This KC virtual reality company is changing the game for athlete safety

They say experience is the best teacher, and for Brendan Reilly, that quip resonates in more ways than one. As founder and CEO of Kansas City-based Eon Sports VR, Reilly has created a virtual world where athletes practice their mental and physical game. Although simulators and virtual reality technology are nothing new in the gaming

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In September 2013, Brendan Reilly launched Eon Sports VR, a company that provides virtual reality experiences to coaches and players that enable them to practice more with fewer hits.

They say experience is the best teacher, and for Brendan Reilly, that quip resonates in more ways than one.

As founder and CEO of Kansas City-based Eon Sports VR, Reilly has created a virtual world where athletes practice their mental and physical game. Although simulators and virtual reality technology are nothing new in the gaming industry, Reilly seems to have finally given athletics a reason to step off the field and into an on-field experience, without turf, equipment or brain-rattling hits.

A former athlete himself, Reilly’s journey toward virtual reality training is rooted in his experience as a linebacker at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park, Kan. Like many players today, he said he trained in a culture of machismo where you didn’t come off the field for any reason.

“Ten years ago, I was laying it all out on the field,” Reilly told SPN. “The mentality was that you stick it out until your coach called you off.”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a timeout that brought him off the field in the end. During a game, Reilly took a hit that knocked him out cold. He was carried off the field on a stretcher and paralyzed for two hours. Although Reilly made a full recovery, the injury shaped his pursuit of changing the game.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in sports management, he worked as a student assistant under basketball coach Bill Self at the University of Kansas, then as a graduate assistant for coach Tim Jankovich at Illinois State University. At the time, he wanted to become a basketball coach, but as he spent more time training elite athletes, he couldn’t get over how the potential for injuries hovered over each practice and game

“I kept seeing glaring deficiencies in how we caught injuries before they happened,” Reilly said. “I thought, ‘Perhaps the old ways of doing it by going out there and beating our brains in might not be the best way to train our kids.'”

In 2010, Reilly began his research on athletic training alternatives.

“I was trying to come up with a way to teach our guys to see the game of basketball better, to give us the competitive advantage,” Reilly said. “We know how to make an athlete’s body bigger, faster, stronger, but we don’t know how to get that hockey player to see the puck one-tenth of a second faster. How do you get a baseball player to know whether it’s a curveball before it leaves the pitcher’s hand?”

Reilly explored training methods employed by other industries that involve physical and mental stamina. “I talked to Navy Seal trainers and neuroscientists, people who are focused on how we are wired to learn,” he said. “I noticed that the best way that elite athletes learn had some component of virtual reality.”

Mind games

Reilly found scientific backing for his virtual reality concept from Dr. Kevin Fleminga neuropsychologist-turned-entrepreneur who runs a global neuroscience-based behavior change consulting firm called Grey Matters International Inc. Now a board member for Eon Sports VR, Fleming first became interested in Reilly’s work because of its impact on how the brain works.

If an athlete can consistently practice via virtual reality, it will enhance the brain’s neuroplasticity, or its ability to create a so-called muscle memory and react with expectation in future events. The idea, according to Fleming, targets how the brain processes information at its most basic level.

Psychology’s dual-process theory states the brain has two different thinking systems.

“System 1 is the more primal, more intuitive-based unconscious part of our brain that automatically dictates our decisions,” Fleming said. “System 2 is a more liberative, thinking-based process that seeks a ‘why’ to put on why we do what we do so we can explain things. When you’re looking at automatic behaviors, you’re looking to train these [athletes] on a System 1 change where they are intuitively reaching in healthy, quicker ways without getting the conscious involved.”

That’s not to say instinct is the only target with virtual reality training.

“These athletes have to have good thinking, but you also want it to be an automatic, primal behavior. Eon Sports is trying to dance between System 1 and System 2,” Fleming said. He pointed to that balance of instinct and presence of mind within Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, who was quoted in Time magazine as saying, “I want to feel that I am sipping tea on my front porch, yet remain aggressive.”

