The Athletic

Tulane football benefits from virtual reality for injury recovery and mental health

Several times in any given week this season, Tulane wide receiver Phat Watts has entered the team’s practice area to tend to a torn ACL he suffered in Game 2 in September. Various movements and stretches are part of the typical recovery process.

But when Watts gets on the stationary bike, he doesn’t put on headphones to listen to music, as many gamers like to do. Instead, he puts on an Oculus virtual reality headset and can simulate swimming in the ocean for 15 minutes.

“After my injury, I had a hard time staying focused and thinking about the pain,” Watts said. “When I got there I realized I could do so much more when I’m not thinking about the pain or I’m not on the pitch. You don’t think about the negatives, everything is positive, and it elevates you.

For a few years, Tulane has been experimenting with the use of virtual reality with its football team. Watts had periodically used it in the past to relax, but the injury and rehabilitation made him better realize its value.

At a time when more and more universities and sports teams want to help their athletes with mental health, Tulane is one of the first teams to use virtual reality for this purpose. He played a useful role in one of the best streaks of success in Tulane football history, including a 2022 turnaround to an AAC championship and a Cotton Bowl appearance against USC on Monday.

The VR headset can be used before or after meetings or matches, at halftime or whenever a player wants a session, which usually lasts around 10-15 minutes. Players can put themselves in another landscape, such as a cold forest, a beach, outer space, or anywhere else. Handsets can allow them to interact with the environment. They can also choose meditation mode, which displays patterns on the screen. Other Tulane sports teams also use the VR system. It’s all meant to relieve players of the stress of being a college athlete.

Mental health is a major concern in college sports. The NCAA surveyed nearly 10,000 athletes in fall 2021 and found that 22% of male athletes and 39% of female athletes reported feeling mentally exhausted. The numbers have improved since the peak of the pandemic in 2020, but nearly 30% of female athletes still reported having difficulty sleeping and feeling overwhelming anxiety. Less than 50% of both male and female athletes felt comfortable seeking help from a mental health provider on campus.

Patrick Bordnick, the dean of the Tulane School of Social Work, runs the VR program and is even on the sidelines for football games.

“They don’t want me teaching football skills,” Bordnick said, “but players say seeing me on the sidelines is soothing because I’m associated with the work they do. There’s no judgment on my part on their performance or not.

Virtual reality in football is not new. Strivr is a VR program developed by a former Stanford graduate football assistant nearly a decade ago that virtually puts players on the field to go through practice rehearsals. It is a system used by many college and professional sports teams. But that’s for field work. What Tulane is doing here is about mental wellness.

Bordnick stumbled upon virtual reality by accident. His background studies cravings, in particular drug addiction. He has published over 50 peer-reviewed articles in various journals. About 20 years ago, while living in Atlanta, he discovered a virtual reality company that worked with phobias like fear of heights. He asked if he could be set up to teach people how to avoid using drugs. If he could virtually put people in a scenario where they’re tempted by drugs, he could better study behavior, rather than putting someone in a cold lab environment. From 2007 to 2016, Bordnick founded and led the Virtual Reality Clinical Research Laboratory at the University of Houston.

He joined Tulane in 2016 and started working with the football team in 2017 to try new ideas in the sport. The program was refined at the end of last year and the school launched a study within the sports department in all sports, including sports such as sailing.

“We started doing that with our guys that we had IVs at halftime who were cramping,” said Greg Stewart, football team physician and co-director of Tulane’s sports medicine program. “You’re just trying to calm them down and calm the nervous system down. What we do know is that adrenaline and all that increases neuromuscular arousal, so it’s easier for them to cramp. It was a way to calm the nervous system while we rehydrated.

Tulane is a private school with an endowment of nearly $2 billion and considered one of the best college schools in the South. Stewart chaired the AAC’s COVID-19 advisory group in 2020 and Tulane processed 100,000 COVID-19 tests on campus, instead of having to send them out.

“At a school like ours, when you talk about institutional alignment, part of it is leveraging the assets and resources you have on campus,” athletic director Troy Dannen said. “(Bordnick’s) had that interest and expertise, and it came together pretty easily. He’s on all the sidelines, at a lot of practices. A number of kids I know swear by what he does.

Virtual reality has helped gamers like bettor Casey Glover “relax and breathe.” (Courtesy of Tulane Athletics)

The system is particularly popular with football team specialists, with whom the mental part of the game is vital. Punter Casey Glover likes to use it a few days before games. He has no preference for the VR landscape. It can be a rainforest, outer space, or a snowy environment where animals roam. He also likes the meditation app.

Heading into a rainforest seems like it has nothing to do with football, but the system isn’t about football. This is anything that can confuse a player.

“It helps me not to think too much about what’s going on,” Glover said. “On a Wednesday or Thursday, if I think too much about the game, it brings me back to the present and helps me relax and breathe.”

As mental health has become a focal point for many sports teams, coaches, administrators and athletic trainers are talking about it more and more. But what does that mean exactly? It’s not just about hiring more therapists or psychologists. Bordnick wants more teams to add their own VR work themselves.

He saw its impact up close. Bordnick has one daughter who plays college football and two others who run cross country. He has seen how the increased stress of youth and college athletics can impact young people in their sport and outside of their sport. That’s what tackling the mental health challenge means, and virtual reality can be one of the many tools to help.

“I wish other teams and universities would hear this and take care of the mental well-being of their athletes as well,” Bordnick said. “That’s what you should do.

“I saw what my daughters went through, and by helping them to be able to love their sport again, VR helped that. It became their sport again instead of something they needed to be afraid of. because they were afraid of making a mistake.

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(Top photo by Phat Watts courtesy of Tulane Athletics)

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