Preparing champions: How Virtual Reality helped Clemson Football en route to a national championship

Blog Preparing champions: How Virtual Reality helped Clemson Football to a national championship

It was the fourth quarter of the National Championship game: the Clemson Tigers were up against the University of Alabama’s vaunted defense. It was a hard-fought game, and Clemson was down three points as star quarterback Deshaun Watson got the ball back with enough time for one final drive. In the biggest moment of his life, Watson led the offense downfield and capped the drive with a game-winning touchdown pass with one second left in the game. Clemson had captured its first national title since 1981 and the Tigers’ star quarterback had gone 6-7 with two touchdowns in the final quarter.

Watson’s season-long blitz preparation was on full display during the final drive and throughout the entire game. And a significant source of that prep work was done in Virtual Reality.

Prior to the 2016 football season, Head Coach Dabo Swinney had consulted with Strivr on implementing VR training for the South Carolina-based team. “The mental part of the game of football is 50 percent of it,” explained Swinney. “Virtual Reality is just another layer to that mental preparation.” That training is known as Immersive Learning, which combines the sense of presence of VR with advanced learning theory, data science and spatial design for the most effective and engaging training. It had made a profound difference in the way he readied his players for the game.

Once I put the goggles on, it was amazing. It’s like you’re really there.

Dabo Swinney, Clemson Tigers Head Coach

Football is known as an extremely physical sport, but cerebral training is just as important. For football players, there’s deep focus on the mental aspect of their sport and they train accordingly, spending much of their time poring over playbooks and watching game film to memorize critical, custom plays. On the field, players must execute quickly and intuitively – without thinking.

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Dabo Swinney talking about Virtual Reality training at Clemson’s press conference

“In the big business of college and professional football,” says Jeremy Bailenson, co-founder of Strivr and one of the world’s leading VR experts, “franchises spend a lot of time and money developing systems to improve this process. And no player is more responsible for implementing these systems than a quarterback.” As the leader of the offense, the quarterback must memorize hundreds of plays. Games tend to hinge on quarterback play.

Using Immersive Learning, Watson was able to practice reading every blitz he might see from a given opponent in an experiential way. Because the brain treats VR experiences like it would treat real life, Watson got mental reps just like as if he were on the field.

“I didn’t know what to expect early on from VR, but it’s been great for us,” Swinney says. “We’ve learned how to maximize the efficiency of it. It’s been a great teaching tool.”

As the most prolific quarterback in Clemson football history, Watson was a national champion and now headed to the NFL. Swinney and the coaching staff had to turn their attention to filling his shoes. Luckily, the library of VR content that Strivr helped the team create included over 4,300 plays that future quarterbacks could jump right into studying.

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