When she was finally done practicing that chilly April night, she grabbed her iPhone, which had been propped up by a cone on the court. An app called HomeCourt had been monitoring and video-recording her every move for 67 minutes, in which time she made 658 shots on 720 attempts. Once inside her home, she could review each highlight of her 62 misses if she chose, because she is competing every day with her 13-year-old brother, Dylan, who follows the same routine.
“We both want to play college basketball,” Katie Bena said, “and we both want to continue to get better.”
For now, they will have to get better without playing in games, practicing with a team or traveling to tournaments. With the country’s $19.2 billion youth sports market halted, the use of mobile applications that specialize in virtual training has grown dramatically, giving young athletes a chance to stay active and organizations additional platforms to keep their teams connected. While many squads are already communicating weekly through mainstream methods such as Zoom and FaceTime, some coaches are complementing those connections with virtual training apps that put their players through workouts together.
Among the companies that have helped guide amateur athletes through specialized workouts during the pandemic is HomeCourt, one of the most downloaded sports apps in recent weeks, which employs artificial intelligence and computer vision to track a variety of basketball skills. Techne Futbol, a soccer-skills app created by a former U.S. women’s national team player, saw 30 times more users than before the pandemic. Famer, an app that offers virtual coaching in numerous sports, doubled in usage almost every day during the first two weeks of the shutdown, and iSport360, an app that aims to keep youth teams connected, charted a 220 percent increase in engagement among its 107,000 subscribers since last month.
“Six weeks ago, when all the sports games and practices across our country were canceled, everyone freaked out because, of course, this is unprecedented,” said Ian Goldberg, the founder of iSport360. “These youth sports platforms like ours became even more critical to keep teams connected and to keep kids’ skills sharp.”
Techne Futbol, launched in 2016 by Yael Averbuch, a former national team member who is now co-executive director of the National Women’s Soccer League Players Association, has a staff of just four and has worked the phones “around the clock” over the past month adding new subscribers, she said. The app assists thousands of users each day, and players can check on how much their peers are practicing during sessions.
“This is a really good time for sports players in many sports to be learning the skills and framework to train on their own that hopefully will continue past this point,” Averbuch said. “Right now it’s obviously necessary and it’s the only thing they can be doing. But these are things that players should be making habits doing in between their training sessions when everything is back to normal.”
In early March, HomeCourt was tracking roughly 500,000 dribbles and 100,000 shots per day; by late April, it was charting nearly 13 million dribbles and 600,000 shots per day, according to Alex Wu, a basketball-crazed founding team member of artificial intelligence start-up NEX Team Inc., which created the app in 2018.
“This is peak [basketball] season for everybody, right? It was March Madness. It was [high school] playoffs. It is the start of AAU season. A lot of basketball camps . . . were basically going to be shut down or be postponed,” Wu said. “We didn’t want to be an extra burden. Kids were going to be at home. They’re going to need something to help them stay in the game while also practicing social distancing and stopping the spread.”
Other apps, such as i360Sports, have complemented individual training services with virtual locker rooms in which players can interact, and hundreds of youth organizations have used Techne Futbol as a means of keeping their teams together. An Indianapolis-area club, South Central Soccer Academy, has tried several things to keep more than 1,000 players engaged every day: trivia, TikTok challenges, a virtual talent show and a movie night. The club has also had roughly 20 or 30 players call in through Zoom several times a week for coaches to guide them through Techne Futbol workouts.
“We miss the kids as much as they miss us and miss each other,” said Matt Wilhoit, South Central Soccer Academy’s director of coaching. “We wanted to find a way to stay connected with the kids.”
The Bena siblings have also had weekly virtual meetings with their basketball teams, but right now they are relying on vast amounts of free time and HomeCourt to keep their skills sharp. They started using the app about a year ago after growing tired of logging all of their shooting numbers in their heads or in notebooks. Now they’re using the technology that numerous NBA and college teams are using to track their shooting — both in numbers and precise location — and watching highlights of their performances afterward. More than anything, it has offered a daily reprieve during the pandemic.
“It breaks up the day for them,” said their father, Robert. “They always set apart enough time in the day to get their shots in.”