Cutting-edge virtual reality technology, allowing soccer clubs to return players to match situations and for the injured to get “match sharp,” is being tested and used by top English and European clubs.
The technology, developed by Manchester-based company Mi Hiepa, is being employed by four Premier League clubs, and teams in Italy and Germany are also trialing the platform.
For contractual and confidentiality reasons, the clubs cannot be identified, but they include some of the biggest in the Premier League and Europe.
“We believe this is a revolutionary product that will help players come back from injury sooner, help players be more cognitively aware, help better decisionmaking on the field and prepare them for pressure situations during games,” Mi Hiepa sporting director Andy Etches said.
The system allows a club to input their existing match data to recreate game situations which a player can then “re-enter” when they put on the headset, with two small, light devices attached to their boots and shin pads.
The platform also features a series of drills which allow players to practice their skills, such as passing, and develop their reactions and decisionmaking abilities.
That could be particularly valuable to players returning from injury who would be able to sharpen themselves up to match speed without the risk of physical contact.
“We can do a range of no impact, low load, rehabilitation movements, where you have players going through the typical muscle memory rebuilding. We fire in all the neural pathways between the brain and the foot to ensure that the player is staying sharp during the period of recovery,” Etches said.
“It is reaction time that is lost typically and we ought to be able to limit that through daily interaction. We have been told that the loss of reaction time can be 60 percent during recovery and we believe that we eliminate that or drastically reduce that by putting players back into match situations,” he added.
While designed for use by elite clubs, the platform developed by a team headed by Mi Hiepa development director Adam Dickinson, who previously worked for EA, the company behind the popular FIFA video game, could be scaled for individual players at home.
Mike Phelan, former assistant to ex-Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson and a former player of the club, has used the platform and, through the Burnley-based company Sensible Soccer, of which he is chairman, is among those with distribution deals for the product.
One element that coaches find useful is being able to view situations from the player’s perspective, Phelan said.
“It is interesting to be able to be the player. As a coach we talk to players and show them things, but with this the coach can actually be involved in the scenarios that the players encounter,” he said.
As well as “replaying” situations, the platform allows for preparation for possible scenarios.
“You can program the platform to show you a game, a certain situation or a certain player and then live it,” Phelan said.
While managers are used to dealing with sports science, analytics and other technological developments, Phelan believes virtual reality could become established as part of the mix.
“You could use it at academy level, use it with injuries, use it with senior elite football players,” he said.
“There are gains to be made in football, be that individually or collectively. We know the market today in football: Everyone wants that little bit more, to be a little bit different and there is an opportunity with this system to develop something, create something and get the reward at the end,” he added.
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