An Irish product used by Roger Federer, Man City and the Dallas Cowboys is taking the fitness world by storm
"We are getting life-changing feedback on it."
What do Roger Federer, Manchester City, a host of NFL teams (including the Miami Dolphins and the Dallas Cowboys) and several players competing in this Sunday’s All-Ireland Final have in common?
All are high-level athletes at the top of their respective fields, sure.
The exploits of all of them are admired by thousands, if not millions of people, across the globe.
And last, but by no means least, all of them are advocates of a recovery device created by an Irish company that has enjoyed massive success since getting off the ground in September of last year.
If you’re the active type and up to date with the techniques and equipment that help to keep you in as good a shape as possible, then chances are that by now, you’ve heard of the Back Baller.
Here it is being demonstrated by model and fitness trainer, Zuzana Light...
Created by Noel Marshall, a Cork man now living in Clare and a former Irish middle distance athlete, it is an advancement on a traditional foam roller, a device which administers self-myofascial release and is an essential tool in any serious athlete’s recovery regime.
A carpenter by trade and the inventor of a series of construction products, including a wall-building tool known as the Bricky, Noel was a serious athlete while he served in the army in his early 20s, until injuries put paid to his lofty ambitions.
“Over nine years, I progressed to a decent level,” Noel told JOE.
“I have a national title at 1500 metres at under-23 level, I ran on various Irish teams and I took my sport to the wire insofar as I had ambitions in running in the Olympics but I didn't get there.
“I ended up crocked. I sat in rivers, I used to do everything one could do at the time to try and get myself right. I ended up on the physio table two or three times a week but ultimately succumbed to a series of chronic issues. Crocked, basically.”
Selling his construction products all over the world consumed Noel for the best part of 15 years, but a lifelong love of sport was rekindled through his involvement with the local GAA club in Shannon, Wolfe Tones, whose under-16 team Noel coached to two county titles in the last two years.
Through his involvement in the team, Noel noticed the widespread use of foam rollers by the teenagers he was coaching, a permanent sight in dressing rooms in the GAA and all sports in Ireland these days.
A victim of chronic back pain, Noel started using a foam roller himself and it didn’t take him long to feel the benefits of self-myofascial release (SMR) in his own life.
“I saw all the young fellas were using foam rollers, which we didn't have when I competed,” Noel says.
“A simple thing, but very effective if used consistently. I started using one and lo and behold, over time, as prescribed by (renowned physiotherapist) Ger Hartmann, it helped me get a handle on my own situation.”
Getting “a handle” on it, as Noel describes it, would be putting it mildly.
Although he could feel the benefits of the foam roller, Noel felt that a little more control and stability was needed to apply SMR into the back region, where his pain was most acute.
He developed a prototype, “a very crude prototype” in his own words, which essentially encased two foam rollers into a single frame.
Using it on a daily basis for four weeks, Noel lost two stone in weight and was able to go back running, playing golf and soccer and able to exercise pain-free for the first time in years.
Noel now knew he had a product that had to be commercialised and that “crude prototype” led to the creation of the Back Baller, launched in September 2016.
Wow, Full Page, maybe just the Clare People but every journey begins with small steps. pic.twitter.com/WUWe7YLbi7
— BackBaller (@Back_Baller) September 6, 2016
Ger Hartmann and Sonia O’Sullivan, an enthusiastic advocate of the product, attended the launch party and all members of the Clare senior hurling and football panels – Clare hurler Aaron Cunningham is closely involved with the company – were each issued with a Back Baller.
The involvement of someone as renowned in the medical industry as Hartmann and immediate endorsement from the likes of O’Sullivan, as well as Irish rugby internationals Keith Earls and Ian Madigan, gave the Back Baller huge credibility straight from the off.
“Regardless of how good anything is, nothing sells itself and the personalities were important because I kind of sensed that I (with Noel’s background in the construction industry) could very well be deemed an inappropriate character to bring something into the SMR market, particularly when you're dealing with something as sensitive as back pain,” Noel says.
