Eyes Wide Open

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Bodywork, May 1999

Eyes Wide Open

No need to settle for so-so sight. Not when an ocular workout can bring your game into focus.
By Tish Hamilton

Two seasons ago Greg Vaughn was, by all accounts, in a slump. The power-hitting left fielder, who'd been acquired in a blockbuster trade by the San Diego Padres specifically to bolster their run production, batted an embarrassing .216 and managed a paltry 18 home runs for his new club. Understandably, he felt some pressure leading into 1998. How he coped, however, is a little unusual: He didn't turn to a batting coach, or a strength trainer, or even a shrink. He visited the eye doctor. Frequently. Twice a week for six months he drove to the suburban San Diego office of Robert Sanet for hourlong sessions of tapping flashing lights and following pitches in a strobe-lit room. He was undergoing vision therapy--not your typical spring training regimen, but apparently no less effective. Were it not for last season's McGwire-Sosa sluggernaut, you'd know that Vaughn himself smacked 50 homers, a feat only 14 players in major league history have achieved. "We trained him to see more accurately, to be a better observer," says Sanet, chairman of the American Optometric Association's Sports Vision Section, who's helped a number of pros, including Dodgers shortstop Jose Vizcaino. "That buys him time for a quicker response."

While your athletic ventures may not revolve around trying to pinpoint a hide-covered sphere closing in at 90 miles an hour, any athlete can dramatically improve the way his eyes perform--and thus do the same for his body. This holds true regardless of whether you can rattle off the bottom row of the eye chart or can't even make out the big E at the top. Since most of us never bump up against the need to fully develop our eye muscles and the neurological pathways between them and the brain, we rarely hone such skills as depth perception, peripheral vision, and focusing, which are crucial to interpreting the physical world in all its true motion and vividness. "Because 80 percent of the information fed to your muscular system comes from your eyes, vision training can be as important to your sport as strength training," says Paul Berman, an optometrist in Hackensack, New Jersey, who's trained Terry Kinard of the New York Giants and Olympic heavyweight boxing champion Tyrell Biggs. "Vision therapy is a workout for your eyes. It's like going to a visual gym."

The first order of business is to find an optometrist who specializes in sports therapy, of which there are some 900 in the country (call the American Optometric Association at 888-396-3937). After a routine eye exam, your vision skills will be tested to determine what needs improving. It typically takes ten to 15 weeks of hour-long sessionsplus homework to see results. The sessions cost up to $70 apiece and, unfortunately, are seldom covered by insurance. Here's a rundown on the six problems vision therapists encounter most, along with drills for you to try on your own.

Depth Perception

Your eyes are like a couple of Blue Angels flyboys: If they're not focused on precisely the same thing at precisely the same time, there's going to be serious trouble. Which is to say, even a slight lag in one eye will wreck your depth perception, causing you to flub a flip turn, miss a climbing hold, or brick a jump shot. To test it, your optometrist will have you put on a pair of three-dimensional glasses and look at several series of four dots, picking out which one seems to be coming at you.

To work on your depth perception at home you'll need 25 feet of string and two tennis balls drilled through with holes. Slide the balls onto the string, positioning one five feet from one end and the other seven feet from the opposite end. Now loop the string around a pole and, holding the ends like reins at eye level and shoulder-width apart, try to bring the balls even. Lower the whole rig to the floor to see how you did; if the balls are misaligned by more than an inch or so, start over with them closer together.

Dynamic Visual Acuity

"You always hear, 'Keep your eye on the ball,' but that doesn't give you enough information," says Berman. "We teach athletes to focus on the letter 'a' in 'Rawlings.'" In so doing, Berman is sharpening an athlete's ability to track an object against a background when one or the other or both are in motion--known as dynamic visual acuity. The better this skill, the better you'll be at digging a volleyball before it touches down in the sand or detecting a rock lying in your path before your front tire smacks it.

Your dynamic visual acuity is trained with something called a stereo target, essentially a record that circles as you try to read a string of spinning letters in a specified sequence, which improves the connections between your eyes and your brain. To try it on your own, try to find one of those Richard Simmons­era mini trampolines. Post a playbill at eye level on a wall, position the trampoline ten feet away, and try calling out the words as you bounce. Read them forward, backward, and then name individual letters.

Hand-Eye Coordination

Anyone who's taken a Frisbee on the bridge of the nose understands the basics of this one. And beyond merely taming sporting projectiles, better hand-eye coordination will help you nail that butterfly stroke or that paddling sequence you need to bust a cartwheel in your kayak. It's an issue not just of accuracy but also of speed--your mind may know where your hand needs to be, but the question is whether it'll get there in time to avert a bloody nose. For training, your optometrist might fire up a spinning disc, like a smaller Wheel of Fortune with dozens of holes in it. Your job is to fill the holes with golf tees. As you get better, the disc gets faster. If you're really sharp you'll have to do it all while standing on a balance board.

At home, take a stab at the age-old art of juggling, an ideal exercise because it requires you to use your hands independently. The book Juggling for the Complete Klutz ($11, from Klutz Publications, 800-558-8944) is a good starting point. If you're already proficient, recite the alphabet backward as you do it, which asks the brain to process one more track of information, forcing your reactions to be even faster.


