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A New Kind of Training

By December 6, 2017No Comments

What do Braden Holtby and Stephen Curry have in common? For starters, both athletes were awarded the highest honors in their respective leagues and positions in 2016 – Holtby winning the Vezina Trophy for the NHL’s best goaltender, and Curry being crowned the NBA’s MVP. In addition to that, both athletes have pretty impressive resumes. Holtby is the third goaltender in NHL history to record at least 40 wins in three consecutive seasons. He also is the second-fastest goaltender to reach 200 wins, doing so in 319 games – beaten only by Ken Dryden who achieved the feat in 309 games. Steph Curry, on top of being league MVP in 2016 for the second year in a row, was also the steals leader and had the highest points per game average that year. He also shattered the three-point record (which he set), going from making 286 three-pointers in 2015 to making 402 three-pointers in 2016, raising the bar by over 40% in a single year.

Despite their long list of accolades and accomplishments, these athletes have something else in common. Both Holtby and Curry have committed themselves to improving a critical part of their performance, their eyesight. In games where there are multiple moving pieces, unpredictable changes, small targets, and split second decision making, their eyes are trained to process that information faster and more effectively. In other words, Holtby and Curry are seeing more of the game and making more informed decisions both on the ice and on the court. As Holtby has been quoted saying in numerous articles, “If you’re not seeing it, nothing else matters. Your eyes are the basis of your whole game.”

So how do they train their eyes to be so effective in the game? As science continues to evolve, it opens up doors with new tools and technology that help strengthen an athlete’s visual processing system. For instance, Braden Holtby has trained on a machine known as the Neurotracker. A computer system that requires you to track multiple moving objects on a 3-dimensional screen. With various settings the speed of the objects, number of objects to track, and objective can vary. In the most basic setting, you are required to track four out of eight balls as they bounce around on the screen for eight seconds. The speed of the balls will increase after every correct round. Steph Curry has been very public about his use of strobe glasses in his training, glasses that mimic the effect of strobe lights. When he wears them a shutter flickers on and off, constantly taking away his visual information and forcing him to continually refocus and process information quickly. He has also incorporated FITLIGHT Trainers, touch responsive lights that provide real time feedback on your reaction time, into his training. These lights can go on randomly or be programed to fit a specific drill by adjusting the color of the light, the delay between lights, the length of time a light stays on, and so much more. Previously, this type of high tech training used to only be available for professional athletes who have access to the newest and most expensive training tools. As sports vision training continues to grow, it is becoming more readily available to athletes at all levels.

A large part of this growth is due to continued research in the sport vision field and the public attention that research is receiving. In the summer of 2017, Men’s Fitness ran an article examining vision training for athletes. As the article states, “Athletes constantly rely on stereo vision to throw, shoot, and pass accurately. But while everyone knows athletes can train to get faster, gain muscle, or improve core strength, coaches have always chalked vision up to natural talent – until recently. As it turns out, people can actually improve their stereoscopic vision with training, according to recently published research.” The published research they were referring to is a study of soccer players who underwent 12 sessions of vision training. The study found that after partaking in the vision training the soccer players cut their reaction times almost in half from 804.4 milliseconds to 403.7 milliseconds. Dr. Jennifer Stewart, an optometrist based out of Norwalk, CT, knows the value of sports vision training. She recently opened her own vision training company Performance 20/20. “Think of it as a strength and conditioning, but for the eyes and visual system. It will help athletes respond quicker, focus better, and have more awareness,” said Dr. Stewart in a quote for an article in the Stamford Daily Voice. Armed with a Neurotracker, strobe glasses, and FITLIGHTS in their office at the Stamford Twin Rinks, Performance 20/20 provides athletes with a comprehensive approach to sports vision training that improves both visual and cognitive functioning and they pair it with sport specific skills to match the needs of each individual athlete.

In the simplest terms, sports vision training improves your visual processing speed. However, there are many aspects of vision that contribute to your eyes’ ability to quickly obtain information for your brain to interpret. Aware of the complex skills necessary to be able to see clearly and efficiently, Dr. Stewart implements an evaluation process in her training regimen that examines 10 different aspects of the athlete’s visual skills. Below I break down the visual skills that are tested and trained at Performance 20/20 to give you a clearer understanding of the different aspects of vision that can be trained and strengthened.

