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Talkin More Sports with Dr. G

Talkin’ More Sports with Dr. G

Last time I shared the story of Larry Fitzgerald, one of the National Football League’s elite wide receivers. Fitzgerald is a proponent of vision therapy, which he experienced as a child thanks to the efforts of his grandfather, a behavioral optometrist. As I mentioned in closing last time, almost every athlete can enhance their performance with the help of a vision therapy program.

Some of my patients could run faster, hit baseballs better, play better tennis, bowl better and shoot baskets better after doing some vision therapy. I did have an adult patient who was referred by her workout instructor because her movements were asymmetrical.

Here’s an excerpt from an interview with senior writer at Sports Illustrated and author of The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, David Epstein. It’s clear Mr. Epstein displayed a limited understanding of the visual process but he made some points I thought were important.

David Epstein: [Batters] pick up on cues from the player's body before they're pitched, so for a pitcher, without knowing it the hitters are actually focusing in on the motion of the pitcher's shoulder and the pitcher's torso and hand and then as soon as the ball's released, on what's called the flicker, which is a flashing pattern that the red seams make as they rotate. And it's only picking up those anticipatory cues that allow the hitter to hit the ball because basically the reaction time of major league hitters or teachers or doctors to a visual stimulus is about 200 milliseconds (that's 1/5 of a second). That's half the total transit time of a fastball.  We simply do not have a biological system that is capable of tracking objects moving at that speed. So once the ball is half way to the hitter, he might as well close his eyes; he's already swinging wherever he's swinging. So in that first half of the pitch, right when the ball is out of the hand, the hitter has to have picked up cues from the pitcher's body and the movement of the ball to know where it's going ahead of time.

Q: So it's not that they're reacting more quickly, it's that they're reading the picture that they're seeing and anticipating where the ball is going to be. It's like it's the software and not the hardware right?

David Epstein: Exactly, exactly. This is a learned perceptual skill. And in fact if you do a digital simulation, which some scientists have done, where you delete the pitcher's shoulder, Albert Pujols becomes me basically…

Good athletes are using the visual process as a whole at a high level. It’s not just seeing clearly, it’s also knowing where things are in space (eye teaming) and judging the time it takes people and things to get from one place to another (spatial processing) with a high degree of accuracy and consistency. It’s about accurate eye movements and good peripheral awareness. All of these aspects of the visual process must work seamlessly to provide the kind of input that leads to accurate split-second decision making. The visual process must be flexible yet durable. These are the things that behavioral optometrists help people work on every day in vision therapy.

Next time: Even More Talkin’ Sports with Dr. G

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