E-learning sports: Lockdown unlocks endless potential of online sports coaching apps & websites

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October 03, 2021 2:30 AM

Amid shutdown of organised games and sporting activities in the past two years due to the pandemic, online coaching apps and websites are gaining prominence and e-learning is gradually becoming the new norm

e-learning picVirtual learning is convenient as it offers a library of videos, sessions or live competitions from the comfort of your home.

Playing an aggressive right-handed opening batsman and known for his fearless strokes of hitting sixes, former Indian captain Virender Sehwag recounts some distressing attempts of dismissals after he couldn’t face inswings of Sri Lankan fast bowler Chaminda Vaas in historic ODIs and Test matches between India and Sri Lanka. And his attempts helped him understand the game better.

“I used to get out in the first few balls of Vaas, that’s because I had problems in playing inswing. But I gradually learnt to work on it. We learn from our mistakes. And the mistakes that I have committed, the younger generation shouldn’t,” says Sehwag in a telephonic chat with FE.

In June this year, Sehwag launched an Artificial Intelligence-based (AI) cricket experiential learning website-cum-app Cricuru. This app brings a new avatar of the legendary cricketer in the form of curated videos where he talks about the disciplines he followed at an early age, gripping the bat, how to improve their bat swing, stance, backlift, trigger movement—a few basics important in the game.

An online coaching venture has been on Sehwag’s mind since 2004, but it took years of planning coupled with the lockdown in 2020 to develop an ecosystem to democratise cricket learning in India. “With no on-ground cricket in 2020, I thought, it is the best time to utilise off-field learning and understand basics that can’t be done on-field. Thus, the curriculum is designed for uninterrupted coaching experience for aspiring cricketers. A new way to learn cricket through immersive videos, interactive augmented reality, and engaging simulations,” says Sehwag, who is the co-founder of Cricuru along with Sanjay Bangar, former Indian player and batting coach of the Indian cricket team (2015-19).

As the consequent shutdown of organised games and sports activities in the past two years made online coaching apps or websites gain prominence, e-learning gradually became a new norm. It explores the use of training strategies or digital tools for coaches and athletes, benefiting the learner or athlete to track performances, movements, enhance communication or virtually eliminate injuries, making the transition to sports just as effective.

Agrees Delhi-based Rajeev Mehta, secretary general, Indian Olympic Association, “When sports were briefly halted in the country during the first lockdown, our athletes had to adapt to virtual training. It worked well in preparations of the athletes for the games. The best part about virtual learning is it eliminates the need for an expert present physically and enables the athlete to self-monitor and focus on personal stats and goals. The sports ecosystem in the country requires more sports sciences and technology partners and players to overcome the limited resources we have. More stakeholders with ever-improving tech will boost the country’s sports prowess.”

Easy access and knowledge sharing
Today, virtual learning, with the use of smart phones and Internet connectivity available to a wider population, has entered every nook and corner of the country where it’s physically not possible to reach. According to national badminton coach Pullela Gopichand, e-learning should be used as an opportunity in the pandemic. “Given the time and technology, it can benefit most aspiring players and families, who want their kids to play but can’t access the ground,” he says.

During the pandemic, Abhinav Bindra Targeting Performance (ABTP) Centre, a state-of-the art physiotherapy and rehabilitation centre, moved training and application online for athletes for sessions and assessment. The centre is home to the national hockey and swimming teams for all-round development and training besides providing sport-specific assessment, performance training, prevention programmes, and injury rehabilitation.

This year, the centre launched ABTP Physiotherapy@Home Service mobile application with 500 physiotherapists in over 22 cities in India, available via video call and chat features for various physical ailments. The centre has collaborated with Australia-based Principia Technology and Dr Jason Konrath for advanced understanding of biomechanics and injury prevention, performance enhancement, and applied this technical edge over the conventional methods. These learnings can be applied in other industries such as workspace ergonomics, gaming industry, factories.

While the pandemic made it hard for players to connect with coaches for small details like decision-making, how to maintain field pace, nutrition perspective, specific formation of a team, Bhaichung Bhutia Football Schools (BBFS) came with a solution. A virtual football training app enJogo last year in September 2020 continued remote training, engaging with players on age-specific tailored workouts (over 1,000 football training drills performed by over 30 technical mentors), curated training plans, technical aspects to train and enhance football skills. BBFS is working on a 2.0 version which will be out by the year end. The new version will take care of social, tactical and mental aspects of a learner with interactive content and videos.

