Virtual Reality Helps U.S. Athletes Train to Win Olympic Gold

When U.S. Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin won a Winter Olympics gold medal in the giant slalom race February 15, she also achieved a victory for virtual reality.

She is among the members of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard team who have used a virtual reality (VR) training regime from STRIVR Labs to prepare for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang County, South Korea, according to the team.

The team’s deployment of VR training, reported widely, also shines the spotlight on VR’s potential to improve performance in sectors ranging from sports to retail.

About STRIVR Labs

As I have reported on my blog, STRIVR, based in Menlo Park, Calif., provides VR-based training to organizations ranging from NFL teams to Walmart. With VR training, people use special headsets and 360-degree video to immerse themselves in scenarios before they experience them in real life – which is ideal for training people to prepare for complex, high-risk situations that leave little margin for error.

For example, in the NFL, where one mistake can result in a career-ending injury, NFL quarterbacks are using VR to improve their reaction times. Minnesota Vikings Quarterback Case Keenum sharpened his skills by using VR to practice thousands of plays on his way to having his most successful season ever. Walmart employees use VR to train for situations such as the onslaught of shoppers on Black Friday, to cite but one example outside of sports.

How the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Embraced VR

According to STRIVR Chief Strategy Officer Danny Belch, STRIVR began working with U.S. Ski & Snowboard after the team’s high-performance director, Troy Taylor, sought new technologies to enhance the team’s performance.

Taylor wanted to overcome a challenge: the Jeongseon course — where the Olympics downhill, super-G, and one of the combined event runs are held – is unfamiliar to most World Cup skiers. It’s not as though U.S. Ski & Snowboard could fly to Pyeongchang County and train. So, in 2016, Taylor asked STRIVR to create a VR training program that would bring the Jeongseon course to the team.

To create the VR training content, STRIVR first filmed the experience of skiing down the course Jeongseon course. As reported in The Washington Post,

They attached a 360-degree camera to the helmet of one of the coaches and sent him down the course dozens of times, trying to find the same line that racers would ski two years later in the PyeongChang Games. STRIVR then stitched together the video and sped up the footage to match the speed of the fastest racers.

STRIVR then created a training regime in which the team’s skiers wear special headsets to get immersed in a 360-degree video that recreates every nuance of the Jeongseon course. Each trainee is liberated from the constraints of time and location. With a headset and a comfortable space, the user can train whenever and wherever they want.

Tricking Your Brain

The key to succeeding with VR as a training tool is repetition and immersion. When a person is repeatedly immersed in a 360-degree simulation of an experience, their brain is convinced that the person is having the experience in real life. Consequently, brain and body begin to react more quickly to the scenarios depicted in the simulation – such as every twist and turn in the Jeongseon course. Hence, a skier is better prepared to navigate the course in a real-life competition.

An athlete can also train by watching two-dimensional films of a scenario. But the immersive quality of VR sharpens learning in ways that observing a 2D film cannot.

According to an email that Danny Belch sent me, “Total immersion in VR has been scientifically proven to boost recall of topics, future performance on tasks/skills, and overall engagement with the learning/training material. It is undoubtedly a better way to learn than simple 2D videos. We all know real-life experience is the best way to learn. Often times it is prohibitive to get that experience . . . but with VR you have no issues getting that real-life experience. Total immersion is pretty much like real life, as your brain is tricked into thinking it’s real life.”

The VR Advantage

VR is no substitute for the real thing. But VR doesn’t have to replicate an experience perfectly. VR just needs to mirror the situation realistically enough to sharpen a brain’s reaction time through repeated immersion.

Of course, on race day, skiers still need to deal with all the variables that come into play in any actual competition, such as the outdoor conditions, how well the competitors are performing, how the athlete is feeling that particular day, and so on. (In fact, Mikaela Shiffrin followed up her gold-medal performance with a disappointing fourth-place finish at the women’s slalom final.). And VR is not practical for every type of training. For instance, the team’s snowboarders do not use VR, which makes intuitive sense – it’s just not feasible for Shaun White to wear a headset and try to physically simulate complex aerial revolutions inside a training room.

