Vision training and young athletes
Brian J Grasso explains what it takes to 'Keep your eye on the ball' and why it is essential for young athletes
Although often overlooked from a training and development standpoint, the need for good and even specified vision in sport is a paramount issue. At every little league baseball game, you will undoubtedly hear the mantra that has become so synonymous with coaching younger athletes in visually-based sports - 'Keep your eye on the ball.' What does it mean to keep your eye on the ball? How do you keep your eye on the ball? Is specified vision a trainable commodity? Having worked the past few months with a legendary baseball coach, vision training expert and member of this State's Baseball Hall of Fame, I can tell you that vision training should be a component of the development programs produced for young athletes. Pardon the pun, but all my work with this vision training specialist has served to open my eyes!
As with anything else in the world of sports science, it is prudent to understand the physiology behind the system before you learn the training application. Vision is most typically defined as a process through which data is received and integrated with other input into the brain, and with stored information so that the meaning is abstracted, and the organism institutes the appropriate output. Vision is the trigger that initiates many chain-motor systems within the human body. For instance, vision is the primary signal that causes a hitter in baseball to swing or a boxer to duck a punch. The entire visual process begins with the basic component of light, which is the catalyst in eventually producing what we see. Light is measured in wavelengths with a visual spectrum ranging from between 380 and 780 nanometres. Within this range, several different colours can be seen.
The eye itself has the primary goal of shaping incoming stimulus into something the can be used by the brain. Simple visual patterns can be detected and converted to useable neural signals more quickly than complex visual patterns; the difference in processing time being between 80 milliseconds for simple images versus 260 milliseconds for complex images. The difference in processing time affects reaction time which in turn can drastically affect sports performance. An example of this would be the simple visual nature of a fastball versus the more complex visual image of a curveball. Many baseball players, including major leaguers, can absurdly hit a fastball better than a curveball - and this reality is directly proportionate to the visual complexity difference between those two pitches
Key parts of the eye are as follows:
When rods and cones are stimulated, they will deliver information along to bipolar cells which in turn pass the information from one part of the retina on to the other, and eventually on to the ganglion cells. The ganglion cells collect all of the information and process it on to the optic nerve. As the optic nerve ascends to the brain, it splits at the optic chiasm.
Within the context of sport, vision can be defined as reactive (the eyes will tell the athlete what they see), or inhibitory (the athlete tells the eyes what to look for). Vision is also thought of as learning. The latter point is a significant issue for this article - while of course much of visual ability has a hereditary component, a great deal of research has shown that there exists a strong learning component to vision as well. Vision training is not unlike strength training in many ways. While playing football will certainly increase your strength, adjunct and specific strength training will increase your strength even more and contribute to you becoming a better football player. Vision training can be looked at in the same way - specified visual skills can be improved through isolating and training them separately. This is especially rewarding when an athlete has reached a limiting developmental threshold - the point at which playing the sport will no longer lead to specified visual improvements.
Visual sport skills
This represents only a partial list of visual sport skills.
An example of a training tool used to improve specified visual skill would be to have a young athlete play catch with a beanbag under a strobe light. The increased visual noise produced by the strobe will cause the athlete to concentrate harder on catching the beanbag which will, in turn, improve the motor systems ability to respond to a visual stimulus (i.e. eye-hand-foot coordination).
Vision training is an incredibly fascinating topic with definite positive results for the athletes who partake in it. Do not assume that your young athlete is receiving an optimal amount of vision training merely by playing their respective sports, either. Like any other adjunct training, vision training can improve countless qualities associated with the skills of various sports.
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About the Author
Brian Grasso is the President of Developing Athletics which is a company dedicated to educating coaches, parents and youth sporting officials throughout the world on the concepts of athletic development. Brian can be contacted through his website at www.DevelopingAthletics.com