Seeing is believing

Reilly took his virtual reality training concept to software developers, and in September 2013, launched Eon Sports VR, a company that provides virtual reality experiences to coaches and players that enables them to practice more with fewer hits. Coaches send Eon Sports VR the team’s game film to be recreated in a customizable virtual reality game called SIDEKIQ.

“We render out our visualization on everything from tablets to the Icube and Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset that is more like a simulator than a video game,” Reilly said. “The Oculus is for players who want to train from a first-person point of view, so you are the quarterback or you are the catcher.”

Since then, Reilly has pitched the product to coaches and athletic directors across the country. For now, SIDEKIQ is targeted for high school athletes, but it also is used by collegiate and NFL teams. To date, schools in California, Georgia and South Carolina train with SIDEKIQ, with others consistently added to the roster. Looking at SIDEKIQ’s track record, it doesn’t take long for coaches, including Nate Longshore, to get on board.

A former football player, Longshore isn’t short on on-field experience. He was quarterback for University of California-Berkeley and led his team to a share of the 2006 Pac-10 title. In 2009, he had a stint with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins before accepting a position as the assistant football coach at Rancho Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Orange County, Calif. He also is an instructor for All QBS, a training program for Orange County-area quarterbacks.

When Reilly approached Longshore to give SIDEKIQ a chance, Longshore was immediately sold. “The technology [of SIDEKIQ] is normally the stuff you see in Iron Man movies,” he said, which is one reason his athletes are so eager to use it.

“The players are the ones who appreciate it,” Longshore said. “As coaches, it’s our job to communicate in their language so they understand what they need to do. These kids have grown up on video games, so it was seamless getting them to understand how to use it and how to learn the [football] game with it.”

Longshore’s athletes still do their normal workouts, film studies and on-field practice, but by using SIDEKIQ two times per week, they receive more practice under safer circumstances.

“They get an extra 100 repetitions, which would take three days to achieve that many plays on a field,” Longshore said. “That means they get an extra six days of practice every week.”

The results, he said, are outstanding. “We have 14-year-olds who have played 1,500 games through this virtual reality training, so technically they have just as much, if not more experience than a 65-year-old coach with 30 years on the field.”

That experience has paid dividends not only on the scoreboard but also in the health of these athletes. When asked how he believes it’s decreased injuries on the team, Longshore pointed to three reasons, most of which are rooted in Fleming’s assessment on how the brain learns through virtual reality:

  • When a player knows what he’s doing, he runs with purpose. He has his wits about him to look out for certain things. If you know what you’re doing, you can play faster and protect yourself. You understand your responsibility, which makes it safer for you to be on the field.
  • In practice, you try to simulate the game, but we can’t just go out there with full speed. That’s when players get hurt. With SIDEKIQ, we have a way of getting to see the game in full speed without having to run in to each other. The accumulation of all the on-field hits can be more detrimental to your health later on, so we are decreasing that accumulation.
  • It creates muscle memory. If I’m in the SIDEKIQ, I’m making sure I take the perfect angle to a blocker. These players are taking the right angle at the right time because they know what it feels like to be in that situation.

In Orange County alone, four of 10 high school teams use SIDEKIQ, with more likely to join following California Governor Brown’s announcement on July 22 that full-contact football practices for junior and high school students are limited to two, 90-minute sessions per week.

Eon Sports VR is currently working with 10 Kansas City-based high schools to find quantifiable evidence to support injury reduction and performance enhancement. Reilly and his team also attended the White House’s Healthy Kids and Safe Sports Concussion Summit in May and walked away with the goal to change the conversation from how to react to concussions to a preventative approach, one that involves coaches and parents.

“Our biggest initiative is getting this technology in front of moms and dads, because we are solving the problem from a safety standpoint,” Reilly said.

Longshore agrees, but for now, the SIDEKIQ experience and on-field results speak for itself.

“If it gets on ESPN during one broadcast this year, every school in the country will be using it.”

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