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What You See Is What You Hit

Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine

Good athletes generally have sharper vision than poor athletes. The question is: Can athletes improve their vision? A local optometrist says they can

John Palumbo rested his chin on a bar and fixed his eyes on a red cross at the center of a screen in front of him. For the moment, the red cross is all that is visible. The rest of the screen is the dark night of the soul. But presently little dots of light begin to flash on and off at random points on the screen. The dots flash in his “peripheral fields,” above and below the red cross on which Palumbo has been told to keep his gaze fixed, and to the left and right. Each time Palumbo sees one of the stars of light flicker on, he pushes a button. Meanwhile, the computer inside the machine prints a graph of his responses.

Palumbo, who is the head teaching professional and presi­dent of the Delaware Valley Tennis Academy in Wayne, was undergoing a series of tests at the Sports Vision Center, a fa­cility operated by Dr. Arthur Seiderman, an optometrist, at Veterans Stadium. The tests are designed to evaluate how well he can see. Not just how good his eyesight is as it might be measured by looking at a stan­dard eye chart, but how good his vision is – that is, how well his brain can interpret the in­formation his eyes pick up, par­ticularly when that information involves moving objects that maybe glimpsed only for a split-second.

The machine with the flash­ing lights on the screen is a $15,000 device called a Field-master, and it provides Seider­man with an insight into Palumbo’s tennis game. During the evaluation, Seiderman leaned over his desk and asked, “Do you have a problem hitting balls above your head?”

Palumbo does in fact have a great deal of difficulty hitting overhead smashes. This is per­haps the main reason he has come for the evaluation. Indeed, he can replay the agony of overheads he has missed during the years when he was trying to achieve success as a touring pro; he can hear the snap of the net when his smash went low, or recall the sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach that came as one sailed long. “For some unknown reason, the overhead had always been my weakest shot,” he said later. It wasn’t because of my athlet­ic ability. I can move well. I jump well. The overhead is technically a simple shot once you achieve position, you should be able to hit a very offensive shot. But because I’m a tennis professional, I was in­clined to get hyper about a puz­zling imperfection in my own game.”

Seiderman explained to him that the printout from the Fieldmaster “shows you are lim­ited in the upper peripheral field. Secondly, whenever you respond in the upward gaze, your scores are lower. Because your vision is poor from your head up, you must have difficul­ty with overhead shots.” Seider­man is one,of a growing number of op­tometrists around the country who specialize in the new field of “sports vision,” and believe that many of the prob­lems experienced by athletes – whether professionals or week­end recreational players – are the result of problems they have seeing the ball, or the puck, or even other players on the field. Moreover, these sports vision optometrists believe that spe­cialized eye exercises can help athletes to improve their perfor­mances. “When you improve your vision,” Seiderman de­clares, “you are going to im­prove athletic performance.”

Research has established that successful athletes generally have certain visual skills that set them apart from non-ath­letes, and that better athletes have visual abilities that are superior to those of less success­ful athletes. At Texas A & M University, for example, varsity basketball players who scored highest on a test for dynamic visual acuity (the ability to see targets in motion) turned out to also be the best field-goal shoot­ers on the team.

There is still some, skepti­cism, though, as to whether vi­sion therapy can actually improve an athlete’s perfor­mance. To begin with, so many factors are involved that it seems almost impossible to sep­arate the effect of an athlete’s visual skills. Moreover, it is pos­sible that an athlete who thinks he can see better may play bet­ter simply because he has more confidence.

Dr. Myron Yanoff, director of the Scheie Eye Institute, says, “As far as I know, no scientific evidence exists that eye exer­cises can improve eye move­ment or make one more aware of objects in their environment. It maybe true, but there are as many people who doubt it as believe in it. I personally do not believe it’s true.” Some studies, though, do ap­pear to indicate that visual training helps. In one done by G. M. Nishizawa at Pacific Uni­versity College of Optometry in Oregon, one group of college baseball players was given nine hours of special visual training over a six-week period, and also was asked to do eye exercises at home for two 15-minute periods each day. Nishizawa reported that the players who underwent this training hit the ball hard more frequently than a group of players who did not receive the special vision therapy.

But even if the research is not definitive, there are plenty of athletes who believe that sports vision training has helped them. When New York Islanders goal­ie Billy Smith, who this past season led his team to its fourth straight Stanley Cup, became in 1980 the first goalie to ever record 15 victories in the play­offs, he said he wanted the name of his sports vision trainer inscribed on the Stanley Cup along with the names of the other Islanders. “I was razor-sharp in the playoffs because of eye training,” Smith said at the time.

Seiderman was not the op­tometrist who worked with Smith, but he has worked with several of the Flyers. When Pete Peeters, then a goalie with the Flyers, was having troubles during the 1981-82 season, he stopped in regularly at the Sports Vision Center. Seider­man’s analysis indicated that Peeters was not picking up the puck in sharp focus until it was only a relatively short distance away, and that, under certain circumstances, he wasn’t using the visual information from both eyes. This hurt his ability to track the puck into his glove. The Flyers, however, gave up on Peeters after the season and traded him in June 1982 to the Boston Bruins. There he has become an all-star goalie, and he credits the training Seider­man gave him as being a factor in his improved performance.

Seiderman has also worked with a number of other local athletes, and with the U.S. Olympic field hockey team, which has been training in Phil­adelphia since the beginning of 1982. Anita Miller of Radnor, a defensive player who was on the team that would have gone to the Olympics in 1980 and who hopes to be on the 1984 team, is one of several team members who has worked on her visual skills at the Sports Vision Cen­ter. She says the training has made it “easier to spot an oppo­nent coming in from the side, even while I am focused on another player with the ball. My concentration also is better.”

