For better, for worse – and sometimes for no fathomable reason – technology has shaped the game we love. VAR, WhatsApp groups and computer analysis are all footballing facts of life. And so too is virtual reality at several top clubs.
During lockdown the tech was used to overcome isolation training issues, but it’s also a tool for spying on loan players, coaching budding superstars, and a whole range of other game-changing uses. Leading the VR revolution is a Manchester company, MiHiepa. Their Rezzil virtual reality system is on the radar of many top coaches. Vincent Kompany used it to help him recover from injury and loved it so much he became an investor. “I think their approach to the future of cognitive development in football is cutting edge,” he said. “I feel very passionate about this and I’m excited to get involved.
Rezzil founder Andy Etches used to work at Manchester City, running the innovation department across their media and performance areas. Now, he helps coaches develop players through off-the-shelf VR headsets powered by smart coding. “The key benefit of Rezzil is that you can keep a player’s brain active during periods of training inactivity. It’s perfect when they want to make biomechanical movements with a low physical load,” says Andy. Four of the Premier League’s big six clubs, the French and Italian national federations and top sides around the world have cottoned on to the power of VR. Manchester United’s youth players have been using the system since 2017.
During the Covid-19 pandemic players yearned for a way to stay in touch with the game. So much so for West Ham’s Michail Antonio that he had Rezzil installed at home.
“It’s all about awareness of what is around you,’ he said. “You don’t have all the time in the world on this thing. If you take too long then the ball literally disappears and another comes out to start again.
“I’m not a footballer known for his awareness on the field. I’m known for my brute strength, power and pace. I’ve noticed that my awareness is starting to improve, knowing where people are coming from. It’s helping.”
Given time in Rezzil, players can use the real game data to observe a match and learn about the behaviour of teammates – even tweaking their distance from a centre-back partner – all from the comfort of their sofa.
NO TIME FOR REST
You don’t always have the luxury of time in football. When a manager is changed – and that’s often at a time when togetherness is most needed – everyone has to adapt to new methods double quick.
But what happens when a player is injured and unable to take part in training? “We’ve had a case where a player had an ACL and hadn’t played for his new manager so he needed to understand his position in the team,” explains Andy.
Morning sessions in the tactics room were easily done as the player didn’t need to exert himself physically. “Then in the afternoon he did exactly the same drills as the rest of the squad, only sitting down in a virtual world rather than out on the field,” says Andy. “So, he was learning the distances between him and his midfield partner without ever kicking a ball.”
How does it work?
Rezzil is a virtual reality platform where players can test their reactions in a game-like environment.
1. What’s the setup?
Rezzil is accessed through a headset that places the user in a 360-degree space, immersing them in the action. Anyone who’s played PlayStation VR games or used similar technology will know what to expect. Once you have your headset in place you can only see the virtual world around you and you’re visually disconnected from your real environment. Foot trackers enable players to practice striking the ball and mean that a swing of your leg will be mirrored in the virtual environment.
2. How is it used?
The applications are wide-ranging in football where it’s not always possible to train on the pitch, with team-mates or in a match setting. Right now clubs are using the software to develop young players through drills that map onto UEFA coaching guidance. It’s a useful tool for players coming back from injury too. And Rezzil also helps any footballer sharpen their cognitive abilities. While using the VR kit can be physically draining, it’s your brain that is being worked the hardest. Your main focus is on responding to instructions and making good decisions about where to place balls or position yourself in realistic match scenarios.
3. How can I improve?
There’s little point to any coaching intervention if you can’t chart progress and demonstrate improvement. That’s why a player’s first task in Rezzil is normally to undergo a benchmarking assessment. This session creates a skills map and highlights areas for improvement. Your Rezzil index rating is a combination of metrics including reaction time, composure and accuracy. By taking part in the activities you’re looking to nudge your rating up. As well as translating to real-world benefits on the pitch, this structure creates a competitive element that appeals to professional footballers.