Aug 1, 2016
Eye on the Ball

For the University of Cincinnati’s football and baseball teams, there’s more to preseason workouts than meets the eye. Over the past several years, they have been incorporating vision training alongside conventional strength training to prevent injuries and enhance athletic performance.

Why the need for vision training? First of all, athletes have gotten bigger, faster, and stronger over the past 30 years. Consequently, the speed and intensity of football and baseball have increased. Athletes collide at higher speeds on the gridiron, and baseball hitters face more pitchers who throw 90-plus than ever before.

At the same time, contemporary athletes have come of age in the era of cell phones, tablets, and other handheld screens. While these devices are undeniably convenient, several studies have shown they can limit an individual’s visual field over time in terms of depth, width, and convergence (tracking the speed at which an object comes at him or her).

Obviously, a compromised field of vision can negatively affect an athlete’s ability to respond to stimuli. For football players, not seeing an opponent lining them up for a hit leaves them no time to prepare, which some studies say contributes to the sport’s high rate of concussions. In baseball, an inability to track a 95 mph fastball can lead to a plummeting batting average.

Cincinnati’s vision training program sought to address these concerns. By implementing a variety of modalities to improve peripheral and central vision, strengthen the accommodative (focusing) systems of the eye, and lower reaction time, they’ve been able to produce several years of positive results.

Here are some exercises they use:

Tracking: Using a spinning wheel with numbers on it, players must call out the numbers in order as the wheel rotates.

Dynavision D2: The subject stands in front of the Dynavision board and hits a series of lights as they turn on. The athlete may have to simultaneously complete verbal and executive function tasks, such as calling out or adding numbers, word finding, or memory tests. These activities train multisensory input processing because the subject must continue to hit lights (working peripheral vision) while also targeting central vision and cognition with the extra tasks.

Tachistoscope: The tachistoscope is a computer-based device that trains the brain to recognize images faster. Numbers are flashed on a computer screen, typically starting with one every 0.3 seconds. As the athlete progresses, more numbers are gradually placed randomly on the screen (up to four at once), with different backgrounds and increasingly faster flashes. The athlete has to call out the numbers, remember the numbers, and remember where they were on the screen.

The tachistoscope works on contrast sensitivity, as well. It begins with simple contrasts, such as black numbers on a white background. As it advances, the contrasts become more difficult, such as dark green letters on a light green background.

Reaction-trainer ball: Using a non-round ball that bounces in an irregular and unpredictable manner, players bounce it against a wall and catch it as it comes back in random directions. To make it more difficult, the athletes can change their distance from the wall, height of the throw, or texture of the wall.

Another option is to have an athletic trainer or strength coach bounce the ball in front of the athlete, which requires them to react to the bounce and catch it. As training progresses, the throws can become more challenging, forcing the athlete to exhibit a greater degree of dexterity to catch the ball.

Reaction-trainer ball exercises can also be done in groups with a competitive element. Players can bounce the ball to one another, either in random fashion or at the instruction of an athletic trainer or strength coach. When a player misses the ball, he or she is out, and the last player remaining wins.

Pitch and catch: This activity can be performed by having an athletic trainer or strength coach toss any type of ball back and forth to an athlete or instruct the athlete to bounce the ball against a wall or on a mini trampoline. It’s beneficial for cardio, eye-hand coordination, and visual tracking. To make it more challenging, we will write letters, numbers, or shapes on the ball that athletes have to call out before they catch it.

Strobe glasses: Strobe glasses have LED lenses in them that appear to flash, completely blocking the signal to the eyes as objects are in motion. The lenses “blink” more rapidly in the initial training stages and are gradually slowed as the athlete adapts. The slower the blinking interval, the less visual input reaches the eye, making tasks more difficult.

Players wear the strobe glasses while doing pitch and catch or working on the Dynavision light board. In addition, quarterbacks and receivers occasionally wear them during our seven-on-seven throwing program to improve their ability to pick out objects moving at variable speeds.

A longer version of this article appeared in Training & Conditioning magazine, a sister publication to High School Athlete Performance, and can be found here.

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