Coach Wile, who has worked with professional athletes, world class athletes, Olympians, as well as intercollegiate athletes, says the USAFA’s sports vision program consists of training in four main areas which are the foundations of the program. They are:
During our initial screening process, we identify each athlete’s dominant eye, explains Wile. We stress the importance of trying to use both eyes to their maximum capability or binocular vision. Many athletes suppress so much information with one or the other eye that it inhibits their maximum performance.
Binocular exercises include stations with a rotator scanner for fixation, speed and accuracy of pursuit with saccadic eye movements and the ability to diverge as well as converge. Our sports vision training stations work both the intra-ocular muscles of the eye, as well as the extra-ocular muscles of the eye, says Wile. Just as weight trainers work the large muscle groups of the upper and lower body, we work the muscles of the eyes.
Depth perception or stereopsis-that is, knowing exactly where an object is in space as it approaches-is critical for pilots as well as athletes. Quite often, a cadet with depth perception problems is using only one eye, says Wile. This makes it much more difficult, for example, to hit a baseball, or block a shot in hockey or soccer.
Dynamic sports vision.
The dynamic sports vision aspect of the program trains cadets to see and react to a moving object while they themselves are moving. We do eye exercises while the large muscle groups of our body are also working, explains Wile. While an athlete is working on the rotator scanner, the Accuvision boards or the SVT boards, he or she is also balancing on a balance beam or a Bosu-ball or bouncing on a trampoline.
Athletes also train in a dynamic and distracting environment, says Wile. At the same time as athletes work on the AcuVision or SVT boards, for example, other athletes are calling out sequences of letters, working on the prism flips or the plus-minus flips, as well as the letters on the near/far charts and saccadic eye charts. And we crank the stereo loud at the same time. When the time comes to perform, all of these distractions are common to our athletes, but can be a nuisance to those athletes that cannot block them out.
The fourth aspect of the USAFA’s sports vision program is eye conditioning. The eye muscles fatigue just as any other muscle of the body, says Wile. We work the eyes hard, to the point that many athletes have a headache after the first three or four sessions. We try to increase the stamina of the eye muscles to enable the athlete to persevere when their eyes are tired.
The unique environment at the Air Force Academy has many athletes logging over 20 semester hours worth of credits. In addition, they have mandatory training which begins at 6:00 am each morning and activities that often keep them busy late into the night. This places a great deal of stress on the eyes, and is a significant factor that can be overlooked in an athlete’s performance, says Wile.