Virtual Reality and Deliberate Practice

In All, Blog by Robert PoolLeave a Comment

There was a fascinating article in today’s New York Times about how virtual reality is being used to help college athletes improve performance (see it here). The main focus was on college football and the STRIVR virtual reality system, but the implicit message was that virtual reality has the potential to transform training in many different areas.

Does it? The answer depends on how it is used.

The lead example in the New York Times article was of a college football place kicker, Jet Toner of Stanford, who uses virtual reality to feel as though he is in a real game as he practices his field goal attempts. Wearing the virtual reality headset that puts him in the middle of the action, he then goes through the motions of kicking the (virtual) ball toward the (virtual) uprights.

The article doesn’t say whether Toner feels his kicking has improved after using the virtual reality system. The closest it comes is talking about the experience of Toner’s predecessor at Stanford, Conrad Ukropina, who once found himself attempting a crucial 45-yard field goal that was from exactly the same spot on the field as a field goal he had practiced often with virtual reality. Ukropina said that the virtual reality practice allowed him to relax and kick the field goal exactly as he had practiced it so many times.

As anyone who is familiar with the principles of deliberate practice will immediately recognize, there is a crucial element missing here: feedback. These kickers swing their legs as if they are kicking a ball, but there is no ball. Therefore there is no way to know if their kicking motion was the right one to put the ball through the uprights. And that means that the kickers have no way of knowing when they’re doing something wrong and correcting it. The main benefit of this virtual reality experience seems to be making the kicker familiar with various situations so that he can perform his kicking motion as smoothly and unconsciously as possible, but there is no attempt to improve the kicking motion or detect problems and fix them.

Does this really help kickers improve? I don’t know. I have heard of no studies testing whether using virtual reality to create familiarity with various situations actually improves performance. I am pretty certain, however, that this use is wasting most of the potential of virtual reality.

The best way to use virtual reality will be to put students in a situation that requires them to make a decision or take an action and then, once they are done, evaluate their performance, tell them what they did wrong and what they need to do to improve, and then run them through another situation. And repeat, over and over again.

Sticking with football examples, this would be an excellent way to train quarterbacks to recognize what the opposing defense is doing and how best to respond—which receiver to throw the ball to, for instance. And, indeed, quarterbacks already do something similar with their study of game tapes—they are training themselves to recognize patterns and know what to do in a given situation—but virtual reality has the potential to be a far more effective training tool. A quarterback could run through hundreds of virtual reality plays, training himself to respond appropriately to anything an opposing defense was likely to do and zeroing in on any specific weaknesses, all without the risk of injury or taking up the time of other players.

It is not clear to me if the companies with virtual reality training technologies understand the importance of using deliberate practice principles—particularly feedback—in their training. The STRIVR website talks about improving “reaction time, pattern recognition, and decision making,” which are certainly the correct goals for virtual reality training. On the other hand, in the part of the website devoted to sports training, the focus is on how virtual reality makes it possible for athletes to have a large number of repetitions without any mention of feedback and using those repetitions to zero in on problems and fix them.

I would love to hear from anyone with direct knowledge of how virtual reality is being used in training today, but at this point I fear that much of the potential of this exciting training technology may be being wasted because of a failure to follow the principles of deliberate practice.

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