By Todd Maddox, Ph.D.
In August of 2016 I visited the beautiful town of Colorado Springs, Colorado nestled at the base of the Rocky Mountains, and I saw the future of quarterback training! On this trip I met two visionaries. One was Ted Sundquist, the President and CEO at Sports Virtual Training Systems (Sports VTS), and also the former General Manager of the Denver Broncos who led the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowls. The second was Matthew Barnett, the COO and co-Founder of Sports VTS who has a strong background in coaching as well as a sports attorney.
We met in an industrial section of Colorado Springs at an unmarked (stealth) warehouse. In this warehouse I entered a large room with an array of high-tech motion capture sensors and a computer control center. In the center of the room was an NFL football and a VR HMD. Ted and Matt told me that I should demo their newest quarterback training product called QBSIM.
I put on the HMD and was instantly transported into the Los Angeles Coliseum and I was the quarterback! I had two receivers to my left and two to my right. I dropped back into the pocket and my receivers ran their routes. I chose the left inside receiver running a crossing route and fired off a bullet. An instant after the ball left my hand it entered my virtual world and I watched as I missed the receiver in spectacular fashion, and was immediately informed “Incomplete”. After a few more attempts I got better and ultimately completed a pass. I learned!
At that instant, I knew that I had entered the future of quarterback training, and was witnessing a disruptive event in the VR training sector.
The Current Model for Sports Training is Broken
Football is the most popular sport in America and is growing in popularity around the world. Despite its popularity, the likelihood of bodily injury and the concussion rate are high. One of the best ways to prepare players is through practice, but the increased oversight on practice times, concerns about contact, and the priority to prepare starters over backups, makes this difficult.
Practice is especially critical for the most important player on the field – the quarterback. Here is the quandary though. You want your quarterback to receive extensive practice, but at the same time you do not want them to get injured in the process. One need only harken back to the situation faced by the Miami Dolphins this season to understand this quandary. After losing their starting quarterback, Ryan Tannehill and his $20 million salary to a season ending injury suffered in practice, and not being comfortable with the skills of their backup quarterback, the Dolphins enticed Jay Cutler out of retirement for $10 million. That is effectively a $30 million practice injury.
The goal is clear. Provide quarterbacks, starters and backups, with the practice reps that they need to become proficient and excel at the position, but in an environment with little to no contact.
Traditional approaches to no-contact quarterback training involve “watching game film” or going through the “Xs and Os” on a white board. This training is useful, and all quarterbacks take this approach, but it is most effective for learning how to identify offensive and defensive schemes either from a bird’s eye view (game film) or from a schematic perspective (Xs and Os).
What this approach will not do is train you to accurately throw a screen pass or the fade route at game speed, while scrambling out of the pocket, and being chased by defenders.
There must be a better way?
Virtual Reality (VR) Platforms
What is needed is an experience that is more realistic that game film or Xs and Os. The quarterback needs to be “in the action”, scanning left and right and seeing running backs, receivers and the defensive set. The quarterback needs to be able to “run the tape” and see players move, watch the ball be thrown, and see if it is complete or incomplete, all from field view.
This experience exists and it is called first-person VR. This is much better than watching film or Xs and Os. The quarterback is immersed in a realistic context. They get a sense of “presence”. It is as if the quarterback is there.
Although the realism and immersion associated with the type of VR training is advantageous, if the goal is to accurately simulate the game, and to teach the quarterback how to play the position in real-time, then this passive, observational VR approach is not much better than watching game film or Xs and Os.
If the goal is to teach the quarterback to play in real-time, then passive, observational VR approaches are not much better than watching film.
The Psychological and Brain Science of Quarterback Training
From a psychological and brain science of training perspective, the first-person VR training experience described above is passive and observational. The quarterback is expected to learn by watching and learn through mental repetitions. This is an excellent strategy for learning to read defenses and to understand at a cognitive level the offensive scheme while being immersed on the field, but this is not an effective way to teach a quarterback to accurately throw a screen pass or the fade route in a real game setting
Remember the goal is to train quarterbacks to be effective passers, but to do this in a realistic setting with little to no chance of injury. Thus, you want the first-person VR experience, the immersion and feeling of “presence”, but the VR training must be interactive. The training must be active, and the quarterback must learn by doing.
