On a Thursday morning in mid-December at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, a group of elite high school football players feverishly rotate through drills involving high-tech training equipment. The athletes wear workout apparel and look intensely focused. They're clearly pushing the limits of their bodies. But oddly, not a drop of sweat is visible and no one is out of breath.
You see, these athletes are not lifting weights, running sprints or doing position-specific skillwork. They're participating in a new vision and cognitive training program—one that's being used by a growing number of pro athletes across many sports.
At IMG Academy alone, Super Bowl champions and MLB stars regularly take part in the vision training protocol. Quarterbacks Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson used the program while preparing for the NFL Combine in 2012. New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz tried a version of the vision training last year and immediately felt benefits.
"You want to be able to track the ball all the way from the quarterback's arm into your hands, and these hand-eye coordination drills definitely help with that," Cruz said. "I want to be known as a guy who does everything he can to prepare, so fine details like this are crucial to me."
According to IMG Academy's mental and vision conditioning coach David Da Silva, the program is based on how the Air Force Academy trains pilots. There, vision and reaction time are life-or-death attributes.
"Knowing that performance can be improved by training someone's ability to look for something and to see it more clearly, we took that process and applied it to athletes here." Da Silva says.
How Sports Vision Training Works
The program isn't just about seeing. It's about doing. IMG Academy sets out to improve the speed and efficiency with which an athlete's brain processes information and gets his or her body to respond.
"Seeing, thinking and doing are highly trainable abilities," says Da Silva. "Cognitive training is really about how the brain processes information. It starts with what the athlete is able to see and how clearly they can see it. Then, how quickly the athlete is able to make a decision based on what is seen. The third phase is getting the body to react, whether that is a wide receiver catching the football or a quarterback throwing a pass precisely where he needs to target it."
Football players go through one to two sessions per week. Each session ranges from 20 to 30 minutes. During the training, athletes complete a series of drills that challenge their eyesight as well as their brains and their bodies' ability to react. As they do, high-tech equipment tracks their performance, allowing Da Silva to monitor their progress.
"We can see an improvement in reaction time of .2 to .4 seconds within a few sessions," Da Silva says. "We've seen some reaction times drop from one second to .4 seconds, which is an extreme improvement—more than twice as fast the original time."
Considering that the outcome of a play—or even an entire game—can come down to a fraction of a second, you can imagine the impact of shaving off this much time. If you're a receiver adjusting to a pass, or a defensive back trying to intercept it, that speed can determine who comes up with the ball.
Although a player's field vision and cognition are tough traits to quantify, Da Silva's athletes say their training has translated to improved real-world results.
"Athletes tell me that their confidence and focus on the field have improved quite a bit," Da Silva says. "They see things out of their peripheral vision that they couldn't see before. Even just walking around campus, they are more in tune with their environment because their visual and cognitive systems are functioning so well. Some athletes have even noticed that their reading speed and comprehension have increased."
Three Elements of IMG's Vision Training Program
IMG Academy relies on three main exercises. Each develops a different element of an athlete's vision and cognitive process.
1. Dynavision D2
WHAT IT DOES: Improves hand-eye coordination, reaction time and peripheral vision.
HOW IT WORKS: A large board with approximately 64 light buttons is positioned at various heights in front of the athlete. The lights light up one by one. The athlete tries to touch the illuminated button as fast as possible to turn it off while also focusing on the center of the board, where a small screen displays numbers that the athlete must call out throughout the 30-second set.
"Most people struggle on the outer reaches of their peripheral vision on this, notably the bottom of the board," Da Silva says. "This really helps you become more definitive and accurate with your hand-eye coordination. It helps you see things better, process what is going on, and then react to it better. It is also very competitive. Athletes challenge themselves to improve their score."
WHAT IT DOES: Trains the athlete to span his attention across many moving elements under pressure.
HOW IT WORKS: The athlete wears 3D glasses and sits 3 to 5 feet away from a screen displaying eight yellow balls. Four of the balls turn orange, indicating to the athlete which balls he or she should track throughout the exercise. The balls then return to yellow and start shuffling around the screen, bouncing into each other and moving toward and away from the athlete. When the balls stop moving, the athlete tries to identify the four balls he or she was assigned to follow.
"This is developing the decision-making process, spatial awareness and most importantly the athlete's awareness and attention of what's going on in front of him," Da Silva says. "Just like when you're playing wide receiver, there are many moving targets and you must spread your attention across all of them."
3. FITLIGHT Trainer
WHAT IT DOES: "This develops the ability to make good decisions under pressure in a certain sequence by relying on memory and speed of thought," Da Silva says.
HOW IT WORKS: The FITLIGHT system consists of a series of disc-shaped lights that light up in a variety of colors. Da Silva positions five light discs in front of the athlete on stands at about waist height, then designates a specific color pattern—"red-blue-green-yellow-purple," for example. The discs light up in different colors, and the athlete must slap them with his or her hands in the designated order as quickly as possible to turn them off. The discs then light up with a different order or colors, and the athlete repeats the pattern.
Sports Vision Training You Can Try At Home: Saccade Eye Exercises
Da Silva recommends a simple drill for improving your vision and eye strength at home. The exercise focuses on saccades, which are rapid movements between different focus points, either vertically or horizontally.
To perform the drill, you need four sheets of paper with random numbers and letters printed across it in rows of 10 or so. You can download the four sheets here.
Position the four sheets of paper on a wall to form a square. The bottom sheets should be just above the floor and the top sheets should be about seven to eight feet above them. The left sheets should be 7-8 feet from the right ones.
Stand eight feet away from the wall and keep your head still with your gaze directed straight in front at the middle of the square. Without moving your head, focus your eyes on the upper left sheet and call out the first number or letter in the first row. Then, move your eyes to the upper right sheet and call out the first letter or number in the top row. Continue reading each subsequent letter on the sheets going line by line. Rest for about 20-30 seconds and move onto the sheets in the bottom left and right corners.
"This drill focuses on eye rhythm and getting the muscles of the eyes to be able to move the eyes in different directions over different durations," Da Silva says. "The athlete must move their eyes from different positions to read numbers and letters efficiently."
On the next set, move your eyes vertically from the bottom left corner to the top left corner to read each letter on the sheets. Repeat on the right sheets.
Over time, increase the distance between the sheets to further challenge your eyes, always making sure that your head does not move during the drill.
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