Virtual Reality Strategy for Sports Training Proven to Enhance Baseball, Softball and Soccer Skills

    By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science and Technology in coordination with Southern Illinois University Edwardsville 

    Some athletes for Southern Illinois University Edwardsville had the opportunity for additional training that’s unique to SIUE. Former Cougars baseball catcher Brock Weimer was among the first to try the new training technique. He made a name for himself in the All-Ohio Valley Conference selection of 2017, and then again in 2019, after being part of the Cougars sports psychologist’s research study. 

    Weimer said he improved his mental game using the innovative imagery-assisted virtual reality (IAVR). Weimer said the 3D imagery and guided-imagery audio application helped build his confidence. Weimer finished his senior year baseball season as SIUE’s all-time home run leader with 35…No. 9 all-time with 140 career RBIs.

    “Believing in yourself and being confident that you can come through, and to get as close as you can to a simulated live-at-bat – it definitely helps as far as timing goes because timing is the most important piece of hitting,” said Weimer. 

    Weimer and 21 teammates participated in the study with SIUE’s sports psychologist Lindsay Ross-Stewart, PhD, as principal investigator. She said the goal is to increase the players’ confidence and performance.

    “Imagery is powerful,” said Ross-Stewart. “It’s not just seeing yourself doing something, but feeling and smelling it. It offers the entire five sense and kinesthetic experience of being an athlete, without actually going through the actions.”

    Ross-Stewart is the leading researcher of imagery-assisted virtual reality (IAVR) in both athletics and medicine. As part of her innovative, applied research, she worked with the Cougars baseball team in 2015 to study how athletes can use imagery-assisted virtual reality to increase their confidence and performance. 

    “Athletes who are more confident and more motivated have lower negative anxiety levels, and learn their skills and strategies faster,” she explained. “Imagery is effective, because it includes stimuli and response. It’s one skill you can give an athlete that positively impacts many parts of their game.”

    The program required the athletes to watch video of themselves via a smartphone application in virtual reality goggles. They watched the video from both first and third person perspectives, and practiced a guided imagery script as many as three times a day.

    “Each player was able to film themselves hitting or pitching, several ways. We also filmed them with their walk-up music as they walked to the plate. We then created two individualized 30-second imagery scripts for each player that focused on their specific needs, whether that was to feel calm or to approach an action with intense focus.”

    The study’s results showed significant changes in the players’ psychological practice skills, including automaticity, relaxation, self-talk and imagery, as well as psychological performance skills, such as activation and reduced negative thinking.

    Having positive study results, Ross-Stewart launched two additional studies using imagery-assisted virtual reality (IAVR) for SIUE softball and for goalies on the men’s soccer team. Both studies had similar outcomes proving the value of the technology for sports training.

    In the recent case studies for soccer goalies, participants found IAVR increased their overall imagery ability, often imaging other scenarios outside of what they had in the video. Both discussed increases in confidence even though they did it over summer with limited time to train.

    In case studies for softball, graduate student Victoria Roberts studied pitch recognition, imagery ability and self-efficacy. As the study lead, Roberts discovered a similar experience to what baseball had with 10 softball hitters. 

    “They were pre and post tested on their ability to correct identify the pitch type of a pitch thrown by various pitchers,” said Ross-Stewart. “They also completed imagery ability and sport confidence questionnaires pre intervention. They then were given their own individualized IAVR (same as done with baseball) to use for the length of pre conference season (6 weeks). Post intervention they completed the questionnaires and the pitch recognition test again.”

    Ross-Stewart explained how pitch recognition overall, pitch type and pitch recognition scores all increased. Their global imagery ability and affect imagery ability significantly increased. They also showed a significant increase in several areas of sport confidence.