On July 14, 2014, Borussia Dortmund attacking midfielder Mario Göetze shed his brown substitute’s vest, left the German national team dugout, and stood next to head coach Joachim Löw on the sideline of Brazil’s famous Maracanã stadium. He had spent the last eighty minutes watching his teammates struggle to score a winning goal against Lionel Messi’s Argentina on Soccer’s biggest stage — The FIFA World Cup Final.
He replaced veteran striker Miroslav Klose in the 88th minute, jogging into the scramble with the slouched confidence of an underdog boxer. 25 minutes later, he controlled Andre Schürlle’s cross with his chest and poked the ball into the far corner of Argentina’s goal. He sprinted toward the corner flag in celebration, the defenders behind him maintained their shutout, and Germany left Brazil with one of the most valuable trophies in world sports.
Despite a several-season stint with German powerhouse Bayern Munich, Göetze spent his developmental years at Borussia Dortmund — the Bundesliga’s perennial second-place team and occasional underdog title winner. When he became a national hero, the global media profiled his impressive and prolific career in an attempt to understand why the soccer gods had chosen him to play the part of super substitute.
Some attributed his clinical finishing skills and deft touch on the ball to the now-famous Footbonaut: an automated training tool, first used at Dortmund, designed to improve a player’s technical skills and soccer reactions. Like the Reflexion Edge, the system relies on sensory stimuli to engage players’ brains and bodies simultaneously.
Dortmund implemented the $3.5 million training system into their training program for youth and senior players in the fall of 2012. The club continues to use the cage-like device to sharpen its squad and to help players recovering from injury regain their touch. Another German club, TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, also uses the device.
The Footbonaut consists of four walls of rectangular passing targets. Each target is surrounded by a banner of lights that can appear as red, green and blue depending on the player’s task. Each of the four walls features a ball dispenser, which plays the user passes of various speeds, heights and styles. An audio signal indicates where the ball will be dispensed and where the next target will appear. A single rectangular panel is illuminated, and the player must pass the ball into the target as quickly and accurately as possible.
The solo training system allows players to sharpen their first touch, passing accuracy and efficiency, and sensory processing skills. The Footbonaut is completely customizable — trainers can change the speed and type of pass as well as target frequency and placement using an accompanying software system. They can then track each players’ progress using metrics such as passing speed and touches or passes per session.
What makes the Footbonaut unique is its combination of technical training with visual and auditory reflex stimuli. Technology and performance training continue to intersect in new and exciting ways. Standardized systems that incorporate visual and auditory aspects such as the Footbonaut and Reflexion’s Edge allow players to train not only their on-the-ball skills, but also crucial cognitions such as their reaction time, peripheral vision and depth perception. These cognitions and the ability to use them correctly are invaluable in the fast-paced world of professional sports, and allow players to avoid injury in addition to playing faster.
The same cognitions are quantified by the Edge, which uses data to train and asses each cognitions in a less sports-specific setting. After a test, users can track their improvement or use the Edge as a recuperation tool following an injury.
The Footbonaut, a cage of sound, lights and fast reactions, sharpens these cognitions along with each player’s traditional technical ability. It adds a cerebral and cognitive element to the traditional passing drill that trains players’ brains alongside their bodies, making the system another customizable and sports-specific addition to the growing cognitive performance training frontier.