How US skiers Gain a High-tech advantage
161.9 Kilometers per hour. This World Cup record was set by the French ski racer Johan Clarey in a downhill at the beginning of 2013. You can’t experience this firsthand every day: lack of snow, weather dependence, risk of injury – even the Olympic riders only get a combined 15 to 20 hours of real competition simulation on the slopes every year.
This is no comparison to football, running or boxing. And this is unacceptable in perfectionism-driven competitive sports, which is why American winter athletes are now switching to the next best reality: the virtual.
The US ski team relies on three technical aids: glasses, headphones, even more glasses.
If necessary, fog and rain are installed
The background: The Olympic track in South Korea is almost unknown to Olympic athletes. When World Cup races were held on the slopes at Pyeongchang in the past two years, the Americans took the opportunity to have a coach ride the track in different variants and made videos that were cut to simulate the speed of the fastest riders – later even disturbing elements such as fog or rain can be added.
Meanwhile, the US coaches travel through the season with 360 ° cameras in their luggage to create a library of relevant routes – the athletes see the descents dozens of times until the last turn is also internalized.
It becomes scientific with the so-called Halo Sport headset. Equipped with electrified foam knobs, the pseudo-headphone stimulates with light currents the motor cortex of the brain, which is responsible for controlled movements.
Getting better with cortex stimulation
The basic idea: The stimulated cerebral cortex should increase the effect of each workout and thus lead to better values in strength, explosiveness, endurance and muscle memory over time. The technology has been used for a long time in stroke and Parkinson’s patients.
The third device in the gadget bundle is the Vima REV. The glasses interrupt the view on both sides at short intervals or block only one eye. As a result, the brain is forced to process information faster. Since every person should have a worse and a better eye, athletes hope from the glasses to lift both sides to a performance level.
The projection is virtual, the effect is real
Troy Taylor, “High Performance Director” of the US Ski and Snowboard Association, is convinced that the technological feat will give his athletes a decisive advantage in Pyeongchang.
“It’s all about the small leads,” Taylor told BBC Sport. “Sometimes a few tenths of a second makes the difference between first and tenth place. Learning motor skills in particular is the holy grail of sports science. Therefore, it is essential to be able to learn faster than the others.“
And further: “(Die Sportler; D. Red.) have the feeling of knowing the course better. So when you start the race, you start with more confidence. And that’s an important part of competing: having the confidence to attack where you can make up for time.“
The virtually produced lead that the Americans will have over most of their competitors is likely to be huge in this field. While the majority of the field of participants will have ridden the Jeongseon Alpine Centre route only a few times at the start of the competitions, the Americans will be able to fall back on many weeks with dozens of descents when looking out of the starting box.
The difference may only be virtual, but it will probably have real effects.
Virtual reality is on the rise, even in sports
Visualization has long been the standard of sports psychology. Boxers so often imagine the walk to the ring that the real march through the hall loses some of its adrenaline-pumping horror. By reprogramming the old habits of his players, football coach Tony Dungy managed to lead the notoriously unsuccessful Tampa Bay Buccaneers out of the crisis, the Indianapolis Colts later even to the Super Bowl victory and himself as a shining example in the successful non-fiction book “The Power of Habit”.
Even the semi-esoteric bestseller “The Secret”, which preaches that you can do anything if you just imagine it intensively enough, is still a hit among professional athletes. In both cases, it is a question of increasing the chances of the desired result through mental preparation. With virtual reality, however, not only the head, but above all muscles and nerves are now included, the idea of visualization is finally hoisted into the 21st century and so thoroughly scientific that results become measurable.
The DFB is now followed by the US skiers
Among the pioneers in this field is STRIVR. The Silicon Valley company, which emerged from a research project at Stanford University, specializes in training through virtual reality. In addition to calibres such as Google and Walmart, his customers now include a whole host of athletes: NBA, NHL and NFL teams, college teams or the Nascar motorsport series.
And the logo of the DFB-Elf can also be found in the company’s portfolio. The Californians are to improve cognitive and psychological skills of the kickers in the planned DFB Academy in Frankfurt-Niederrad and ensure that German football remains at the cutting edge of technology.
Now virtual reality has also arrived on the ski slopes. Whether the Americans can make the decisive difference with their lead in preparation remains to be seen. In any case, some of the US athletes will go into the Olympic race without a digital lead, for them, of all things, the virtual eyewear downhill had led to nausea and dizziness. The human body cannot yet be reliably tricked.