A Little Flabby Around the Eyeballs

By Gretchen Reynolds

From Sunday’s New York Times Sports Magazine, February 5, 2006, p 50-52

Reprinted with Permission

Brett Basanez, a senior at Northwestern University, swears by a workout routine that, for a star quarterback, is pretty unathletic. Twice a week, he puts on 3-D glasses, settles down in front of a computer and punches at the keyboard to move arrows and dots across the screen. These half-hour sessions of souped-up Pac-Man are meant to improve Basanez’s ability to scan an entire football field and zero in on a target — crucial skills if you hope to find a receiver before a linebacker finds you.

“God didn’t make me 6-5 and fast,” says Basanez. “I have to look for every edge that I can.”

Clearly, he has found something. The 6-foot-2-inch Basanez set every passing record at Northwestern and ranks second in career passing yards in Big Ten history.

In the past few years, sports vision training has exploded in popularity, winning converts in almost every professional league, from the National Basketball Association to the PGA Tour. The United States Olympic bobsled and luge teams use vision therapy, as do many Nascar racers. And across the country a growing number of sports vision clinics offer amateurs the chance to improve their games by sharpening their vision.

A touch of voodoo clings to some claims made for vision therapy. The success is all anecdotal; nothing has been proved scientifically. Also, it’s wrong to think that exercises can correct physiological problems like nearsightedness or astigmatism. At most, vision therapy can improve only the brain’s ability to process visual information and the body’s ability to respond to it.

Still, the allure is obvious. Vision training promises an easy way to improve performance — to teach hitters to see the seams on a 90-mile-per-hour fastball; to help receivers home in on the football a millisecond faster; to train ski jumpers to locate the perfect takeoff point more quickly. It’s never too late to start, either. “The mind is very plastic,” says Dr. Sue E. Lowe, a sports vision therapist in Laramie, Wyo., who has worked with professional golfers, skiers, skeet shooters and others. “You can become better at processing visual information at any age.”

Grant Griesser, the assistant director of player development for the Cincinnati Reds, has instituted vision training for most of his team’s minor league and rookie players, and believes it can help older players, too. “What gets a lot of professional athletes out of sports, if it’s not an injury, is the waning of their visual skills,” he says.

Vision training for athletes evolved from reading therapies developed decades ago to help children with learning disabilities and people with amblyopia (“lazy eye”) concentrate and follow lines of text. Unlike exercises designed to strengthen eye muscles, reading therapy works to improve the eye-brain connection. Sports vision therapy takes it one step further. “It’s about eye-hand-foot-body-brain coordination,” says Dr. Barry Seiller, an ophthalmologist who is Brett Basanez’s vision specialist and the director of the Visual Fitness Institute in Vernon Hills, Ill. “Maybe you foul off the ball a lot, or you have all the technical skills but somehow just can’t put it together. You go into slumps. You fail in the clutch. All of that, to us, screams ‘visual problems.”‘

In general, vision training works best for “dynamic” sports: those that require tracking a ball or moving quickly on a field or racecourse. (“It’s hard to see how it will help marathoners much, or wrestlers or swimmers,” says Dr. Thomas Wilson, a sports vision therapist in Colorado Springs.) Baseball, football, basketball, tennis, skiing, auto racing and even golf all demand a high level of visual dexterity and spatial orientation: the eyes and the body need to be in sync. The object of vision therapy is to help make that happen.

Dr. Paul Berman, an optometrist in Hackensack, N.J., and the former president of the American Optometric Association’s Sports Vision Section, says an average person can focus on three separate places in a second, but with training can look at five. “That can make the difference between being good at your sport and being elite,” Berman says.

After a basic eye exam — “Every athlete should see 20/20 or better,” Sue Lowe says, so corrective lenses may be the first step — a therapist assesses visual skills. The athlete might be asked to stand in front of a board and touch lighted dots as they blink at random, to look through prisms that blur images or to quickly read letters both up close and far away.

