ONE of the hottest young talents in the AFL is in the middle of an intense training session.
There’s not a bead of sweat on him.
He’s sitting on a comfortable chair, with goggles strapped around his head and a Samsung phone attached to the front of the goggles.
It looks like he’s playing a video game, but in reality – Virtual Reality, that is – he’s undergoing a tactical training session that’s preparing him for the upcoming weekend’s game.
Welcome to the high-tech world of the AFL, one that footy fans rarely get to catch a glimpse of.
Several clubs are now using Virtual Reality programs to train their players in match-like scenarios, whether that’s to prepare for a specific opposition tactic or to work on a game plan of the team’s own making.
Port Adelaide were the first club to dive face-first into the Virtual Reality world, encouraging their players to use the tool during pre-season training in 2016.
The club filmed training sessions with 3D cameras and stitched together vision in post-production, and were then able to make other players – who were actually sitting on a couch – feel like they were in the middle of a centre bounce stoppage or a marking contest.
The VR goggles were fitted with headphones so the players could hear coaching instructions while watching the vision unfold.
Port Adelaide gun Ollie Wines (L) and Football development manager Aaron Greaves. Picture: Sarah Reed.Source: News Corp Australia
Port head coach Ken Hinkley praised the tool as a way of putting his players through multiple training scenarios without physically wearing them out, especially during the brutal pre-season period.
“They (players) can use the goggles and all of a sudden be almost playing football while they’re on the couch, which is helping them educate,” Hinkley told AAP last year.
“It’s nice to be able to try and learn and educate them a little bit more on the game without actually physically having to hammer them all the time.”
The gurus behind this technology are Jumpgate Virtual Reality, an Adelaide-based company that is competing with global businesses for the hearts, minds and bank balances of traditionally cautious sporting organisations.
Jumpgate implemented the technology at Port Adelaide and have rolled out their model to multiple other AFL clubs. Such is the competitive nature of the professional footy world that Jumpgate didn’t want to say which clubs they’re working with – though you’re welcome to read into the fact that Adelaide Crows used the company for a fan-based VR experience a few years ago.
Anton Andreacchio, managing director of Jumpgate, says the clubs themselves have a huge amount of input into the types of VR programs created for them.
“We learned very early on that rather than focusing on the technology, we needed to be reactive to the needs of the coaching department,” Andreacchio told foxsports.com.au.
“… We’ve focused on using VR as a teaching tool, which differs for each club we are working with. This could be visualising opposition setups, or virtual masterclasses with filmed 360 VR training sessions, or creating interactive game plan modules.”
A Virtual Reality training session is a little bit different to a regular one. Picture: Sarah Reed.Source: News Corp Australia
Like Hinkley, Andreacchio sees the ability to run a training session without physically wearing players out as the main benefit of VR in its current state.
“Virtual reality allows players to train off their feet and for scenarios to be simulated without the need to coordinate during training,” Andreacchio said.
“Given how carefully training loads are managed, it’s a really exciting area as it makes training scalable.”
Like many other trends to emerge in Aussie sport, Virtual Reality took off in the United States a few years back, with NFL and college football teams embracing the technology en masse.
NFL teams including Dallas Cowboys, New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers – formerly known as Jarryd Hayne’s San Francisco 49ers – have jumped on board the VR wagon, joining NBA franchises like Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards, NHL team Washington Capitals and Major League Soccer club New England Revolution.
They’re all supplied by a company called STRIVR, a Stanford University offshoot that is a world leader in the sports VR field.
“(Athletes) really get that one-tenth of the physical rep, but 100 per cent of the mental rep,” STRIVR CEO Derek Belch told Recode. “That mental edge is oftentimes what separates the pros from the Joes.”
It is certainly a long way from the humble whiteboard and black marker, and far beyond simply watching a TV replay of a match and hitting pause at important moments.
That’s not to say that old-school approaches don’t work.
Judging by the amount of times we hear about – or on rare occasions, see – a coach giving his players an epic spray, it’s fair to assume a tongue-lashing or a brutally physical training session are still effective techniques that cut through much of the modern tech guff.
The aim of Virtual Reality is to complement the more traditional approaches.
The head of GWS Giants’ much-feted Athletic Performance Unit, David Joyce, believes the role of VR is going to grow significantly in years to come.
“There’ll be definite benefits in looking at Virtual Reality, particularly when someone is injured and they can’t be performing that physical task, we can keep the mental side of things fresh and moving,” Joyce told foxsports.com.au.
“It’s certainly the next frontier for us.”