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DribbleUp Makes Your Kids Want to Practice More?

If a professional soccer player told your kid to work on their weak foot, would they do it? One lucky Tuesday night in September a few years back we skipped out of practice a bit early for an autograph session with MLS defender Chance Myers. His tip to my son, “work on your weak foot”.

Myers went on to play in 27 games that season for Sporting Kansas City. He started and played all game for each of the five playoff matches and put away his PK in the MLS Cup final against RSL to help Sporting KC win the MLS cup. So you’d think a kid would listen to advice from a player like that…

Getting a kid to work on their weak foot isn’t easy. Like many fundamental skills in sports it takes a lot of repetition to fine tune. As soccer legend Dennis Bergkamp describes in his “Stillness and Speed” book some 8 year olds enjoy that repetition of just working on their touch – but who are we kidding, most kids aren’t Dennis Bergkamp.

Those regular repeated touches are so important to building technical skills but for a lot of players they just aren’t much fun and the whole point of playing soccer when you’re a kid is to have fun.

Making Training a Game

In general youth players enjoy playing in a game over simply doing technical work. The ability to make technical training feel like a game makes it a lot easier to get kids to work on those fundamentals.  That’s why our experiments with the DribbleUp smart soccer ball have been so encouraging – our kids don’t even blink when the Left Foot Circuit or Left Foot Advanced playlist comes up on the screen!

This latest session of DribbleUp took the game element to a new level.  The iPhone mirroring cable that I mentioned in the last post arrived and turned the footskills training into a night of family fun! As you can see from the picture, even the family dog got involved.

 

Obviously we shooed the dog away but the reason she was hanging around was that all my kids were in the living room doing DribbleUp. My two oldest would take turns hopping in and out of the playlists and the youngest just liked to be in the background so she could watch herself on TV.

It reminded me quite a bit of the scene when our kids play Wii sports – all huddled around the TV giving words of encouragement and waiting for their chance to jump in. We spent quite a while with the smart ball that night because the app kept the kids wanting more:

  • Unlocking Drills
  • Completing Homework
  • Earning Points
  • Earning Badges
  • Advancing on the Leaderboard

These were all things that kept the kids wanting to play for “just 5 more minutes”. As you can see in the pictures as they advanced up the levels the color of the ball tracker changes.

It starts off blue and once you get to the next level it turns purple. If you want green you have to earn enough points to level up.

Every time we’d advance to the next level a collective cheer would come from all the kids, pretty funny.

Leaderboard

Adding the element of competition can be a good way to motivate people to work harder and it seems to work well for DribbleUp. My kids love checking the leaderboard to see how they were doing in relation to other players were training with the smart ball.

I’m not exactly sure what the logic is for positioning players on the leaderboard because you’ll see people with lower levels above users with higher achievement levels. It seems there’s some weight added for recent training which seems to make sense in terms of encouraging players to use it more often.

As you can see in the screenshot the user ttillette is on Level 16 but perhaps hasn’t used the app in a while so Soccer_Stripes user appears higher on the leaderboard. Once more players start using the smart ball and moving up the achievement levels I imagine the player ranking will make more sense. I honestly don’t care too much about the algorithm b/c what matters isn’t actually your spot on the list but that the leaderboard motivates my kids to work harder. The one thing to be careful of for the DribbleUp app is making the ranking rules too hard to understand because that could discourage players who don’t understand why they’re not moving up the leaderboard despite working hard at training.

 

Leveling Up

The app has a series of levels you can achieve based on how many points you earn from going through a playlist.  The number of points you earn is based on how well you perform your skills. As I mentioned before, each Playlist is broken down into multiple skills like “Side Taps”, “Ball Steps”, “Sole Flicks”, etc.

After you finish the playlist you’re given a score for how you performed each skill, A-F.  It’s actually been tough for my kids to get a high score. I talked to the folks at DribbleUp and the scoring right now is based on how a professional player would execute the move. This obviously makes it tough for a 9 year old to get an A because they won’t have the same technical expertise as a pro player. The plan is to add a multiple levels (like Easy, Medium, Hard) so a player can be tested based on their current level.

As you can see the number of points you earn is based on your overall playlist score. In this case they got a C which earned them 261 points.  We did have the bad luck of running into a bug with the Slapcut Squirt drill that earned us Negative Infinity points.  As you would expect that zeroed out their points so they were back to level 1. Needless to say they went to bed quite unhappy that night. Luckily they’ve gotten that bug fixed since then.

As you get more points and move up the levels you unlock Badges in the Awards section of the app. My son really like that part of it but so far it seems like it’s too easy to unlock levels. He was able to move from Level 2 to Level 6 in one night of training.

