a most affirming way.
“We’ve reflected back to her days as a high school player,” begins Bay, 60, who these days remains as active as ever at Abbotsford’s SMC Wellness, in addition to serving as lead physiotherapist for the Canadian national men’s soccer team.
“Dani was always interested in not only what was wrong, but why it was wrong, and then her intuitive thinking took her to ‘What do I do about it?’ so she is an inherent problem solver,” added Bay, who in the early-1980s did a stint as the student-manager of the Victoria Vikes men’s basketball dynasty coached by the legendary Ken Shields. “She automatically had the ability to take responsibility for her actions, but also to really understand what these actions were so she could get the best results.”
Ask Langford to reflect back on those physio appointments with Greg Bay, and to her, what endures to this day are not the specifics of the injuries he helped her overcome, but rather the feeling of empowerment Bay seemed to imbue on her way back to full health.
“He is the reason I wanted to become a physio, he and his wife Jen,” said Langford. “He’s got this enthusiastic voice with a big smile and he could make a 90-year-old grandmother coming in with a walker, and a young teenager like me, feel like an NHL player. He just made you feel special and he helped you get back to doing well what it was you loved doing. He was so reassuring, and so good at what he did.”
So good, in fact, that as a mentor modelling best practices to a young person just beginning to grasp the whole concept of adulthood and a career, Bay provided an example which seems to have become her dyed-in-wool template.
In the meantime, there was basketball to play.
Langford was picked the B.C. AAA MVP in her Grade 12 year after leading a Heritage Park team, also coached by dad Bruce, to a decisive win over Port Moody in the 2000 championship game.
It was the first of three straight titles for the Highlanders.
Bruce Langford would remain at Heritage Park for one more season, winning the 2001 title behind the MVP play of future Olympian Kim Gaucher née Smith, before assuming the Simon Fraser coaching role he holds to this day, where he followed future Canadian national team head coach Allison McNeill, who left SFU to join Bev Smith, her former teammate, on the coaching staff of their alma mater at the University of Oregon.
That historical recap is provided as much to offer a picture of the incredible basketball environment in which Dani Langford was raised, as it to illustrate why, back in those years, any betting money on her future profession would have been placed on her becoming a coaching lifer.
FROM THE COURT TO THE CLINIC: A MENTEE’S VIEW
When Courtney Gerwing arrived on the campus of Burnaby’s Simon Fraser University in the fall of 2004 as the only rookie on a team which was about to complete a perfect season and hoist the second of five Bronze Baby national titles won under the watch of coach Bruce Langford, she logically looked to its seniors for guidance.
That included an introduction to team captain Dani Langford, a person to whom she would lean on for mentorship in her own post-playing days, days which have seen her come into her own as a practicing physiotherapist after following in Langford’s footsteps as both a Curtin University physio grad, and a current physiotherapist at Treloar.
Ask Gerwing about it all, and she can’t separate the best parts of Langford as they pertain to her qualities on the basketball court and everything she accomplished on her way to practising her specialty with an NBA franchise.
“Dani is like the consummate captain,” says Gerwing, who also works locally at Royal City Physiotherapy. “To me, she’s always been like that in a basketball sense, and now in a physio sense.”
In fact if you ask Gerwing which of the myriad traits comprise the skill set of the best physiotherapists, she uses Langford as her example.
“She is an unbelievable leader, but I also feel that one of her best strengths is that she seems to know individually what each person needs, so she doesn’t treat everyone the same in terms of what motivates them in a physio sense or a basketball sense,” says Gerwing, who besides being coached by Langford’s dad Bruce at SFU, was coached by Langford’s uncle Paul Langford at PoCo’s Riverside Secondary School. “She gets to the root cause of the problem and has this ability to work with the person in front of her and get them to where they buy in 100 per cent.”
Langford also has a distinct streak of creative, outside-the-box thinking in her, and all of that, along with a meeting at Fortius with none other than McKechnie has led to the pair to work together in a company they have formed called Core AIM, which at its heart, unites the two passions of both her and McKechnie’s professional lives.
In Langford own words, “It’s connecting the court and the clinic.”
“I wanted to try to give coaches some education around physiology, anatomy and movement,” begins Langford, “because how you teach somebody and cue somebody to move impacts things like tissues and injuries. One time at Fortius, Alex asked me what I was working on and he told me ‘I’d do that with you’ and I thought ‘Oh, you should not have said that… I am very persistent.'”
Eventually, the two gave a pair of clinics — the first for coaches and the second for physiotherapists — at the Langley Events Centre, each a rousing success.
That led to the idea of forming and formulating the ideas of Core AIM.
“Alex is extremely generous with his time if you show any kind of keenness,” said Langford. “I was seeking mentors and when I reached out, he was so giving. From that little spark we started, and Alex helped me develop all the content, so of course I learned a huge amount from him.”
Langford said Core AIM is exploring potential future expansion to additional platforms, yet as it exists now, it arleady hits its mark as an on-line resource (CoreAim.ca) in the specific area of education in injury mitigation techniques for young and growing athletes.
