How VR is changing training in sport


13th January 2020


10 min


Dale Jones

XR is already proving to be well-capable of creating more skilled workforces. But can this potential extend to sport and its top levels? Here‚ Dale Jones explores how virtual reality is being adopted within sport to enhance performance‚ recovery and mental resilience.

In helping provide sporting justice‚ reducing errors and enhancing viewing technology‚ we’ve already established how technology is finding its position in football.

Yet where clear benefit has been identified for fans‚ questions remain unanswered as to how sports teams and athletes can embrace emerging technologies to gain competitive advantage.

Technical‚ tactical‚ physical and psychological: four pillars that define athletes. Attributes within these are what differentiate the world class to the B class. But can a technological training solution enhance attributes that fall under these pillars?

Every technology brings with it separate merit. Much discussed and perhaps much dismissed‚ virtual reality (VR) is one of the most polarizing technologies on the horizon – but much is made of its potential in training‚ making it a perfect subject to analyse.

Below‚ we analyse how VR is being used to benefit competitors in sports as popular as football‚ as international as American Football‚ as complex as racing and as diverse as skiing. 

Physical training & rehabilitation.

A hot topic in pretty much any contact sport over recent years is concussion. Over in the States‚ the NFL has come under fire for a negligent approach to advice and rulings on head injuries sustained during the action. 

The hard-hitting nature of the sport means such incidents are inevitable. Also certain are the long-lasting effects of repetitive brain traumas. 

Countless studies add incredible weight to the notion that by sustaining such injuries repeatedly‚ athletes are at risk of developing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)‚ a brain disease that causes the brain to deteriorate.

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This kind of rough landing isn’t uncommon in American Football. Image by John Tarcasio.

It’s a problem that also occurs closer to home. Jeff Astle is perhaps the most-famed case having developed CTE by heading rock-hard leather footballs over his career.

In both sports‚ rulings on head injuries are now a lot stricter. Provided the brain is allowed the time to recover‚ the vast majority of injuries are not serious. Accordingly‚ governing bodies have moved to rule that any player with a concussion must leave the field of play. 

However‚ methods of identifying concussion in sport are still somewhat outdated. In football‚ for example‚ a pitch-side doctor is present and must make a call based on more basic‚ but less reliable methods of examination.

Dr Michael Grey is one person looking to improve the accuracy of concussion diagnosis. Lending the help of virtual reality and more specifically a £500 Oculus Rift device‚ the Rehabilitation Neuroscientist has developed a solution that swiftly allows medics to detect more subtle changes. 

The application takes variables out of the equation. No longer will a determined player’s own will to continue put them at risk. What’s more‚ devices are available at a very accessible price‚ meaning we should expect to see VR in some of the world’s most-loved impact sports soon.

Elsewhere‚ applications are already available to take the endless physicality out of American Football training. STRIVR is already working with multiple NFL teams to provide high-quality virtual sessions that ensure clashes are only virtual.

Technical training.

In areas where data is much easier to capture and sports where motions are a little more basic‚ virtual reality is already making a big difference. Skiing is a perfect example of this.

Top level athletes are already embracing immersive skiing simulators. Not only addressing the obvious issue of being unable to ski on snow for three quarters of the year‚ such platforms also capture lateral movement and acceleration accurately across different courses – perfect for the pro skier to practice ahead of upcoming tournaments.

SkyTechSport‚ developers of the Ski Simulator featured in the video above‚ travel the slopes to collect the ski trails of the Olympics‚ enabling athletes to ski on mountains in virtual reality before ever going to the racecourse.

The benefits of this are twofold. Firstly‚ the simulator allows for repetition. In the high-paced sport of skiing‚ this is pivotal and provides a much more powerful method of training for a particular course than the former standard of video. Athletes can repeatedly perform turns and piece together their perfect route – and they’re free to do it at any time.

Formerly‚ training for courses came via arduously studying footage recorded from only one point of view. The ski simulator not only allows for repetition but enables users to scope out angles for themselves. Haptic feedback ensures skiers know about their mistakes and users can even crash. Users can analyse their performances and begin to solve their own problems. Video can offer none of this.  

Looking for proof this works? Look no further than American alpine skier‚ Mikaela Shiffrin‚ who employed a VR-intensive training regime (developed by the aforementioned STRIVR) before the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. The result? A gold medal.

Tactical training.

On the face of things‚ use of virtual reality in tactical training appears rare‚ if even non-existent. Yet by reading between the lines‚ I can say with unreserved confidence that some of the largest sporting organisations in the world are using VR to increase tactical awareness amongst their athletes.

