Published in 1965, John McPhee’s A Sense of Where You Are profiled of the collegiate career Princeton University’s star basketball player and Rhodes Scholar Bill Bradley. McPhee described in detail the attitudes, skills, and gifts that Bradley leveraged to become college basketball’s player of the year his senior season. Of particular interest to McPhee was Bradley’s court vision. Like most elite basketball players Bradley seemed to have eyes in the back of his head.
McPhee asked Bradley to have his vision tested by a Princeton ophthalmologist. After agreeing Bradley found himself staring straight ahead at a wall while his chin rested in a device called a perimeter. The ophthalmologist asked Bradley when he could see a small white dot as it emerged from behind, below, and above him. Each position was recorded three times before it was plotted on a chart. The results proved Bradley had exceptional peripheral vision.
Looking straight the typical perfect eye can see 180 degrees to the sides, 65 degrees straight down, and 47 degrees upward. Bradley measurements were 195 degrees, 70 degrees, and 70 degrees. The fact that Bradley had such great vision would appear on the surface to be some innate physical gift, but Bradley himself credits a simple vision training exercise he used to perform daily. Walking through his hometown of Crystal City, Missouri, Bradley would stare straight ahead and try to identify objects in the store windows.
Fifty years later, advancements in research and technology offer athletes alternative strategies to enhance vision than your local storefronts. Dr. Robert Buonfiglio and Gary Kalloch from Eye on Performance, in Woburn, MA work with athletes to build visual acuity, depth perception, contrast sensitivity, eye/body coordination, visual motor reaction time, and peripheral awareness. These proficiencies help batters recognize pitches, goalies track deflected pucks, and point guards find their open teammates.
A recent study conducted by the United States Air Force looked at the efficacy of vision training programs. Each participant took a baseline vision and reaction time test. Those in the vision training group received 18 half hour vision training sessions over six weeks. The group that received the training saw an improvement of 65%. In comparison the group that did not receive the training saw a 69% decrease in performance.
“When you are working with athletes everyone now knows to focus on the skill and physical development. Vision training is an untapped resource. It is another piece of the pie to building a successful athlete” say Kalloch.
Similar to starting a strength program, an athlete who begins a vision training program receives an initial assessment that evaluates strengths and weakness. This assessment combined with individual sport and positional demands help tailor the design of the training program.
Unlike strength programs permanent positive effects from vision training take place after only a few sessions. According to Dr. Buonfiglio the typical athlete could see lasting benefits after only ten training sessions divided over five weeks. Maintenance exercises are suggested to maintain improvements.
Dr. Buonfiglio noted that “Most of the athletes we work with are able to maintain their new baseline for years. We have an elite level hockey goalie and he comes in prior to the start of each season just to get evaluated and his scores have not decreased.”
The emphasis is placed on preparing each athlete for in-game performance, and as a result each session requires athletes to respond to external stimulus with gross motor activation. One activity used to build eye/body awareness, called the Quick Board, is quite similar to Dance Dance Revolution in that an athlete has to match his foot patterns to those on a screen in front of him. Another involved catching tennis balls while wearing strobe light inducing glasses. The glasses use liquid crystal lenses to block vision intermittently.
These are two of the newest trends in vision training and they have proven successful in the lab. In a recent article published in Bloomberg, Duke University neuroscientist Stephen Mitroff, stated that people who undergo stroboscopic training “are better able to pick up subtle motion cues, better able to hold [a] thing in their working memory. We found improvements in anticipatory timing: being able to predict when a moving object is going to be at a certain spot.” Imagine the benefits this offers an athlete in the midst of changing game conditions.
From a performance psychology perspective active and stressful training is important to help simulate game conditions. It was refreshing to learn multiple examples of how Eye on Performance and other vision training programs help athletes develop cognitive skills within the structure of their training. For instance, Kalloch explained how he teaches goalies to utilize the concept of psychological grounding to help keep them in the moment during games, with a simple and practiced glance towards the boards. This technique helps to focus the prefrontal cortex and settle the more primitive aspects of our brains.
The connection between vision and performance is very complex. Concepts from the quiet mind, eye gaze, and the evolutionary relationship between our visual system and our brains deserve their own articles. The important concept to understand is that the many components of vision are not fixed traits and can be developed through proper training.
Please use the following link to find three vision exercises you can try at the gym tomorrow.