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Celtics President Danny Ainge does not shy away from new technology and innovation. Virtual reality (VR) training has been around for several years in college and professional football, and it seems to be taking hold in professional basketball. In his fight to return to the court after a serious ankle injury, Gordon Hayward is going through rigorous physical therapy and rehab, but he is also involved in the use of the latest virtual reality technology.

STRIVR Labs describes their product and service as "Immersive Learning and Training in Virtual Reality". In the sports world, they refer to their technology as "changing the way athletes prepare for competition".


The VR headsets allow players to visualize themselves on the court with their own teammates while never taking the court themselves. A player can be part of picks, screens, out-of bounds plays, isolations, pick-and-rolls, rebounding, shooting and any other offensive and defensive plays without a chance of injury. For Hayward, the VR technology has a two-fold purpose. First of all, it prevents some of the accumulated rust that an injured player picks up during rehab. Secondly, it helps that player's mental state as he suffers withdrawal from the sport he loves. Here is ESPN's Tom Haberstroh relative to that withdrawal:

There is talk of creating experiences that allow injured players to feel as if they're on the court while their teammates sweat out road games.

The Washington Wizards have used VR for several years. Ian Mahinmi was having trouble hitting free throws, and STRIVR assisted in the process of curing it (per STRIVR's data scientist, Joe Willage):

To help boost his (Washington Wizard's Ian Mahinmi) free throw numbers, STRIVR worked with Mahinmi to visualize what it looks like when he converts a free throw. This involved Mahinmi wearing a headset to surround himself in an immersive environment, and watch video of himself repeatedly making free throws. With these virtual reps, the player doesn’t have to put strain on their body, or even be on a court. The repetitiveness in the life-like immersive setting allows them to internalize the motions, and get the feel of being on the court.


How real is the VR experience? No doubt a step or two below the Star Trek Holodeck version. In some episodes, one of the Enterprise crew would get involved in an-almost-too-real scenario, facing real injury or death, and the crew member was only saved by his "freeze program" cry. When the Wizards John Wall got involved with VR, he thought he was going to die (per ESPN's Tom Haberstroh):

JOHN WALL LOOKS down to discover that the nice, safe carpeted floor beneath him has disappeared. Impossibly, he is suddenly swaying on a wooden plank, the width of a diving board, 30 feet above a rusty pit. His heart races. Just the slightest wobble could be fatal.

Safety is merely 8 feet in front of him, a distance the stressed Wall chooses to cover on tiptoes. He's about halfway there when someone nearby gives him an instruction: "Turn and step off the plank." Wall shakes his head. He won't do it.

After telling himself over and over that this can't possibly be real, he finally turns to his right, steps off the plank and plunges into the abyss below. Then Wall peels the black virtual reality headset off of his face, relieved to rejoin the safety of the physical world as we know it.

So for Gordon the VR technology allows him to keep some of the mental rust from building up, while also allowing him to practice with his teammates in a not-quite-real simulation to keep his spirits up. And no need to freeze program as John Wall probably wanted to do.

AlterG Treadmill

Virtual reality is easier to project into a football setting since there is a lot of static play, whereas in basketball, constant motion is the norm. So in the NBA, VR is still a work in progress, and that could be part of the reason why there is so much secrecy surrounding Hayward's VR training. As far as Gordon's physical rehab, it would be great to hear he is running on the AlterG with a 40-60% weight reduction, doing two or three single-left-leg calf raises unassisted and working out on the elliptical. Assisted low-level jumping with the use of resistance bands might also be in the mix soon. Those would all be good signs of progress. It will be great to have him back.

Follow Tom at @TomLaneHC

Top photo via Winslow Townson/AP Photo
Next photo via WashingtonWizardsBlog.monumental sports network
Next photo via Tom Haberstroh/ESPN
Bottom photo via STRIVR.com

Tom Lane 2/06/2018 07:05:00 AM Edit
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