But VR helps athletes get into a mental, emotional, and physical zone as they prepare. As Taylor noted in a post, “The feedback we have from our athletes suggests that the biggest benefit of using VR is building confidence. They feel they know the courses they will race on better, so when they come to ski on it during a race they enter the start gate with an increased confidence level. That is a big part of competition, having the confidence to attack parts of the course where you can find time, so that’s a clear benefit.”

As Belch wrote to me, “For the elite athletes trying to get the edge, for the younger athletes who don’t have a lot of experience, and for the injured athletes trying to get back on the mountain, the STRIVR platform allows them to enhance their training by giving them unlimited access to the courses, without fear of injury and without having to actually be on the mountain.”

The Future of VR

STRIVR’s Olympics training program illustrates an important future for VR. For consumers, VR continues to be a niche gaming and entertainment product. The cost of the equipment required, lack of available content, and clunky user interface remain impediments to VR catching on more broadly.

But VR has made stronger inroads for corporate and sports training because of VR’s potential to reduce the risk of accidents and to improve performance in a more cost-efficient way. Here are a few examples (STRIVR clients are so noted):

  • In the medical field, physicians are using virtual reality to learn how to conduct complex surgical procedures, ranging from the extremely rare to more common. Reportedly, surgeons who use a VR system developed by Osso VR  achieve test results twice as good as those trained using non-VR training. The University of California San Francisco believes VR can help students learn how to manage decisions that must be made quickly under stress, such as treating a trauma victim. A virtual patient allows students to become more accustomed to the experience of treating a trauma and make rapid decisions clearly and calmly.
  • As noted, Walmart works with STRIVR to help new employees learn what it’s like to work in a Walmart store. In addition to helping employees train for special events such as Black Friday, VR training helps them train for everyday situations such as inspecting products for quality control on the store floor. Using VR in 200 Walmart training centers makes the initial training more efficient before employees set foot in a real Walmart store.

  • Rolls-Royce uses VR to train workers to assemble gearbox parts for its newest jet engine, reducing the risk and costs for this complicated procedure. By wearing VR headsets, engineers can assemble the gearbox parts virtually before assembling them for real.
  • United Rentals, which rents equipment such as backhoes used at construction sites, has worked with STRIVR to reduce training time for its salespeople by 40 percent. During training, employees visit a virtual construction site, where they learn how to quickly inspect the site and identify opportunities to sell its products – which means spotting little details that even a construction supervisor might overlook, such as a lack of backhoes or generators. For example, a hole in the ground filled with water could be an opportunity to rent a pump.

STRIVR offers more of its own client examples here.

According to Danny Belch, it’s no coincidence that what works for athletes works for doctors, salespeople, factory workers, and retail employees. As he explained,

Athletes training for competition is basically the same as an employee at United Rentals training to work on a construction site. Consistent across all industries and use cases are a) time is limited b) there are body/fatigue/injury relates issues where too much real-life experience could be counterproductive c) there is a need to shorten the learning curve and teach people things faster d) there is a need to reduce the time spent training and the resources required. This applies across the board in sports, retail, construction, manufacturing, hospitality, healthcare and more.

He added, “We actually like going into Fortune 500 companies and telling them that by using VR they can train like an athlete. It resonates well and athletes are revered for their dedication to training. Employees enjoy the fact that they get to train with the same technology as their favorite football or basketball player. That goes a long way.”

Meanwhile, the 2020 Summer Games are coming up fast. Belch noted, “We certainly see a future with STRIVR’s training and other Olympic Games . . . We can see a day when nearly every Olympic athlete is using our platform at some level to train and improve their chances at success.”

And now everyday people can train like Olympic athletes.

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