Sports Vision in Action
Dr. Daniel Laby has worked closely with hundreds of professional athletes over the course of a more than two-decade-long career. Below, Dr. Laby recounts just one example of how his work helped to make a difference for a professional athlete. Please note that all of the information provided below is available either through media reports or promotional materials.
Our work began with the Boston Red Sox in the spring of 2004. That spring at the Red Sox spring training facility in Fort Myers, FL, we met a player who would turn out to be one of the best “visual packages” we had ever known. Manny Ramirez was already a very successful baseball player, and a significant threat at the plate.
Having screened Manny and the rest of the team during spring training, and after being sure that everyone left Fort Myers with optimal visual function, I was surprised to receive a call from Jim Rowe, the Red Sox head athletic trainer at the time, informing me that Manny felt that he “wasn’t seeing the ball well.” I knew Manny’s eyes were fine, but I needed to get more details about what this meant. After a bit more discussion, it became clear that the issue was not sharpness of vision, but a coordination or timing issue.
After a brainstorming session with my colleague, Dr. David Kirschen, we decided to adapt an already established training drill for Manny. The drill, which is commercially available on the internet, involves a plastic ring about 1.5 feet in diameter. On the ring is a single colored whiffle ball. The objective of the drill is for the player to catch the ball (not the ring) after it is thrown and rotated toward the player. This may sound easy but it's actually very difficult to do and requires a great deal of practice. We also advised an additional drill involving a similar ring with four balls, each of a different color. The ring is again thrown and rotates toward the player, but this time a color is called out and the player must grab the ball with the correct color. Catching a single ball is hard enough, catching the correct color our of four is almost impossible for a “normal” person. We adapted this drill further, by swapping the four colored whiffle balls for four baseballs, each painted with a different spin pattern. As the adapted ring is tossed toward the player, a specific pitch is called and the player must grab the baseball with the correct seam spin pattern – an incredibly difficult task!
Thus, with these three rings, I was ready to go to Fenway Park and present the options to Manny. After entering the team’s locker room, several other players came over and wanted to try out my rings. Needless to say, some were more successful than others. After everyone had their turn, Manny came over and took the challenge. I spoke briefly with him to make sure that I had correctly understood what his concerns were, then I began to tell him about the rings and how they might help him with his visual timing and coordination. I didn’t tell Manny I had three rings of increasing difficulty, I was simply hoping that one of them would be of use.
I began with the first ring that uses the single ball. While several of Manny’s teammates had had difficulty with this task, he caught the yellow ball each time without breaking a sweat—in fact, he might have even had his eyes closed! Manny said that it was “too easy” and it wouldn’t help him at all. “What else do you have doc?”
Luckily, I still had two rings in my back pocket and proceeded to show Manny the 4-ball ring and explain the drill. I threw the ring once, twice, three times – and each time Manny easily caught the correct ball. I tried to make it more difficult by calling the ball color when the ring was about hallway across the room, but he still had no difficulty. “This is too easy,” he said. “It won’t help me at all. What else do you have doc?”
Now I was getting nervous. I had only one ring left, and this was the ring that we designed ourselves. Manny was still showing no sign of being challenged by these rings at all. I threw Manny the ring with the four baseballs, called the pitch as the ring was moving towards him and he missed. It was his first miss of the day and the first time that I saw him challenged. We proceeded to repeat the process. Sometimes Manny caught the correct ball, sometimes he caught the incorrect ball and sometimes the ring itself. But in each case he was clearly challenged and I was beginning to see him sweat.
This drill required Manny to identify the pitch, make a guided and directed hand movement toward an anticipated point of contact with the ring and then a well-timed grab to catch the ball—all skills used by batters when hitting a baseball. The drill was challenging and clearly gave Manny an opportunity to improve what had been troubling him with his vision and his ability to “see the ball.”
The “vision ring” went on to become a staple for Manny Ramirez before every game for the remainder of the 2004 season. Manny had the team purchase several rings which traveled with the team as they played. That year, The Red Sox went on to win their first World Series title in almost nine decades and Manny was selected as the most valuable player of the World Series. How much our vision ring contributed to Manny’s and the team’s success will never be known, but it is clear that this drill allowed Manny to practice a skill critical for success at the plate. It was a tool that he continued to use daily throughout the remainder of his career.