By J. Travis Smith
on 6.19.14
Photo by Henry Phillips

We’re soccer amateurs, so when the Adidas miCoach Smart Ball ($299) needed testing, we enlisted an experienced friend. Could a soccer ball make us play like our friend and make our friend ready for the World Cup? After a few hours of sweating and chasing around the ball, our answer was a resounding…maybe?

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To be sure, the Adidas miCoach Smart Ball is an incredible bit of technology and a great soccer ball besides. This isn’t surprising coming from Adidas, the soccer company who has supplied the official game ball for every World Cup since 1970 and who is in many ways a leader in the sports technology arms race (miCoach has been available to runners for some time).

The first serious foray into data-heavy soccer balls (but not basketballs), this 32-panel ball is regulation size, without any noticeable weight gains from interior sensors, and bounces like any other ball. When uncharged, besides the words “Smart Ball” and a green mark indicating how it should sit in its charging stand, the miCoach Smart Ball is just another world-class soccer ball. But when fully charged — which takes about an hour — an iOS app synced with the ball’s Bluetooth records speed, trajectory and spin, along with the point of impact for up to 2,000 kicks on a single charge with superb accuracy.

Without a doubt, tracking your shot speed is fun and addictive (we’ve got the pulled hamstrings to prove it). And when paired with its coaching app, the ball is a potent tool for beginners. Not yet available for Android, the app features a “Get Better” section, filled with video tutorials and detailed guided steps to increasing touch skills, striking power and bending (or knuckling) the ball. The videos show professionals striking the ball, slowed down for the critical bits and shot from multiple angles, with specific instructions for what to do before, during, and after every shot. This is all amazingly helpful, but then, it can be even if you don’t have $300 to spend on a soccer ball: the app is free.

When it comes down to using it on the pitch, though, the ball has some limitations. The app can only record dead ball data, meaning none of your recorded practice shots can be volleys or rolling shots (the much more common in-game situation). This means practice is an unwieldy process: You set up a shot, open the app, click “Kick It” and shoot the ball into a net. A few seconds later, your iPhone — either placed on the ground by the ball or held in your hand — gives a read out of ball speed, spin and trajectory. Then you go retrieve the ball and repeat the process.

Adi-Ball-Ambiance-Gear-Patrol

If you have no idea how to kick the ball to, say, intentionally bend it around a penalty wall, the ball and its app will teach you remarkably well, comparing where you struck the ball to where you should have struck it. And if you film your kick (a built-in function), the app trims the video to just before and after the kick so that, frame by frame, you can watch yourself whiff a shot and discover why. The app even automatically loads your data into a useful graph, recording your shot speed and spin with time on the y-axis. For more interactive fun, “Challenges” mode lets you kick the ball in imaginary scenarios (around a wall from the corner of the 18-yard box or over a wall from the penalty arc) or aim to kick inside a specific range of speed. The app then compares your results with the pros, grading your shot, or lets you play against a friend to see who has better ball control. But for experienced soccer players like our friend, this information and prompting is less useful; these sort of broad adjustments and drills are so obvious and basic as to be something that, in his words, he wouldn’t use.

For the smart ball’s price tag, experienced players could purchase a ball bag and fill it with 10 practice balls for fine-tuning muscle memory. Instead of using the app’s redundant ball trajectory graph, they can use their knowledge to simply watch a shot for a more accurate assessment. Shot adjustments can be made more quickly when you don’t have to retrieve every ball, and special skills — say, bending around a wall — are better seen firsthand by someone with experience than predicted by an algorithm based on point of impact readings from the ball. But this assessment requires knowing what you are doing and overlooks the impossible-to-overstate fun of kicking the shit out of a ball and seeing exactly how fast it went.

To this end, the ball isn’t necessarily aimed at being an end-all-be-all practice tool. It’s most useful (and fun) to break out occasionally in order to see how your max speed and shot control has objectively progressed over time, or as a solid but expensive first step for complete beginners. And that might be enough for players with the financial means. Everyone else will be better served spending their money on a few practice balls while waiting for the smart ball to get a few additional features, like “rolling ball” support, which should be around in future generations. They’ve scored on the fun aspect; once Adidas nail the supporting features, we’ll start warming up our hammies.

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