Maximizing hand-eye coordination
The following is a chapter excerpt from the new book: Total Athlete Development: 70 Competition Tested Ways to get Mentally Tougher, Physically More Dominant, and Be the Best Leader for Your Team. Excerpt by permission of Championship Performance Publishers.
NFL receiver Larry Fitzgerald’s amazing ability to pluck a ball out of the air – sometimes with his eyes closed – has sport science going hard to find out what kind of skills allow him to pull off such a feat.
As an NFL athlete, Fitzgerald’s physical talents are only average, including a 40 time of 4.63. If you ask most analysts to say what makes Fitzgerald so good they would say things like ‘soft hands, great timing, or excellent body positioning.’
Joan Vickers, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Calgary, studies hand eye movement of elite hockey goaltenders, baseball hitters, and tennis players by having them practice wearing special goggles equipped with cameras that film their eyes. After watching Fitzgerald, Vickers says that he has mastered two visual skills: “the quiet eye” and “predictive control.”
The ability to maintain a level and strong gaze on a distant object for an usually long time period is what Vickers calls the quiet eye. Her research indicates the difference between good and spectacular athletes when it comes to sports that involve catching or hitting – is the ability to lock down longer. The best in their respective sports can make their eyes operate like a camera: opening the shutter, holding the lens steady and taking a snapshot with the longest possible exposure.
For Fitzgerald, his eye training began early in life by his grandfather Robert Johnson, who was an optometrist. Johnson would take Fitzgerald to a clinic and have him stand on balance beams and wobbly boards while doing complicated hand eye drills. For instance, Dr. Johnson would hang a painted ball from the ceiling and have Fitzgerald try to hit the colored dots on the ball with the matching colored stripes on a rolling pin. The strengthening of his hand eye coordination starting as an elementary school student was certainly a factor in his current success.
The second factor – “predictive control” – is the brain’s ability to gather information from the eyes and use it to predict what will happen next. Vickers says the best athletes she has studied have two skills combined. First, they use the quiet eye technique to take a clear snapshot of an approaching ball or puck, and then while it approaches them, will instantly compare it to a vast library of memories drawn from years of practice and observation. By matching that object with others, they can make a near perfect calculation of where it will go and how to put themselves in position to make the play – even if they aren’t looking at the ball.
Example: For Fitzgerald, this means that after scanning a newly thrown ball with his quiet eye, he uses the microprocessor in his head and downloads every similar pass he’s seen until he’s made a calculation of where the ball will land. The revelation here: people actually see with their brains.
Fitzgerald had another youth experience that helped him develop that eye to brain power more completely. As a teenager, he was a ball boy for the Minnesota Vikings where he watched two of the best receivers in the game, Randy Moss and Cris Carter. He was able to see and absorb up close thousands of passes thrown and caught from the sideline. These images left Fitzgerald with a catalog of millions of impressions that would take other athletes years to build.
According to Vickers, Fitzgerald is the textbook case of an athlete using predictive control to know exactly where to place his hands that is so accurate that in some cases he can catch with his eyes closed. He is also a great example that demonstrates that performing at the highest level on game day is more about instinct that has become “second nature” and “auto pilot” than anything else.
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