Training an athlete’s vision has come up over and over again through the years. Books have been written about it. Products have been created. Programs have been proposed. Unfortunately, there has never been a proven method that was easy to implement, practical to use and affordable.
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Nike headquarters in Oregon to learn more about their new sports sensory training program and everything they’re doing to roll it out. I need to be very clear that I am not sponsored or paid by Nike in any way, so I have no vested interest in promoting them. After learning the science behind their programs and using their new technology, I feel that they have created a huge opportunity for strength and conditioning coaches to help athletes in ways we’ve never been able to before.
I’ve actually had six of the Vapor Strobes for about a year, but I really didn’t use them very much until recently. I was a little skeptical, and didn’t really know how to utilize them. I didn’t even know how to explain what they were doing, so it was difficult for me to recommend them to anyone.
The awareness of this kind of training is also brand new. Many people haven’t even heard about it yet. Now, with Nike investing millions of dollars into research, marketing and business development, I think that awareness of sensory training is about to explode.
The two main components of the program are:
- Vision screening that tests all aspects of your vision, and
- The Vapor Strobe glasses that can enhance an array of visual components.
In most sports, the ability to see is absolutely critical. When an athlete reacts to a situation, a complex series of events takes place in the body to create movement. Most coaches focus on the physical responses that involve strength, speed, skill, etc. Those things are still very important, but what we often forget is that the entire process begins with the eyes in most sports.
About 2 million nerve endings surround the human eye and many of them help us with spatial awareness balance and coordination. Our eyes take in the information that the brain processes before signals are sent to the nervous system to create movement in the muscles. It’s incredible that all those things happen so quickly that it seems almost un-measureable. Yet, without the ability to take in the information (i.e. see) none of it would happen.
Vision is not just acuity, though. Most people only think about eyesight, or visual acuity, when they think about sight, but there are actually several other factors that go into athletic vision including:
- Depth perception – both sensitivity to this as well as the timing aspect of understanding the speed at which objects are moving toward or away from you.
- Peripheral vision – this is at least as important as central focus in many sports.
- Contrast – this attribute makes objects distinguishable from other objects or the background.
- Target capture – picking up the object that should be the central focus.
- Hand eye coordination – processing visual input to guide hand movement.
- Perception span – this involves processing spatial information and making decisions based on that information. The importance of making decisions based on visual information cannot be underestimated in sports.
It has been shown that the following skills are all important in athletic vision:
- Processing subtle information
- Detecting briefly presented information
- Tracking multiple moving objects
- Predicting timing in moving objects
- Remembering information after it disappears
Of course everything starts with visual acuity, and a thorough eye exam and corrective lenses can easily fix this. Research has shown that many elite athletes actually have vision better than 20/20, or even 20/8 which can allow athletes to see things they never could before. Some of the research done on vision showed that every professional baseball player to ever hit for better than a .300 average has had vision better than 20/20. The same was found for the most successful football quarterbacks in history. This kind of evidence speaks for itself, and some eye-care practitioners are now being trained to dial in vision beyond 20/20 through the use of corrective lenses.
While visual acuity can be corrected, most of the other visual components can be trained using the strobe glasses.
The concept of the whole strobe program was created by Dr. Alan Reichow, who now works for Nike and has a team of people working with him on research, development, product design, programming and marketing.
The basic premise of the strobe glasses is to limit the visual stimulus and make the eyes “work harder.” The glasses have a liquid crystal screen in them that flashes on and off, giving the user the effect of a strobe light. Much like other forms of training, wearing the strobes gives the user a training effect that can improve many of the visual components listed above.
Interestingly, the concept is so new that we don’t know exactly how much training is necessary, how often it needs to be done, how long the training effect last, or even the best methods for training.
Studies at several universities have narrowed some of this down a bit, but the concept is still so new that it’s going to take a while for the research to catch up and answer all the questions.
For now, it seems that using the strobe glasses 20 to 30 min., 1-3 times per week is enough. One of the studies showed the training effect lasted at least 10 days, so we might not have to do use them very often to enjoy the benefits.
The best training methods seem to be doing sport specific skills so the visual, balance and coordination strategies we use in sports are directly challenged.
While some of the evidence is research-based, a lot of anecdotal evidence is building up through athletes all over the world talking about the differences they feel. I have personally had many talented athletes give very positive feedback after wearing them just once or twice. They say things like “I can see the ball better” or “My eyes just seem to find the ball and stay on it.” Pretty amazing feedback for something so non-invasive and easy to use.
Just imagine if a baseball, softball or tennis player could see the ball better, track its speed and movement better, and focus more directly on the ball instead of “interfering information?”
What if a hockey goalie could pick up the movement of the puck quicker and track multiple moving objects (players) with more accuracy through peripheral vision?
What if a football quarterback could process more information quickly during a play and had heightened depth perception that would tell him exactly how far away a receiver is or how fast he is moving?
It seems as though Nike has made a massive commitment to moving the concept of sensory training forward. In addition to the Vapor Strobe glasses, they have also created a unique vision screening system that tests all of the components discussed earlier, gives recommendations for training, and has excellent test/retest reliability to post-test after corrective lenses are used or training has been done.
A “kiosk” has been created with a large touch-screen combined with unique software that both evaluates and trains the different components of vision. The evaluation done at the kiosk gives the user a print-out showing exactly what areas are visual strengths/weaknesses and recommendations are made for training.
The kiosk is actually fun to use, which makes it a very appealing training modality. The only problem is the price tag. Nike wants over $40,000 for the station, which makes it a poor investment for most coaches. Certain teams, programs or facilities might purchase the kiosk, but most coaches will have to wait until the price comes down.
The Vapor Strobes, on the other hand, only cost $300 and are a key component of the training. This makes it a very realistic alternative.
All you need are the strobes, some practice space and a little creativity. They are actually fun to use, yet challenging enough that athletes typically enjoy the training and often experience immediate benefits.
The whole concept of athletic vision, or sensory training, is very exciting and is a great complement to what good strength and conditioning coaches already offer. This could give an athlete an advantage never possible before, and understanding the science involved can give coaches the opportunity to help athletes perform even better. The possibilities are endless, and we’re just at the beginning of this journey.