In our continuing investigation into the use of virtual reality in football as a training tool and performance aid we speak to arguably the leader in VR sports training, STRiVR Sports Lab and the head of their specific department focusing on soccer Danny Belch.
It comes as no real shock that to find the leaders in a sporting innovation you have to turn your attention to the USA. Specifically in the case of VR it is a startup out of Stanford University that has taken on the mantle of industry front runners. With a host of NFL teams using their software as well as many more at the College American Football level, the showreel for STRiVR makes very good reading.
You would think such an impressive range of clients does not happen overnight, but as Belch was happy to explain it did not take that much legwork: “Our founding team and early employees were very connected in the American Football world, so it was easy to get in front of a number of coaches and players to demo the product. The technology was unlike anything they had ever seen, so we signed up over 10 teams instantly.
Belch was not one of the aforementioned founding team, although he was not that far behind: “My brother is Derek Belch, the co-founder and CEO. I joined him 3 months into starting the business. After seeing the technology I thought it was the future of training athletes.”
After sustaining their success in American Football, STRiVR set their sights on the other big US sports and then onto the most popular sport in the world. Belch identified what STRiVR’s football department is looking to achieve: “At STRIVR we want to make every athlete better and help them prepare better if we can. Soccer (football) is the leading global sport and one that I’ve always had my eye on in terms of thinking about how we can help soccer (football) players train with VR.
As discussed with other experts from within the VR industry, the nature of football poses challenges for the technology. Belch explained this from his point of view: “The biggest hurdle with soccer (football) is the fluidity of the game and all the movement. It is unlike American Football where there is a pause and the play starts from a static position. Very few times in soccer (football) does this happen, which makes building VR training scenarios challenging.”
Do not let this make you think VR is going to be a short term fad though. Belch did not hold back in promoting the impact that his employer’s software could have in football: “It will change the way soccer (football) players prepare for matches. It will help the academies train younger players and even help assess them. The possibilities are many. I think the technology needs to get better though before we see a huge jump in by top tier soccer (football) teams in England and around the world.”
Where Belch differs from other experts we have spoken to is on the subject of whether there is a willingness from within football to embrace technology. Whilst many feel the sport’s history of conservatism limits progress, Belch provides a stark contrast in view: “There is a definite willingness because they use so much tech in training right now (wearables, video, match review, scenario planning). It is only a matter of time when VR becomes another staple…we just have to figure out how exactly it is going to work for each club.”
The collaborative element that Belch refers to will prove essential in both how effective and efficient the adoption of VR in professional football is. However, the feedback to date that Belch and STRiVR have received is worth noting: “Some call it “game changing”. Some call it the future of training. Some say they wish they had it 10 years ago. The response has all been very positive, because it’s like you are practicing but you don’t have to be on the field. That is huge for a player.”
The key to any training is that it provides a benefit to the player and in doing so the team which eventually leads to improved performance and results in competitive situations. Coaches within football are themselves critical of whether current technology used in training actually provides a significant benefit. Belch feels VR however has clear areas of merit:
“It reduces the toll on bodies and saves legs by not having to actually get out on the field to train. Then you have a key one: Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. You can do and see things 1,000 times over in VR. Think of a goalie practicing saving PKs. If a goalie can watch 100 PKs, he or she will be much better prepared to stop one in the real game, even if that increase is just 3% better prepared. That could be the difference between winning and losing a PK shootout. Lastly you have mental training and visualisation. A lot of professional athletes do visualisation. VR is a great tool to enhance one’s visualisation exercises.”
From speaking to Belch the overall message from across the pond is clear. VR can and will change the way football clubs train and the sooner clubs work in partnership with the VR industry the sooner they will reap the rewards of their time and money.