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Sport Vision Training

Considerations for Implementing “Sport Vision Training” Programs

The value of a few milliseconds can be seen in almost every sport. Making earlier cue detection and appropriate action responses the bar to entry at the elite level. With the advances of deception training, trick plays and things like pitch design, a growing premium is being placed on improving decision-making and anticipation skills. So, the question becomes “How do we develop decision-making and anticipation skills?” Enter “Sport Vision Training”

Photo curtesy of https://www.dukehealth.org/blog/new-duke-sports-vision-center-focuses-high-performance-vision-rehab-and-training Sport Vision Training (SVT) is a classifier under which certain “Brain Training” programs are placed because they involve athletic movements, are based in executive function decision-making, and triggered by random external cues (Lights or color panels). If the assumption is that “SVT improves on-field anticipation”, two things need to take place; the movement requirements of that training mimic competition movements, AND the external trigger represent environmental information encountered in competition settings. If one and/or the other is not based in these two principles, then the use of that training method will likely not provide an athlete with neural changes specifically related to anticipation in their sport, and much of the desired transferability won’t carry over to competition. This is because the link between perception and action is tightly coupled. With that in mind, training systems such as, FITLIGHT®, Dynavision®, Reflexion Edge® and others, should be carefully examined and even more carefully classified so we don’t overwork, incorrectly utilize, or develop mistaken expectations. They have their value, yes. Concerning anticipation and/or early cue detection, we need to be resilient in our efforts to classify projected outcomes of training. If we reverse engineer the thought process behind using common SVT methods, there’s reasonably good rationale.

  • SVT protocols have shown that expert athletes perform better on testing protocols than athletes of lower skill.

  • Because experts are better at these SVT tasks, the thought process is that by training athletes to perform SVT tasks better, faster, more accurate, they might be better, faster, and more accurate in their sport.

  • The way various SVT companies are grading performance is by retesting the task that the athletes are practicing.

These companies also provide reasonable justifications for utilizing their systems:

  • Low impact

  • Athlete enjoyment & investment in training activities

  • Faster RT in training tasks should equate to faster RT in competition

  • Reliable data

  • Low-friction training addition

  • Multiple sport applications

Here’s why we need to carefully examine SVT programs:

  • We get better at the things we consistently do. “Practice makes permanent”

  • Getting positive feedback from an athlete who would quote “enjoy the training style” is not a great metric for determining the effectiveness, validity or transferability of that training program regarding anticipation in competition.

  • Giving an athlete a score pre and post training which later shows improvement in those same tasks does not validate any transfer effect of that training, nor does it mean that the athlete will be responding better/more accurately in competition.

  • Getting better at a skill which experienced athletes are better at than sub-experienced athletes is not a valid justification for training that skill.

  • Pressing buttons, waving a hand over a light, catching and throwing objects of different colors/shapes/sizes, and multiple object tracking, are not actually sport-task specific and do not generally differentiate high-performance in a sport-specific task.

  • Multiple sport applications is very likely not specific enough to have impactful anticipation alterations for every sport.

  • These types of skills (executive function and neuromuscular activation) are underlying functions of the brain that all levels of sport performance are predicated on being efficient or sufficient.

So, what are our options??

Photo curtesy of https://www.stack.com/a/how-a-set-of-flashing-lights-is-revolutionizing-the-way-elite-athletes-train As for now, there are only a few commercial options, namely because developing custom SVT systems is difficult, time consuming, and requires specific subject matter expertise. Most of what’s available are brain games, light boards and cones, or tests/trainings that do not involve athletic movements. At the core of these systems is the idea of pairing visual information with a motor response, whether that’s moving lips, hands, or feet. If we want to show max efficiency and transfer, we need to start with an external cue to initiate movement that replicates what an athlete would encounter in competition. We can’t just throw random lights in the room, ask players to run around, touch each one that flashes and expect them to read human kinematic information better. Training faster and more accurate muscle activation with various external cues is NOT the same as anticipation skill development or cue recognition training. One important component that is rarely discussed is eye-tracking, or pupil detection technology. The addition of cognitive training should evaluate both motor and visual behavior. Few programs are looking at visual behavior and information processing changes. As cognitive performance enhancement specialists, we should not only be concerned about physical adaptations, but with cognitive and visual behavior alterations as well. The visual system’s ability to process information is at the core of decision-making processing. We respond to what we see. If a training system claims to improve cognitive performance directly connected to reaction times and anticipation, but doesn’t have an evaluation piece dedicated to identifying and monitoring behavioral and visual changes over time, how can that system be accountable for the neural-plastic changes they are eliciting? We’re talking about additions to training which alter an athlete’s brain anatomy. Dendrite growth, signal propagation, and coordinated muscle activation are serious topics. The body responds to the environment and stressors we expose it to, both desirable and undesirable (e.g. altitude training). The brain is no different. We shouldn’t just be curious about what changes are taking place after “Sport Vision Training”, we should require it to be measured. Eye-tracking assessments are one way to do this. When looking at the impact of SVT, we must be careful about how we train the information processing mechanisms. Simply, doing what another program is doing, providing a low-impact option, or adding something that athletes enjoy doing, are not valid reasons to adopt a system of training with the expectation of improving anticipation, decision making, and reaction time in competition. First, we need to ask some questions:

  • What are the purposes for integrating a new system?

  • How often and when will this be used?

  • Does this new addition add friction or added time to training?

  • Does this new way of training add value to or replicate the desired performance outcomes?

  • What neuro/physio-system changes are taking place?

  • What is the process for validating and justifying the use of that training addition?

  • Are there transfer effects? If so, how are we measuring them and are they desirable?


Let’s wrap this up

Photo curtesy of https://visionone.co.uk/research-methods/qualitative-research/eye-tracking/

These subject areas aren’t talked about enough. Partly because most training interventions and analysis methods are experimental, innovative, inherently expensive to conduct, hard to do well, and if successful – a major competitive advantage, not a recipe for transparency. This is why we’re just starting to see MLB clubhouses, like the Rays, using state-of-the-art hologram technology from W.I.N Reality, Mizzou Baseball and SlowTheGameDown using video cue recognition for batters, Florida State University Volleyball using similar systems for opponent cue and object recognition, and the Phillies Minor League director of hitting has started using eye-tracking technology with athletes at Driveline Baseball. This is not a fad, or fake news. This is the next evolution in athlete performance enhancement. It will combine the visual behavior and bio-mechanic data of athletes in all sports to drive performance enhancement strategies. From future insights we’re going to see a lot of innovations aimed at augmenting visual behavior, anticipation, and decision-making skills. Most importantly it will be data-driven & transferable, and it’s just getting started. My hope is that by bringing up this topic we can start asking some better questions, get more practical training systems in front of more programs, and top of the list; provide the best possible learning environment for our athletes. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Ryan at Fuller Hitting for extending an invitation to write for their blog, the University of Florida for a world class education, the progressive staff with Florida State University volleyball for our first look at athlete visual behavior and training systems integration, the athletes, coaches and professionals we work with to continue developing and innovating for this space, and my parents for giving us a home base at the start of this journey. If you have any questions, requests for supporting literature, or collaboration ideas, we would love to hear from you. Please send an email through our company website or DM on Instagram. Mike Mann, MSc CEO and Director of Innovation & Applied Research Python Optics – Applied Sport Neuroscience Web: www.pythonoptics.com IG: @pythonoptics

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