Obviously, vision problems are individual and complex. Thus responsible optometrists criticize colleagues who promote unsupervised training programs, whether taken from books or based on such devices as interactive videotapes or computerized boards of flashing lights. Dr. Donald Teig of Ridgefield, Conn., who has tested eight major league teams and dozens of pro tennis players, says, "You need a professional to test you and tell you what drills to do and how to do them. Otherwise, you can end up worse than you started."
Many optometrists, however, do supplement players' supervised training with advice on how they can prepare for competition on their own. They teach short pregame visual warmups that don't require props. They also give advice on exercises to relieve visual fatigue, such as shifting focus between near and far objects. And they pass along universally helpful practice techniques, some borrowed from coaches or players.
One drill, popular with Pete Rose, sharpens a hitter's recognition and reaction skill by having him take batting practice 10 to 12 feet in front of home plate. Another drill, developed by Vince Lombardi, improves the visual concentration of receivers. The quarterback throws footballs that are numbered on the front tip; the receiver has to call out the number as the ball approaches.
Some optometrists teach athletes how to improve their vision not just for an instant, but for a sequence of actions. For example Dr. Teig gives the following advice to hitters in baseball:
"Position your head so that your dominant eye—the one eye you naturally aim with—will have a clear line of sight to the pitch. Watch the pitcher with a relaxed focus until the ball is released, and then fine-tune on the ball. Minimize your head motion, refrain from thinking, and follow the ball with your eyes smoothly as long as possible before swinging."
Optometrists, as well as many psychologists and physiologists, suggest that an athlete ingrain correct visual habits with mental rehearsals. With eyes closed, he should picture himself successfully carrying out an action. This practice, called visualization, is most likely to improve actions that can be duplicated in competition, such as driving a golf ball or shooting a free throw. Indeed, an Australian study shows that basketball players who mentally rehearsed free throw shooting improved their accuracy by an average of 23% over players who didn't.
Athletes vary in their compliance with optometrists' advice, but those eager for a competitive edge usually pay attention. One of the most enthusiastic disciples is Kiki Vandeweghe, the sharp-shooting forward of the Portland Trail Blazers.
During Vandeweghe's time with the Denver Nuggets, Dr. Craig Farnsworth, a team consultant, discovered that Vandeweghe's eyes tended not to work together when he was tired. Changing his focal target as the game progressed helped correct the problem. Farns worth also taught Vandeweghe a full range of visual drills that he still does faithfully.
"I incorporate my exercises into daily life," says Vandeweghe. "I heighten my peripheral awareness by noticing items in store windows while I walk along with my eyes aimed straight ahead. Or I sit and visualize shooting from different locations. Or I concentrate on one object while I'm talking on the phone. Or, outdoors, I switch focus up and down, left and right, near and far.
"These exercises help in too many ways to count—being aware of where to pass or help out on defense, shooting the same way each time, concentrating on the basket, switching focus from the basket to a teammate. In a sport where you have to react quickly and correctly, your eyes are just too important an asset to disregard."