What if footballers could be taught not only to run faster, but to think more quickly too? Could further improvements be made by training the mind as well as the body? TSG 1899 Hoffenheim is proving this with their innovative training methods: Having already successfully deployed Visionup Strobe Glasses to enhance the performance of their goalkeepers, the Bundesliga club are again pushing the boundaries of sports science by improving players’ reaction times on the pitch through the use of custom-built technology: the Helix.
Previously, there was no way of measuring a footballer’s executive functions and how quickly they reacted to certain stimuli. Hoffenheim, however, believed the scope of such analysis could be expanded into other areas and began digging a bit deeper. After a few basic tests showed that this was possible, they set about customising a prototype that would mirror real-time match scenarios that players would face. Working in conjunction with club sponsor SAP, the multinational software corporation, Hoffenheim developed the Helix, the first machine of its kind in the world, built specifically to train the cognitive processes of athletes.
The Helix is a training video game that uses a giant screen that curves 180 or 270 degrees around the participating player. Six projectors cast different images onto the screen, prompting the player to react as quickly as possible to unfolding scenarios that test their cognitive abilities. In one situation, for example, eight animated players appear on screen. Can the subject then follow the runs made by four of them – two teammates and two opponents – and remember these at the end?
‘No ball is used in the tests, as the purpose is to train mental rather than physical capabilities,’ says Dr Jan Mayer, Hoffenheim’s sports psychologist. ‘It’s about seeing if a player can make the right decision in stressful, real-life situations that require the highest levels of concentration.’
Helix 2.0 is now in the pipeline, an updated version with a screen extended to 360 degrees to provide a completely immersive environment. A similar test could also be conducted using virtual reality glasses, but that would restrict the players’ scope of vision, not to mention the fact that, in a match situation, they wouldn’t be wearing the glasses. The Helix simulates reality the best – this idea that emerged not from academia, but from a football coach with a burning sense of curiosity.
‘ It was a coach who asked me if it might be possible to make the players faster, not at running, but in their thinking, so that they could analyse match situations more quickly and made decisions faster,’ revealed Dr Mayer. ‘It shows that innovative ideas aren’t only unearthed at universities, but sometimes emerge directly from the football field too.’