The quarterback must have a real football, and be able to drop back into the pocket or scramble should the defense blitz. The quarterback must be able to throw the real ball and see its trajectory in the virtual world. Most critically, the quarterback must receive immediate feedback regarding the accuracy of the throw and whether the pass was complete or incomplete. All of this must happen in real-time.
In other words, the quarterback must be able to do everything that they do on the practice field, but without contact.
The science and neuroscience of learning makes clear that interactive, immediate feedback-driven VR training is superior to passive, observational VR training. Interactive, immediate feedback VR training recruits the behavioral skills learning system in the brain that optimally trains motor movements. When a behavior is performed correctly (e.g., a completed pass), the relevant neural connections are strengthened and that behavior will be more likely to occur next time. If the behavior is performed incorrectly (e.g., an incomplete pass), the relevant neural connections are weakened and that behavior will be less likely to occur next time. This strengthening and weakening is controlled by the neurotransmitter, dopamine and involves learning circuits in the basal ganglia of the brain. Interactive VR muscle memory training is robust, and long-lasting. In contrast, passive, observational VR training recruits the cognitive skills learning system in the brain, which is ineffective for training muscle memory.
Interactive, VR muscle memory training is robust and long-lasting.
Sports VTS and QBSIM: The Vision Becomes a Reality
Ted, Matt and the team at Sports VTS have built a VR immersive simulation platform, QBSIM, that meets all of the brain science requirements of an optimized quarterback training program with no contact.
The vision for QBSIM came from Ted’s time at the Air Force Academy as a player and coach, his 16 years with the Denver Broncos (including a stint as GM with 2 Super Bowl victories), and his background in the Air Force where he saw fighter pilots train daily in simulators.
From his observations of pilots training in simulators, Ted knew that the only way to train a quarterback was to put them in a fully immersive, simulation reality environment with a real football helmet, room to run, a real football, and the ability to throw that ball from the real into the simulated virtual environment. QBSIM’s proprietary patent pending technology makes optimized quarterback training a reality, all with no physical contact.
QBSIM’s proprietary patent pending technology makes optimized quarterback training a reality, all with no physical contact.
Combine this real-time simulation technology with the fact that QBSIM also incorporates proprietary processes for incorporating years of real game data, and you have a game changer. With QBSIM, the quarterback can take hundreds of reps with different offensive and defensive schemes. This trains for generalization and trains for long-term retention. This approach facilitates the development of muscle memory, and provides the quarterback with the opportunity to excel.
This is the future of VR quarterback training, and that future is now!
Todd Maddox, Ph.D. is the CEO and Founder of Cognitive Design and Statistical Consulting, LLC, a Contributing Analyst at Amalgam Insights, Inc, and the Science, Sports and Training Correspondent at Tech Trends. His passion is to apply his 25 years of scientific and neuroscientific expertise, gained by managing a large human learning and performance laboratory, to help build better training products in a broad array of sectors. These include soft, hard and technical skills in the corporate, medical and educational training sectors. Todd also works with elite and amateur athletes to speed learning and enhance muscle memory. His scientific research shows that the learning of different skills is mediated by different learning system in the brain, each with distinct optimized training procedures. Todd received his Ph.D. in Quantitative and Cognitive Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara that was followed by a two-year post-doctoral Research Fellowship at Harvard University. Todd then embarked on a 25-year academic research career achieving status as a leader in the fields of human learning and memory with an emphasis in understanding the computational interplay between motivation, personality and incentive structures and their effects on optimized learning, memory and training. Todd is fascinated by the brain and the brain-basis of all behavior. Todd published nearly 200 peer-reviewed scientific articles, and was the recipient of a number of federal grants. Todd is especially interested in applying his optimized training expertise to the emerging technologies of VR/AR/MR, as well as eLearning, and he is currently writing a book focused on bringing the science of optimized training into the commercial sector. Twitter: @wtoddmaddox