“I like to talk about the four F’s,” Lowe says. “Focus, fixate, fuse the images from both eyes, and follow or track an image through space. Does one eye dominate? Are the six muscles that control each eyeball working effectively together? Can you see images with each eye, first separately and then together? How quickly can you recognize and respond to an image? How well can you track an object as it moves in space? How’s your depth perception?”

The best visual programs are individualized, based on visual-processing quirks as well as sport (and even position). If you’re a baseball player with a tendency to strike out, your therapy might include catching balls tossed under a strobe light to improve concentration and the ability to perceive objects seen only for a split second. If you’re a football or soccer player who has trouble shifting focus from the entire field to a moving ball, you might have to read the letters painted on a tennis ball shot at you at high speed. When you can pick out those tiny, spinning characters, you are without doubt keeping your eye on the ball.

There is no shortage of success stories. Daniel Smith, the head athletic trainer for the United States Olympic luge team, gives one example: Samantha Retrosi, a talented but inconsistent luger. Two years ago, Retrosi, 20, was a young hopeful on the developmental team. During practices, she would fly down one run, then crash on the next. Smith suspected difficulties with focusing and depth perception. “Just imagine,” he says, “if you’re focusing even a little bit ahead of where you think you’re focusing on the track, and you’re moving at 90 miles per hour. You have that much less time to make adjustments.”

So Smith sent Retrosi to Dr. Seiller, who also consults for the United States Olympic luge, skeleton and bobsled teams. Seiller prescribed some of the same computer-based 3-D exercises used by Brett Basanez, including a sophisticated version of Whack-a-Mole, in which Retrosi tried to catch flashing, disappearing arrows with her cursor.

In late December, after two years of vision workouts, Retrosi placed fourth in the luge World Cup at Lake Placid, N.Y., missing the bronze medal by only three one-hundredths of a second. It was her best performance ever, and she earned a spot on the Olympic team.

“Seeing is believing,” Smith says. “The vision work has really made a difference for her.”

Larry New, the senior associate director of athletics at Georgia Tech University in Atlanta, says he is certain that vision therapy has helped athletes there. “We had one senior baseball player who told me after the training that it was the first time he could see the seams of the baseball,” New says. “We know that big-league players can see the seams. They have that ability naturally. And now he could. That’s the kind of thing that can change an athlete’s life.”

Nonetheless, enthusiasts like New and Smith are operating on a little anecdotal evidence and a lot of faith. There is no hard proof that sports vision therapy translates into better performance. Probably the best controlled study was done in the early 1990’s by Dr. Ken West, a professor at Oxford University and a pioneer of vision therapy. West divided some of South Africa’s elite field hockey players into four groups.

One was coached on technique, one worked with a sports psychologist, another received vision therapy and the fourth was given all three types of coaching. Though each group played better after the training, the players in the fourth group improved the most (by 24 percent), as measured by their scoring, defensive effectiveness and other admittedly subjective statistics. “It was the highest improvement in performance among athletes at that level that any of us had ever seen,” West says.

His conclusion? “Vision training can be a good supplement to an overall training routine,” he says, “but it should be the last piece of the puzzle. If you’ve taken care of everything else” — if your technique is good, your equipment is good, your diet is good, your team is good — “and you’re still not performing as well as you think you can, then get evaluated for visual problems.”

Reputable therapists don’t promise miracles. Vision therapy won’t help you dunk if you’re 5-foot-2. It won’t make you a better hitter if you’re weak-wristed. It won’t give you the ability to outlast your nephew on the ski slopes, although it might help you pick out the fall line almost as quickly as he does.

In that way, it might be considered another useful tool, which is how Basanez regards vision therapy. “It’s kind of a unique twist, like weight lifting for the eyes,” he says. “I can’t say for sure that I’m playing better because of it. But I think that I see the whole field better now. I can scan and find my receivers faster. And it’s not like it’s hard work.” Compared with scrimmages and repeated tackles, he says, “it’s really pretty fun.”