Virtual Reality will be the future of professional football training

Virtual Reality could be the future of professional football training, with both Premier League and Women’s Super League clubs using new software to practice racing to reduce the risk of long-term brain injury.

Rezzil’s Player 22 offers a non-contact training method, where players can replicate and develop the header technique without the jarring effects of a regular football.

Manchester United Women use Rezzil’s software and VR could be even more beneficial for female footballers, who may be at greater risk of dementia than men.

Virtual Reality could be the future of training, with Premier League and Women's Super League clubs using new software to practice racing to reduce the risk of brain injury

Virtual Reality could be the future of training, with Premier League and Women’s Super League clubs using new software to practice racing to reduce the risk of brain injury

Manchester United Women use Rezzil’s software and VR could be even more beneficial for female footballers, who may be at greater risk of dementia than men

Research conducted by Manchester Metropolitan University shows that women are twice as likely to have a concussion as men and also take longer to recover, backing up previous findings from the University of Glasgow. In theory, therefore, female football players are more likely to develop dementia than male players.

“One reason women are twice as likely to have a concussion may be the lack of neck muscles, which are used to absorb the impact of headers,” said Greg Wood, senior lecturer in Motor Control and Learning at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Some university studies have found that sub-concussive events, such as repeatedly hitting a football’s head, can be more dangerous than an outright concussion because they’re not as detectable or treatable — and can be even worse for girls and women.

“There is research showing that the accumulation of these sub-concussive events, such as thousands of headlines during a career, may be a bigger factor contributing to dementia in old age than concussion itself,” Wood says.

“Since the impact of heading on girls could be greater due to the weaker neck muscles, one might assume that they have a greater risk of injury.”

Professional players are now being advised by the FA to limit training to just 10 higher-force headers per week after new guidelines were introduced at the start of this season. But VR offers managers a viable alternative.

“Heading remains an important part of football, but the proven link with brain injury shows that the restrictions put in place are justified,” said Rezzils founder Andy Etches. “We have worked hard to recreate the course with a fun and immersive experience that is as close as possible to the real thing, but without any risk.

I DUCKED SO THAT ‘BALL’ DON’T SPLIT ME IN THE FACE

For 20 minutes, I had the chance to pretend to be a professional footballer by stepping into the world of virtual reality, courtesy of Rezzil’s Player 22.

After I put on the VR headset, I was told, “We’ll start you at level one, and once you get the hang of it, you can move up.”

How hard can it be? The first ball came in and I made a fantastic defensive header, sending the ball right back to where it came from. The only problem was that the goal was to aim the ball into the goal or tap through to one of the so-called teammates behind me. Not as easy as it sounds.

After three or four tries, I finally managed to score some points, but if a virtual manager had been watching, they would have shaken their heads. However, I want to emphasize that I excelled at the wall reaction game – which goalkeepers use to improve their reflexes.

The software is incredibly realistic and it feels like you are actually sitting in the box waiting for the ball to come in. So much so that after I turned around to try and find where the target was, when I looked back and saw a ball flying towards me I started bending over to avoid getting hit in the face!

This is a game that children can play for hours at home, as well as a tool that professional athletes can use as a viable alternative to physical training.

“Over the past year we have been working with research departments at Manchester Metropolitan University and a number of others to see how effective we can be on this platform.

“The research shows that it’s just as good a tool for learning how to head the ball as a real ball, and that’s incredible. You can make 600 cups in an hour and you won’t feel a thing. You get different types of headers – cans, directional, firing, clearance – all kinds of things.’

Rezzil has also collaborated with grassroots clubs and academies. Primary school children are not allowed to practice courses, but Player 22, which costs £10.99, allows children to practice courses safely at home without causing any physical damage.

“What we’ve been saying all along is that it doesn’t have to be better than heading a real ball, it just has to be that good, which it certainly is,” Etches added. “You can remove maybe 50 percent of all training heads.

“There are learning points about how to put your feet, how to attack the ball, where to head the ball on your head. That will help you if you’re heading a real ball, because you’re going to head it with the part of your head that does less damage. Your body will be in the right position.

“The statistics say (there can be) 600 headers over the course of a season, but 6000 over the course of a season in training. That’s where the damage is done. If you use Rezzil Player 22, that will disappear. That has a huge impact on young players, especially women.’

In addition to United Women, Rezzil works with a number of Premier League clubs and international federations.

“I believe this should be part of the duty of care of every club, every football association, anywhere in the world,” Etches said. ‘If in 10 years there is a legally proven link (between heads and dementia) and you haven’t done anything about it, then you may be opening yourself up. The system is highly validated, it works and players like to use it.’

Tottenham boss Nuno Espirito Santo admitted last month that he was not following the limits on training, calling the regulations “absurd”. But Etches, whose company wants to develop the technology to mimic in-game situations, believes managers will be more open to cutting the price if they’re offered the option of VR.

“The more people know there is an alternative, the more it will change,” he says. ‘At the moment Nuno does not know that this exists and that it is a viable alternative.

“He may have seen something similar before, but he’ll probably have dismissed it as a gimmick. But now there’s evidence behind it that says “this is a valid way to train and replace those headers”.

“Why would you intentionally harm your own players? It just seems archaic. I’m not saying he (Nuno) is, but once people know there’s an alternative, if they don’t use it, there’s probably something bigger going on.”

Rezzil has received support and investment from Gary Neville, Thierry Henry, Vincent Kompany, Michail Antonio and Tyrone Mings and the goal is to grow and reach more people.

“We want to work with every team in the world,” Etches says.

“We have true stories that people benefit from and see on the field. Why not use this system?’

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