The power of virtual practice: VR helps make a hero of Stanford placekicker

Football helmet with a football

Conrad Ukropina needed a major confidence boost. As Stanford’s placekicker, he was meant to replace the recently graduated Jordan Williamson, the school’s all-time points leader. But Ukropina had just gone 0-3 in Stanford’s Spring Football Game – a far cry from expectations. That’s when he decided to give Immersive Learning a try.

Immersive Learning and Virtual Reality (VR) were not new to the Stanford players. In fact, Immersive Learning, which combines the sense of presence of VR with advanced learning theory, data science and spatial design, was founded in Stanford’s VR lab by a former football coach. The team had found success using  VR training to give quarterbacks and linebackers an advantage. In a 2014 bowl game, for instance, quarterback Kevin Hogan made a series of crucial on-the-field decisions sparked by the Maryland Terrapins’ sudden changes in defensive formation, changes he had seen countless times in Virtual Reality. His decision-making helped lead the Cardinal to victory that day, and Hogan attributed his quick thinking to reps in VR.

But so far, a kicker had not tried Immersive Learning. After his rough outing in the spring game, Ukropina was determined to be the first. For the rest of the season, every Friday night and Saturday morning before a game, Ukropina used VR to experience himself making field goals over and over again from multiple spots on the field. When he practiced the kicks in VR, he never missed. The question was, would this perfect record translate to the real field?

Fast-forward to late in the 2015 season, when 13th-ranked Stanford is hosting 4th-ranked Notre Dame. At this point, Ukropina has been using Immersive Learning to practice pregame visualization, and he’s developed a knack for practically reading the minds of his opponents. As reported by Fox Sports, “the Cardinal kicker said to his buddy, the team’s punter, on the sideline: ‘Dude, I’m calling it right now . . .’” as he accurately predicted that “the Irish would drive down the field, bleeding the clock, and score the go-ahead touchdown, but that then Stanford would also move back down the field with almost no time left and set him up for the game-winning field goal on the final play.” Drawing on his virtual practice, Ukropina made the 45-yard kick as time expired to upset Notre Dame.

Ukropina watches every kick he’s made twice through the Oculus headset, which puts him right there going through the process so his mind — and body — are wired to the experience. Crowd noise and game sounds accentuate the feeling.

Bruce Feldman, Reporter, Fox Sports
American football white helmet and ball

Thanks to the enhanced visualization techniques that Immersive Learning provides – a highly realistic simulation of actually being on the field, engaged in a game, with the roar of the crowd in his ears — Ukropina finished that season with a field goal accuracy of 90% (18-20). It also helped him land a spot as a semi-finalist for the nation’s best placekicker award.

Immersive Learning works well for football training overall (not just kicking) because, while an incredibly physical sport, it is also highly cerebral. Athletes prepare for games by poring over playbooks and watching hours of game film to learn detailed, customized offenses. Learning all these plays is called “installation,” almost as if, according to Jeremy Bailenson, Co-founder of Strivr and a leading expert on VR, “players were human computers uploading a new operating system.” But were players actually computers, the installation process would be easier. Since they’re human, installation requires hours of rigorous, repetitive study and intense focus.

This is where Immersive Learning comes in. Unlike traditional tools like playbooks, tablets and game film on an overhead projector, VR has the ability to immerse the player in the sights and sounds of the game experience. By setting the player down in a highly realistic, seamless physical environment, that player gets the experience of truly “being there.” They have what researchers call psychological presence — their head in the game.

When this happens your motor and perceptual systems interact with the virtual world in a manner similar to how they do in the physical world.

Jeremy Bailenson, from “Experience on Demand”

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