Along with sagging muscles, diminished focusing power is something that we all have to face as we age. Indeed, the problems are one and the same: Your focusing skills are at their best when you're a teen, and by the time you hit your forties they falter simply because the muscles and ligaments in your eyes are weakening. The good news, though, is that bolstering eye stamina and control is no more mysterious than pumping up your quads. You sit in front of the familiar Snellen eye chart, looking through lenses that make the letters blurry, and force them into focus. As you get better, your doctor increases the strength of the lenses you're peering through. "It's like weight lifting for the focusing muscles in the eyes," explains Sanet.

If you're nearsighted, you can give your eyes a workout simply by removing your glasses or contacts and trying to read a poster at eye level, just beyond the range where you can make out the words. If you're farsighted, do the same thing while sitting close to the words. If you're neither, consider yourself lucky--and get to work on your focus-shifting, which entails switching your gaze quickly between, say, your coffee mug and a distant wall clock.

Speed and Span of Recognition

An average person can look at three places in one second, says Berman. With training, however, that person can learn to focus on five places in that same tick. "A quarterback has about three seconds to find a receiver before he gets killed," he says. "We can train him to look at 15 different spots on the field before he has to release the ball." A major league batter, meanwhile, has even less time to make up his mind. So when Greg Vaughn visited Sanet, technicians hucked Wiffle balls to him in a strobe-lit room. The strobe was set to flash 50 times a second, giving Vaughn just a few infinitesimal snapshots of each pitch. Soon he was picking up the real thing noticeably quicker. "There's so much more information being obtained," explains Sanet, "that it looks like the ball's moving slower."

To sharpen this skill yourself, clamp a deck of cards from the bottom and hold it a foot or so away from your eyes. Now, with the other hand, flip through the cards at an even pace and call out the value of each card. If this becomes too easy, call out the value and the suit. Go as fast as you can for three two-minute intervals.
Peripheral Vision

Not surprisingly, this is the most common weakness for desk jockeys. "Working on computers all the time, your system learns to focus on what's close and shuts down the periphery," says Laramie, Wyoming, optometrist Sue E. Lowe, who's worked with world-record-holding trap shooter Phil Kiner. "But when you're riding a mountain bike, you can't afford to focus just six feet ahead, because you'll go head over heels. You've got to scan 20 feet in front of you and ten feet to either side." She tests and trains peripheral vision by standing you before a two-by-four-foot board crowded with half-dollar-size lightbulbs--a device known as the AcuVision 1000--and having you touch whichever red light blinks. The better you get, the more frequently they flash. Once you've mastered this, you're asked to stay focused on a green light in the center of the board while tapping the randomly lit red ones.

The home version is an exercise even the spudliest of couch potatoes could love: Situate yourself six feet from the tube, watching any sort of ball game. Take a few deep breaths. Now hold a pencil to one side at arm's length and turn to focus on the eraser for two 30-second intervals. Then do it while trying to describe the on-screen action. Switch sides and repeat. While it may be tough to convince your family that you're actually working out, you can probably get a note from your doctor as proof.

Tish Hamilton is a marathoner and a former managing editor of Outside.

PHOTO: David Roth. Photographed at the Los Angeles Club.

Magoo No More
The latest on the surgical route to 20/20 vision

Broaden your pecs? can do. flatten your abs? no problem. Sculpt your corneas? Well...sure. Misshapen corneas cause the common ocular frailties of nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism, and while they don't take to physical training, they do respond to another approach: refractive surgery. Indeed, despite fears I had about what boils down to being poked in the eye with a sharp stick, I recently went ahead and had the surgery. As new procedures open the door to a broader range of candidates, more and more folks are following suit: Last year 400,000 Americans had one of the three procedures described here, a fivefold increase from the previous year. Patients aren't guaranteed perfect vision, but for me--a birder, biker, and backpacker--the procedure means I'll never again have to disinfect my contacts in a makeshift bath over the campfire; for others it means being able to negotiate Class IV water without fear of losing their prescription shades. And apart from the minor risks that come with any surgical procedure, there are no drawbacks for athletes. "NFL guys do it with no ill effects," says Don Bell, a director at the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery. "So there's no reason why your average weekend warrior can't tolerate it."


PRK is best for relatively minor nearsightedness and farsightedness, regardless of astigmatism. An ultraviolet beam vaporizes the surface of your corneas--the transparent caps covering the irises--to amend their shape. As with the other options, you're awake for all the fun, though you do get anesthetic eyedrops. It's also worth noting that you'll be hard-pressed to find health insurance to cover any of these techniques (PRK costs about $4,000).


Suitable for people whose vision problems are worse than the kinds PRK can handle, ALK performs the same task but employs a tiny blade called a microkeratome instead of a laser. ALK works fine, but it's rarely used since lasers were introduced in 1995. It, too, will run you about $4,000.


The newest procedure (and the one I had), LASIK can correct just about any level of impairment. Your doctor uses a microkeratome to cut a small flap in the cornea, holds it aside while the ultraviolet beam sizzles away, and then returns the flap as protection. This method, which costs about $5,000, accounts for a whopping two-thirds of refractive surgeries.

LASIK is a godsend for former Magoos like me, partly because the cornea heals so fast: I could see better immediately after the five-minute procedure. My nearsightedness had rendered me helpless without lenses; if something sat more than four inches away from my naked eyes, it might as well have been four light-years away. Post-surgery, however, my vision is as close to perfect as someone with my feeble eyesight could have expected--and plenty good enough for me to tell the difference between a blue grouse and a blue spruce with my bare eyes.--JANINE SIEJA HAGERMAN

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