How a Set of Flashing Lights Is Revolutionizing the Way Elite Athletes Train

A growing number of teams and elite athletes are turning to the FITLIGHT Trainer to enhance two long neglected skills—vision and reactive agility.

The tool that's revolutionizing athletic training looks like the offspring of a Simon board.

It's a series of small black disks, each capable of lighting up in six different colors. Along with the interconnected tablet, these simple lights are changing the way elite athletes train. Known as The FITLIGHT Trainer system, the technology is already being used by teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors, Nashville Predators and Vancouver Canucks. Individual athletes like J.J. Watt, Antonio Brown and Steph Curry include the tech in their training.

How did a set of flashing lights become the hottest thing in athletic performance training? Here's how this technology is helping elite athletes take their game to a whole new level.

Seeing Is Believing

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FITLIGHT Trainers are available in three different bundles—a 4-light system, an 8-light system and a 24-light system. Each system is fully expandable up to 32 lights.

The heart of the system is the tablet controller. Included with each purchased system, the Tablet Controller is where "all light operating functions and protocols are programmed and run." it's also where the data an athlete creates is displayed and stored.

The lights themselves are LED powered, water resistant and have a battery life of four hours. They can transmit data back to the controller from a range of at least 50 meters—outdoors, the range can extend up to 75 meters.

The basic idea behind the FITLIGHT Trainer's applications is pretty simple. "The lights are used as targets for the user to deactivate as per the reaction training routine. Various measurements can be captured for immediate feedback in relation to the user's performance," reads an explanation on the company's website. "During any type of training, specifically speed and agility training, the lights can be deactivated by use of the user's hands, feet, head, or sport/fitness related equipment, either through full contact or proximity with this revolutionary reaction training system."

RELATED: Improve Your Reaction Time By Adding Exercise Balls to Drills

The system is the brainchild of inventor Erik Veje Rasmussen, a former Danish professional handball player. He invented "the Octopus Trainer" in 2007. Over time, the system continued to get sleeker, more versatile and totally wireless. That evolution led to the FITLIGHT Trainer we know today.

The FITLIGHT is often used for the type of training that won't leave you out of breath—hand-eye coordination, mental focus drills and vision training. That's exactly how it's implemented in the "Mind Gym" at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

Located above the academy's sprawling weight room, the Mind Gym is a classroom stuffed with high-tech gadgets designed to challenge an athlete's mental-visual connection. The FITLIGHT Trainer plays a starring role. "The program was originally developed for Air Force fighter pilots," says Dr. Taryn Morgan, IMG's Assistant Director of Athletic and Personal Development. "The goal is to train the cognitive perceptional side—things like reaction time, decision making, control, anticipation. Getting players to react, think and manage any stress that's coming at them. Being able to pick up cues in their environment really quickly, just like on the field."

STACK recently got a chance to see a number of NFL prospects train in the Mind Gym, including Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs. Dobbs trained on the technology throughout college, and watching him pick his way through the drills was impressive.

"The Mind Gym is very beneficial, because your brain is what really separates you. Everyone is fast, everyone is strong on the field. But how fast can you process information?," Dobbs told STACK. "You're trying to find a leg up on the next guy." In this clip, an athlete is tested on how fast he can recognize the colors and how accurate he is at deactivating the lights in a pre-determined pattern—in this case, red, blue, green, yellow, purple.

Here's Miami Dolphins safety Reshad Jones working on vision training after a recent workout. The idea is to touch the light as soon as it's illuminated—unless it's red. "It's all about how sharp you can be when you're tired. I mean fourth quarter tired," writes David Alexander, Jones's trainer, in the caption. "Don't touch red! As I tell him, don't bite on the pump fake."

There's research to back up the impact that vision training can have on in-game performance. A 2012 study published in PLoS One details how the University of Cincinnati baseball team significantly improved their stats with the use of vision training. The team began a "high-performance vision training" program six weeks prior to the start of the season and did maintenance work throughout the season. The result? The team batting average went up 34 points from the previous season and their fielding errors decreased by 15 percent.

RELATED: Air Force Study Confirms Efficacy of Vision Training

Dr. Berhard Sabel, a neuroscientist at Otto Von Guericke University in Magdeburg, Germany, spoke to the New York Times about how vision training actually changes the brain. "Vision, like other sensory systems, can be improved with practice," Dr. Sabel said. "The improvements occur not in the optics of the eye, but in the central processing centers of the brain." Athletes who use the FITLIGHT for this type of mental and visual training include Steph Curry and Andrew McCutchen.

