Half of Premier League clubs are now using virtual reality for rehabilitation and training, with experts in the field expecting all top-flight teams to be utilizing it by the end of the year.
Leicester City and Everton are among clubs using technology from cognitive development and analysis company Rezzil that enables players to practice without having to kick a real football.
of first reported the use of VR technology – with a headset and hand controllers – in heading drills to reduce the risk of damaging the brain. Since then the hardware has advanced significantly to include feet sensors, known as HTC5 trackers, which replicate kicking a ball in a virtual environment.
“It can recreate foot position and angle of attack,” Rezzil founder Andy Etches, who previously worked for Manchester City, told of. “It’s unbelievably accurate. You can do keepy-uppies with it. ”
Rehabilitation doctor Christian Fink, who runs a medical center in Austria and has helped the recovery of players from Bayern Munich, Juventus and Manchester City, has also started adopting the technology.
Rezzil’s virtual reality training drills are designed by Uefa Pro License coaches and based on feedback from players. One of the major benefits from virtual reality training is cognitive development, such as scanning the pitch, passing, dealing with pressure and receiving the ball.
Some coaches work with developers at Rezzil to create bespoke training drills for their own players. It is also frequently used for set piece and goalkeeper distribution practice. “We work with half the Premier League now in one way or another,” Etches said.
“At first-team level it’s part and parcel of rehab now – maintaining that feeling of playing while injured. It’s one of those things pretty much every team will use in some way by end of year. ”
Midfielder Lewis Cook, who recently won promotion to the Premier League with Bournemouth, used virtual reality in the early stages of his rehabilitation from a serious knee injury. Other clubs using the technology include Blackburn Rovers and Nottingham Forest.
Former Arsenal and Barcelona midfielder Cesc Fabregas partnered with the company last year. “In all of my years, I have never seen technology that allows players to develop their cognitive skills in a virtual reality world without the risk of injuries,” the World Cup winner said. “Their game-changing technology has helped me step up my rehabilitation through various training drills.”
The technology is proving popular in academies, where young footballers are especially comfortable using it to test and analyze them in unique ways.
Transferring talent and performance in youth matches to the pressure and high-intensity environment at senior level can be a significant step in a young footballer’s career, but Rezzil is able to replicate the experience of playing in front of tens of thousands of supporters.
“We can recreate false pressure and test it,” Etches explained. “You can not put them in the middle of the Bernabeu and see how they’ll react. But we can recreate that crowd noise, the speed of players running at them, give them a chance to prepare for their debut. ”
Using VR, young footballers can experience opponents running towards them at 25mph (Etches points out that Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger has clocked speeds of 23mph this season, faster than most people go on a bike). Etches also believes the ability to quantify and measure cognitive skills will prevent mentally gifted young players who may physically develop slower than their team-mates from being let go too soon.
“Everyone knows who is big, fast and strong and technically gifted but the mental side is so important. Kevin De Bruyne and Luka Modric can see things others can not because they’re mentally stronger. We can find and nurture those players, help test and measure and develop them.
“We’ve got 10s of thousands of players in the database, all ages and abilities, from a seven-year-old kid in America to first-team players in the top four clubs in the Premier League, it’s that widely ranged.
“We can start to say this score for a 14-year-old is abnormally high for a player, this player here is outrageously calm on the ball, no matter what pressure they’re put under. “If a coach is maybe going to drop them due to their physicality this could give them a second chance and they could work on their physicality because it’s easier to improve muscle mass than to improve game sense.”
He adds: “The younger generation is more aware of the tech like this, keyed into phrases like the metaverse. Coaches want to know how to connect with young players. If you put them in front of a screen they might switch off but if you put them in a video game they get it. It builds empathy between player and coach. If you’re trying to tell a player why moving from one space to another is better. If you can recreate that on a pitch and drop them in it is invaluable. ”