One of England’s best players, with the potential to become one of the game’s all-time greats
Words | Richard Edwards Photos | Greg Coleman, The Red Bulletin, Red Bull Company
You hear a lot about marginal gains in top-level sport – the one-per-cent improvements that can be the difference between winning or losing, keeping your place in the team or being dropped. Stand still and you get overtaken; fall away and climbing back into contention takes supreme effort. Liverpool and England footballer Trent Alexander-Arnold has never been one to stand still. He was captain of his club’s under-18 side at the age of 15. He trained with the first team before he’d taken his GCSEs, and ran out in a Champions League final while barely old enough to buy his first pint in a pub. The defender was still a teenager when he was handed his debut England cap, receiving his international shirt from Prince William before playing a friendly against Costa Rica in June 2018.
In short, at the age of 22, Alexander-Arnold is already football royalty on Merseyside and beyond. Given everything he’s achieved since his first-team debut for Liverpool in 2016, he could be forgiven for taking his foot off the gas, but that’s not Alexander-Arnold’s style. ‘You’ve always got targets to hit, and when you do, more come along, with higher levels to hit,’ he says. ‘There’s that constant need to improve – that’s just the way the game is. Look at football now and every team is getting a lot better. They have to. A lot of the players 10 or 15 years ago wouldn’t be able to play in the modern-day Premier League for fitness reasons. You can see how much the game has moved on. The only way to keep up is to get better’.
‘There’s that constant need to improve – that’s just the way the game is. Look at football now and every team is getting a lot better. They have to. A lot of the players 10 or 15 years ago wouldn’t be able to play in the modern-day Premier League for fitness reasons’
Alexander-Arnold has his eyes fixed on those marginal gains. The one per cent. In this instance, literally as well as metaphorically. The fullback has been taking part in a groundbreaking Red Bull project using visual training and augmented reality (AR) to help enhance senses such as peripheral vision and depth perception. Working alongside US scientist Dr Daniel Laby, he’s the world’s first footballer to undertake this regime. Dr Laby is speaking from his office in downtown New York. He has a 30-minute window to talk us through his work with Alexander-Arnold before an NBA player arrives for a training session with this man who is quietly, almost imperceptibly, altering the way we see sport. Or to be more precise, the way sportspeople see it.
A sports ophthalmologist with almost three decades’ experience, Dr Laby stumbled into his field of expertise almost by accident. ‘I was going to be a computer scientist, which is why I’m so into this tech stuff,’ says the 59-year-old founder of performance lab SportsVision NYC.’Then I went to med school aiming to be a regular doctor, nothing about sports. While I was training at UCLA, I did some work with the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team. They asked me to take over that project for a year in my fellowship. Thirty years later, I’m still doing it.’ Today, Dr Laby works for some of the biggest sports franchises in the US, including baseball’s Boston Red Sox, basketball team the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA, and the Los Angeles Kings in the National Hockey League (NHL).
‘Dr Laby works for some of the biggest sports franchises in the US, including baseball’s Boston Red Sox, basketball team the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA, and the Los Angeles Kings in the National Hockey League (NHL)’
The concept behind his work is simple: better vision will make you a greater athlete. ‘We published a paper, peer-reviewed in medical journals, on how vision predicts batting performance in baseball,’ he says. ‘It’s hard to argue when you have 600 players showing that there’s a relationship between how well you see and how well you perform.
Here, on the other side of the Atlantic, however, this field of sports science has remained largely shrouded in mystery. In football, it’s near-uncharted territory.’ ‘The eyes are only the beginning of a lengthy, complicated process that ends up in a [human] motor action – an assist or a cross from a player like Trent,’ says Dr Laby. To help understand the role of our visual system in making that action, the doctor created the ‘Sports Vision Pyramid’, a tiered paradigm that shows the stages from basic visual abilities to the optimal interaction between eye, brain and execution.
‘The bottom of the pyramid is the most important – that’s sharpness [for example, 20/20 vision] or contrast sensitivity,’ he explains. ‘If you have a strong base, then you have a solid pyramid. But you need that strong base. Moving up, you’re looking at how both eyes work together, then how the brain makes decisions based on what it sees. After that, you get to guided motor action based on that information. At the top of the pyramid, you get to performance.” But the key, Dr Laby says, is not to skip any tier – you must build a solid pyramid from the ground up ‘Train somebody to have a faster reaction time when [you haven’t trained them to] see the ball and you’re going to have an unstable pyramid. To move up through Dr Laby’s pyramid, a subject must undergo a series of tests at every stage (see diagram, below above). From there, the doctor analyses the results and creates a series of tasks, or ‘interventions’, to iron out weaknesses and improve performance. ‘When we make an intervention, we talk about ‘near transfer’ and ‘far transfer’, he explains. ‘Near transfer will be that I give you glasses, you read the letters in a test, and your eyesight will have improved. That’s pretty easy to show and demonstrate.
‘Train somebody to have a faster reaction time when [you haven’t trained them to] see the ball and you’re going to have an unstable pyramid’
Far transfer is what happens on the pitch or on the field. That’s a more challenging task because, as you can imagine, how Trent performs on the pitch involves a lot of different factors over and above his vision.’ Alexander-Arnold had to work on his interventions for 12 weeks Utilising Laby’s innovations in the field of vision enhancement, the Red Bull Visions project aimed to take one of the world’s most gifted young footballers and make the best even better. By examining 12 different categories including working memory, visual concentration and peripheral rawing from actual footage of Alexander-Arnold’s previous matches, the footballer was put through a series of physical challenges using AR to simulate experiences he’d encounter at Anfield – Liverpool’s home stadium – on a Saturday afternoon. It was the first time he’d experienced VR or AR.
