In the months leading up to the Beijing Olympics, Tairia Flowers, starting first baseman for the U.S. women's softball team, has her work cut out for her: Cardio. Sprints. Squats. Weights. Interval training. Strength phases. Explosive phases. Eye conditioning. Eye conditioning?
Mention Ted Williams' hitting, and one of the first things that comes up is his extraordinary eyesight. He could see the seams on a baseball coming toward him at 95 mph and read a record label spinning on a turntable—or so legend has it. The New York Yankees' Jason Giambi has said he recognizes the pitch the moment the ball leaves the pitcher's hand. Most hitters, players estimate, pick up the pitch at a distance of 30 feet (distance from mound to plate is 60 feet, 6 inches).
"A lot of people forget that in sports—tennis, softball, baseball—if you're not seeing the ball, you might have the best swing in the world, but you won't be swinging anywhere close to the ball," Flowers, the powerful hitter and 2004 Olympic gold medalist, told ABC News.
So each day, Flowers sits at her laptop and spends two minutes apiece on three exercises; it's part of an assessment and treatment designed for her team by Johnson & Johnson's AchieveVision program, which works with Olympic athletes. Letters flash, shapes pop up and disappear lickety-split, giving her nanoseconds to remember and match them up with other shapes. It's a crucial part of her training: moving quickly, adjusting to change, split-second decision-making, hand-eye coordination.
Flowers is not alone. "As an Olympic athlete, I'm constantly looking to do whatever I can to gain an edge," Vic Wunderle, who will be representing the U.S. in archery this summer, told ABC News. "I spend hours and hours working on my bow and practicing. My bow's important, my arrow's important, my eyesight is just as important."
In recent years, sports vision therapy has grown in popularity.
It may start with souped-up contacts: tinted amber lenses that filter out scattered background light to allow the eyes to track the ball more clearly—Ken Griffey of the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago White Sox' A.J. Pierzynski have worn ones from Nike—or prescriptions so precise and powerful athletes wouldn't wear them off the field.
Flowers wears a contact in her right eye when she's playing; she credits her "most consistent" season in part to her improved vision. Heather O'Reilly, star forward for the U.S. women's soccer team, still remembers the day in 7th grade that she started wearing contact lenses on the field. O.K., so it wasn't as exciting as the day— August 23, 2004 — that she scored the game-winning goal against Germany in the Olympics quarterfinal match, but the first undoubtedly made the second possible.
"Wow!" is how she described her reaction to ABC News. "I had been missing out on the spin on the ball. You know the expression, bend it like Beckham? I hadn't been seeing the backspin."
The next step in sports vision therapy may be exercises designed to make your eyes work together better, track balls moving at a gazillion mph, quicken brain response time, gauge depth and distance, improve peripheral vision, switch focus more rapidly. Optometrists use nifty gadgets and gizmos that include beads on strings, prisms, trampolines, balance boards, red lenses, green lenses. Because for an athlete, acing the Snellen chart—that's the one in the doctor's office with the big E at the top—is just the beginning.
"We think of 20/20 as the ultimate vision, but athletes at the elite level often have 20/10," said Dr. Graham Erickson, an optometrist and author of "Sports Vision: Vision Care for the Enhancement of Sports Performance." "They can see at 20 feet what the average person can see at 10."
"The terms 'sight' and 'vision' mean different things," Dr. Gary Etting, an optometrist based in Los Angeles, told ABC News. Sight is seeing a particular-sized letter on the chart, "vision is understanding what you see."
On his Web site, visualprocessing.com, Etting lists "symptoms" that may indicate to an athlete that he or she needs to seek out professional help. Included in the overall list are inconsistent performance from game to game, difficulty remembering plays, being "off" in his or her timing.
In baseball, there's the player who's a good hitter and poor fielder (and vice versa), the one who performs better during the day than at night, the power hitter who cannot pull the ball. In basketball, look for inconsistent free-throwing, or players who are able to shoot well only when both feet are on the ground. In football, warning signals include a running back with "bad hands" or an end who can't catch the ball when he's in the air.
Nick Boothe, head baseball coach at Virginia Wesleyan College who just completed his 12th consecutive winning season and who's worked with the Mets' David Wright, told ABC News that, with 100-mph-plus pitches, "vision is becoming even more important." He's coached for more than 20 years but still marvels at how hitters can react. "When you have less than half a second to react to a ball, it's amazing."
When Boothe recognizes a player is having trouble catching, or is swinging the bat the same way for every type of pitch, he'll often send them to a local optometrist, Dr. Hal Breedlove. The current chair of the American Optometric Association's Sports Vision Section, Breedlove is careful to point out that he's not strengthening eye muscles, he's strengthening "control. It's the most finely tuned neuromuscular system in the body," he told ABC News.
As part of his exercise program, he gives players glasses with prisms. "Prisms add stress," he said. They "throw the visual system off and you have to learn to compensate. [The exercise] improves the body's flexibility."
Dr. Elise Brisco, an optometrist who's worked with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, used strobe lights, bean bags, balance boards and trampolines. "Your vision guides your hands, your legs, your balance, your shifting of weight," she said. "When the puck is moving so fast, you need to make a continual dynamic adjustment."
So she might have the player stand on a balance board, and as he moved forward or backward, as if surfing, she'd turn on a strobe light and throw a ball at him. "With the strobe light, they didn't see the entire pathway," said Brisco. "So they had to fill in the gaps with their mind's eye. That's visualization. When we would turn the lights on, they'd see the entire pathway of the target, and it would seem slower."
And as sports becomes faster and more competitive, expect vision therapy to grow. The techniques will evolve, but not the motivation. Dr. Gary Etting has been working with amateur athletes for some 30 years and still enjoys recalling two of the first players he worked with.
They were amateur tennis players, neighbors in a ritzy Los Angeles neighborhood. The first came in because he was having hand-eye coordination problems after using his eyes for long periods of time. Etting worked with him, and the treatment proved successful. So successful, in fact, that "all of a sudden, his neighbor comes in," recalled Etting. "He says to me, 'I want the same. But more.'"