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Sense Arena - VR and Cognitive Training

Coaching is evolving all the time in many ways. But what defines modern coaching? When working with juniors it’s all about developing rounded athletes rather than working on technique and tactics. If you develop a player who has good movement, cognitive skills and co-ordination then it’s easy for them to develop technique later on, which will then allow them to implement tactics. The use of technology is also creeping more and more into the modern coaches repertoire, whether that is through stats, bio-mechanical analysis, or video replays.

Many top athletes have been using cognitive training in their work out routines for years. Most famously F1 drivers use it to keep reaction times laser sharp. Sense Arena is a Virtual Reality training programme which helps players develop cognitive skills such as, reaction times, court awareness, mental toughness and reading of the ball. Using the ‘Haptic Racket’ players strengthen the neural pathways required to produce specific movements quickly and efficiently.

Being able to react quickly to the ball, read the direction, where it’s going to bounce, how it is going to bounce and where you need to be to hit it back, sounds simple enough - but there are levels to this. This might be reading a serve which is coming at 100+ mph with spin. The earlier and more accurately you can gather this kind of information, the earlier and more effectively you can start to prepare and adapt.

When watching pro athletes we almost never think about their cognitive skills. The clip below is from a documentary called ‘Cristiano Ronaldo - Tested To The Limit’ where sports scientists analyse various elements of what makes Ronaldo a world class footballer. The results from this test highlight the ridiculous amount of information that a top athlete can gather from very little stimulus.

As the sport scientist in the video explains, this is the culmination of thousand’s of hours of Ronaldo subconsciously developing these skills in training and matches. But can Sense Arena help to fast track athletes closer to this level of cognitive skill? VR actually has some major advantages over real life training for developing many of these skills.

Being able to freeze time

As a coach I often do exercises where the player has to call out where the ball is going as early as they can. This challenges the player to work out as early as possible if the ball is going short or deep or to their forehand or backhand, based on the early cues such as how their opponent hit the ball and how it’s moving in the early flight of the shot. The video below is a standard practice for something like this.

The problem with these drills is a player can slightly delay their call until it’s obvious and render the whole thing pointless. The coach might be able to see a late reaction but the player might think the exercise is easy when they’re actually just calling the ball when it’s really obvious. Being able to freeze the ball mid air gives the player and coach a much better understanding of how well they’re reading the ball.

Also as players get better these drills are too easy/not specific enough and working on these skills becomes really difficult. Freezing the ball allows you to ask tougher, more specific questions compared to is it going to your forehand or backhand? This multiple choice asking where the ball is going to bounce is a great way to get a higher level player to concentrate on these mental skills.

Reaction Times

Reaction time is notoriously difficult to train, however it can be improved by having to quickly react to a stimulus over and over again. Interestingly studies have shown that playing video games improves reaction time - which would make sense as certain games require fast reactions and a high quantity of them. Studies have also shown the importance of linking a movement in with that reaction time to stop a ‘buffer period’ which is where the haptic racket can help strengthen those neural links to create faster reactions on court. A good example of a drill using these principles is this return of serve drill. The ball is approaching very fast and the player has to put the racket on the correct side in time. This would help someone get used to returning a fast serve without requiring a hitting partner with a fast serve. There’s also no waiting around when they miss five serves in a row. This can also help players use ‘over-speed training’ which is where you force your brain to adapt to a stimuli which is much faster than what you would normally encounter. For example baseball players often practice with ball machines that throw way over 100mph, which then makes the normal speed feel slower.

This volleying drill requires players to react quickly to balls flying at them from various positions. This drill would look insane if a coach did it on the court and would involve picking up loads of balls over and over again. There would also be an element of danger involved it hitting the ball hard at a player from close ranges and balls going into the net and rolling back towards the player.

Real time visual targets

Getting a specific area of the court to light up as a target area depending on various factors is an interesting way to develop shot selection and spatial awareness. This feature could be used to reinforce good shot selection in certain situations. For example if the ball comes deep to the forehand it could tell you to hit cross court and play a rallying ball where as when it drops short it could tell you to play down the line. Being able to do this over and over again in quick succession without any other decision making to be done could accelerate this learning process. A notable disadvantage to this would be a lack of context as to why hitting there is a good idea, though this could be added either through a virtual coach (which sense arena uses) or in real life.

Being able to see what is happening down the other end whilst also tracking the ball is an important skill. This is where peripheral vision comes in, paying attention to where your opponent is can change the optimal shot selection. A yellow box as a target appearing on the court as the ball travels towards them could help players awareness.

Will VR cognitive training become common?

Could this technology help players to develop mental skills faster? Without much evidence I would say yes. However it’s not like the current crop of athletes and those before them struggled to develop cognitive skills because they didn’t have VR to help them. It’s also hard to imagine that anyone could improve much on Ronaldo’s cognitive abilities that he showed in the video. However if cognitive training is truly as effective as what is being reported right now and VR can help to fast track it - then this is potentially game changing.

The big barrier to this right now is the price. At £400 for a meta headset, £80 for the racket (free on the pro plan) and either £15 per month for their standard plan or £24 per month for their ‘pro plan’ which looks borderline essential, the price really starts to add up. If VR catches on generally and people have the headsets then the additional cost may be somewhat reasonable, a bit like buying a game for your Xbox. As of right now I think the investment is too big for the average coach/parent.


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