In this article, we will deal with a topic that is much discussed nowadays, but still young, since its expansion has only been evident in recent years: the use of virtual reality in the world of sport. We have spoken about this technology at length, but I would like to focus on why it has come to this area and what contribution it can make to all those involved in the world of sport. But let’s start at the beginning, with the question of why virtual reality has approached this field and become a fundamental component of it.
Virtual reality, as has already been demonstrated in other articles, can be applied in many areas of psychology. Its widespread use is due in particular to its easy accessibility, transferability, and ability to adapt to different situations. Indeed, this has done nothing but bring VR closer to sports psychology as a tool for learning technical-tactical strategies and mental skills such as decision making (Cotteril, 2018). A phenomenon that has always been evident, but even more so in recent years, are races played on small differences, and today more than ever an improvement in terms of centimeters, hundredths, or even thousandths of a second is crucial to get the better of one’s opponents. Any tool that can increase performance by even 1-2% can be decisive for a professional’s career. It is precisely for this reason that virtual reality has taken hold in sports psychology: athletes are immersed in a specific sport represented by a virtual environment to develop in the subject a sense of mental and physical presence that allows interaction with the context (Banos et al., 2000). Mental training has therefore gradually been integrated with this new technology. Specifically, virtual reality in sport has recently developed with the use of 360° video. The combination of VR environments with 3D recording systems makes it possible to visualize body movements with ever greater precision. Already in the recent Olympic Games in Rio, technicians, and trainers of the English national athletics team cooperated with BAE Systems to create virtual content for the preparation of athletes. According to The London Economic, BAE created a collection of 3D films of the canoe, slalom, and triathlon courses. In this way, British athletes were able to immerse themselves in a 360° environment using VR devices to make the experience even closer to reality. Virtual reality can also be used to study the perception-action cycle in athletes and strengthen decision-making. By subjecting a tennis player to multiple shot models, different 3D scenarios can be explored with him or her to visualize and correctly predict, for example, whether the trajectory of the ball is on or off the court, based on direction, rotation, spin, etc. (Kulpa et al., 2009). (Kulpa et al., 2005). In addition to this, VR training can be used to work on some of the fundamental skills of the sportsman, such as emotional management, preparation for a match (pre-match concentration), levels of activation and concentration during a match, etc. (Kulpa et al., 2005). It is good to remember that when working on personal characteristics and experiences you will experience different levels of effectiveness. In other words, training of this kind may benefit one athlete and not another because it is based on subjective abilities. For this reason, every mental training course with virtual reality should include the figure of the psychologist, thanks to whom an individualized and specific training can be structured.
But one question that everyone is asking is: what are the benefits of virtual reality in sport? Let’s start from the main objective of VR: to facilitate the attainment of the optimal experience in the subject, the “Flow”, that is that state of balance between the challenge and the capacities possessed by the individual in which the self experiences the maximum sensation of presence. In the previous articles, I have already shown you what are the characteristics of virtual reality generalizable to any psychological field: transferability of learning, controlled environment, objective measurement of behaviour, visualisation, personalised treatment.
More specifically, I would like to summarise the contribution of this technology in sport in 4 main points:
- As mentioned above, virtual reality allows the creation of individual game situations, adaptable to any kind of sport and environmental context. This is also possible if a large team is involved in the training: the player can individually study the playing patterns and repeat them without involving the whole team. In addition to this, virtual reality gives the possibility to practice a specific task, simulating the activity over and over again to enhance learning (Stinson and Bowman, 2014).
- VR allows one to train in complete safety, avoiding and averting the possibility of injury due to a game clash, a contrast, or a cold snap. Think, for example, of open skill sports, such as tennis, where it is possible through VR to create different situations that the athlete learns to deal with, but without the risk of getting hurt (windy conditions, crowds, etc.). Another important aspect is in contact sports, where virtual reality allows the high to train without receiving hits and perhaps internalizing what are the most suitable movements to prevent injury. In addition, VR can be used for the rehabilitation of the injured athlete, facilitating the return to the field without the risk of relapse, trying to find the right supports, the right movements, consequently decreasing the fear of getting hurt again.
