Arsenal’s Petr Cech uses a variety of innovative techniques, including practicing one-handed saves against a table-tennis robot. It shoots ping-pong balls at him, improving his hand-eye co-ordination. To keep his mind and vision flexible, he also practices with ball of different sizes and shapes, and other, stranger methods.
You can use colours,” he told the Evening Standard. “Imagine you saving the ball but at the same time a card is held up. You save the ball and shout the colour – you are concentrating on more things. That makes your peripheral vision better as well. Your brain is working much more than just with a simple catch.”
Manchester United have also tried to train their players’ peripheral vision. Sir Alex Ferguson worked with vision coach Dr Gail Stephenson to try and give the likes of Gary Neville, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs an edge on the pitch. It was at her suggestion that United abandoned their infamous grey kit in 1996.
United were also one of the early pioneers of computer games to help train players’ 3D vision and object tracking skills. These are a vital part of football, where you have to keep track of the movement of the ball, your teammates and your opponents.
Advanced versions of these games are now being used to train athletes across a range of sports from ice hockey to Aussie rules. One example is Neurotracker. The athlete puts on 3D goggles and stands in front of a screen with a number of balls bouncing around on it like a computer screensaver. They have to track the position of the balls, which get faster and faster as they progress. This kind of training can improve players’ decision making on the pitch.
In Germany, Borussia Dortmund and Hoffenheim have installed a multi-million pound device called the ‘Footbonaut’. It’s the ultimate toy – a 14m x 14m room with a ball-firing machine on each side. Players have to control the ball and then pass it through one of 64 targets as quickly as possible. They get points for speed and accuracy.
Mario Gotze loved it, and used it to practice the skills that helped him score the winner in the 2014 World Cup final. The Footbonaut helps players get more touches of the ball in less time and sharpens their mental skills. Its creator claims you can get as many touches of the ball in 15 minutes as you would in a week of normal training.
It’s the same principle behind futsal, which is one of the reasons why Brazil has created so many great players over the years. They play on a smaller pitch, with a small heavy ball, which means each player gets many more touches of the ball.
Liverpool’s Bill Shankly pioneered a similar kind of training during the Reds’ glory days, which he called the ‘sweat box’.
Shankly and his coaches put up wooden boards on the training field, and the players would have to constantly make and receive passes by bouncing the ball off the boards to each other, with no gaps in between. This not only helped their fitness, it also trained their brains and helped develop the passing skills that brought three league titles to Anfield in the 1960s and 70s.
In other sports, they’re experimenting with even more high-tech methods, including brain-zapping headsets that could improve endurance and stamina, and clever tricks to help players stay cool during penalty shootouts. In 10 years time, football training could look very different.