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Football enters space age with 'Footbonaut'

By Tom McGowan, CNN
updated 10:42 AM EST, Fri November 16, 2012
The "Footbonaut" -- is a robotic cage which footballers can use to improve passing, spatial awareness and control. The machine is being used by German champions Borussia Dortmund. The "Footbonaut" -- is a robotic cage which footballers can use to improve passing, spatial awareness and control. The machine is being used by German champions Borussia Dortmund.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • German champions Borussia Dortmund pioneer the use of "space age" training
  • The "Footbonaut" is a 14-meter cage which delivers balls to a player by eight machines
  • The player must then pass to one of 72 panels which is signaled by a flashing green light
  • "It is the perfect tool to improve ball-handling skills," says Dortmund coach Jurgen Klopp

(CNN) -- It's football training, but not as we know it.

German champions Borussia Dortmund are boldly going where no club has gone before with the "Footbonaut", a soccer training machine powered by a smart phone.

Winners of the Bundesliga title in each of the last two seasons, Dortmund has unveiled the 14-meter cage which is the brainchild of Berlin-based designer Christian Guttler.

Once inside the "Footbonaut", a player is fed balls by eight different machines, having to find one of the 72 panels - - lit by a flashing green light -- which make up the space-age contraption before receiving another ball.

Dortmund hope the device, which can also be operated using a tablet, will improve a player's technique, spatial awareness and peripheral vision.

Intensity

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Not that Dortmund requires much improvement.

Jurgen Klopp's team sits fourth in the German top flight and is being heavily tipped for European success after excelling in a Champions League group containing Real Madrid, Manchester City and Ajax, with the Spanish club's manager Jose Mourinho viewing them as candidates to win the tournament.

Klopp has instilled in Dortmund a non-stop adventurous style of football and the "Footbonaut" is the next step in their pursuit of excellence.

"It´s as if you are surrounded by 10 colleagues who are there only to serve you balls," said Dortmund's Australian youngster Mustafa Amini after a session inside the cage.

"In the course of normal training that level of intensity just is not possible. The ´Footbonaut´ allows you to work on any weaknesses and ensures that you play at pace but with precision."

Guttler claims that after 15 minutes in the cage a player "will have received and passed on as many balls as he would in a normal week of training.

"Repetition and intensity are crucial if you want to conquer a particular skill, whether that be playing football, tennis or learning the piano."

Perfect tool

Dortmund's success in recent years and the performances of players like striker Robert Lewandowski and midfielder Mario Gotze have attracted admiring glances from a host of top clubs.

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Japan's Shinji Kagawa and Nurin Sahin of Turkey have both been developed by Dortmund in recent years before being sold on to Manchester United and Real Madrid respectively. Sahin is currently on loan at Liverpool.

And former Mainz coach Klopp hopes the "Footbonaut" can help Dortmund maintain their stellar standards.

"It is the perfect tool to improve ball-handling skills," said the 45-year-old. "It demands precise skills used at speed in a physically tough environment. It´s quite a package!"

Echoing Klopp's excitement, Dortmund's chief scout Sven Mislintat is interested by the cage's potential to analyze player development.

"We can closely monitor a player´s development with data gleaned from the machine," said Mislintat. "There is no reason why a player cannot translate the actions practised in this environment onto the actual playing field."

Caution

But Belgian coach Michel Bruyninckx, who works with the Aspire Academy in Qatar -- the gulf kingdom which will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup -- struck a note of caution.

"One of the major features of high performance is focused attention and that can be trained through this device," Bruyninckx told CNN.

"Brain research tells us that optimal learning requires that skill training must be embedded in the natural environment of an activity. This is not the case (with 'Footbonaut').

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"The fact the player must react to a sound is not matching the reality of a game when a player reacts to visual information."

And Bruyninckx questioned the position of the player in the cage.

"The fact the performing player always stays in the central position is also a disadvantage. In a game he has to move and search for the best position to receive the ball.

"I am also curious to know how one-footed or technically less skilled players are going to react tn the 'Footbonaut'. For me you need to prepare a player for this kind of resource."

Bruyninckx also raised concerns over the grueling physical workout which the cage gives a player.

"Using sweating as a parameter is not a good approach," he said. "Too often coaches think that high intensity delivers high performance. Brain research tells us that if energy is low, learning will go down."

So, while the "Footbonaut" is one small step for Dortmund, it could take a giant leap for the device to become a fixture at training grounds across the world.

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