“The material is done, there is an online educational piece, we do have a website,” she explained. “It will exist as a resource for coaches. The one that we have built out is an on-line program for coaches that deal with youth athletes. It helps link the clinic and knowledge for coaches around the growing athlete and what they’re dealing with.”
TEACH ME TO JUGGLE… I’LL NEVER FORGET IT
Not every grade school sports experience available in the province of B.C. is created equally.
Yet so much of what can be gleaned from them comes down to how tightly you’re willing to embrace them, and in turn through the passing of years, come to appreciate them for what they are: Teachings.
There seems no part of Dani Langford’s story, from her earliest days as a grade-schooler at Abbotsford’s Margaret Stenersen Elementary, that contradicts this fact, right down to her fourth-grade gym class teacher.
“My P.E. teacher was fantastic, Brian Revell,” remembers Langford, quickly going back in time some 30 years. “He taught me how to juggle, which is like hand-eye coordination. I can say that that is a piece of what stimulated me to create Core AIM with Alex McKechnie. I am sad that some of those things have changed within the school system… where the funding goes. There are not necessarily fully-trained P.E. teachers anymore, but I can tell you that I benefitted majorly from mine.”
What stayed with a nine- or 10-year-old girl, through all of her life adventures, eventually manifests itself three decades later in her partnership with McKechnie, one of the world’s most innovative physiotherapists, in a program aimed at mitigating injury risk in young athletes through the study of athletic movement?
And as Langford moved on to her high school years, she never stopped appreciating her fortune when it came to the teacher-coaches who happened to cross her path.
At Mission’s Heritage Park, two of those just happened to be Mike Miller and Mike McNeill.
“Maybe I didn’t realize it at the moment, but we worked on proper running skills, proper form,” Langford says of the pair. “I think with the people I had exposure to, all of that really did help my body awareness.”
And in broad hindsight, all have remained inter-connected in the vast web of the B.C. basketball world.
Miller, who worked the sidelines alongside Bruce Langford for years throughout the latter’s high school coaching career, has continued to give back by coaching at the high school level.
So has McNeill, the former North Delta Huskies star, who would go on to both play for and serve as head coach for the Simon Fraser men’s team as part of his lifelong coaching career.
And just to show the many degrees of interconnected separation exist in Dani Langford’s basketball life, McNeill is of course, the husband of former Canadian national women’s team head coach Allison McNeill, who, in her former role as Simon Fraser women’s team head coach, actually recruited Langford to play at SFU, where she arrived a year ahead of her father.
WHEN A LISTENER BECOMES THE WHISPERER
Ask Greg Bay to talk about the meaning of mentorship and his definition could well transfer to the direct feeling of empowerment that a young Dani Langford felt during her Grade 9 visits to his physio office.
“Traditionally speaking, I think people are drawn to those who challenge them, but also understand how to bring out the best in your thinking process,” he said. “So I think the key to mentorship isn’t showing somebody something, but actually allowing them to explore their own thoughts and decision-making process.”
Langford knows that the learning never ends.
Yet as she enters a new phase of her professional life in the NBA, she is navigating that inevitable shift which comes when accrued life experience nudges the student towards becoming the teacher.
Listen to Langford speak about her first few weeks on the job with the Golden State Warriors and it’s clear that she is speaking from a place of confidence and comfort.
“People don’t want to be dictated to in therapy,” she explains. “It’s a co-production, and I think one of the huge things down here with relating to the guys already is the fact that they know where I am coming from,” she explains.
“I’ll demonstrate some basketball pieces and they’ll be like ‘Oh, wait a minute, I see, and hey, that’s a pretty good follow-through,'” continued Langford. “Being able to talk to them about the game, and be like, well ‘How does it feel when you do this on the court?’ It’s not dictating to them, but collaborating on what’s the best approach with who you are working with.”
As Bruce Langford reminds, his daughter “wasn’t the greatest gross motor athlete in the world.”
Yet there was always a sense of the unflappable within her, a trait which has revealed itself through the resourcefulness and the out-of-the-box thinking which have made her a success in the sports world.
“Her elementary cross-country career was the perfect example of that,” Bruce Langford recalls. “The first time she entered a race, there were 480 kids and Dani finished in the bottom 10. Her mom (Leslie) and I looked at each other and went ‘Yikes.’
“But the first thing she said to us afterwards was ‘I’ve got a good goal. I am just going to count the number of kids I pass in every race.’ The first it was 35, the next it was 40. While everyone else jockeyed in a big group at the front, she would go to the back and just chase people. By the time she was in seventh grade, she was the fifth-fastest kid in the district.”
Just what she might think of her childhood running form now, when viewed through the prism of her more expert eyes, is not known.
Yet like we said off the top, describing the intricacies of the human body in motion is a language unto itself.
And for the little girl who could never stop asking ‘Why?’, there comes a time when, in your own unique way, you develop an acute ability to figuratively hear the answers to those questions.
You become a sort of a whisperer.
“My approach to how I teach athletes is I want them to be body-aware,” says Langford. “I want them to take responsibility for their bodies. I will give them check points. And I will talk to them about how your body talks to you.”
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