Why is Virtual Reality such a powerful tool for athletes? If we take a step back and look at what athletes have used in the past we will be able to quickly see the power of Mental Imagery and Visualisation.
individuals are capable of experiencing kinesthetic sensations when imaging from an external visual perspective ( Cumming & Ste-Marie, 2001)
I will put to you that Virtual Reality Video provides an enhanced level of Mental Imagery and Visualisation. We call the combination of Mental Imagery, Visualisation, and Virtual Reality Experiential Repetitions.
I will provide evidence on how our minds actually process Mental Imagery and anecdotal evidence from one of our own athletes on how Experiential Repetitions made him feel.
How Mental Imagery works
Many reports exist from elite athletes describing the significant role played by Mental Imagery and Visualisation as they prepare for their chosen sports or roles.
One such report from sprinter John Regis: “Imaging the perfect race and the feeling I get when I was running the perfect race. When that happens, it’s called being in the zone, because you just don’t seem able to lose or run badly. (Grout & Perrin, 2004, p. 103)
Jennifer Cumming and Sarah E Williams in her paper “The role of Imagery in Performance”  say “Imagery, in the context of sport, may be considered as the neural generation or regeneration of parts of a brain representation/neural network involving primarily top-down sensorial, perceptual and affective characteristics, that are primarily under the conscious control of the imager and which may occur in the absence of perceptual afference functionally equivalent to the actual sporting experience.”
functional equivalence because imagery is in some ways equivalent to motor behaviour (Johnson, 1982). Both share common brain areas and many of the same properties (Lotze & Halsband, 2006; Lotze & Zentgraf, 2010; MacIntyre & Moran, 2010; Munzert et al., 2009)
Holmes and Calmels (2008) said that the definition of imagery is a quasi-sensory or perception like process happening in the absence of any external stimulus input.
Subsequent research has not always found internal imagery (1PP) to be favored by successful performers (Ungerleider & Golding, 1991). It is also now well established that individuals are capable of experiencing kinesthetic sensations when imaging from an external visual perspective ( Cumming & Ste-Marie, 2001)
Virtual Reality Sports Training with Experiential Repetitions
This external visual perspective is the Third Person, where an athlete seems themselves from someone else’s perspective. This is how we work with our athletes, we film them from different locations, front, side sometimes from the rear so that they can not only see the technique and routine but also feel these Kinesthetic Sensations described above.
In fact, one of the Athletes that we work with, let’s call him JL actually described this very thing to me. We were chatting about the process we go through and him watching himself in the Virtual Reality Headset.
He said, when I am shooting, I can obviously feel what I am doing. But when I am watching normal film on a phone or flat-screen TV, I can see but I get no feeling of my shooting. When I am wearing the headset, it is weird, I can actually feel myself shooting although I am sitting still and just watching.
To go further into this, Jennifer Cumming and Sarah E Williams in her paper “The role of Imagery in Performance”  say
During mental imagery of lifting a dumbbell, Guillot et al. (2007) found EMG activation in the nine upper arm muscles to correlate with actual physical movement
How VR for sports and Mental Imagery impact the brain
There is evidence that visual and kinesthetic imagery are neurally discernible (e.g., Guilot et al., 2009) Using fMRI, Buillot et al. revealed a divergent pattern of increased brain activation in skilled imagers following instructions to first-person visually or kinesthetically image a finger sequence consisting of eight moves. Both types of imagery shared common activations related to movement (i.e., lateral premotor cortex), but areas involved with visual perception (i.e., the occipital regions and the superior parietal lobule) yielded more activity during visual imagery, whereas kinesthetic imagery resulted in greater activity in structures associated with motor processes (i.e., the inferior parietal lobule). The authors concluded that individuals are able to selectively attend to one sensory modality when generating an image, but will still have a general mental representation of the movement regardless of whether the sensory modality is visual or kinesthetic. The finding also helps clarify the concept of motor imagery, which Moran (2009) argues has been too narrowly defined by cognitive neuroscientists. It is a commonly used term, but there is no definite agreement on how it should be defined. For example, Decety (1996) describes motor imagery as being comparable, “to the so-called internal imagery (or first-person perspective) of sport psychologists” (p. 87) Jeannerod (1994) takes a more general approach by explaining motor imagery as the mental representation of an overt action without associated movement. The extant fMRI evidence makes it clear that motor images do consist of both visual and kinesthetic representations.
Performers, particularly those at an elite level, will engage in regular imagery sessions that are planned in advance (e.g., what they will image and for how long) (e.g., Nordin et al., 2006; Orlick & Partington, 1998). These variations in deliberation led Cumming and Ramsey (2009) to caution researchers in their employment of “Use” when describing performers imagery. This term implies that deliberate intention was involved in the imagery process, when the images may have been unexpectedly generated.
