Eye on the Ball

You train almost every other part of your body, so why not your eyes? Sharpen your vision with these techniques; we guarantee your athletic performance will improve.

Oct 1, 2004
Outside Magazine
Andy Roddick

Sight club: Tennis pro Andy Roddick's orbs are off the charts.

MANY OF US DO LITTLE MORE to keep our eyes in shape than roll them at Bill O'Reilly. But proper eye function can make or break your day: It allows you to return a 100-mile-an-hour tennis serve, hold the best line through a mogul run, and keep your balance while hiking a steep trail. For most people, nothing short of surgery will return 20/20 eyesight, but the growing field of sports-vision research can help fine-tune and flex the nine muscles that power your peepers—the three inside the eye that help you focus, and the six outside it, which control direction and scan. It's worth the effort: Vision training improves balance, peripheral vision, recognition speed, and reflexes.

Not surprisingly, the brain plays a major role in all this. In stressful situations—like running Class V rapids or riding a snowboard through trees—peripheral vision goes haywire, taking depth perception and speed with it. This also causes a breakdown in the vestibular system, the part of the brain that handles balance. Essentially, when the eyes get too much alarming information at once, short-circuiting is one of the body's defense mechanisms: Visual information that should pass through this system instead rushes straight to the brain cells in charge of sparking your motor skills and thus your reflexes.

"Your vision system practically shuts down," says Burton Worrell, 61, a San Jose, California–based optometrist who, among other things, has helped batters on the San Francisco Giants do a better job picking up on the spin of a curveball.

Fortunately, you can learn to tap right back in to that data pipeline. Worrell's latest ocular regimen (see "Rapid Eye Movement") grew out of his groundbreaking research with college baseball teams, including the University of California–Berkeley. Over a 12-week period, players who practiced Worrell's vision drills improved their batting averages by 43 points—an increase that can spell the difference between a minor-league player and a major leaguer. Since then, Worrell has helped members of the UC Berkeley ski team—plus a number of Santa Cruz–based surfers—sharpen their focus, and he's now working with big-league umpires to help them call balls and strikes more accurately. His system, which involves creating optical tests that challenge eye speed and visual acuity, can work for anyone who needs to keep an eye on the prize.

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