In research, a trade off exists between trying to control the testing environment, and making it feel as natural as possible. With specific relation to sport, we can lose how organic a task feels by trying to control too much, and conversely we can lose the validity and applicability of the research if the environment is not controlled enough. My own research area explores the effect of pressure, and anxiety on performance in sport. In my systematic review looking at experimental manipulations of pressure in sport-specific tasks, almost all of the tasks used are closed in which the testing environment is easy to control. For example, tasks such as golf putting, basketball free throws, and dart throwing comprised an overwhelming majority of the 90 explored studies. The difficulty here is that sport encompasses much more than these types of skills, and otherwise hidden findings may be intertwined between complex interactions in movement and perception.
A new and emerging area, driven primarily by its advantages to computer gaming, is virtual reality. Virtual reality offers us a novel way to conduct sport research, because we can look at more complex and interactive tasks while maintaining control over the environment. The benefit of this is that we can explore interactions in a more inclusive way, by looking at how perception influences choices about which action to perform, and how those choices influence subsequent perception (known as the perception-action loop). It is particularly useful for dynamic sports such as cricket, due to its interactive and interceptive nature.
In the video you will see a snippet of the virtual reality cricket-batting task that we created in collaboration with Queens University. Using this task, participants can face live trajectories from real bowlers of varying lines, lengths, movements and speeds. We use Unity software to build the environment, and a HTC Vive with associated censored controllers to interact with the environment. The environment is made feel natural with the batter standing in the infamous Lords cricket ground, dubbed “the home of cricket.” We attach sensors to batting pads and a real bat, and have fielders trying to stop and return balls that are hit off the bat. Using this task, we can measure the point of interception that the batter makes with the ball, and where the ball travels off the bat. Using this data, we can calculate performance scores for each of the batters by calculating how many runs are scored off each bowling delivery or over.
By using virtual reality to look at more complex and interactive tasks, we can offer a new platform to looking at the effect of pressure, and develop the existing base of literature on the anxiety-performance relationship. Using this task, we aim to measure batters of differing expertise in low-pressure and high-pressure conditions, to explore what variables relating to performance may be effected due to the experiencing of pressure, and the potential manipulation of state anxiety.
As aforementioned, virtual reality drastically increases the scope for which we can measure and control complex sport tasks. However, throughout the development of this task there are clear applications beyond research. By guiding or supplementing improvements in cricket, our task can provide a surfeit of practical uses, becoming a valuable tool from the perspective of coaching, practicing, and profiling of players to name a few.
From a coaching perspective, we can put the coach in the environment beside the player, and coach using video playback. The video playback feature allows batters to reflect on the situation in real time, and be coached on all the available options or correct responses that could have been made. This may aid the player in “seeing” the picture the coach is trying to create instead of trying to conceptualise the feedback from an auditory or visualisation point of view.
From the perspective of practicing, barriers to training more effectively and efficiently may be reduced. Players can practice in the comfort of their own homes, they do not need anyone else to practice with (i.e. a bowler), and they do not need to attend a cricket ground or batting net to improve their skills. Further, we can isolate specific issues relating to performances and create opportunities to practice those issues in a controlled environment. Examples of this are facing specific bowlers or bowling types that players are particularly weak against, or getting the batters “eye in” with relevant bowling types before they go out to bat against them. This tool may be particularly useful for kids. Fear is a huge part of cricket, particularly with children, and can often get in the way of, and be mistaken for, issues with technique. The training tool can be used to practice facing a “bouncer” delivery (a ball aimed at high speed at the batter’s head (as shown in video) or indeed a fast delivery, in a safe and reproducible manner that the batter may not regularly have an opportunity to face.
Lastly, with a fixed environment we can potentially profile players against certain bowling types, bowling actions, and on hitting areas of strength/weakness, as well as shot types. We would do this by looking at player performances based on certain types of deliveries (e.g. bouncer, good length, full length) to establish optimal shot types and hitting zones for specific players. This type of information can inform coaching interventions (i.e. what this batter needs to practice most, and what areas this batter should potentially hit to (or avoid) during competition). It may also help a batter to understand their own qualities and weaknesses, which may help in deciding which bowlers to attack and which ones to rotate the strike to, or block out. A better understanding of player qualities and profiles, can inform tactics such as where to position a batter in the line-up, and who best to use against the opposition bowling attack at specific moment, increasing the probability of a successful outcome.
This piece just touches the surface on the impact virtual reality can have in sport. Once made to feel organic to the natural environment and validated with the right participants, there is no end to virtual reality’s application to sport, research, and industry.
Niall Kelly is a Postgraduate Researcher studying for a PhD in Sport Psychology in the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences at the University of Limerick. Niall’s current interests include attention, cognition, anxiety and coping mechanisms relating to performance. You can contact Niall via email at Niall.L.Kelly@ul.ie or view his profile on LinkedIn or Follow Niall on Twitter