State-Of-The-Art Vision Program Benefiting UC Baseball|
By Shawn Sell
Perhaps more than in any other sport, baseball requires strong vision. In the split second from the time the ball leaves a pitcher's hand, a batter must recognize the pitch and decide whether to swing or not. That split second decision makes the difference between success and failure for the player and the game's outcome could hinge on any one pitch. In an effort to gain an advantage for hitters at the plate, the University of Cincinnati recently introduced a cutting-edge, high-performance vision training program to its baseball team and already the program has paid great dividends.
Dr. Jim Ellis, the UC Department of Athletics Team Optometrist for over 35 years, first learned about the program, which utilizes equipment provided by Dynavision, as part of his continuing education requirement. He quickly brought on board Pat Graman, the Athletic Training Program Director and herself a certified athletic trainer, to help him spearhead the introduction of the program at UC. A partnership quickly formed with the Air Force Academy and Performance Lab Assistant Chief Al Wile, one of just a handful of Division I schools in all of the country that utilize the vision training program. After a trip to the Academy, UC was fully engaged and the Ellis-Graman duo later met and brought into the fold Joe Clark, a Professor of Neurology in UC's Department of Medicine. Initially, the plan for the Dynavision equipment was for testing student-athletes that suffered concussions, particularly in football, but it quickly grew into something larger.
"With some of the tools and equipment that we have, it's also looking at point of care for concussion management," Graman says. "That is where Joe is conducting research with Bob Mangine and the football team. Joe can also provide his insight on some of the stuff we do on the Dynavision. With baseball, it's critical to process and problem solve. If you are in the batter's box, you have to think about what might the pitcher being throwing you and you have to picture the ball from the windup to the release from the hand and make the decision if you are going to swing. With Joe's experience on brain mapping, there are some areas that we plugged into Dynavision that works with a variety of skills that are important in the sport of baseball."
With the equipment on campus, the vision team set out to bring head baseball coach Brian Cleary up to speed on the program and how it could benefit his squad. It didn't take long for the UC skipper to jump on board with the idea of vision training for his players.
"I just looked at it as something that could give us an edge and there was no reason not to try it," he says. "The difference between winning and losing is so fine and if there is something we can do that gives us an edge, certainly it was something that I wanted to try. With the investment we were going to make in it in terms of time, we really had nothing to lose. But also in listening to Dr. Ellis and Pat, it made perfect sense. It seemed to me that a hitter, probably more than any other type of athlete, would benefit from what they said this could do. As they laid out the training for me and what it would do, it was just a no-brainer for me."
That set the stage for January of this year and what Graman labels a "six-week boot camp" for the Bearcats. The program starts with each of the student-athletes going through a series of tests utilizing the Dynavision equipment. If any vision issues are uncovered with the players, they will undergo an evaluation with Dr. Ellis. From there, each player gets oriented with a series of four to eight stations that they will utilize throughout the sessions. The stations vary from reading letters on a wall to more baseball specific activities, including one that features taking actually swings with a bat.
"We have strobe glasses that blind out your vision and the guys soft-toss to each other," Graman explains. "They will do five swings without the glasses and then put them on and do 15 swings and then five more without. The feedback from them on the last five is that they see the ball a lot better."
After training two to three times weekly in the weeks leading up to the start of the season, the Bearcats continue to utilize the training at least once a week throughout the season. And the results are really showing. With a change in the make-up of aluminum bats prior to the season, offensive statistics are down across all of college baseball. But due in part to the success of UC's vision training program; the Bearcats may be the exception to that rule. With this season winding down, UC's team batting average is over 40 points higher than it was at the conclusion of last year, while the slugging percentage is up nearly the same amount. Cleary for one is quick to credit the program as a factor in the improvement.
"I don't think there is any doubt that this helps," he says. "I think the difficult thing is to isolate the vision training by itself and to determine to what impact it has had in the hitters improving. There are so many factors in play; experience, added strength, maturity, more at-bats. So a lot of those things go into improving a hitter and theoretically our guys should get incrementally better each year they play. But I don't think there is any doubt that this has made a significant contribution to what we are doing with the hitters."
While the success of the UC hitters as a whole has improved this season, one player in particular credits his increased production and success to the training. As a freshman, Jake Proctor struggled, hitting just .111 in 40 games. Now a year later, his average is hovering around the .300 mark due in large part to a better ability to pick out good pitches to hit.
"Since we have been doing this program, I feel like I can see an improvement in my ability to pick up the ball in the pitcher's hand and as a hitter that is the most important thing (we do)," he says. "It has helped me with recognizing pitches that I need to swing at or pitches to lay off of. I just feel so much more comfortable at the plate as far as what I am seeing and what I am swinging at thanks to this program that we are doing."
Proctor's assessment makes perfect sense to Graman, who points out that is the main reason the program is in place.
"We all have two eyes, just like we have two arms or two legs and we want them all working together," she says. "A lot of times, people don't realize that we have one eye that may be more dominant than the other. We are doing a series of exercises that make the eyes work together and converge together. With this training, we can correct some of that. It's all about focus and concentration and reaction. Do you see it and can you react to it? And that is a lot of what baseball is all about."
While Proctor can attest to the improvement he feels while standing in the batter's box, his head coach can also see a difference and not just in the numbers that he has put up.
"Jake spent a lot of his freshman year not recognizing different pitches," Cleary recalls. "Everybody says `you have to hit the curveball' but in reality, it's at least as much true that you have to hit it as you don't have to not swing at it. That is something he really struggled to do; to lay off pitches that were not good pitches to hit. He has done such a better job this year and I have to believe that the vision training has played a part in that."
In just its first year at the University of Cincinnati, a state-of-the-art Dynavision training program is already paying dividends for the Bearcat baseball team. Housed in the Golf Room of the Richard E. Lindner Center, the program is just beginning to help the Bearcats achieve success at the plate and should be an incredible asset going forward.
"It's been well documented that vision plays a really important role in hitting," Cleary says. "I think what Dr. Ellis, Pat and Joe have done is they have taken it to the next level by saying `let's take whatever vision we are dealing with and improve it'. I think we are just scratching the surface on what we are going to do. I look at the freshmen that are just starting with this and I just wonder in two or three years where they are going to be with it."