At the Olympic level, every athlete is world-class, and the margins of victory can be miniscule. So for those hoping for glory in downhill skiing, intimate familiarity with the slopes they’ll be competing on next month in South Korea, an innate knowledge of where and when they have to turn, and the timing for each move they’ll make, could be the difference between gold and walking away with no hardware at all.
But according to Troy Taylor, the high performance director of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team, the athletes heading to the Winter Olympics have often had extremely limited opportunities to train on the runs there. That’s one of the major reasons the team recently commissioned a virtual reality training regimen that could help the athletes develop a mental muscle memory of a slope, and allow them to ski just a little more efficiently, and perhaps get to hear their national anthem play during the awards ceremony.
“The clear advantage of VR is that it is a great way to help athletes get more used to and learn specific courses,” Taylor told Fast Company. “The feedback we have from our athletes suggests that the biggest benefit of using VR is building confidence. They feel they know the course better, so when they come to ski on it during a race, they enter the start gate with an increased confidence level.”
As with any new training method, VR struck the team initially with its cool factor. But Olympic athletes don’t have time to mess around with tools that won’t advance their goals. So Taylor says he was excited by his skiers’ continued use of the new technology as a way to prepare for their imminent races, even after the novelty factor wore off. “It’s also exciting that it’s pretty hard to hurt yourself,” he says, “while training in VR.”
Taylor doesn’t delude himself into believing that VR training will win races for the team all on its own. He knows that winning takes a combination of dedication, hard work, expert coaching and support, and of course, natural talent. Still, he knows that any edge can help, and welcomes the new training regimen as “an important part of our programming and helping athletes achieve their dreams and win medals on the international stage.”
To create the training program, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team turned to STRIVR, a leading developer of sports-training programs that is best known for its work with the NFL. Derek Belch, STRIVR’s CEO, says that one of the biggest challenges of building a training system for the ski and snowboard team was overcoming the tendency of the technology to make the athletes nauseous. It took a series of experimentations, but in the end, Belch says, his team determined that the best way to do so was to send skiers down the slopes with cameras, shooting 360 video, and then doing a set of post-production processes meant to make it as tolerable as possible.
Further, he says, the athletes using the system are tending to use it when inside a ski simulator or standing on balance disks that allow them to feel like they’re actually going down a mountain and not experience nausea.
Another benefit, he explained, was that by implementing a few post-production tricks, the VR tool can account for varying weather and lighting, allowing the skiers to practice runs in the many different conditions they might actually encounter during competitions that can last hours.
For STRIVR, working on the skiing project was a good lesson in the kinds of movements that can lead users in VR to experience nausea.
Belch noted that football and skiing share something in common–in both sports the athletes start off in static positions and are able to plan out their movements in advance before springing into action–unlike in basketball and hockey. STRIVR’s experience with football helped inform how it built the skiing tools, he suggested. As well, he learned that something about staying in a crouched position, as skiers do, can help overcome nausea.
Asked if STRIVR plans on building ski training VR tools for anyone else on the strength of its work for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team, Belch said it may come down to the price point at which the company could offer such a tool to, say, universities or other national teams. “This was more of a test for us to start,” he says. “I give huge credit to [Taylor] and his staff for their desire to be forward thinking.”
As for the skiers themselves, Taylor says he’s been impressed that the VR tools have proven to have additional utility beyond training. “We’re now using VR as part of our rehabilitation process for athletes who have suffered long-term injuries,” Taylor explains. “We’re finding that VR is helping them rehab better and keep ‘connected’ with being on-snow without ever leaving the training center or medical clinic.”