Virtual Reality (VR) has revolutionised the gaming world, giving users new ways to play and experience the virtual environments they love so much. But now, VR tech is turning its attention towards the beautiful game of football.
Half of all Premier League teams are now using VR to help players recover from injuries as well as even providing training, with experts predicting all top level clubs to be using it by the end of the year. Utilising software created by technology company Rezzil, teams like Everton and Leicester have been able to practise drills without ever having to even kick a real-life football.
This special tech was initially used back in October 2021 to improve safety in the sport—allowing players to practise header drills without the risk of head injury just by using a headset and controllers. Since then, the VR software has come leaps and bounds with the introduction of new sensors for feet that can simulate the act of kicking a ball with incredible accuracy.
Andy Etches, the founder of Rezzil who previously worked for Manchester City football club, told The i, “It can recreate foot position and angle of attack […] It’s unbelievably accurate, you can do keepy-uppies with it.”
The importance of VR, especially in the rehabilitation of players, is crucial. Cesc Fabregas, former midfielder for Arsenal and Barcelona partnered with Rezzil last year and in a post on Facebook stated: “In all of my years, I have never seen technology that allows players to develop their cognitive skills in a Virtual Reality world without the risk of injuries. Their game-changing technology has helped me step up my rehabilitation through various training drills.”
And Fabregas isn’t the only player this new tech has helped. Midfielder Lewis Cook of AFC Bournemouth used VR in the early stages of his rehabilitation following a serious knee injury.
Along with injury recovery, Rezzil’s fascinating new technology can also simulate the pressures of top level football, something that can be pretty nerve wracking for junior players. The transition young players undergo from their youth matches to senior-level games can be daunting, but thanks to Rezzil, this experience can all be replicated in VR before they even step onto the pitch.
“We can recreate false pressure and test it,” Etches told The i. “We can recreate that crowd noise, the speed of players running at them, give them a chance to prepare for their debut.” The founder believes that the ability to measure cognitive skills will also help mentally gifted players—building up their physical skills in a safer environment and giving them a second chance on the pitch.
The implementation of VR in football is just one of the many ways it is being used around the world to change the way we look at and interact with things, from using it to treat PTSD to experiencing what it’s like to take a walk on the moon, the possibilities seem endless. With so much potential, and not just for gaming, VR is certainly on the path to changing how we encounter a whole multitude of things—and where it goes next is anyone’s guess. But whatever it may be, we wait with bated breath.
Last week, both The Guardian and The Telegraph published a series of articles shining a light on the fact that professional footballers are “three and a half times more likely to suffer from dementia and other serious neurological diseases.” Multiple concussions and repeatedly performing headers on leather footballs are stated to be the main causes of brain disease. But football has been around since the 19th century, and the Alzheimer’s Society has highlighted that 1 in 4 of us will get dementia, so the real question is what is the link between the two, and, if there is one, is anything being done to prevent or cure dementia?
First, let’s make things clear—dementia and Alzheimer’s are not the same thing. Dementia is best described as an umbrella term for a range of progressive neurological disorders, in other words, conditions affecting the brain. There is a wide range of different types of dementia, and Alzheimer’s is the most common as it accounts for two-thirds of instances. The other three most common types are vascular dementia, frontotemporal (FTD), and dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB). Unfortunately, it is not unusual to also have a combination of different types of dementia.
As some may know, the biggest risk factor with Alzheimer’s is age, as it is a progressive disease that contains three stages. However, it is important to consider that each person will experience dementia in their own way, regardless of what type they may have. Scientists have declared that most forms of dementia are not hereditary, but that in rarer types of it there may be a genetic link, although that only accounts for a small proportion of cases.
In 2017, the Alzheimer’s Society published a study examining the possible link between dementia and head injuries sustained by playing football. Studies published within the article detailed that “the brains of sportspeople after they have died have identified that a condition called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) could be linked to high-collision sports.” The study was revealed to be particularly complicated as a vast amount of the brains that were examined showed signs of more than one form of dementia. Researchers concluded the study by stating that “based on current evidence, the risk arising from contact sports in the development of dementia remains uncertain. If such a link does exist, the contribution of concussion and milder forms of head injury to overall risk is likely to be small.”
Fast-forward two years later, a new 22-month long research study proving otherwise has sparked wide debate among the media. The statement made by the Telegraph proclaimed that for footballers, “there was a five-fold increase in the risk of Alzheimer’s, a four-fold increase in Motor Neurone disease and a two-fold increase in Parkinson’s.” The research also mentions that, “former footballers were almost five times more likely to have been prescribed dementia drugs.” Additionally, it declares that they are unable to confirm if the causes of brain disease have occurred because of concussions or constant heading of footballs. After these results, the Football Association decided to financially back the research and encourage examinations to continue.
The statistics of people living with dementia or Alzheimer’s are rapidly increasing, so many are turning to science for clarification. Progression towards curing cancer looks promising, but for dementia, it is starting to look more than plausible. Scientists have conducted a sequence of tests that have proved successful for delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s.
Social interaction is the most advised by doctors and nurses, as regular engagement has shown to spark brain connections, which can stimulate activity. Mental and physical exercise have also been tested to see if mental encouragement can slow down the Alzheimer’s, as well as slowing down cognitive declination. Both have been proven to be effective. Encouraging a person living with dementia or Alzheimer’s to keep a well-balanced diet is vital to improve their energy, as well as their memory.
Although it is not yet finalised, medical experts are on the verge of a scientific breakthrough. A mere three years ago, Alzheimer’s Research UK announced that plans for a vaccination that would delay the onset effects of Alzheimer’s were entering an early stage of clinical trials. The vaccine aims to halt, slow or reverse the disease in its tracks, and could possibly be life-changing for those who show symptoms of dementia in its early stages.
Dementia Awareness Month may have just passed by, but for families with people living with dementia or Alzheimer’s, awareness should be a daily occurrence, even though the future remains hopeful with a vaccine in sight. For anyone who wishes to improve their knowledge or understanding of dementia, inquiring at your local care home and spending some time with those living with the disorder is a good start.