Soccer team in a huddle

A New Take on “Spot the Ball”

November 13, 2015 by Miriam Siebeking

Germany’s national women’s soccer team trains in the “Helix” at TSG Hoffenheim.

Kristin Demann is standing in front of a large, curved screen showing a virtual stadium. At first glance, it looks as if she’s playing an over-sized console game, watching like a hawk as she tracks her international team-mates’ movements around the pitch.

Demann is in the “Helix”, a training unit developed by SAP that utilizes the “multiple object tracking” method. She is standing in the center of the unit, with eight virtual players ranged around her. One virtual figure has the ball; two others blink briefly. Demann’s task is to keep these three players in her sights while – for a time span of about 10 seconds – all eight players dash back and forth around the pitch before taking up new positions: She then has to identify which player had the ball to start with and where the two “blinking” players have ended up.

She usually guesses correctly, but this is clearly no easy task – particularly when you consider that she has to track the players across a 180° projection screen and that the degree of difficulty is variable.

“You really have to work strategically, just as you would on a real pitch,” says Prof. Dr. Jan Mayer, a sport psychologist at Bundesliga soccer club TSG Hoffenheim. Specifically, that means keeping all the other players in view and being aware of where the ball is at all times. If you can do that, so the theory goes, your on-field passing will be more accurate.

This “perceptual-cognitive” aspect of the game is at the heart of the joint “Helix” project between SAP and TSG Hoffenheim and one that football clubs are taking a growing interest in. Because the game of soccer is getting faster all the time. Take the average ball-contact times for German national players.

As Joachim Löw, head coach of the German national team, explains: “In 2005 it took us on average 2.8 seconds from ball-contact to the actual pass. In 2010 we improved the average to 1.1 seconds.”

Analyses show that ball-contact times are now three times faster than they were just eight years ago. This requires not only physical fitness, but exceptional mental fitness too, and poses considerable challenges for sport psychologists at both club and association level.

SAP is TSG Hoffenheim’s main sponsor, but its understanding of sponsorship extends way beyond the purely financial element. SAP wants to share its expertise as well.

“Our aim is to channel our innovative power and our technological know-how into our sponsorships. The Helix technology showcase for training cognitive skills is a prime example of how we’re doing this,” says Matthias Weber, who led the Helix project.

Studies have shown that console games have a positive impact on people’s responses and perceptual capabilities. So, because the Helix reproduces the console-game effect in more realistic dimensions, it provides an effective method for honing these skills specifically for the soccer context.

“The athlete standing in the center of the Helix has a very realistic view of the pitch and of the other players,” says Manfred J. Pauli, director for the co-innovation lab and product-owner of the Helix. The training exercises in the Helix are designed to help players sharpen their cognitive skills and therefore respond faster in a genuine match situation.

“At first glance, you’d never suspect that the Helix is an SAP product. But the likeness becomes apparent when players receive their post-training results,” explains Pauli.

“Our next step is to integrate Helix with SAP Sports One,” adds Weber. “TSG Hoffenheim is already using SAP’s new cloud-based software solution for sports clubs and associations. If all goes to plan, the wealth of data generated during cognitive training in the Helix will be analyzed and made available to the coaching team in SAP Sports One in the form of real-time player-specific cognitive performance profiles.”

Ultimately, explains Pauli, SAP wants to make the solution available for other sports as well as soccer. While this news is unlikely to excite Germany’s national women’s soccer team, their training session in the Helix was clearly a triumph.

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