By David da Silva, Mental Conditioning and Vision Specialist, Athletic & Personal Development program
In teaching our athletes at IMG Academy, one of the first factual pieces of information we share is how the brain receives an image from the eyes that is upside down. Yes, upside down. This is the first bit of visual processing our brain is responsible for as it turns the image we are seeing right side up, and in fractions of a second.
The reaction from our audience normally involves a jaw-dropping expression. By the time we share a few additional facts like how the eyes feed information all the way to the back of the brain (while the eyes are in front of the head) or that 90% of all athletic mistakes are due to an immediate loss of concentration, it is no wonder we have students shaking their heads in amazement.
The visual system is a remarkable part of the nervous system that initiates action, influences decisions and makes sense of the world. In fact it is the visual system that utilizes the most sense in the world since we use it more than any other sensory system. When you consider that the visual system interprets visual light in constructing a representation of the world surrounding the body, it is not difficult to imagine just how dependent we are on the visual system.
Consider tennis, one of the most enjoyable and challenging of sports, and the amazing visual demands required to compete against an opponent. It is said that a tennis ball on average travels anywhere between 50 and 100 mph. Research has shown that it is virtually impossible for the naked eye to see a moving target traveling at more than 50 mph. Considering that a tennis ball travels at these speeds regularly during rallies, this allows only 3.5 seconds to 1 second of time to hit the ball from the baseline until it is returned by your opponent.
In this minute amount of time your brain is working on a tremendous amount of information as it is fed information from the eyes, interpreted in a fraction of a second in which a decision is made, and an action is initiated as it is sent out to the appropriate muscles. None of this is possible if an athlete is not able to anticipate, that is the ability to speculate and make a judgment on where the ball is to be hit in order to get a jump on it.
Let's consider a player hitting a ball from the center point to the outside corner at 100 mph. The ball will reach that location at .55 seconds. To put it in perspective, that is slightly longer than an average blink of an eye, which is anywhere between .25 and .40 seconds. Without anticipating that shot, it is physically impossible to reach that point and be set in time to return the ball. What is needed is an ability to identify and accurately interpret the opponent's techniques in order to diminish the time necessary to reach the ball and hit it at the appropriate point for return.
With the visual system optimized and trained to be efficient, a player can anticipate a shot in about .20 seconds which will save about 2 steps and approximately 5 feet. That can be the difference between an average player and a great player. Without the visual system, imperative decisions and rapid movement would be impossible in any given daily situation, but when you consider sport, being more visually demanding and time constrained, it is no stretch of the imagination to understand how amazing the visual system really is.
Set up an object only 12 inches or so from your face, then focus intently on that object. After a few seconds, move your focus to a faraway object (10 feet or so) and again concentrate for a few seconds. Continue to switch your focus between the near and far objects. This helps train your 6 eye muscles to slowly strengthen as they accommodate and adapt to the different distances in quick succession.
Focus on distant objects (again, about 10 feet away, this time with letters, numbers, words or images on them) on your far right and far left and move your focus as quickly as possible between the two. You can also add vertical objects (up and down) and do the same thing. This helps strengthen your ability to adjust and react, which allows for accurate judgments of distance and space.