A virtual reality platform could provide a safe and effective way to reduce the amount of heading footballers do in training.
Guidance restricting the frequency of heading in training is now in place at all levels of the game in England.
The guidance for the adult grassroots and professional game was introduced prior to the start of the current season, and limits players to a maximum of 10 ‘higher force’ headers a week.
The FIELD study has demonstrated an increased risk of death due to neurodegenerative disease among professional footballers compared to the general population, suggesting a link between concussions suffered by players or by the sub-concussive impact of repeated heading.
Researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) are trialling the Player 22 VR platform, developed by cognitive development and analysis company Rezzil, to see if it can be an effective substitute for ‘real life’ heading, both in lessening the amount of actual heading players do and improving their technique to make the real-life headers they do less damaging in terms of impact.
Three mixed-gender groups of 15 people each will take part in the trial to measure the accuracy of their heading. Individuals will be asked to head balls fired from a ball machine at around 30 miles per hour into a goal. They will be measured on how many times they hit the target, and also on how close they are to getting the ball into the optimum spot just inside the post.
The control group will take part in the trial and repeat it seven to 10 days later, and do nothing in between. The VR group will take part in the trial, undergo VR training using goggles and then repeat the trial, while the ‘real life’ group take part, undergo ‘real-life’ training and then repeat it.
The hope will be that the VR training proves to be at least as effective, if not more effective, than the real-life training.
Dr Greg Wood, a senior lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University’s Institute of Sport, said: “At the moment, coaches are caught between needing to teach the skills of heading but also being constrained in how much they can do because of the potential dangers, which is why VR could be a solution as you can teach the skill without the impact.
“But the important question for us is can VR actually improve the skills of a player in a real world setting?
“We have no doubt that the VR system will improve the skills of a player whilst playing the game, but there is little benefit unless this translates to the real world, and that’s what we have been testing.”
So what is good heading technique?
“Generally a header should hit the centre of your forehead – not the top or the side of the head,” Dr Wood added.
“In the VR system itself there are professional instructions about heading the ball to do with your stance – having your feet shoulder width apart – keeping your eye on the ball as it’s coming towards you and making sure it hits the centre of your forehead.”
The VR set has been found to have five to six times lower impact than real heading, with the only force being that exerted by the user in moving their head towards the virtual ball, rather than any impact from a physical ball.
The accuracy study is ongoing, with the final results expected to be published in the new year.
A separate study involving the VR headsets will look at the impact on the brain and how it communicates with the muscles after a real life heading session compared to a virtual one.