Professional athletes are the best at what they do for many different reasons. You name it: “they’re naturally gifted,” “they train the hardest,” “they’re naturally big, fast, and strong,” “they have all the resources.” But one thing I rarely hear is, “they train the smartest.” This part of training is often overlooked, but when you look closely at the best of the best they’re training the smartest. They’re constantly looking for new ways to sharpen their skills, speed up recovery time, and stay one step ahead of the opposition.
So what’s the latest and greatest? Something has been surfacing for a few years now. Some secret training method that pro athletes practice to refine their already elite skills. In reality, though, it’s not new at all. It’s been around for decades, but just recently, thanks largely to scientific research, has been spreading beyond the professional ranks. That secret weapon is vision training. Also known as brain training or neurocognitive training, the importance of one’s vision skills is becoming a more familiar aspect in the world of sports.
For the most part people think all there is to vision is seeing clearly, but this is only the tip of the iceberg! Of all the information sent to the brain from the five senses, 80% comes from the eyes. Through the eyes the brain is able to judge, decide, and react to the world. Imagine if you only had only one sense. How limited would you be if you could only smell or if you could only hear? If you could only taste? But if your only sense was sight you wouldn’t be so limited and would be able to perform at a high level in most activities.
Our eyes are controlled by muscles, just as our arms and legs are. Athletes train those larger muscles for coordination, speed, and strength all the time, and that is what the masses see. We see impressive physical specimen with huge muscles who can move at the speed of light and seem to be able to catch, hit, or kick everything! But are these big, toned muscles really the reason for the precision and grace these elite athletes display? What guides those muscles? What guides the bat to the ball? What aims the ball at the basket? What focuses on the slopes of the green? The eyes do.
“Your biggest muscle as a goalie is your eyes. I do a lot of visual training in my pre-game routine to warm up my eyes and keep them sharp. If you’re not seeing it, nothing else matters. Your eyes are the basis of your whole game.” Washington Capitals superstar goalie, Braden Holtby, is huge on vision training as are most NHL goalies. Their vision needs to be so precise, fast, and strong enough to be sustained for an entire game. They need to be able to process what they see as fast as possible so they can then react as fast and accurately as possible. If their eyes are slow to recognize the puck or lose it for just a millisecond while they track it coming towards them, that may very well be the difference between a save and a goal.
Dr. Bill Harrison is a pioneer of sports vision training and has worked with hundreds of professional athletes and teams across the country for decades. He’s worked with Barry Bonds, Tony Gwynn, Greg Maddux, 5 world series-winning teams (including the San Francisco Giants), Utah Jazz, San Francisco 49ers, and US Olympic Volleyball to name a few. He has worked with athletes in virtually every sport, and has had the same result every time: better performance. “When the athlete is being observant visually, this is when everything looks slower with more detail and absorbed through the mind more thoroughly.”
MLB Hall-of-Famer, George Brett, worked very closely with Dr. Harrison during his long career (1973-1993). Dr. Harrison said Brett was an incredibly visual athlete, and placed much importance on training his vision skills and actively implementing them when he played. Dr. Harrison said, “Brett used a terrific technique when he stepped out of the box after a pitch. He would automatically ask himself one question: how well did I see the pitch? It wasn’t, ‘That didn’t feel good or I need to lower my shoulder.’ It was never a mechanical thing. It was very visual. His thought was that if he could see the pitch very well, his odds went up for getting a hit. If he didn’t see a pitch well, he needed to make the adjustment in his focus effort so he saw the ball well next pitch.”
The old cliché about keeping your eye on the ball is true, but the truth is that many athletes physically aren’t able to do this because of undiagnosed vision problems. Pro athletes can’t afford to have their vision hold them back, because it would be too debilitating. They wouldn’t be able to compete at the highest level. That’s why so many of them have their vision thoroughly assessed and then trained. You may have seen Steph Curry training with strobe glasses and the FITLIGHT trainer the offseason prior to becoming the first unanimous NBA MVP. Other NBA players are following suit, like his GS Warriors teammates and Kawhi Leonard.
Matt Ryan trained with the Neurotracker system all year before winning NFL MVP and taking the Falcons to the super bowl. Larry Fitzgerald has trained his vision since grade school. He initially started because of his struggles with academics. Luckily his grandfather was a Developmental Optometrist and not only got him through school with much success, but helped him get to the top of the NFL. Fitzgerald credits vision training for much of his success and is actually now the spokesperson for the College of Optometrists in Vision Development (COVD) because of the positive effect vision training had on his vision-related learning problems.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Los Angeles Rams are starting to work vision training into their systems emphasizing on-field awareness to decrease concussion rate and recovery time. University of Cincinnati Football experimented with vision training for 4 seasons (2010-2013) and experienced a significantly lower concussion rate as a team. Compared to the 4 seasons prior to vision training the rate dropped from 8.75 to 1.3 concussions per 100 games. The team has continued with the vision program to date, and other teams at the university have followed suit.
The baseball programs at the University of Cincinnati and University of California Riverside implemented team vision training a few years ago and had staggering results right away. UC Riverside scored 42 more runs, won 5 more games, and had 4.4% less strikeouts. Players and coaches reported better judgment of the strike zone allowing them to get on base more often. Cincinnati’s team batting average went up 34 points (the rest of the Big East conference dropped 33 points), errors decreased by 15%, and fielding assists increased 8%. Hall of fame catcher, Johnny Bench, was part of the scientific study as well.
Pros know how to train smart. No wonder guys like Tom Brady and Hunter Pence spend time fine-tuning their vision skills. This is nothing new, though. Ted Williams wrote in his autobiography (The Science of Hitting) that he worked on training his vision every year in spring training and the exercises no doubt helped him tremendously.
This idea has for the most part only been available in the professional ranks, but is now becoming more accessible to collegiate and youth athletes. Good thing since training vision helps with other things in life as well, like academics! Student-athletes benefit the most from vision training because of the effects it has in the classroom. We’ll get into that next time!