Nov. 6, 2002
By Bob Wallace
For many football fans, their first introduction to vision training came during a Monday Night Football segment in September about Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb using strobe-spectacles in practice to sharpen his eyesight. Strobe specs are a pair of glasses with built-in strobe lights on each lens that flash sporadically while an athlete is actually working out.
But quarterbacks, and athletes from 16 other varsity sports at the Air Force Academy, have benefited from cutting edge vision training for the last decade. And for almost that long, sports vision experts from around the country have been coming to Air Force to study the methods of Air Force's vision training program.
"The things that vision training helped me out with the most is running in the hole," starting Air Force quarterback Chance Harridge said. "Without actually turning your head you're seeing things, and you don't really know you see it, and then it opens up the broad peripheral. That's really helped me out a bunch because it's allowed me to see the entire field instead of just focusing on one thing. That's the head start, the split-second that everybody talks about in football, that makes all the difference."
Down a long hallway in the basement of the Air Force Academy's gymnasium, athletes jump on small trampolines while reading aloud the letters off various eye charts that dot the wall. Next to the trampolines inside the Academy's Human Performance Lab, athletes test the synergy of their visual and manual dexterity on boards dotted with flashing lights. On the far wall, sequences of numbers flash with a speed just shy of a subliminal message.
On another wall is a quote from sports vision coach Al Wile: "It's a no-brainer; if you are not utilizing all the messages your eyes are capable of sending to the brain."
This is Air Force's eyesight boot camp.
The visionary behind Air Force's vision training program is Wile and the laboratory staff, that annually conducts over 3,000 performance assessments on cadets. Through state of the art technology and ingenious creativity, Wile, Lt. Col. Mike Zupan and coach Jeanine Geurin have put together a series of sport-specific exercises that sharpen an athlete's optical convergence, divergence, aperture, accuracy, speed of focus from near to far and vice versa and hand-eye coordination.
"What we try to do is get your eyes to process more information at a wider spectrum so you don't have to turn your head or even move your eyes to see over there," Wile said. The six-week program is run much like a weight-training program for the eyes. And for the first few days of training, the eyes are as sore as any biceps or quadriceps muscle after intense weightlifting.
"It's really strenuous on your eyes," Harridge said. "You get headaches from it when you start because your eyes aren't used to that type of training." Wile maintains that that is when the greatest degree of learning takes place.
The result is faster processing of information from the eyes to the brain, and faster and more precise transition into physical action. In 1993, the first year the Air Force baseball team used vision training, the Falcons led the nation in batting average.
"It's really helped," said Air Force first baseman Adam Howes, who is entering his fourth year in the vision training program. "Early in my career I was a guess hitter. Then I was able to open my eyes up and become a reaction hitter."
Since 1999, athletes have shown between 37 and 67 percent improvement in each exercise after completing the program. Some athletes who have taken the program three or four times have improved their scores and times on the exercises by 200 or 300 percent. Senior water polo player Lowell Wallace credits vision training for improving his vision from 20/20 to 20/15.
"I love this stuff," said Chris Gizzi, an All-American linebacker at Air Force and former Green Bay Packer.
In the last year, three cadets who initially failed their pilot qualification tests because of inadequate vision, qualified after taking vision training.
But perhaps the best part of vision training is its lasting quality.
"The best thing is there's no regression in the training," Harridge said. "When you build your eyes up, the great thing is that your eyes only accelerate they never decline in the training. You never lose a step you're always gaining ground."