Imagery has long been acknowledged to benefit motor learning and performance, but few theories have satisfactorily accounted for how it works (Murphy et al., 2008). As neuroimaging techniques such as PET and fMRI have become more widely available, advancement into the underlying mechanism has been made by the detection of a degree of neural overlap between imagery and the preparation and production of actual movements. This similarity is known as functional equivalence because imagery is in some ways equivalent to motor behaviour (Johnson, 1982). Both share common brain areas and many of the same properties (Lotze & Halsband, 2006; Lotze & Zentgraf, 2010; MacIntyre & Moran, 2010; Munzert et al., 2009)
Applying also to observation of movement (see McCullagh, Law & Ste-Marie, 2012, Chapter 13 this volume), when we image movement, the motor and motor-related areas of the cerebral cortex are activated, including the primary motor cortex (M1), premotor areas (e.g., supplementary motor area, premotor cortex), primary somatosensory cortex, parts of the parietal lobe, and subcortical areas of the cerebellum and basal ganglia. There is some dispute over whether activation in the primary motor cortex is due to imagery or caused by inhibition of movement execution. (Lotze & Halsband, 2006).
Even though imagery and execution share many anatomical substrates, it would therefore be misleading to suggest these were identical or to claim complete functional equivalence (Holmes & Calmels, 2008).
Functional equivalence is also evident by the physiological responses elicited during imagery mirroring actual behavior. Electromyographic (EMG) activity recorded during imagery of sporting scenarios is reflective of the muscle activity expected in the actual situation (e.g., Bird, 1984).
During mental imagery of lifting a dumbbell, Guillot et al. (2007) found EMG activation in the nine upper arm muscles to correlate with actual physical movement. Further, responses generated in the muscle cells during imagery were reflective of task demands. When participants imaged lifting a heavier weight, they experienced a greater increase in EMG activity compared to imagery of a lighter weight.
Imagery also produces cardiovascular and respiratory responses. Again reflecting the imaged content, Wuyam et al (1995) reported individuals breathing frequency during imagery of themselves exercising to correlate with the imaged exercise intensity.
A couple of points to come from the information above is the concept of Functional Equivalence which is in some ways equivalent to Motor Behaviour.
The power of Functional Equivalence was proven with the example of the subject imaging the lifting of the dumbell and the EMG found that the area of the brain that controls the nine upper arm muscles were activated.
This is why we call watching yourself in the 3rd person in Virtual Reality Experiential Repetitions. Even though you are physically relaxing, your brain is still going through the process and those neurons are firing.
Another link between Virtual Reality and Mental Imagery is that of the PETTLEP model.
PETTLEP is a framework of imagery, it has seven key components to ensure that Mental Imagery is being practiced correctly. I would confidently say that Virtual Reality Video being watched in the third person satisfies the PETTLEP model.
When considering together the immediate effects imagery can have on performance and those benefits occurring from changes in neural plasticity over time, this research tells us that the areas of brain activation during imagery should be as similar as possible to those active during execution of the desired outcome.
In the case of observation to prime movement, a greater congruency between the prime (observed action) and subsequent execution of the action leads to better execution (eg., Brass, Bekkering, & Prinz, 2001). The effectiveness of the observation prime is attributed to the greater overlap in areas of brain activity during the prime and the movement execution.
A similar principle also applies to imagery when it serves to prime movement execution. Put another way, functional equivalence can be increased at the representational level by having images as congruent as possible to the movement to be performed. By creating greater neural overlap during movement imagery, more the neural processes involved in movement execution will be activated and subsequently strengthened.
PETTLEP Model was used with Soccer players. They compared soccer players who received imagery scripts describing the same stimulus information but differing in emotional content only. Both groups perform their imagery four times a week for 6 weeks and significantly improved their penalty kick performance compared to the control group who did stretching exercises.
The amount of PETTLEP imagery also seems to matter. Wakefield and Smith (2009) found that imaging 20 netball shots three times a week was more effective than once or twice a week. Further, PETTLEP imagery is more effective when combined with physical practice (Wmith et al., 2008).
Experienced golfers practiced 15 shots twice per week for 6 weeks either by engaging in PETTLEP imagery only, physical practice only, or alternating between PETTLEP imagery once per week and physical practice once per week. The combined PETTLEP imagery and physical practice group significantly outperformed the other two groups at post test, with no differences found between PETTLEP imagery and physical practice only groups. Both studies reinforce imager as a form of deliberate practice and its value as a supplement to regular physical practice. (Cumming & Hall, 2002; Hall, 2001).
An individual’s capability to image does not fully develop until 14 years of age (Kosslyn et al., 1990)
So, with all this in mind. Experiential Repetitions are well worth the effort for athletes and their sporting teams.
Obvious areas of use can be something as simple and as important as Set Shot Goal Kicking in Australian Rules Football or attacking the rim in basketball. We are not limited to skills, we can also use Experiential Repetitions for Structures, Set Plays, Athletes in Rehab, Wal-throughs and Opposition Analysis but to name a few.
For something such as Set Shot Goal Kicking, we not only film the athlete with VR Video. We also work with him or her to develop a robust routine, technique (with the help of specialised coaches) so we can eliminate that mental chatter and have the athlete feel a sense of absolute certainty when executing the set shot at goal.
This is helped by them watching the Experiential Repetitions over and over and seeing themselves using the exact Routine and Technique whilst succeeding over and over again. This builds trust in the actual process that the athlete has built and if he follows that process, he will succeed.