BBFS has expanded to more than 20 cities over the last 10 years. The idea to launch e-learning is not to replace the active game but to augment the whole experience so that players learn the elementary aspects online and are kept up-to-date. “Apps prepare the player in advance before he comes to the field, have a strategy in place as each team member is connected via app, thus it makes the job of the coach easier,” says Kishore Taid, CEO and co-founder of BBFS and enJogo. For instance, visualising certain techniques in dribbling, blocking or body control can help develop skills to master the game or learn a foot technique to strengthen the kick on the ball… this becomes easier to execute while in the game.

Additionally, technology advancement in recent years like live stream, mobile applications, virtual reality, augmented reality have a greater impact in this learning. Beyond rigorous ground training, AI is a big facilitator in learning a game as one can upload video and learn about simple aspects on mobile. “The position of the bat or leg before wicket, the height of the bat to be raised at an appropriate level… These are small yet useful specifications in the game which can be determined through augmented and virtual reality,” says Sehwag, whose app includes master classes of 34 handpicked player coaches, including AB de Villiers, Brett Lee, Brian Lara, Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo, Harbhajan Singh and Jonty Rhodes, besides himself and among others.

Sports analytics and AI have now made inroads in badminton too. A technology created by the International Institute of Information Technology’s Hyderabad (IIIT-H) can track a player’s stroke on television or Internet. The algorithms can identify when a rally has started or ended and who won the rally, segmentation of the shots played (backhand, forehand, smash) thereby revealing the style of the player. “By generating heat maps based on how fast the player moves on court, one can also deduce the dominant player,” says Gopichand, who is gearing up to expand facilities this year to set up a Sports Science Centre and a Research and Development (R&D) Centre in partnership with Kotak Mahindra Bank in Hyderabad. This will develop into a world-class training facility and advanced infrastructure, a platform to train players and coaches.

“We can have more coaches for online training, and this can help scale up virtual coaching. The pandemic may have disrupted the careers of many personnel, but it has added more time to learn, think and consider opportunities like online training for them,” says Gopichand, who is also working on a virtual platform of badminton which should be ready by the end of this year.

Cultural learning and improvement
Virtual learning is convenient as it offers a library of videos, sessions or live competitions from the comfort of your home. For instance, a library of workouts with in-built videos of drills in audio instructions helped Delhi-based player Atharva Dayal track his performance metrics easily.

Dayal started playing football at the age of 12 years and follows a strict regime: rigorous workouts, training schedule, track his growth and keep a tab on his improvement. During the pandemic, he used enJogo for live sessions to achieve match-level sharpness, online practice and fitness sessions. The training, while the football school was shut, helped him stay informed to play professional matches next year.

“The time wasted was best utilised by using online skills and classes,” says the 18-year-old student of Vedas International School Delhi, who has been promoted in the senior team of professional club, Garhwal Football Club, last year.

Virtual sessions are about personal growth, feels Dayal, as he says, “The game teaches the values of teamwork, resiliency, hard work, commitment and integrity. Despite physical limitations, my team and coaches share a unique bond online. We play, learn and work like a unit. We watch clips of old matches, question how to recognise substitutions or match-up on defence, etc.”

Personal attention is possible in virtual training and can improve one’s decision making by watching online, says Delhi-based Anup Singh, technical lead of the football app at BBFS and U13 youth league coach, who judges his students in technical aspects of training sessions. “Training on field to someone who is weak in passing is difficult and often we can miss him, but in a virtual session, you can talk to each student and train them personally,” he says.

However, playing and learning online save time and travel as well as help analyse and rectify mistakes to help become better players. In chess, there are many websites that allow people to play free of cost and conduct tournaments online. “Lichess (a free website) has puzzle training options like puzzle storm, race, streak and free tournaments in both Arena and Swiss formats. A swiss tournament is where winners play winners and the person with the most points at the end wins. An arena tournament has no set number of rounds, but a set amount of time. Play as many games as you can in that time,” shares Pune-based Fide chess master and instructor Sohan Phadke, who has been playing and coaching chess for two decades.

For instance, Nihal Sarin, who is a chess prodigy at the age of 17 years, has played online chess with more than 11,000 games on chess.com against global players like Hikaru Nakamura, Fabiana Caruana and world champ Magnus Carlsen. Having won online titles in 2020 for FIDE U-18 World Youth Chess Championship, ChessBase India Super Juniors Cup, Junior Speed Chess Championship, Karpov Trophy, gold for India in the Chess Olympiad, Asian Team Championship, Sarin feels the energy and tone of virtual playing or learning is different.

“You can play from anywhere, a lot more entertaining for viewers as you can play bullet tournaments online and there is zero entry barrier—you can literally rise up among the ranks and even beat the best in the world,” says Sarin, who is ranked among the top three players in bullet format on lichess.org.