Read, React, Run

FITLIGHT Trainer

This type of training isn't likely to make you break a sweat, but other applications of the FITLIGHT most certainly can. This is where we get into the ideas of "planned agility" and "reactive agility." Planned agility would be a drill where the athlete knows exactly what he will be doing before he starts moving. He already knows the direction changes that will be required during the drill, so when the whistle blows, there's very little thought or decision-making involved. These are the types of drills you can do by yourself with nothing more than a set of cones—the 3-Cone Drill, the Pro Agility Drill, etc.

RELATED: Improve Speed and Conditioning With These 4 Cone Drills

Reactive agility, on the other hand, refers to drills where the athlete does not know where he'll be going before the start of the drill. Once the drill begins, he must look for visual cues (either from a coach or an implement like a FITLIGHT disk) that tells him what to do and where to go. Historically, athletic training has focused largely on planned agility. But how often does planned agility come into the equation on game day? If you play sports like football, basketball, soccer, tennis, volleyball, baseball or hockey,  the answer is very little—at least compared to reactive agility. It doesn't matter how fast a linebacker can run a 3-Cone Drill if he's not able to quickly analyze and identify where the ball's going during a game.

The existing research on reactive agility shows that it's a major differentiating factor in skill levels among athletes. A 2016 study published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance found little difference in planned-agility performance between amateur basketball players and semi-professional basketball players. You'd expect the semi-pro players to perform better, right? Well, they did—but only in the reactive-agility tests. The semi-professional players ran through the reactive-agility tests 6-percent faster than the amateur players.

"Reactive agility discriminated between the semiprofessional and amateur groups; linear speed and planned agility did not. To thoroughly distinguish agility performance between basketball players of differing ability levels, there must be the inclusion of some type of perceptual and decision-making component," the study's authors concluded.

A 2008 study found similar results, noting that higher and lesser skilled rugby league players scored similarly in the "preplanned change of direction tests" (in this case, the L-Drill and the 505 Test), but the more skilled players did significantly better in the reactive agility test.

What does all of this mean? Well, better athletes tend to have better reactive agility. Outside of full-speed game reps, reactive agility drills are the best way to train this often overlooked skill.

Alexander—who owns DBC Fitness in Miami—extensively uses the FITLIGHT Trainer (or a similar product) with his athletes. His client list includes Jones, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Antonio Brown. Here, Alexander runs Los Angeles Chargers linebacker Melvin Ingram through a reactive agility drill:

Each color has a purpose and a required action. Blue is a run play—Ingram must come up and play the run. Green is a pass play—Ingram must drop back in coverage. Pink is a man in motion—Ingram must re-align himself accordingly. Red is a hard count—Ingram just has to stay put and not run offsides. This drill is just one example of the endless applications of the FITLIGHT Trainer. "People don't truly realize how fast the game is. With less than a second to make the correct decision, your instincts are everything. We revert back to our training when the game plan fails. I added this drill in at the end of the workout '4th quarter' when he was most tired. I need his senses always sharp," Alexander writes in the caption. Alexander has used similar reactive agililty drills with athletes like Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown and Los Angeles Rams cornerback Kayvon Webster.

J.J. Watt recently posted a clip on his Instagram story of himself and his younger brother T.J. performing a reactive agility drill with the FITLIGHT Trainer. In the drill, they stood in the center of a semi-circle of eight FITLIGHT disks. When one lit up, they had to run and touch it. Simple, but it successfully added an element of reactive agility. Jon Lee, Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Toronto Raptors, says the simplicity and the versatility of the FITLIGHT Trainer are big reasons why he's been able to implement it into the team's training. "We have been using the FITLIGHT Trainer system for the last 2 seasons with our players. The FITLIGHT Trainer system is a very versatile unit that is easy to use and can be configured to meet our every need and more. The system is only limited by your imagination," Lee says in a testimonial on the company's website. "The types of drills created with the FITLIGHT Trainer system are endless."

As athlete performance training has evolved, the range of skills being trained has grown. Two areas that have been historically neglected in athletic training—vision/perception training and reactive agility—are no longer being ignored. The FITLIGHT Trainer's versatility allows it to be used to train both of these qualities, which explains its sudden rise in popularity.

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Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: REACTION TIME | SPORTS VISION TRAINING | STEPHEN CURRY | NBA | ANTONIO BROWN | JJ WATT | VISION TRAINING | NFL | MLB | HAND-EYE COORDINATION