Miller’s coach, Vonnie Gros, feels that “we are now seeing that training visual skills, like other physical skills, can be as important as practicing the technical skills of a sport.

Seiderman is an ­energetic, dark-eyed man in his mid-40s, with a penchant for navy blazers and gray slacks. The bookshelves in his office are lined with tomes on such vision-connected dis­abilities as dyslexia and strabis­mus, as well as books like The Inner Game of Tennis, The Ulti­mate Athlete and an auto­graphed copy of Billie Jean King’s autobiography, Billie Jean. Bobby Clarke’s visual profile is tucked away in a folder on his desk.

He has not always been in the business of predicting athletic performances from visual graphs. Up until this past year, he focused most of his energies in his office in Elkins Park, working on the problems of children with visually related learning disabilities. It was, in fact, his work with children that led to his interest in sports vision, and the opening of the Sports Vision Center in November 1981.

The children Seiderman sees at his Elkins Park office often are plagued by perceptual prob­lems that cause them to reverse letters when they read or write seeing the word was as saw, for example. Behavioral optom­etrists like Seiderman attempt to correct these visual deficits through eye exercises. One of Seiderman’s patients, a third-grade girl, had trouble reading because she had never learned to use her two eyes simulta­neously at a near distance for more than a brief period of time. Because one eye or the other “shut down” when she read, she was likely to miss words, phrases, even whole paragraphs.

She underwent visual train­ing exercises that forced her to use both eyes at the same time. (For instance, one optical device would enable one eye to see a shape or letter that she would have to trace on a piece of paper visible only to the other eye.) Within months her reading im­proved, and, her mother noted, she also became much better at softball. Her hitting, in particu­lar, had improved markedly, and she was now one of the first selected when teams were cho­sen. The improvements in the two skills – reading and bat­ting – seemed to be related.

The relationship between reading difficulties and athletic proficiency is not – always that simple, however. Seiderman has since found that many out­standing high school athletes have visual problems that make schoolwork difficult but have a less pronounced effect on ath­letic skills. Often these boys and girls have become outstanding athletes in part because the op­portunity to excel in academic subjects was cut off to them. But sometimes, vision training for sports can solve problems that students were having with schoolwork.

Jeff Parker, a junior quarter­back for North Catholic High School, was one of four key players brought to the Sports Vision Center by their coach, Bill Saybolt, in the fall of 1982. Parker says the training helped him in both football and base­ball. But one of the drills he did – reading on a machine that increases the speed at which the text is shown – helped to pull up his academic average. “I could read for longer periods of time,” he said. “My concentra­tion improved in the classroom as well as on the field.”

The Sports Vision Center is in a suite of offices on the south side of the Vet, across from the Spectrum. Aside from Seiderman’s office and the room housing the Field-master, the major part of the facility is the training room, a large, paneled room that has the feel of a finished basement. There are various gizmos around the room. On one side a softball dangles from a string hooked to the ceiling. People being trained have to read the numbers on it as it swings back and forth and rotates. In anoth­er exercise, trainees throw bean­bags with letters on them at a “pitchback” net, trying to read the letters as the bag bounces back at them. Some of the exer­cises are done while bouncing on a trampoline. Eyeglasses fit­ted with prisms and flip-down lenses that distort images hang on hooks along a wall shelf. An evaluation of visual func­tion costs $100, with a typical five-week “enhancement” pro­gram “running as much as $400. The costs are covered by most insurance plans if a vision disor­der is involved.

When John Palumbo came in for his training, he spent part of each session drilling on the Sac­cadic Fixator. This machine, attached to the wall in the far corner of the training room, has mounted on it a wheel about 2 1/2 feet in diameter, with buttons along the outer rim. Next to each button is a red light. In a timed test, Palumbo reacts to each flashing light by hitting its corresponding button, which in turn signals another light to come on. He has 30 seconds to hit as many buttons as his eye-hand coordination will allow.

Drills such as these develop the six muscles that control move­ment of the eyeball. In Palum­bo’s case the superior rectus muscle, which allows the eyeball to turn upward, had lost some of its flexibility. Through re­peated practice, Palumbo im­proves his eye-hand coordination and regains opti­mal use of the muscle.

Other exercises stimulate the peripheral areas of the retina, or condition the visual center of the brain so that it can handle stimuli from the eye faster, thereby cutting reaction time and sharpening concentration. Palumbo also worked with a Tachistiscope, which flashes a series of numbers on a screen at varying speeds. Initially, Pa­lumbo had one-quarter of a second to call out five numbers flashed. By the end of six weeks of training, he could call out accurately nine flashed num­bers in one-hundredth of a second.

For Palumbo, it all paid off at the Crow-Shawnee tennis tour­nament in the Poconos last summer. “I had a really excel­lent tournament I ended up losing in the semi-finals, but beat the number-two seed to get there. There was no call for me to play that well. I had laid off the tennis circuit for several weeks prior to concentrate on business. Almost every guy in the tournament came up to me and asked what I was doing differently. I told them -­ sports vision.”

His favorite moment came in the quarter-final against Paul Van Dersommen, ranked eighth in the Eastern states. Van Der­sommen sent up a high floater, the kind that nearly hits the ceiling indoors. Palumbo watched the upward trajectory of the ball, moved four steps back and to his right, and smiled, inside. Then he hit a cross-court winner.

STEVEN SCHNEIDER has co­authored a book on sports vision, The Athletic Eye, with Dr. Ar­thur Seiderman. This article is adapted from the book, which will be published in the fall.


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