‘We took video and digitised it into a game situation with Trent in a VR headset,” says Dr Laby. ‘One test used a mixed-reality situation recreating Trent’s past crosses or assists. After he got the pass, he could look down and see his [real] foot and the ball. He kicked the ball and we tracked it with a radar-type system. ‘First, I gave him a simple play that he saw normally, then a visually challenged play, adding a flash in alternate eyes. We also turned the players blurry and transparent, making it more difficult for him to know where the players were on the pitch and who to pass to. We compared his passes in those two situations. His play sometimes changed, and it was fascinating to hear an elite footballer explain why he did what he did – why he was looking at this guy or went with that pass. We had eye-tracking data, too, so we knew what he was looking at. He couldn’t make it up.
For a footballer renowned as instinctive when it comes to making a run, wrong-footing an opposing defender or whipping in a cross, it’s an entirely new way of working, but one that will hopefully help him in a real-life match. ‘It’s taken a lot of learning,’ says Alexander-Arnold. ‘Not just about me, but about vision, about how you see colours, the depths of things, then transferring that information into movement and reaction.’
One test saw Alexander-Arnold improve by 200 per cent from one session to the next, says Dr Laby. That could pay off handsomely for the player, club and country sooner rather than later. “It shows that it works and that there are improvements that have been made,” says Alexander-Arnold. ‘In football, winning or losing is down to the smallest of details. If you can tap into something that’s been untouched, you’ve hit a gold mine.’
‘In football, winning or losing is down to the smallest of details. If you can tap into something that’s been untouched, you’ve hit a gold mine’
Specific details of Dr Laby’s work with US sports teams remains largely secret – the NFL and NBA franchises involved are keen to ensure that the knowledge he passes on isn’t easily available to others. He had approached Premier League clubs in the past but hadn’t been given an opportunity to work with a player in the English game until the Red Bull project came about. Such is the pace of technological advancement, many of the tests Alexander-Arnold carried out wouldn’t have been possible even two or three years ago, but these results could prompt others to beat a path to Dr Laby’s door.
‘This is a massive growth area, particularly in football,’ says Alexander-Arnold. ‘It’s the chance to put players in match situations without running the risk of injury or putting strain on the body, so there are huge potential benefits.’ Much has been the volume of football played in the past 15 pandemic-hit months that Alexander-Arnold has had precious little time to sit back and reflect on a 2019-20 season that saw Liverpool win its first league championship in 30 years, lifting the Premier League trophy for the very first time. In any normal season, it would have sparked the party to end all parties at Anfield. As it was, Alexander-Arnold and his teammates claimed English football’s most treasured prize against a backdrop of vacant seats, their excited voices echoing around an empty ground.
‘When another team wins it, you picture what it’d be like if it happened at Anfield,’ says Alexander-Arnold, wistfully.’ Potentially, you’d have fans running onto the pitch. Then it does happen and you’re in an empty stadium. It was a lot different to what we’d expected. Winning the league can obviously never be a disappointment, but without the fans, it’s nowhere near the same.’ This season, with supporters still largely absent, Jurgen Klopp’s side has struggled to match the extraordinary standards they set during that campaign. Despite a strong start, a run of six defeats in seven matches during February and early March signalled the end of the club’s first title defence since 1990. For a player who has suffered few setbacks in his career, Alexander-Arnold is sanguine about a difficult nine months.
‘Despite a strong start, a run of six defeats in seven matches during February and early March signalled the end of the club’s first title defence since 1990. For a player who has suffered few setbacks in his career, Alexander-Arnold is sanguine about a difficult nine months’
‘You have to treat disappointment the same way you do the good moments,’ he says. ‘You can’t dwell on them, because they only last a certain amount of time. ‘There’s always the next thing to focus on. Whether it’s a win or a loss, I take what I can from a game, learn from it and put it to bed. I never get too high or too low; it’s about finding balance and ensuring you’re focused on what’s coming next rather than what has just happened.’
This is a level-headed response from a player who is experienced beyond his years. It also provides a glimpse into why Alexander-Arnold has made so much progress in such a short space of time: never stand still, always focus on what’s coming. ‘There’s a difference between wanting to get better and knowing you need to get better,” he says. “It’s harder when you’re at a good level. You can get quite comfortable; there’s no real push, no danger around you if that makes sense. But when you know there’s someone who wants your position, who’s at the same level as you and is working harder, that’s the make-or-break moment. Do I fold or fight? The only way to keep it is to fight for it.’
And when opportunity knocks at a club like Liverpool, you don’t just tentatively reach out; you grab it with both hands and ring the absolute life out of it. This is perfectly demonstrated by Alexander-Arnold’s recollections of a tournament that effectively thrust him into Klopp’s first-team thoughts. ‘I’m not sure he’d ever seen me play, but we had a post-season tournament [for Liverpool’s under-18 side] in Germany,’ he says. ‘The manager of our age-group side told us that [Klopp] had scouts there and that [the location] was basically his home town. We were told that whatever we did would be reported back to him. I was really good in that tournament. I went on my holidays and then got a message to report back for the first day of training. Even though he wasn’t there, he got told about how I played.’
‘Everyone needs luck on their journey, but you have to be prepared for when it comes, because you may only get one shot,’
Alexander-Arnold hasn’t looked back, but although his medal cabinet is already groaning under the weight of accumulated silverware it’s safe to say that he won’t be admiring that collection, only thinking about what gongs he can add in the future. ‘Everyone needs luck on their journey, but you have to be prepared for when it comes, because you may only get one shot,’ he says. ‘You might only get one training session with the first team, and if you don’t seize it you might not get another. All that hard work you’ve put in over 10 or 11 years could be worth it or might be thrown away. But, whatever happens, you can’t affect the past – it’s gone. You can only change what’s going to happen in the future.’