Granted we did spend quite a bit of time doing DribbleUp last night, probably more than the average user would spend in a typical footskills session.  It is cool how the color of the tracker changes as you move up levels, just a visual indication that you’re making progress.

It could be that the higher in levels you go, the more points you need to advance to the next level.  I haven’t really paid attention to that but it would make sense that the difficulty would increase as you move up. I do like the point system because even if you don’t get an A on a playlist you still get some credit for working at it.

Frustrations

Our biggest complaint about the app is still that the tracking isn’t perfect. I talked to the DribbleUp team after our last session and they pointed out that the lighting can play a part in difficulties in tracking.

If you have a bright light in the background it can throw off the tracking so it’s not consistent. The majority of our time spent using the app has been inside and we do have a lamp in the background which could be causing some of our frustrations. You can usually tell if it’s going to be an issue for a playlist immediately after you scan the ball. If the virtual cones are quick to jump from green to red, or if they start red then you know the scan had an issue.

We learned that if you tap the screen there’s an option to Pause or Quit the playlist. So whenever we saw red cones right away we’d quit and re-scan the ball.

Other than that, the app has been fantastic! As we use it I’ve been sending notes to the team at DribbleUp and it’s been neat to see our feature suggestions and bug fixes start popping up in the app.

As the chill of winter approaches and Daylight Savings Time gets closer to stealing our light in the evenings after school I really think DribbleUp will got a lot of use in the cold winter months.

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How the DribbleUp Smart Soccer Ball Wrecked My Kids Bedtime

Once upon a time there was a kid who didn’t like going to bed….

I’m sure you’ve never been a part of that story before right? As if my kids needed another excuse not to go to bed, our DribbleUp smart ball came in the mail today.

Sleep or Soccer?

Finishing up our nightly pre-bedtime reading ritual my son asked “Can we tryout that new ball, just real quick”?  Normally, “wait till tomorrow” would have been the answer but we’d been waiting to get the smart ball for a while and I was just as curious as him to see how it worked. It was just sitting there in the box, waiting to be tested. A tantalizing mix of soccer and technology, the siren song couldn’t be ignored.

Earlier in the evening, I’d gotten the TestFlight invite from the team at DribbleUp. The smart ball app was still in development and wasn’t in the App Store yet so we needed a special invite to access the drills.  As you can see in the pic the camera on my old and busted iPhone 5 was in no shape for any augmented reality app so I’d installed DribbleUp on my wife’s phone.

While I snuck downstairs to grab her phone as she graded papers my son unboxed the DribbleUp ball and we met back upstairs to login to the app and get the phone setup in the stand.

Soccer Drills

I guess being a studious kid, he picked the “Homework” tile first after opening the app and went to work on the “Right Foot Circuit” playlist. That playlist consisted of 5 different footwork drills, each 20 seconds long:

  • Right Foot Side to Side Rolls
  • Right Foot Outside Inside
  • Right Foot Roll Tap
  • Right Foot Front Back Rolls
  • Foot Stalls Right Foot

Each one had a text description but more importantly a video that described the drill and also demonstrated it. I was taking mental notes as we used the smart ball for the first time and sent off an email later on with some of my suggestions. One of them was that the preview video have the ability to “loop” so the user can watch the skill and practice it until they get it.

Now it shows the video once and you have to tap it to watch it again. While you’re learning the skill it would be nice if it repeated the video demonstration until the player got it down. Not a big deal for the basic footwork but would be helpful for the more advanced ones.

Smart Ball Tracking

When we tapped the Start button for a playlist we were prompted to scan in the smart ball. I talked a little bit about that step in other posts but basically the ball tracking is done with augmented reality tracking of the surface of the ball rather than other smart balls that have a sensor inside the ball.

So you hold the ball up in front of the camera and position it into the circle you see on the screen and the app reads the ball, kind of like a QR code for a soccer ball it seems. Once the scan is successful it gives you some time to get ready and then starts the timing/tracking of the skill.

Virtual Trainer

Once we chose the playlist and scanned the ball the first skill drill in the playlist begins. The video showed the trainer doing the skill and then the timer starts. Right away some up tempo music kicked off, which at first surprised me as being odd but as we continued through the night it grew on me.  Almost like a mental cue that you’re in training mode.

Kind of funny to imagine our U12 boys doing the 1000 touches warmup at practice to music and switching to a different foot skill every time the song changed.  But in the context of the app, I like the music.

As you can see in the picture, the app superimposes two cones on the screen that you need to stay between as you do the footwork.  The cones start off green but turn red if the ball “hits” or passes the virtual markers. (Apologies for the fuzzy image, a product of my damaged iPhone camera. After cracking the glass, it slipped into a cup of orange juice on the way to soccer practice and the camera has never been the same since.)

