Why are coaches turning to Virtual Reality for sport training?

Hands up if you’ve played tennis in your lifetime? Some of you might be down on the tennis courts three times a week thrashing your opponents, whereas others might have been grateful to leave that behind when finishing school! 

Whether you play or not, the name on everyone’s lips right now is (very deservedly) Emma Raducanu. Canadian born and British raised, with roots in Romania and China, this 18 year old has got the world talking about her brilliant victory at US Open tennis finals. To hold your own – and indeed your nerve – whilst competing in such a huge event at such a young age is quite extraordinary. So how does she do it? 

Emma is quoted as saying to other young athletes who want to succeed, “It’s inner belief and just taking care of each day as best as possible…” One of her coaches, Andrew Richardson, said that Raducanu’s biggest asset is her mental strength.  “Her ability to deal with adversity and compete is where it all starts,” he said. “I’ve known her from a young age, and she’s always had that. I’m not sure it can be coached. […] The mental strength she has is truly special.”

When building mental strength and resilience we can’t help but nod to Virtual Reality options. Whether training for a sport, recovering from injury or just focusing on mental health, VR tools can help. 

Let us explain.

Physical Training and VR

VR can be used for many purposes. But this one is the most exciting, because it’s about expanding human possibility. Often our limits only exist in our minds, so by consciously choosing to build mental strength and resilience we can move past them. So how does this work? And what are the possibilities?

When we’re thinking about sport, athletes and players need to keep improving, getting better, faster, stronger, mentally as well as physically. Using virtual reality for sport training can be used anywhere, and as athletes and teams can spend quite a bit of time on the road, having something that can be used in, say, a hotel room is incredibly useful! On top of that VR can also replicate extremely specific environments, setting you up to train in the exact spot that you might start a match in. Training using the visuals of VR can also help recognise patterns faster in game or real life situations.

One key to athlete performance and improvement is repetition. But getting people to repeat, repeat, repeat takes its toll on the physical body. Utilising VR can accelerate training regimes whilst limiting the impact on bodies. But there’s a mental aspect to repetition too. Repetition builds and then develops neurological pathways in the brain, making those repeated pathways like a super highway that information can then travel down incredibly quickly. This makes it possible and easier to keep performing under stress or high levels of pressure. Exactly what you need before a match, game or race. 

Rehabilitation and VR

Injury. Sadly this happens to most top athletes at some point in their journey to greatness. A physiotherapist is often needed to advise on the best exercises to rehabilitate your body. Many physios are beginning to use VR as part of given rehab plans. Not only does it get results, but it also makes the delivery of physical rehab much more engaging, which increases the likelihood of people incorporating it into their day. If you’ve ever gone to a physio and been given exercises…did you do them?! Even the most committed athlete might struggle. VR takes away the boredom, and increases motivation. And again, here the specificity of VR comes into play. Virtual environments can be completely customised to the specific needs of the user, whether that be a tennis champ or Great Uncle Dennis after a fall. It also means that physios can monitor people’s progress and outcomes in more depth, change their programmes around more easily and again work with the finer details of what each individual needs. 

We’re continually looking for ways to train our players without increasing wear and tear on their bodies. It allows you to work on mental reps without the physical pounding on bodies.

Jeff Bower, Phoenix Suns VP of Basketball Operations

Research on the effectiveness of VR and physical rehab is starting to come through, and is looking promising. Medical Science Monitor (June 2019) published a study about the use of VR in physical therapy. The study compared standard physical therapy to VR rehab, in the context of trying to improve gait and balance in patients with Parkinson’s disease. Whilst both groups showed improvement in gait and balance, the VR rehab group showed significantly greater improvements. The study concluded that VR seemed to have boosted the functional mobility of people with Parkinson’s disease. As technology progresses we’ll see more and more research studies being done, holding VR up to the microscope to suss out where it’s most effective. But so far it looks as though VR stands to make a powerful difference. 

Mental Strength and VR

Immersing yourself into high-pressure situations, albeit simulated in a VR environment, and applying yourself as you would have to in “real-world” situations starts to pay off in terms of building mental resilience. When you need to replicate the application of that requisite mental strength for a purpose in real life, it will be a lot easier to generate it. 

Increasingly coaches are turning to Virtual Reality for sport training. It has become a powerful tool in their arsenal. Whatever combination of factors that got Emma to the final of the women’s US Open, we’re very glad they did! We’ll be taking a leaf out of Emma’s book for sure – inner belief and taking care of each day as it comes. Will you be experimenting with VR techniques to build up your mental strength and resilience? 

Hi, we’re Circus! A team of highly creative, award-winning creators of virtual experiences. Whether a virtual tour, virtual open day, virtual training, virtual tourism, virtual sales tool or virtual recruitment, we’ve created it all.

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