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?

Seattle Mariners first baseman Russell Branyan began this season on a tear. His numbers at the All Star break: a .280 batting average (versus a career average of .234), a .382 on-base percentage (career .331), and a .573 slugging percentage (career .491). In interviews, Branyan credited his newfound success in large part to a piece of software that runs on an ordinary laptop. "I think it's helped me really pinpoint and focus on the ball," Branyan said of the Vizual Edge program, which offers a variety of exercises to train and sharpen visual skills. "I see the ball exactly where it is. I don't want to say it's all because of this. … But, I mean, I was a .230 hitter."

Intrigued by Branyan's turnaround, I asked the people at Vizual Edge to send me a loaner copy. The Vizual Edge program is meant to be used about three times per week, for five to 20 minutes each session. There are three basic training exercises.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Visual tracking. Click image to expand.

"Visual tracking": You start with a blank screen. A small arrow suddenly pops up in a random spot, pointing in a random direction. Depending on the difficulty settings you've chosen, this arrow will disappear as quickly as one-tenth of a second after it appears. Once you've spotted the arrow, you need to identify which way it's pointing and nudge a joystick in that direction (or hit the appropriate arrow key on your keyboard). As soon as the first arrow has vanished, another will pop up somewhere else on the screen.

Visual recognition. Click image to expand.
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"Visual recognition": This time a row of three arrows, pointing in various directions, appears and disappears. You need to respond, again as quickly as you can, by re-creating the sequence of arrows (left-down-up, up-up-right, or whatever). On really hard settings, there are more arrows—up to 12 of them, pointing all over the place, challenging you to remember the complicated sequence.

Visual flexibility. Click image to expand.

"Visual flexibility": For this technique, you put on a pair of plastic glasses with a red lens in one eye and a blue lens in the other. A grainy black-and-white square appears on the screen. Your job is to find (within a few seconds) the three-dimensional diamond popping out from the square and then identify its location as top, bottom, right, or left. This is sort of like those Magic Eye books in which you attempt to find a 3-D sailboat hidden in a 2-D sea of squiggles. After each correct answer, the challenge becomes tougher, requiring more severe contortions of your eye muscles and taxing your brain's ability to process stereoscopic images as they move closer together or farther apart.

The visual-tracking test, with the single arrow popping up in random spots on the screen, trains your ability to locate and assess items within your field of vision. It might help a tennis player identify where an opponent's groundstroke is headed. The visual-recognition test, with the rows of arrows, is about processing complex stimuli. It could, for instance, aid a quarterback who needs to interpret a defensive alignment under pressure.

Most intriguing to me is the visual-flexibility test—the one with the 3-D glasses. It trains your ability to maintain sharp focus on things that are moving toward you or away from you. When an object—like a tennis ball that your opponent just served—is coming toward you, your focus converges. When an object moves away from you—let's say you're playing quarterback, watching a receiver sprint down the field—your focus diverges. To understand this better, hold your index finger at arm's length and bring it slowly toward your nose. You'll feel your eyes converging, and refocusing, as your finger gets closer. Now extend the finger back out to arm's length and feel your focus diverging.

Convergence is probably the most important visual skill for a baseball hitter. Remember that finger thing I just had you do? Now imagine that your finger was moving at 95 miles per hour. A major league hitter needs to track a ball rocketing toward him, seeing it clearly enough to read its spin and determine whether it's a sinker, a slider, or something else.

Barry Seiller, the ophthalmologist who developed the Vizual Edge software in 2002, has provided visual-skills analysis and training to players in the systems of the Houston Astros, San Diego Padres, Cincinnati Reds, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, and Milwaukee Brewers, as well as the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks, some college athletic programs, and various Olympians. (Bobsledders use the convergence training to better read the entry and exit angles of a course's high-speed curves.) "Superior athletes have superior visual skills," Seiller told me. He claimed that by looking at minor league ballplayers' results on the Vizual Edge tests and nothing more, he could often guess with great accuracy the ones who had the highest batting averages.

Greg Riddoch, who managed the Padres from 1990 to 1992 and now works in the team's minor league system, preaches the importance of visual-skills testing in baseball scouting. "Let's say you're a scout," says Riddoch, "and there's a studmonster in your area who's hitting everything but never faces pitching faster than 90 mph. It may be that he's not capable of seeing a ball faster than that, but without testing him you'll never get that red flag. It's another analytical tool—like using a radar gun when you scout a pitcher, instead of just guessing how fast he's throwing."

Yet it seems many teams aren't bothering to gather this information. "You would be amazed how many baseball GMs are making million-dollar decisions about signing draft picks without testing their visual skills," says professor Frank Spaniol, who runs the kinesiology lab at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. "You look at the NFL combine, where people obsess over quantitative results. But who's paying attention to vision? It's just as important as your bench press or your 40 score."

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.

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.

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