By Peter Hall
MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – Heading is an integral part of soccer, but its links to lasting brain injuries are proving hard to ignore.
However, one software company feels it has a solution to the damaging impact it can have – virtual reality.
Two more former players announced their dementia diagnosis this week, while five of England’s 1966 World Cup-winning team – Ray Wilson, Martin Peters, Nobby Stiles, Bobby Charlton and Jack Charlton – have all suffered with the degenerative disease.
“What else can it be?” was former Manchester United and Scotland great Dennis Law’s response when asked what he thought had caused his diagnosis.
“You were heading the ball, which was quite heavy in those days, but you didn’t think about it.”
A group of former players including Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer released a joint statement this week demanding that soccer’s governing bodies urgently deliver a new strategy to tackle the sport’s dementia crisis, which the “terrified” group labelled a “ticking time bomb”.
Concussion substitutes were trialled last year, children aged 11 and under are no longer taught to head footballs and limitations on heading in training have been enforced across the English professional game.
These measures, however, do not go far enough, according to the group. A real, lasting preventative approach could come via an entirely different world altogether – virtual reality.
“We’ve got everything in there from reaction time training to hand-eye coordination drills. But, most importantly, we’re working on heading,” Andy Etches, co-founder of Rezzil, a Manchester-based software company that has been working with top Premier League clubs to enhance training through virtual reality, told Reuters.
“It wasn’t intentional for this (heading software) to come out at this time. We’ve been working on this for a long time and it makes sense for us to deliver this kind of platform now.”
BRAVE NEW WORLD
Reuters was given a tour of this brave new world. By putting on a headset, you are transported into what appears to be a state-of-the-art training facility, created with astonishing attention to detail.
You can then select from a wide variety of professional level training drills, all of which are evaluated to measure your improvement.
Rezzil’s latest creation, Player 22, focuses on heading drills, where the lasting benefits are twofold.
“We’re going to reduce the amount of times you make contact with a physical ball,” Etches added.
“But we’ve got some drills that were designed by top coaches, used by top teams, to help you head the ball safely, not with the neck, not with the top of your head, to head from your waist in the same way that an elite player will do.”
But how realistic is it? Can it replace the real thing?
“Once you put on a headset, you are in a training ground environment,” Rhys Carr, a UEFA licensed coach who has worked with English second-tier sides Sheffield United, Bristol City and Cardiff City recently, told Reuters.
“In terms of timing and trajectory, it has everything other than the contact element with heading. In terms of the feel you get for the football, how your eyes look at the part of the goal you want it to go into as you make that contact, that’s accurate.”
Problems with long-term brain injury are not confined to soccer.
Former England rugby hooker Steve Thompson revealed his diagnosis of early onset dementia last year, saying he no longer remembers winning the 2003 World Cup, while numerous studies have revealed how susceptible National Football League (NFL) players are to brain injuries due to repeated blows to the head.
Soccer is realising the extent of its problem.
“Research has been taking place since the early 2000s, John Mulcahy, director of Sport Science Agency, a UK agency dedicated to delivering sports science activities, told Reuters.
“It started in the NFL, rugby, and now we are seeing a lot of attention on football. Player welfare must be put at the forefront and that is being taking more seriously, because of this research.
“The research has to come first. Then from the research, and the stuff that comes out of working with companies like Rezzil, governing bodies can start to implement mitigation strategies.”
Research published by Glasgow university this month revealed that former footballers are 3.5 times more likely to die with dementia than the general public.
With measures to try to reduce the impact of heading only recently implemented, it is unknown what effect they will have. Nonetheless, Rezzil plan to play a big part in soccer’s attempts to combat the issue.
“We are looking at how heading affects connectivity in your brain – it seems to slow brain activity,” Greg Wood, senior lecturer in Motor Control at Manchester Metropolitan University, who are working with Rezzil to develop the technology, told Reuters.
“We can then see how effective heading in virtual reality is in comparison and whether it is more effective is preserving normal activity and connectivity.
“We found that doing some heading movements in VR is up to five times less of an impact than heading an actual ball, so it has less impact on the head and on brain function.
“If we can train somebody in virtual reality to head the ball more effectively, without having the impact, it could have significant positive benefits.”
(Reporting by Peter Hall; Editing by Ken Ferris)