Virtual reality experience comes to high school football

A 90-inch screen inside a team meeting room at Byrnes (Duncan, S.C.) High displayed what junior quarterback and wide receiver Micah Young described as a Madden video game. Young wore a head-mounted piece of equipment as he moved his head left and right.

From the outside, it might have looked like a 5-10, 160-pound player shaking his head. But to Young, he was scanning the field — virtually. The tool, he said, has helped him learn how to read defensive schemes to be better prepared when he steps onto the actual field.

Byrnes running back coach Freddie Brown said his players used virtual reality training throughout the season from technology by EON Sports VR and Oculus Rift. The football powerhouse (9-1) is the first high school program in South Carolina to train with the tool.

“Innovations for football from a technology standpoint will save our necks, backs, shoulders and brains.”-Byrnes (Duncan, S.C.) running back coach Freddie Brown

According to EON Sports VR founder Brendan Reilly, approximately 30 high school programs from around the country, including California, Texas, Missouri, Illinois, Georgia and Florida, have been exposed to it.

Brown said its use can help athletes decrease mistakes in practice and not carry them onto the field on game day.

“You can’t replace physical reps. You have to teach tackling, and you’re not going to get that through virtual reality,” Brown said. “But what you are going to get is a situation where a player knows what’s about to happen on a scheme and knows how to play it, which puts him in a better position.”

That’s what Reilly thought five years ago, while an assistant basketball coach at Illinois State. Reilly had an idea to develop a way that athletes could safely learn how to play through repetition without getting injured.

“If you learn something the wrong way, you’re going to prepare for the wrong thing,” Reilly said. “If you can play fast in your head, you can play fast on the field.”

So he founded EON Sports VR, based in Kansas City, Mo., to engineer a virtual training experience that allows an athlete to feel as if he’s standing on the field. Reilly said the virtual training software ranges from $499-$799 a year and allows a coach to edit, import and customize plays and enables athletes to re-enact game situations and react to what they see. The 3D headset, $71, is sold separately.

“We are wired to learn by doing,” Reilly said. “There’s nothing better than the real experience. But the next best thing is being able to cognitively get repetitions without incurring physical wear and tear.”

Reilly’s company recently launched a $50,000 Kickstarter campaign in an effort to make the simulator training experience available using a smartphone-powered virtual reality headset called DIVE Sport. The equipment resembles black slideshow binoculars with a head strap and a front compartment to hold a smartphone.

The experience is elevated with position-specific commentary from legendary NFL coaches, including Hall of Famer Mike Ditka.

“Having the technology is one piece of the puzzle. You need expertise,” said Reilly, who compared the experience to a virtual private lesson with each coach.

For instance, a quarterback can receive coaching for how to read and attack defenses. The quarterback is put into a real game situation and challenged to make real-time decisions. When he succeeds, he’s able to move onto the next level of the training experience. If he doesn’t, he repeats the scenario until he learns correctly.

“This way the quarterback can fail but learn from that failure and move onto a slightly harder level,” Reilly said.

The virtual players don’t get tired, he noted, and they’ll always run correct plays.

“This takes care of players’ safety,” Brown said. “Innovations for football from a technology standpoint will save our necks, backs, shoulders and brains. They can get as many repetitions as they want and not get hurt (with the virtual reality tool), which makes it a pretty unique training aid.”

Reilly said each software training experience for smartphones retails at $39 and a headset is projected to cost up to $80. Both will be available next spring.

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