Some virtual reality sports games can help people improve skills such as accuracy, coordination, and timing. Such games allow people to try sports without risking injury and to participate in seasonal sports year-round. Virtual reality games also help players visualize success, providing a mental edge.

Can virtual reality make you a better athlete? Could playing sports on a simulated basketball court or baseball diamond help you sink more baskets or strike out more batters?

While nothing can take the place of practice, dedication, and hard work, virtual reality–the computer-generated world of images and sounds that you can control may help you improve your game and build confidence in some surprising new ways.

Virtual reality makes you feel as though you’re there–transported to distant galaxies or to more familiar places, such as a basketball court or a snow-covered ski hill. A game or simulator doesn’t have to include special headgear or a handset in order to be considered virtual reality.

Some virtual reality games, like the ones you find in malls and arcades, use no helmets and have cartoon-like graphics and sound effects. Others are more high-tech. The latest jet ski simulators, for example, are able to generate waves that you not only see coming at you on the screen but “feel” the impact as well (without getting wet!). New virtual reality exercise bikes come equipped with a fan to simulate the wind in your face, and with speakers that project the sounds of traffic and passing trains.

Although most of the virtual reality sports games on the market do little to improve your physical conditioning, virtual reality can help you sharpen some of the less physical skills, such as timing, coordination, and accuracy.

Virtual golf is one of the few games around that requires both skill and accuracy, and some real muscle. The game, which can be hooked up to a home computer, involves hitting computer-generated golf balls by swinging a real club. Watching to see where the ball goes on the simulated golf course that is displayed on the screen, players can monitor the distance and accuracy of each shot and work on making their swing better. Similar games are in the works for tennis and baseball players. Computers programmed to deliver “virtual” pitches at different speeds will train players to anticipate the ball and fine-tune their coordination so they hit the ball at precisely the right moment.

Training in VR

Virtual reality is especially useful in helping people learn jobs that are dangerous or difficult and require a lot of practice. Doctors, pilots, and astronauts routinely use virtual reality simulators to learn new skills and to perfect those they already have. As more sports-based virtual reality computers are developed, it’s likely athletes will come to rely on them the way pilots depend on flight simulators or doctors on virtual operating rooms to train and fine-tune their skills. Meanwhile, sports enthusiasts can benefit from virtual reality in three ways:

1. Trying sports without the risk of injury

2. Doing seasonal sports year-round

3. Perfecting skills between games.

Virtual reality also can help players deal with stressful situations that cause them to lose their concentration. Goalies, for example, could get nervous when they see an opponent rushing toward them. By facing computer-generated balls or hockey pucks, a goalie can learn to stand his ground without losing his cool. Practicing blocking shots in a safe, simulated environment builds confidence and prepares a goalie for the real thing.

Perhaps you’ve always wanted to ski. With virtual reality, you can, without putting on a pair of boots or skis or even going outside. You won’t feel the wind in your face or break any bones, but you will get the hang of leaning forward, bending your knees and shifting your balance from side to side and racing down the virtual slope projected on the screen in front of you. If you already know how to ski, you’ll be psyched up for the season before the first snowfall. It may even improve your technique.

Whether you’re an expert or a novice, virtual reality games give you the thrill of the real thing, without the risks. For some, that means getting the chance to try their hand at unfamiliar sports such as archery, jet skiing, or snowboarding before deciding whether or not to take them up for real. For others, it’s a chance to get in shape for the sports they already play.

Think Like a Winner

Another way virtual reality could be used in sports training is in helping players prepare mentally, through a technique called visualization. Visualization means forming a mental picture of yourself at a sport or activity and then “playing a video” in your mind of precisely how you want it to go. Thanks to the scenery and sound effects of virtual worlds, it’s easy to see yourself in the race, crossing the finish line ahead of the pack. While it’s no substitute for sitting quietly and mentally rehearsing your moves, virtual reality, by providing a kind of live visualization, jump starts your imagination and gives you a mental edge.

Confidence, patience, concentration, and discipline are all qualities you need to succeed both in sports and at school. Imagining yourself as a winner is the key to making it happen in real life.

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