Is visual training the sports world's next big thing?

The stadium scene.
Sept. 29 2009 3:30 PM

The Eyes Have It

Is visual training the sports world's next big thing?

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Ted Williams always denied the myth that he could read the label on a spinning record, but his vision did test out at a razor-sharp 20/10 when he took his Navy physical in 1942. Babe Ruth may have in fact suffered from a visual deficiency—but of a type that could have theoretically aided his hitting. Spaniol believes that top athletes invariably possess some sort of off-the-charts visual skill. His guess is that even Tiger Woods—with his talent for reading greens and accurately interpreting precisely where the hole is in a 3-D context—would score abnormally high in one or more areas of visual ability. It may be that to achieve superior athletic performance, you have to be born with superior vision baked into your DNA. But Spaniol also believes it's possible to "coach up" your vision to a certain extent.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

To test his theory, Spaniol ran a study on the players from his university's Division 1 baseball program. During the offseason, he tested the players as they took batting practice off a pitching machine throwing 80 mph. His unit of measure: the velocity of the ball as it left the players' bats after contact. (This is the best way to determine whether the hitter is squaring up the ball at the bat's "center of percussion"—which you may know as the "sweet spot.") For the next five weeks, 12 hitters used Vizual Edge along with their standard weight training, while a control group of 12 others didn't. Those who'd used Vizual Edge showed statistically significant improvement compared with the control group.

Seiller, the software's developer, sees visual training today as akin to weight training in the 1970s. Techniques are only now beginning to be formalized and perfected, and many players are only now beginning to believe in the value of a strict eye-training regimen. A new Sports Vision Performance Center opened at the University of Houston in 2008, which may be one signal that vision training has arrived. But we are not yet near the point, as we are with weight training, that any athlete who eschews vision exercises is assumed to be negligent, lazy, and lacking dedication.

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There are more precise, expensive, technical training machines out there, for those with big budgets. But the value in a simple software application is that it can be used anywhere, with almost no setup, at comparatively low cost. (I didn't say cheap. It costs $200 for 30 Vizual Edge sessions, or $500 for 100 sessions, with discounts available for bulk team sales.)

Seiller thinks any high-school or college team that bothers to lift weights should also be moving to establish some sort of visual-skills training program. But what about an amateur weekend warrior—would Vizual Edge kick my game up a notch? After doing the training for a few weeks, I was able to see real improvements on the test in which the arrow pops up randomly and on the test in which you re-create the sequences of arrows. I'm not elite—Seiller told me about athletes who could see a string of nine arrows flash for 0.6 seconds and remember the sequence correctly every single time—but I'm getting pretty solid, compared with my starting base line.

No matter how hard I try, though, I can't seem to make significant strides in my "visual flexibility" (the Magic Eye test that works on your convergence and divergence focusing). It just isn't happening. Which maybe helps explain why, no matter how much I play squash, I never get past a certain level. When that little black ball is coming at me, my brain struggles to pinpoint its precise location. I don't hit the sweet spot on my racket as much as I would if I had better visual skills. Still, I think I'll continue to do the training for a while—at least until I run out of free sessions and start having to pay. I'm convinced I'm seeing the ball better than I used to and picking up its trajectory much earlier off my opponent's racket.

As for Russell Branyan? The second half of his season didn't go nearly as well as the first. His on-base percentage, for instance, dropped to a subpar .274. Granted, he's been dealing with a back injury, which may well be the source of his problems. But it could also be that visual training isn't yet the performance-aiding Holy Grail that top-end athletes are forever in search of.

I guess we'll just have to see.