Concrete evidence of tactical VR use can be seen in Formula 1. Virtual reality‚ paired with ultra-realistic track simulations and purpose-built‚ haptic-enabled cockpits‚ provides drivers with a likelike opportunity to acclimatise to even the most challenging of tracks‚ allowing them to practice everything from entire races to specific corners and chicanes‚ offering similar benefit to the technical benefits outlined above. 

Moreover‚ with racing rules dictating that no in-season testing can be performed‚ you’ll also find F1 teams leveraging the technology to simulate results of tactical tweaks to their complex machinery‚ and in a safer‚ more cost-effective environment too. 

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Accurate recreations of certain scenarios can be made in virtual reality.

Famed for its extensive tactical analysis of football matches‚ Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football recently took their scrutiny of match action to the next level when revealing their virtual reality simulation system.

Capable of recreating particular passages of play from within a game‚ the system puts viewers in the position of players without the need for a headset‚ bringing the analysis of the show’s presenters to life and providing previously unseen and impossible viewing angles. 

It’s for this reason I’m confident that tactical use of VR extends way beyond its application in racing. Any coach worth their salt would relish the opportunity to leverage such tech to step back inside previous action and work alongside their athletes to help them identify where they’ve made mistakes.

Coaches might for example help athletes to improve aspects such as positional awareness‚ transitions or their ability to predict new phases of play or action. It’s an approach the modern coach would certainly much sooner take than that of the pre-historic bollocking‚ an increasingly non-effective approach that thankfully being resigned as something that belonged to ‘back in the day’. 

Psychological training.

Perhaps the most exciting potential use of immersive training in sport concerns improved decision-making‚ knowledge and mental strength.

Though advances in data and tracking may not have matched the required rate‚ football clubs are still adopting virtual reality as a training tool. If it isn’t entirely accurate‚ why?

Well‚ just because it isn’t entirely accurate for technical training doesn’t mean it is altogether useless. Indeed‚ former World Cup winners Germany moved to partner a developer to bring XR training to players throughout their system – ranging from youths to senior pros. 

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VR is already helping boost tactical awareness and decision-making. Image by Lux Interaction.

The platforms will employ match data to recreate previous match scenarios‚ or even allow coaches to create custom-built situations for players to analyse and work through.

Broken down into four areas‚ the solution includes a focus on decision-making‚ positional awareness‚ in-game scenarios and timed training tasks. Ultimately‚ the aim is to improve tactical knowledge and reaction times‚ while also allowing players to step into the boots of their colleagues to see situations differently.

Smaller clubs can see the benefit‚ too. Blackpool FC coaches are using a similar programme‚ with Manager Gary Bowyer reporting benefits across the board‚ ranging from coaching‚ rehab and team-building‚ and players themselves noticing improvements in awareness and decision-making. 

In the mixer.

What is notable from our exploration of the use of virtual reality in sports training is that quite often‚ solutions quickly become multi-purpose. Almost as if by accident‚ the nature of virtual reality enables features that might be designed to help users achieve one goal to effortlessly contribute to another. The end result is applications that allow for improvement across pillars‚ an efficient and effective way of building more well-rounded athletes. 

Exemplifying this‚ pretty much all the solutions covered above can be used as rehab tools. Applications designed to improve technique tend to have mental benefits‚ and vice-versa. 

Olympic teams and World Champions are moving quickly to integrate immersive training into the routines of athletes. That is an encouraging sign‚ but we should not get ahead of ourselves just yet. There are solutions already making a difference‚ but XR could yet benefit from further advances in areas such as data capturing.

Oddly enough‚ it is in benefits VR can offer to fans that we again see promise – this time via Sky Sports’ immersive analysis offering.  And with other concerns such as accessibility being addressed by constantly reducing hardware costs‚ signs are promising for VR’s future in sport.

Nevertheless‚ it’s a process that is likely to be led by sport’s biggest names and organisations. It’ll be up to them to be brave‚ to adopt a user-focused approach that embraces mistakes and iterates through constant learnings.

As other technologies climb the hype cycle‚ you can expect to see early adopters lead their integration in immersive training too‚ the cockpit experience for F1 drivers acting as good an example of this as any. Those leaders may well face the biggest burden in both cost and time‚ but will reap the benefits via their pivotal input in the development of solutions that inspire never before seen performance   

Can virtual reality really make a difference to elite athletes? Tell us your thoughts in our comments section below or tweet us‚ @hedgehoglab.