Visual Clarity, Contrast Sensitivity, and Depth Perception

The first three components of the evaluation process at Performance 20/20 are basic functionings of the eye. While training can not improve these functions, it is critical information about the athlete’s current level of eye functioning. Surprisingly, many athletes are unaware of deficits in their vision and have not had routine eye exams. A simple prescription could greatly increase the performance of an athlete if their eyes are not working at the optimal level. In addition, training will be more effective with eyes that are functioning at their best.

Near Far Quickness

Near far quickness refers to the eyes ability to quickly adjust between an object far away and an object up close. An athlete is constantly shifting focus back and forth between the puck, other players, and the goal, all of which are varying distances from their eyes. In addition, near far quickness also plays a role in an athlete’s ability to track a single object as it moves closer or further away. For instance, a goalie has to visually track a puck that began far away and quickly moves closer.

Perception Span

Perception span tests how quickly you can not only visually acquire information but how well you use that information in your decision making process once the visual input is no longer available. It is often discussed in relation to your working memory. Similar to the challenges that used to be presented in magazines or newspaper – where you had to look at one picture and then try to identify the differences in a very similar picture on the next page – perception span tests your ability to quickly retain information. For a hockey player who quickly glances over his shoulder to survey where his teammates and opponents are on the ice, perception span is a valuable asset.

Multiple Object Tracking

Just like it sounds, multiple object tracking is one’s ability to track multiple moving objects. For a goalie, like Braden Holtby, this skill is extremely valuable. In front of Holtby in every game there are five skaters on his team, five skaters on the other team, and a puck that are all continuously moving in different directions. The ability to keep track of each moving piece can improve a player’s overall awareness, in addition to his decision making and reaction time. The Neurotracker used by Holtby and Performance 20/20 is designed to specifically target this skill. In addition, sessions on the Neurotracker can improve an athlete’s mental endurance and focus, which directly impact one’s multiple object tracking ability.

Reaction Time

At any given time in a game three important things are happening. You see things, you process what you see, and then you react to that visual information. Reaction time refers to how quickly you respond or react to that visual stimuli. In hockey it may be how fast a goalie moves his glove to make a safe, or how quickly a forward can get a shot off once he sees the open slot.

Target Capture

Similar to near far quickness, which highlights your ability to shift focus among different distances, target capture refers to how quickly you are able to shift your focus laterally across your visual field. Focusing on peripheral targets is something goalies have to do constantly. Whether they are shifting their focus from a central target to their glove in their peripheral vision or shifting their focus with the puck as it moves from the center of their visual field to the point players in the corners.

Eye Hand Coordination

Eye hand coordination refers to your ability to synchronize the visual input you receive with your hand movements. This is crucial for a player who is using his hands to connect his stick with the puck, or for a goalie who is reaching out to grab the puck in the air. While a lot of emphasis is placed on speed, if you have a quick reaction time with little eye hand coordination then you will simply be the first to miss the puck. Coordinating your movement with your visual input to insure you are accurately placing your stick, hand, or body in the correct location is critical in all areas of sport performance.

Go/No Go

Taking your reaction time one step further, Go/No Go emphasizes your decision making ability. You receive visual information, processing that information, and decide whether it requires action or not and what type of action. Testing an athlete’s decision making incorporates an element of pressure and stress that is present at all times during competition. Being able to make the best decisions as quickly as possible is a skill that separates good players from great ones. Deciding whether to take the shot or not, to step in and steal the puck or just contain, to fall for the fake or maintain your positioning – these decisions all require you to identify subtle visual cues and process them at top speed.

While sports vision training done at Performance 20/20 stems from traditional vision therapy techniques, it can provide a unique psychological training as well. Overloading athletes both visually and cognitively in drills creates a high stress environment. This trains athletes to be able to mentally manage stress, recover from mistakes, and builds resilience. Incorporating simple ball drills, sport specific movements (such as stick handling), and other strength tasks (i.e., balancing or squatting) challenges the athletes to work outside of their comfort zone, compounding to beneficial effects of the training. Overall, as every athlete and coach focuses on getting faster, stronger, and more skilled, we can’t afford to overlook the speed, strength, and skills of the part of our body that allows us to see the game. As Holtby said, “If you’re not seeing it, nothing else matters.”

This article is reprinted from Flexxcoach at https://flexxcoach.wordpress.com/2017/12/04/a-new-kind-of-training/.