The development of scientific research in sport has given coaches the opportunity to extract tested training methods and apply them to practice. They have used the continuous publication of in depth and scientifically accurate literature to good effect by incorporating new concepts into training. A particular field of coaching in which research acts as a key element is strength and conditioning. Even though, every sport has different physical stimuli and so requires different responses, strength and conditioning coaches generally ensure that players have good baseline fitness in strength, power, mobility, cardiovascular endurance, speed, agility and balance. Foundation levels in these aspects ensure the fitness demands of most sports are met, however training needs to be made specific and coaches must find new ways of pushing athletes to the limits of their fitness capabilities. For instance, how can coaches include training methods that improve the reactive and coordinative capabilities of their athletes, since these are pivotal to success in sports that involve object manipulation?
Strength and conditioning coaches primarily aim to improve the fitness levels (outlined above) in the gross muscle groups of their athletes. For instance, the back squat is used to develop lower body strength and the bench press for upper body strength. However, do coaches need to accommodate for the training of eye-hand (or eye-foot) coordination and reflexes in the smaller muscles of the body (the eyes)? These small muscles cause fine motor movements and although they may not replicate the forces generated by larger muscles, their interaction with the nervous systems of the body is crucial for co-ordination and reactions in sport. Furthermore, they are crucial for aspects of sports that involve a ball, which is thrown, kicked or hit at high velocities e.g. football, rugby, hockey and cricket. Therefore, it is imperative that the quality of motor movements controlled through eye-hand coordination is well trained.
After searching through the available literature, one person stands out as the ‘one to go to’ for visual-brain-motor training (EyeGym): Dr Sherylle Calder. In conjunction with a PhD and research on the area, she has worked with some of the world’s best sports teams and athletes. Her philosophy is that the eyes are the predominant sensory receptor of the body, which are responsible for providing a visual stimulus. Based on the information provided by the eyes to the central nervous system, the peripheral nervous system sends signals for motor activity to occur and cause movement. Movement patterns (technically correct ones) are why strength and conditioning is so important for injury prevention and physical development. However, the eyes are the first point of contact during performance, because they perceive environmental cues, therefore their interpretation is essential for successful movements to follow.
In 2009, I was lucky enough to visit Dr Sherylle Calder’s laboratory at the South African Sports Science Institute in Cape Town on a cricket tour. When we arrived, Dr Calder explained how and why EyeGym has helped a number of athletes and sports teams around the world. She then set up a few drills with a variety of balls and a rebound catching net in order to give us a taste for the work that she does with elite sportspeople. The exercises that we performed were designed to be fun yet challenging, but since understanding more about the research, her training is ground breaking in the search to find new ways of improving in the competition arena.
After reading some of Dr Calder’s work, her original (PhD in 1999) visual training systems seem to be divided into two areas: visual skills and visual awareness (Calder, 1997). She explained that skills consist of “various visual skills, depth perception, peripheral awareness, span of recognition and speed of recognition etc.” (Calder, 1999). These are all skills that we learn as infants and sportspeople need to ensure these motor patterns are trained well. Their sports training will already be incorporating all of these skills but are athletes actively seeking ways of identifying these skills individually and training them? Furthermore, she explained that visual awareness includes the “biomechanics of sport skills” (Calder, 1999) and involves the individual’s visual capabilities in a sporting situation. This is where training can become very sports specific as the coach can integrate drills into a program that challenge the athlete’s capabilities in a situation that replicates the sport.
The list of sports teams and athletes who have worked with Dr Calder are dominated by the rugby and football world, however there are a number of other sports (netball, baseball, taekwondo, volleyball, shooting, surfing, canoeing, golf) that feature. It is clear to see that the training has been extremely effective in sports that involve object (ball) manipulation, however the question is: what specifically does EyeGym training enhanced when Dr Calder works with athletes?
Dr Calder’s work has involved helping elite athletes in sports that require players to kick; catch and pass; tackle; throw; respond to their team, spatial object location, and officials. These are all directly influenced by the player’s coordinative and reactive capabilities by improving: (http://drsheryllecalder.com/about-eyegym/):
Furthermore, she has found that psychological skills are influenced through the development of these visual-motor skills. There has been evidence that focus, concentration, tactical decisions and decision-making can be improved through EyeGym training (http://drsheryllecalder.com/about-eyegym/). These are all skills, which need to be perfected by athletes who are performing in a high-pressure environment. When the physical performance levels of opposing athletes cannot be separated, it is often the psychological capabilities in the “top two inches” that make the difference between winning and losing. Therefore, EyeGym is crucial to ensure that athletes are psychologically primed when those ‘crunch moments’ occur.
This article only touches the surface of Dr Calder’s EyeGym work with athletes and sports teams. The training demonstrates consistent success as indicated by her work through training the visual-brain-motor system. The research has been done; the software is available, therefore it is now down to coaches and athletes alike to use the technology. It may only allow an improvement in performance by a few percent however; it could be the difference between winning and losing.