The trainer gives you audio cues as you go based on your performance. I figured they were random sound bites but as the night went on it seemed they were tied to my son’s actions. I posed that to the DribbleUp team in my later email and was glad to hear that the app is giving real time feedback to how the drill is being performed:

  • “Not good enough”
  • “Needs to be better”
  • “Stay focused”
  • “Pick up the pace”

The app moves from skill to skill in the playlist with a short pause between each one. You don’t have to scan the ball between each of the skills, only at the start of your playlist.

Soccer Skill Rating

After he finished the playlist the app gave my son a rating of how he had performed for each skill.  As you can see in the screenshot it scores player skill based on 4 factors:

  • Speed
  • Cone Control
  • Consistency
  • Pattern

One thing I didn’t like is that you couldn’t drill down into each of those factors to learn more detail about how each was being measured. That’s another piece of feedback I gave – allow us to tap on each factor to learn more about it.

He moved on to the “Left Foot Circuit” followed by the “Basic Playlist” without any prompting from me. I was sitting there thinking, who is this kid – working on his left foot?

You know how your kid always seems to listen better for other adults than they do for you? Well if I tell my son to work on his left foot he kind of groans and says sure Dad.  But the Virtual Trainer in the DribbleUp app tells him to “work harder” on his “Left Foot Roll Tap” and he grits his teeth and pushes on. Wicked! I wonder if it works for Math homework too…

The “Basic Playlist” was longer:

  • Side Taps
  • Ball Steps
  • Alternate Sole Flicks (I think that’s the one they showed in the Kickstarter video)
  • Left Foot Side to Side Rolls
  • Right Foot Side to Side Rolls
  • Right Foot Outside Inside
  • Left Foot Outside Inside
  • Right Foot Roll Tap
  • Left Foot Roll Tap

 

Each for 20 seconds.  By the end of that he was a little winded and needed a break so I jumped in and tried out a Triangle Playlist.  I didn’t do so hot, scoring a D overall. My son laughed at the old man’s score until he tried it and actually did worse than I did. As we got into Playlists other than the first few listed in Homework it seemed the tracking was a little off.

That was another piece of feedback that I shared with the team. For some playlists the tracking was fine but for others it was a bit frustrating.  We shouldn’t have been getting perfect but we were definitely getting lower scores than we should have.  For example, on the “Roll Sole Sole” he was scored with -33% Speed, 89% cone control, 10% consistency, and 0% pattern even after doing it several times and improving as he went. I let them know which playlists were buggy so hopefully those will get fixed.

Bedtime

There are a lot of drills and playlists and we might have been up all night if my wife hadn’t finally come looking for her iPhone. I should have known “real quick” would turn into “much later”. She wasn’t happy he was up so late – and “what was he doing playing soccer inside”? Of course he said it was my idea and I blamed it on him for being so eager to try it and that ended our first night of DribbleUp.

DribbleUp Pros

  • Gets him in the habit of keeping his head up. Instead of looking down at the ball, he’s looking at the screen while doing the footwork. Of course you won’t have a screen on the field but I like the habit of not looking at the ball.
  • Virtual cones force him to work in a tight space.  Like the cone setups for Beast Mode soccer – not as in depth but enforcing constraints that help improve precision in touch.
  • Big library of drills and playlists to keep it fresh and challenging.
  • Interested in the ability to have homework drills

DribbleUp Cons

  • Buggy tracking for some playlists. I’m sending the buggy ones off so hopefully those will get fixed.
  • Fixed duration. It would be nice if we could adjust how long the playlists and drills ran for.
  • Scanning between drills. Seems like Playlists are the way to go, you only have to scan the ball at the start and not between each drill b/c that could get old.
  • No juggling. The Kickstarter talked about the ability to track juggles but that’s not in the app. Hopefully that’s an upcoming feature.
iPhone HDMI TV
iPhone HDMI TV

Overall I really like how excited the app gets my son to train.  We’ll see if his enthusiasm continues over time. We haven’t looked at the “gamification” of the app yet, how you move up levels and leaderboards. I imagine my kids will be really into that if it’s well done.

Something else I noticed on the Kickstarter project was a video of a player hooking the app up and seeing it on their TV. While I was waiting for the ball to arrive I inquired with the team about how that works and they pointed me to what cables to use to make that work.  So I ordered a HDMI iPhone cable that will let me mirror the app to our TV. Excited to test out that experience when it arrives.  Overall I’d say our first test of a smart soccer ball was a success!