- It allows the accurate and continuous collection of various data: it is possible to track eye movement using special tools (eye trackers), to collect data on this (reflexes or visual-perceptual motor skills) with the ultimate aim of optimizing the athlete’s performance.
- As far as mental training is concerned, VR can be used to create environments typical of the competitive context or particularly activating for the subject, to work on different psychological skills of the athlete such as the control of arousal, his thoughts, and the management of anxiety within the virtual environment. Moreover, in the case of motor racing or skiing drivers, they can visualize and acclimatize with the race situations to be faced (the track, the crowd, the weather conditions) already within the virtual context recreated ad hoc.
The unique and fundamental aspect of this technology is its flexibility in adapting to all contexts and consequently in favoring the controllability and reproducibility of the tests. The use of virtual reality in sport is not only limited to the training of the athlete, but also to everything that surrounds the sporting performance. In this sense, thanks to VR it is possible to create virtual training courses for coaches, parents, and sports managers, to encourage communication between the parties or other fundamental skills, always with a view to optimal athletic performance. I would like to highlight this aspect because it is easy to think that performance depends only on the individual and his or her abilities, but this is not always true. It is good to remember that the athlete, before being an athlete, is always a person with personal life and possible sporting and other problems to deal with. It is not uncommon, for example, for a drop in performance due to ineffective communication between the athlete and the coaching staff, and with their parents, especially in the developmental period of adolescence. Virtual reality can be a support for creating training that encourages certain dynamics that are more ‘healthy’ for the team. In addition, in these difficult times, VR allows us to carry out remote training under the supervision of experts, guaranteeing continuity and effectiveness.
Sport has always lived in close symbiosis with technological innovation, which is why the records of the various disciplines have improved over the years, along with the perfection of the athletes’ training and technique. Virtual reality, specifically, can be considered the next great frontier of sport and will generate immersive experiences for fans. This is evidenced by the increasingly evident role of this technology in the sports industry, both for athletes and fans of different sports.
For this reason, Vrainers has set itself the objective of designing training in the sports sector as well, capable of fostering optimal athlete performance, thanks to the collaboration and synergy of the team made up of graphics and programming technicians and psychologists capable of creating ad hoc content. Going down this road means addressing the wellbeing of people, since, as mentioned above, before being a sportsperson one goes through the person and all the significant individual experiences of one’s life. Deciding to work on oneself, therefore to change, is the first step towards improvement and the only way to try and achieve high levels of wellbeing and optimal quality of life: ‘Change is not always the same as improvement, but to improve one must change’ (Winston Churchill).
Bibliography and Sitography
Jackson, S. A., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). Flow in sports: The keys to optimal experiences and performances. Champaign, IL, US: Human Kinetics Books.
Larry Katz, James Parker, Hugh Tyreman, Gail Kopp, Richard Levy, Ernie Chang, Virtual reality in sport and wellness: promise and reality. Sport Technology Research Laboratory, University of Calgary.
Sigmund Loland, 2003. Play the Game: Technology in Sport – Three Ideal-typical views and their implications Cotterill, S.T. (2018). Virtual Reality and Sport Psychology: Implications for Applied.
Bideau, B., Kulpa, R., Vignais, N., Brault, S., Multon, F., and Craig, C. (2010). Using virtual reality to analyze sports performance. Comput. Graph. Appl. 30, 14–21.
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Degree in psychological sciences and techniques from the University of L’Aquila. Master’s degree in Psychology of Well-being: empowerment, rehabilitation, and positive technologies, at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan. Master’s degree in Sport Psychology. Specialized in the use of Positive Technologies applied to different psychological fields, conducting an experimental study on cognitive enhancement and technical-motor gestures on young competitive tennis players through an integrated training of mental training and virtual reality.