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Don Teig is an optometrist who enjoys schmoozing with his patients as much as he likes treating them. Sitting in his Ridgefield, Conn., office, Teig, 47, talks about his own eyes. "I'm not even close to needing reading glasses," he says, "and I still have a good outside shot in basketball."
Teig's secret isn't just good genes. It's that he constantly exercises his eyes. "The eye is an organ controlled by six muscles that need strengthening and toning," he says. "Stronger eye muscles mean more than 20-20 vision—they mean better color and night vision, depth and distance perception. Since the brain gets its information from the eyes before issuing orders to the other body parts, better vision also means improved reactions, coordination and other athletic skills. It means a better athlete."
Teig felt so strongly about athletes' eyesight that 14 years ago he turned his practice into the Institute for Sports Vision. Operated by Teig, codirector Alan Berman, a third optometrist (who works part time) and several staffers, the institute uses everything from standard tests to the latest in high-tech equipment. Its patient roster is impressive: 11 major league baseball teams, four NBA teams, two teams each from the NHL and the NFL, the U.S. ski and decathlon teams and the Senior PGA Tour as well as individual athletes such as New York Yankee shortstop Randy Velarde and first baseman Kevin Maas, New York Knick center Patrick Ewing and Boston Celtic forward Xavier McDaniel.
But any weekend athlete willing to commit up to $1,200 can get 12 weeks of tests and therapy at the institute. All patients get a two-hour workup that includes tests that measure everything from depth perception to eye dominance. "One interesting element is dynamic acuity, or seeing clearly when motion is involved," says Teig. "Another is contrast sensitivity, the ability to see fine detail: a skier spotting moguls or shadows, a golfer reading the undulations on a green."
After taking the tests, a patient will usually be sent home with a prescription for glasses, contacts or goggles, though few pro athletes get off that easily. In fact many pros are told to report to Shaun Ratchford, the institute's sports-vision trainer. Using slides, electronic equipment and even psychology, Ratchford, 32, trains patients' eyes to focus more efficiently and to mentally visualize optimum performance.
Last year Ratchford worked with Scott Lipareli, 25, a pro racquetball player who had been struggling to track 180-mph serves. "When Scott made his mistakes," says Ratchford, "he was behind the ball. We call that exo. If you focus behind a moving or stationary object, you'll probably hit to the opposite field in baseball, be a back rimmer in basketball and putt long. If you're an eso, you're ahead of the ball, and you'll pick up early on ground balls and come up short on your shots and putts."
"Shaun's like another coach," says Lipareli. "He's made all the difference, not only physically but mentally. Physically I'm focusing better near and far. I can literally feel my eye muscles working, like flexing biceps. Mentally he offered me no false hope, but he told me that I was a good racquetball player and that the therapy wouldn't hurt my game." After treatment Lipareli's ranking jumped from 43rd to 20th in a year.
The Yankees' Velarde also saw an improvement in his game. A .223 hitter the first half of last season, he began visiting the institute regularly after the All-Star break and hit .302 the second half. Ratchford's drills helped him improve his physical skills in ways extra batting and fielding practice had not. "I took home a kind of revolving record album where you have to put golf tees in the holes," says Velarde. "Teig told my wife, Jeanie, to see if my head was moving—it was. When you start holding your head still, everything seems to move in slow motion. That's what a lot of sport is all about."
Hindsight being 20-20, a sports-vision institute was just about inevitable. By the late 1970s sports teams were beginning to make psychologists widely available to their players and were adopting a scientific approach to nutrition and weight training. One day in 1978 Teig, who had been practicing optometry for eight years and longed to expand into sports vision, was introduced to then Yankee catcher Fran Healy. "We were talking about the importance of vision in athletic performance," Teig recalls. "Healy mentioned things like focus and hand-eye coordination, which weren't being tested. I eventually got together with some electronic engineers and we developed equipment for testing, and Bausch & Lomb agreed to finance a trip to spring training in 1980."
Teig traveled to a number of camps in Florida. "I worked with seven teams and came up with some interesting data about eye dominance," he says. "Teams with cross-dominant players—guys who bat left with a dominant right eye or vice versa—had high batting averages. The Royals, who hit .286 in 1980, had an incredible 80 percent cross dominance, which is almost four times that of the general population. A study in Canada reported that the dominant eye processes information to the brain faster, and that especially figures to help in baseball. If you're batting left and your right eye, which is closer to the pitcher, is dominant, you have a natural advantage."