Nature or nurture: can tech help footballers learn vision?

A wearable device that could quantify and develop a player’s situation awareness would be a world first and a considerable advance on applications that simply measure physiological data such as running speed and heart rate.

The study’s findings, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, show that threading a pass, turning with the ball and playing a one-touch pass all were associated with visual exploration.

Scientists hope the breakthrough could enable other players to learn what makes stand out players like Croatia’s Modric or Argentinian great Messi, who can unravel even the most tangled mess of players.

“It’s rarely just the fastest, fittest or strongest footballers who succeed. Longevity shows itself, not in physical attributes, but between the ears,” ACU deputy head of Behavioural and Health Sciences Dr Gert-Jan Pepping said.

“You see it in the older players who manage to stay in the game well into their late-30s. They might not be the most dynamic, but they assess a scenario, measure the angles and make the right decision every time.

“They have situation awareness. We want to know whether they’re born, or can they be made?”

Dr Pepping and his team trialled the Situation Awareness Technology System (SATS) in training situations at ACU’s Brisbane Campus, and in National Premier League games involving Brisbane City FC.

Using wearable technology which tracks head and trunk movements, the scientists collect information about the exploration behaviour of the players. The system collects information about the player’s psychological qualities (perception, situation awareness of their surroundings), their physical qualities, and their performance outcome.

Just using the technology improves performance. The researchers have found that as soon as the players were put in the system, they immediately responded by looking around and becoming more alert to their surrounds.

“Until now the only way to measure the awareness of players was by manually counting the head movements which is very laborious and prone to error,” Dr Pepping said. “The new technology will overcome this problem, and will allow players – as well as trainers, coaches, and performance managers – instant access to a player’s situational awareness.”

Potential applications for SATS are many, including using the data to identify and develop young players with elite potential. The technology could also be applied in other areas, such as refereeing or surf lifesaving, that demand situation awareness.

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