Late last year, we learned that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was considering including esports—competitive computer gaming—at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. This news was generally met with derision from the sporting community, which advocates that sports should include some form of physical performance.
Philosophical questions aside, the Olympics need to remain relevant as time progresses, keeping the next generation interested in the whole movement and ensuring advertisers have a worthwhile market to justify their sponsorship outlays. It’s not only the IOC that’s exploring the use of computer games. Manchester City, for example, recently announced an esport-specific sponsorship partnership, viewing esports as a crucial way to break into the Chinese football market.
Beyond esport competitions, emerging evidence suggests that computer games along with virtual reality (VR) have the potential to revolutionize more traditional sports. For example, a common issue with sports training is managing physical load. We generally understand that too much load leads to undue fatigue and increases the risk of injury. As such, coaches have to limit their athletes’ exposure to physical stress. Computer simulation-based training can completely remove, or at least reduce, the physical component of training, allowing for more total training to occur and, ideally, larger improvement.Performance training with #virtualreality can reduce physical load, allow for more total training, & improve tactical skills, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
A second issue for sport coaches is their ability to produce realistic training environments. As much as they try, it can be hard to replicate the heat of competition. This is especially true for tactical training. If you’re setting up your team to carry out a specific action to reduce the effectiveness of an opposition player—and you don’t have the specific opposition player to practice against—it can be tough to understand if your intervention will be effective.
Building on this latter point, a number of NFL teams have shown interest in VR-based training for their quarterbacks—perhaps most famously in the case of Tom Brady. In theory, VR-based training allows the quarterback to become immersed in the game, spotting their receivers in the pattern and picking the ideal pass in their progression while avoiding defensive players. This adds to the hours of game footage the players watch to hopefully provide additional realism above that of the game tape.
How Effective Are Computer Games and Virtual Reality in Enhancing Performance?
There are a few studies in this area, all of which suggest computer technology has potential. A 2009 study, for example, randomized 32 university students to undertake bowling training on a Nintendo Wii or no training at all before a bowling skill test. The researchers found that those who trained on the Wii had better bowling performance.
A more recent 2019 table tennis study found similar results. Here, subjects underwent a table tennis assessment and then were randomized to receive either six VR table tennis training sessions or no training at all before undertaking a second table tennis assessment. Again, the VR training group showed significantly greater improvements in real-world table tennis performance compared to the control group. Comparable results for darts throwing have also been reported.
There are still plenty of questions in this area that require resolution. First, we need to understand better how computer games and VR might sit alongside physical training. In both the table tennis and bowling studies, the subjects either undertook VR training or no training at all.
But what happens if the control group undertook actual table tennis training, as opposed to doing nothing? We’d assume that they would show greater improvements. But we should also consider how this would work throughout a 3-month training program, especially with training load and injury risk. Might we expect that strategic computer games and VR sessions in replacement of, or in addition to, more standard physical training sessions would lead to greater performance enhancement? Time will (hopefully) tell.
There is plenty of evidence suggesting that computer-based and VR training potentially can enhance sports vision—the ability to detect relevant stimuli and execute the correct skill in a given match context. It’s not yet entirely clear, however, how well they’ll transfer to real world performance.
Fortunately, a 2017 study by Rob Gray gives us some initial insights as to whether training carried out in a virtual environment transfers to the real world. Here, Gray randomly assigned 80 experienced, male baseball players to one of four groups:
- A virtual environment group that faced 30 virtual pitches
- A real-world group that faced 30 real pitches
- An adaptive virtual environment group which faced 30 pitches varied according to an athlete’s skill level
- A control group
The training groups undertook two 45-minute sessions per week for six weeks. All sessions were in addition to regular training sessions. Overall, the adaptive virtual environment group showed the greatest improvements in batting performance. That this group outperformed the athletes who underwent real-world batting training suggests that there’s sufficient transfer from VR training to real-world performance, at least for baseball.High school baseball players who underwent #virtualreality batting training performed better than those who had real-world training, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
Interestingly, these subjects were high-school baseball players. In general, around 0.5% of high schoolers are drafted into the MLB; in the five-year period after this study was completed, 10% of the adaptive virtual environment group were drafted, which suggests that this type of training may drive longer-term changes—which is clearly very promising.
Implications for High Performance Athletes
As identified in a recent review, the majority of these studies use beginners as opposed to advanced athletes. This could skew results because beginners generally require less work to improve. They also tend to show improvements from a variety of different interventions, regardless of the general efficacy of a specific intervention. As such, we clearly need more research on high-level athletes, a group in which improvements tend to be difficult and hard-won. If computer game and VR training enhance performance in this group, then they’re likely here to stay.
Visual and Perception Training
An area in athletics where VR may be useful involves my own training history. I’ve written before about how I was responsible for the Great Britain 4x100m relay team’s disqualification at the 2008 Olympic Games, which was somewhat of a career-defining experience for me. I had trouble seeing the checkmark in relation to the incoming runner, and this, combined with the high-pressure environment and my inexperience in running 4thleg, caused me to leave early.
In the three weeks before the Olympics, I took part in five relay training sessions with about 20 changeovers and three different incoming runners. This meant that, heading into the Olympic Games, I only had 8-10 changeovers practiced with the guy handing the baton to me, none of which occurred in a race situation.
It’s clear how VR could have assisted. By wearing a headset, I would have trained my visual-perceptive system to better spot the checkmark and the incoming runner. I could modify the size of the checkmark, making it smaller to test my abilities. I could vary the speed of the incoming runner. I could alter what he was wearing. I could have eight avatars of the same incoming runner in different lanes, making it harder for me to spot the right one. I could change the weather, making it sunny or wet, which affects how easy it is to spot the checkmark. And, crucially, I could have practiced this daily with no physical strain in addition to the physical changeovers I practiced in the real, physical world. VR would have augmented my improvements and, perhaps, helped avoid my costly mistake.
There is a huge amount of potential here. By reducing the physical training load, it may be possible to increase the total training volumes undertaken by athletes, allowing them to enhance their cognitive, visual-perceptive, and skill-based performance. This is good in the sense that practice makes perfect. As with physical performance, however, this aspect will need to be monitored to avoid burnout.
Another potential area is the return-to-play of a previously injured athlete. Typically, athletes who have undergone an extended absence from their sport due to injury return a bit rusty. By using computer games and VR, it may be possible to maintain and even enhance their psychological skills during injury, enabling them to slot back into the team once they return to full fitness. Return-to-play is an area of huge promise and, as the prices of these technologies drop and validation increases, it’s likely to become more common in teams across a variety of sports.
There are still many aspects surrounding these technologies that we don’t fully understand in a sport setting, and many more typical brain training games have little evidence supporting their use within sports. Accordingly, we need a far greater body of research before these technologies become mainstream. At present, they represent an interesting glimpse into the future of performance.