A New Type of Video Study

By Staff

Coaching Management, 14.10, November 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1410/newvideo.htm

Ask some football coaches about video games and you’ll probably hear plenty of grumbling. Common complaints range from the way games encourage flashy “me first” displays to how they keep kids inside the house and on the couch instead of running around outside.

Other coaches, however, have embraced video games and are taking advantage of players’ familiarity with them to help teach the game. Some use a $40 video game available at the mall while others count on a quarter-million dollar custom-designed system. Either way, the idea is the same: Use technology to teach familiar concepts.

Over the past few years, Mark Mortarelli, Assistant Head Coach at Natick (Mass.) High School, has noticed many of his players have an improved understanding of complex defensive schemes. For these players, he says learning the concepts has less to do with what coaches teach on the field and more with how they beat their friends at Madden NFL 2007.

“It’s unbelievable how much these kids know,” Mortarelli says. “When I started coaching 10 years ago, kids didn’t know the difference between cover 2, cover 3, and prevent defenses. Now they recognize defenses because they use them in video games and we don’t have to spend as much time explaining and teaching those sets.”

But Mortarelli’s use of the game goes beyond Xs and Os. He says nearly every player owns and understands the game, and some of its terminology has even become a motivational staple for the team. “We give out a ‘Hit Stick’ award, which is based on the controller you use to make a big hit in the game,” Mortarelli says. “We give ‘Hit Stick’ T-shirts to players who get one in games, and they’re so proud that they wear it to school the next day.”

During the program’s summer camp, the game becomes a bonding tool between players and coaches. One rainy afternoon, coaches set up a tournament for fun and camp bragging rights.

“We had down time, so we had the kids play each other,” Mortarelli says. “When you’re around each other 24 hours a day for four days, you can get a little sick of each other. This was a great way to deal with that.”

Rather than relying on a video game, college programs with larger budgets can buy a system designed especially for their team. The Pro Simulator, a $250,000 program designed by GridIron Technologies, allows players to get a look at the defense or offense they’re going to face without setting foot on the field. Quarterbacks using the system, for instance, must identify blitzers and front calls before the ball can be snapped, then recognize defensive shifts and choose which receiver to throw the ball to.

The system was created by Arizona State University alumnus Jason Sada with help from former ASU Assistant Coach Mark Helfrich, now an Assistant Coach at the University of Colorado. It looks and plays like a video game, controlled by a hand-held joystick and viewed on a computer screen. But beneath the surface, the simulator is far more detailed than any commercial sports video game. Programmers design each player with painstaking detail, and include every play in the team’s playbook, as well as opponents’ defensive alignments. After more than a dozen meetings, the developers sold ASU Head Coach Dirk Koetter on the benefits of the system, especially for training quarterbacks who don’t take many snaps in practice.

“There’s no substitute for live reps, but it can really be beneficial for the third quarterback or one who is new to the offense,” Koetter says. “Rudy Carpenter, a redshirt freshman who came off the bench to lead the nation in pass efficiency in 2005, learned to make better and quicker reads using the simulator.”

One of the best parts about the simulator is how it’s always available, Koetter says. Players recovering from injuries can get a feel for real-game experiences without risking further injuries. It also keeps players sharp during the offseason. “These guys are going to be playing video games anyway, it might as well make them better in their own system,” Koetter says.

The technology is catching on, as 15 colleges are currently using the system. Helfrich brought it with him to Colorado, and the University of Maryland uses it to teach pass routes to both quarterbacks and receivers.

Koetter predicts the technology will one day be part of every team’s training arsenal, leading to more advances in future simulators. “It wasn’t long ago that all teams were using 16mm film. Then we went to VHS, and now everyone is using digital editing,” he says. “I think this will go in the same direction.”