“The correlation with Gerard Hartmann was very important to bring the credibility in that regard and to have Ger's input in having it design-approved was an important part. He endorsed it then and we had people with a lot of credibility from the get-go saying it was good and that gave us a great foothold.
“We had Keith Wood, Keith Earls and Ian Madigan on board straight away and when lads of that stature are involved, it really gives you a help.”
Word spread fast.
High-profile GAA and soccer players were endorsing the product in no time and on January 5, 2017, four months after the launch, Noel received an order for a significant number of Back Ballers from Premier League giants Manchester City.
“That really raised eyebrows, the Man City order,” says Noel, who still has that order at his desk.
“These guys wouldn't be ordering something unless it was top of the range.”
13 out of 20 Premier League clubs have since been added to Marshall’s list of clients, as have NFL outfits Cincinnati Bengals, San Francisco 49ers, New York Giants and the New York Jets to name a few, Connacht Rugby, Sale Sharks, Rugby League side Wigan Warriors, Olympic Steeplechaser Kerry O’Flaherty, British 800 metre record holder Jenny Meadows and professional cyclist Eddie Dunbar.
Cork hurling goalkeeper Anthony Nash describes using the Back Baller as like “foam rolling in beast mode”.
Mayo forward Andy Moran, rolling back the years in the green and red and a leading contender for Footballer of the Year at the age of 33, is a big fan.
John Terry is said to use it daily and, perhaps most impressive of all, Roger Federer, who won two Grand Slam titles this year at the age of 35 (he turned 36 in August) and looked like he was barely breaking sweat in the process, is believed to incorporate it into his recovery regime as he continues to defy the ageing process.
In the last number of weeks, Noel toured around clubs in the Premier League to give on-site demonstrations to medical staff of the benefits that the Back Baller has to offer.
With Preston North End, home to one of the biggest contingents of Irish professionals across the water, he even got to conduct a warm-down session on the morning after a clash with Championship table-toppers Leeds United.
“I did a two-week trip going around to all of the clubs,” Noel tells us.
“I wasn't successful in getting to every one of them but I did get in the door with 12 Premier League clubs, where I was with the medical staff and we did a full briefing in terms of getting the most out of it.
“With the top-level Premier League clubs, there's a very clear wall up between me presenting to the medical staff and me presenting to the players, so you get the opportunity to present to the medical staff and they take it to the players.
“It was slightly different down the levels. We were in with Preston North End, for example; they drew 0-0 with Leeds on Saturday and they had me in to do their recovery session on Sunday morning.
“I was there with the 11 lads who had played the previous day; (Irish players) Sean Maguire and Daryl Horgan weren't playing, but Greg Cunningham and Alan Browne played.
“They were down rolling with me and I met all the lads there and that was a great opportunity to rub shoulders with the players and to really, I suppose, translate the benefit of the Back Baller, knowing that you can make a connection with the players and really get them down to feel the full effects of it.”
Having sold 12,000 units of the product in the first year, the UK market will be Marshall’s main focus for the next year or so and, while there are plans to release more SMR products in the future, the Back Baller will remain the main object of his concentration for the time being.
While an association with high-profile athletes is the source of huge satisfaction for Marshall, he is especially enthused by the impact the Back Baller, and the process of SMR and foam rolling in general, is having on people outside the sporting arena.
“Releasing a tight calf or a tight hamstring is one thing but if you look at our reviews, it's people who have suffered with chronic back pain over years who are really feeling the benefits,” Noel says.
“It's hard work but when they take it on, we are getting life-changing feedback on it."
“A lot of people having back operations and people being diagnosed with arthritis, it's thought that a lot of that could be alleviated with effective SMR. That's not just my product, that's foam rolling, rolling on balls/sliotars etc.; doing that kind of work can be key in keeping people away from the operating table.
“Whether you're Usain Bolt or Joe Bloggs, your anatomy is the same. We tighten up not just from athletics and sport but from the food we eat, toxins etc.; just being inactive causes the body to get tighter as much as anything and just the stresses of ageing tightens our bodies.
“Whether you're active in sport or not you'll get benefit from SMR.”