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Improving your athletic performance by sitting in front of a computer?

Sports teams using optical program to boost 'visual fitness'

by: Stanley Miller
Milwaukee Journal Sentinal (2/3/2003)

Improving your athletic performance by sitting in front of a computer?

It sounds too good to be true, but several sports teams, including the Milwaukee Brewers, have experimented with software designed to test and improve "visual fitness."

The program is called the Vizual Edge Performance Trainer, and it was designed by Barry L. Seiller, an ophthalmologist and founder of the Visual Fitness Institute in Vernon Hills, Ill. The software has a series of tests that measure visual alignment and depth perception.

 

Seiller said the software also has exercises that help users train certain visual skills, including ocular flexibility (the ability to converge and diverge your eyes efficiently and accurately), visual recognition (the ability to remember previous visual stimuli) and visual tracking (the ability to track an object in motion).

 

"Everybody's perception of where things are is different," Seiller said. "When those perceptions are off, people try to compensate, but those compensations only take you so far. If you want to get to the elite level, then the game gets more complex and things are moving a lot faster. Your compensations begin to fall apart, and that is frequently why people go into slumps."

Seiller said the software works best with athletes 10 to 22 years old. Players work through game-like exercises for 20 minutes twice a week for four to 12 weeks. After the initial regimen, athletes should occasionally run the software again to keep their eyes "in shape," Seiller said.

The electronic trials consist of arrows that appear on the screen in different sequences, speeds and positions. Players need to tap the corresponding keys on the keyboard while wearing red and blue 3-D glasses, and the software tracks each user's progress.

"The ocular-alignment training changes your entire visual orientation that you continue to reinforce even while driving a car, watching TV, reading a book. . . . It stays with you much longer."

Seiller, an adviser to the U.S. Olympic Committee, said the software can help athletes in most sports, including basketball, tennis, golf and soccer.

Seiller said the visual skills targeted by the Vizual Edge software are perfect for baseball. Seiller said a 90-mph pitch takes four-tenths of a second to get from the pitcher's arm to home plate. It takes two-tenths of a second to complete the physical act of swinging, leaving two-tenths of a second for the hitter to decide what to do.

"It's all about speed," Seiller said. "The quicker you can process information accurately, the more time you have to make a decision. If you have a longer time to process that information, you obviously have an edge on the competition."

Some teams using the software include the Texas Rangers, Northwestern University's football and baseball teams, and the Norfolk Admirals in the American Hockey League, Seiller said. The Cleveland Indians used the program during the 2001 season, and the U.S. bobsled and luge teams train with it, too.

Scott Martens, assistant director of player development for the Brewers, said all of the team's minor-league clubs began using the software in fall 2001, from "rookie level to triple-A."

"It was more for our position players," Martens said. "For pitchers, it was optional for them. . . . Our scouting department uses a variation of the program for testing before the draft. Unfortunately for this year, we needed to streamline costs so won't be using it atall. "

Martens said that while most new training techniques or technologies are greeted with some skepticism, "I think for the most part it was well-received by the players.

"Personally, I feel like it was a good program," he said. "I think there were some guys who benefited from it."

The software, which became available to the public in January 2002, is professionally priced. The cheapest package has 60 training sessions and costs $300. After the sessions are consumed, the training component of the program stops working until users buy more online. Seiller said the testing portion of the program doesn't expire.

Seiller said the software was originally developed to help children with learning disorders, and that the technology has applications beyond sports.

For example, the Federal Aviation Administration could use the program to enhance the acuity of air traffic controllers, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation could improve its agents' ability to cope in stressful situations by strengthening their decision-making skills.

Seiller said that the typical person might find that after training with the software, his or her concentration has improved, making reading a book or driving a car easier.

"This is essentially a non-traditional method of performance enhancement," he said. "It takes an educational process to make people understand. "

A version of this story appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Feb. 25, 2003.

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