A versatile aid
Technology-aided learning is easier when interventions are not needed at granular level. It becomes more difficult to teach an absolute beginner or who cannot hit the shuttle in badminton than a person who is able to do a few rallies or hit a toss. “E-learning is possible at the next level of teaching where biomechanics related to power strokes, forehand overhead jump smash, backhand overhead strokes and forehand serve, can be applied to certain positions,” says Gopichand.

At the same time, e-learning must not take away the human element and work as a tool to connect multiple dots. “Teachers and education are inseparable. Thus, a successful technology application will be the one that merges the two,” says bio-medical technology entrepreneur Bhairav Shankar, who feels sports backed by science has a key role in developing better infrastructure but the real push to the industry can come if more corporates participate.

“Apart from cricket or maybe badminton, sports are not monetised. All the advanced technology used in multiple angle camera gadgets, players heart rate monitors or technology devices come at an additional cost. Technology must be engaging for the investor to be able to support moneywise,” says Shankar, who is the managing director of Dhyana, a startup known for an app-based meditative device.

There are various services related to sports specific assessment which include labs, movement science labs, iso kinetic labs, etc. “Athletes get right guidance via online platforms as it helps in a strong sports ecosystem—psychological, physical and mental awareness must be available at the click of a button,” says Mohali-based Dr Digpal Ranawat, director of ABTP, who has been the medical head of the Indian shooting team (Rio 2016) and worked with athletes across the world.

ABTP is working on an e-learning and training platform for school students and athletes with 3D motion tracking and video analysis to ensure aspirants don’t miss out on the physical aspect due to the limitations set by the pandemic. “The mobile app will observe kinematics and movement patterns, monitor athletes on often neglected parameters such as sleep patterns, hydration, and nutrition,” says Ranawat.

Limitations
E-learning applications open a pandora of possibilities for experimentation, data management and continuous advancement of technology. While this has made it possible that efficient and effective practices reach every learner, it brings with it fair amounts of challenges as well. The lack of resources and space in remote areas has been a constant challenge. “From using 2-litre water bottles as dumbbells to carrying their younger siblings for weight training, the athletes and trainers, while making the best of the situation, also lack team building, real interactions. The concept of friendship, mutual respect, and personal growth as an individual faces hampered growth due to the lack of physicality in sport,” says Ranawat.

It cannot replace physical sports, but basic concepts and techniques learning can help advance to a certain level in the game. According to Vijay Patel, former head coach of Gujarat cricket association, online learning is half learning as it’s possible to achieve physical or mental fitness but what happens when one has to apply the mind on the ground.

“Hands-on training is different. The body needs stamina to perform and play on the ground. It’s a different situation from what we learn in theory and what we implement practically. Where should the bat be placed—before or after the line, how do we play safely without many injuries, strokes, catches, fall and rise, physical movement… all these can’t be explained through presentations,” he says.

Shadow practice is possible by watching videos but to play a professional sport or build a career is difficult. “To stand and move around in acres of ground requires stamina and conviction. It may seem like hitting a ball straight but how much control we have over the ball is unrealisable, unless you play physically,” says Pune-based Sampath Chari, tournament director, Professional Golf Tour of India (PGTI)—the controlling body for professional golf in India.

Agrees Bengaluru-based Darlington Hector, founder of Zabash, a platform that encourages young sporting talent for an all-round development of sports in schools and colleges, “Practice on the ground for many weeks and months can only help in playing a solid game of sport. No amount of online training can help players grow internationally. To promote a sporting culture, we need to start early in India.”

There are times when insufficient internet bandwidth, little preparation can result in a poor user experience that may be unconducive to sustained growth. “It’s not a long-term solution as there’s no social bonding or feeling in the game,” shares Hyderabad-based Hema Bahadur, a Class IX student, who wants to learn a sport online but is in double minds. “Going the virtual way can be feasible for the time-being but technical problems such as internet connectivity and power cuts are a few deterrents in learning. It’s also one-way communication where the learner is restricted to ask a few queries,” says Bahadur.

The feeling of missing out on the ground is never-ending for Yasar Khan, a student of a reputed private school in central Delhi. “The connection is lost with the mentors in a way and virtual learning is taxing to understand minute details or finer nuances in the game,” he says.

Sarin finds the physical part of playing has its charm and essence which obviously is not felt online and this can be emotionally draining. “Besides a stable Internet is often enough, even a slight speed variance in Internet speeds can be catastrophic and this is a huge problem if you are based out of India. Also, chess as an individual sport is even more lonely,” he adds.

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