On fitness: The Eyes Have It

by Molly Martin

AS EXCITING THE RACE to break Roger Maris’ home-run record was this baseball season, I found myself more encouraged – inspired, even – by the tale of Greg Vaughn. Coming off a forgettable 1997 campaign, when the left-fielder batted .216 and was booed by hometown fans in San Diego, Vaughn was voted to the All-Star team, joined in the home-run fun with 50 of his own, and led the Padres into the playoffs with a .272 batting average. San Diego Union sports columnist Tom Cushman called it “the most astonishing turnaround I’ve witnessed in 30-plus years of covering major-league baseball.”

Vaughn has cited two common factors, hard work and more playing time, for helping find his groove this year. But he also credits something that many other athletes – recreational and competitive – might not know about for improving sports performance: vision therapy.

Training the eyes is not a new idea; improve-it-yourself vision books have been around for years. Today’s specially educated “behavioral optometrists” employ tests to evaluate our visual skills such as tracking, focus change and depth perception. Training programs try to improve those skills to reduce side effects of visual stress (such as headaches and poor coordination) and help conditions from astigmatism and amblyopia (“lazy eye”) to near- and farsightedness. Some patients reduce or eliminate their prescriptions. Vision training has helped not only athletes but also those with learning-related visual problems.

At Alderwood Vision Therapy Clinic in Lynnwood, such training takes place in two rooms that look a bit like a computerized carnival: touch screens with flashing lights, suspended balls, colored and prism-lens glasses, mini-trampolines and balance boards to add muscular stress to vision drills.

But the aim here is not to strengthen the eyes, says Dr. Nancy Torgerson, who is also vice president of College of Optometrists in Vision Development. “It’s not a muscular thing. It’s an integration thing, how to get everything working together.”

To give a feel for some of the training done there, Torgerson described some exercises that could be tried on one’s own.

For focus: Practice zeroing in on a small object up close and then one far away. For example, when stopped in traffic, on the car odometer and then a distant sign. Practice making that transition quickly, and repeatedly.

For peripheral awareness: Try to develop vision to the sides while looking straight ahead. Put a small dot on each wall to the sides of your work station, and practice being aware of it while doing your usual work. Gradually move the dot further back.

For eye teaming (see photo): Thread a half-inch bead on a 6-foot cord. Attach one end of the cord to a doorknob. Face the doorknob and hold the other end of the cord taut to the bridge of your nose, so you’re 16 inches away from the bead. Look at the bead. You should see two strings, as if one is coming from each eye. The two strings should appear to meet at the bead, forming an X. (If they form a Y or only one string, the information from one eye is being suppressed; blink your eyes rapidly to “turn on” both eyes.)

If your X is in front of the bead, your eyes are aiming closer than it really is. In baseball or tennis, that might cause you to swing too early for the ball. Practice deep breathing and “looking softly” to move the X into the bead.

If your X is beyond the bead, your eyes are aiming further away than it is – hence, a late swing at the ball. Practice looking in front of the bead to slowly get the X to the bead.

When you find it easy to see the X at the bead, move the bead further out, according to your sport. Then add more beads and shift focus so one appears as one and the rest as double.

Vision therapy at Alderwood costs about $75 per in-office session. (To find other certified optometrists, call 888-268-3770, and specify if you’re interested in a referral for sports.) Some insurance covers such therapy, Torgerson says.

But at least, unlike much fitness training, once we have our eyes on track and working together, we don’t need an ever-increasing load for improvement, and don’t have to constantly muscle the eyes to work together, Torgerson says:

“The brain does it so effortlessly.”

Molly Martin is assistant editor of Pacific Northwest magazine.