In most sports nothing affects performance more than the ability to see clearly and correctly. Whether an athlete is tracking a fly ball, returning a serve or throwing a pass, it is his eyes that lead his body.
Until recently most athletes took their eyesight for granted. But according to Dr. James Carlson, chairman of the American Optometric Association's Sports Vision Section, some 3,000 optometrists now work with athletes, from peewees to Olympians to pros.
The most obvious way that optometrists help is by prescribing aids for athletes to wear: corrective lenses, lenses tinted for various light conditions, goggles made of transparent polycarbonate for eye protection.
But beyond that, optometrists are also training athletes' visual systems to perform better. Dr. Alan Reichow, who works with at least 70 athletes each year at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., says that although athletes generally see better than non-athletes, even they have room for improvement. "If an athlete is motivated and you challenge him with visual drills clearly relevant to his sport, his athletic performance will improve," says Reichow. "I have yet to see an exception."
Sports vision specialists still begin with the familiar eye-chart test, but this only gauges an athlete's static vision—the ability of a stationary person to see a stationary object. Going further, they also test the complementary skills in an athlete's visual system, from the ability to recognize a situation instantly and react to it swiftly, to the ability to shift focus quickly and accurately, or to track moving objects and judge their distance, speed and direction. In the new Vision Testing and Performance Laboratory at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, an athlete in a visually demanding sport like baseball may undergo as many as 45 different tests.
Next the optometrist supervises drills. His emphasis is twofold: to enhance the entire range of visual skills, and to correct any significant visual shortcomings.
Dr. William Harrison of Laguna Beach, Calif., one of the first optometrists to work with athletes, gives three examples of how their needs and training can differ:
?"At the Kansas City Royals' baseball academy back in 1971, I examined an 18-year-old kid named George Brett. He had hit pretty well in rookie ball, but he had a serious handicap.
"Every time George blinked, that slight visual disruption caused him to have blurred or double vision for a split second afterward. He compensated by staring, and he walked around with eyes as big as silver dollars. But it was impossible to do this all through a game.
"I had him wear polarized glasses and use a vectogram—a device with two polarized pictures that you view at arm's length. George had to separate the pictures manually in various directions, while making his eyes and brain fuse them into one perfect, three-dimensional picture. After only two weeks of daily half-hour drills, his eyes worked so well together that blinking no longer impaired his vision.