BBC Sport football writer Alec Fenn has recently written a piece on how a new breed of innovative minds are at work creating tomorrow’s footballer. (Read More) The piece highlights the work of some world leading coaches and it touches upon some key elements of elite sports performance. So how can the athlete of the future develop amazing vision and anticipation??here are our thoughts…
Ian Botham could smash sixes, take blinders in the slips or the outfield, bowl fast, swing and even turn his hand to off spin. Eoin Morgan excels at hurling and hockey as well as cricket. Garry Sobers could pretty much do anything he liked on a cricket field.
At club level, some players have that really annoying habit of pitching up at the beginning of the season, or after three weeks holiday and playing like they’ve never been away, while the rest of us struggle onwards, after six weeks of practice. Are we practicing the wrong thing, or have they got something we haven’t?
A bit of both, really. For talent and self-belief, these guys won’t ever match Botham, Sobers or even Morgan. But you can bet your last pint of John Smith’s that they have one thing in common with the cricketing greats, and very goods… Exceptional hand-eye coordination. Hand-eye coordination underpins what we call natural ability. But unlike a hard spun leg break, it is something that most people can train themselves to get better at.
Spend as long as you like practicing off-drives but however how high you get your leading elbow, it won’t make any difference if you’re not watching the ball well. Same in the slips, or in the outfield. It doesn’t matter how sharp your reflexes are and how many back and hamstring stretches you do to stay flexible. It’s good hand-eye coordination that will make the difference.
And no that doesn’t mean coaches can stand there shouting at players to watch the ball, and expect performance levels to rise. Our eyes, brains and bodies need to know how to work together to enable us to watch the ball more closely, and for longer.
During pre-season, 2010, Leicestershire CCC tried out a new form of training. Over a six week period, twenty four first teamers and academy players worked not just on their batting, bowling and fielding, but on improving something that underpins all cricketing skills – their eyesight.
‘So many decisions a cricketer makes are based on information coming to them through visual signals,’ says Olympic Visual Performance Coach, Zoe Wimshurst who ran the sessions. ‘The quicker those signals come in, the more time the player has to make a decision and get their body into the right position.’
Zoe tested the players’ visual skills and then split them into four groups. The first did practical visual training: juggling and kicking balls simultaneously, catching a ball with an unpredictable bounce to help reactions, and moving pencils towards their nose to strengthen eye muscles. The second group used the online vision trainer that helped Sir Clive Woodward win his World Cup and, the third played Mario and Duck Shoot on the Nintendo Wii. ‘All these exercises help players scan ahead, get both eyes working together and assist peripheral awareness,’ Zoe says.
The fourth group just did additional cricket drills. When tested again, they had improved their visual performance and their cricket skills,the least of all the groups. The winners – those juggling, pencil pushers, of course, although Sir Clive and the Nintendo boys ran them a close second.
‘An athlete with good visual memory always seems to be in the right place at the right time,’ Zoe says. ‘I strongly believe that there is a link between vision and on pitch performance and through training an athlete’s eyes, we see improvements in their game play and decision making.’
Tim Boon, Leicestershire coach at the time, agrees. ‘You’re training your brain, making sure you pick up visual cues as efficiently as possible,’ he says. Boon explains that whether tracking length, judging speed, or anticipating, good vision is crucial, particularly for batters.
Jacques du Toit, from the Leicestershire pencils group, is convinced the sessions helped his batting. “My peripheral vision improved, no doubt,” he says. “I can keep a clear picture of fielder positions, without having to look up at the last moment and take my eye off the ball.” The online exercises helped seamer, Harry Gurney’s fielding. Particularly after a Paul McKenna style swinging pendulum, picked up that his sun glasses were delaying his seeing the ball by a crucial split second. ‘With orange tinted shades I pick the ball up much quicker in the field,’ he says.
Practice makes perfect
Zoe Wimshurst believes that whatever sport you play you need to move your eyes really quickly and respond with appropriate movements. ‘The speed at which events occur in sport is quicker than a person can smoothly track with their eyes so elite sports men and women need to improve reaction speeds and train themselves to more quickly make physical responses to the messages their eyes give them.’
During the initial and end of project assessments, at Leicestershire, Zoe used a bit of kit that’s been doing the rounds in clubs and schools for the last seven or so years. Crazy Catch is a double-sided rebound net, and according to Zoe it’s perfect for vision training.
‘One side of the Crazy Catch is double-strung giving it an unpredictable return,’ she says. ‘this more accurately reproduces the sort of situations encountered whilst taking part in top level sport. In a game, you can’t just get yourself into position and wait for the ball to come to you, you have to track it with your eyes and respond immediately.’
Teachers, coaches working with professional sports stars and at grass roots level are finding the Crazy Catch extremely useful in enhancing visual performance and developing hand-eye coordination. Grant Compton, former fitness coach for the South Africa and Pakistan cricket teams used the Crazy Catch nets in pre-match warm ups. ‘It helped the guys focus on their hand-eye coordination in the first instance, but we also used it to make warm-ups more competitive,’ he says.
Crompton tapped into the natural competitive instinct of his top-level charges to encourage them to put in an extra 10% during training. He designed his own game where two Crazy Catches are placed side-by-side in an inner circle. Working in twos against other pairs, players score points by running into the circle – throwing the ball against the Crazy Catch for the partner to take the catch. The South Africans used a hand-ball not a cricket ball, to avoid injury to those million dollar hands. It’s the learning process, not the direct relationship with the sport that’s important.
Compton adds “It’s important that players practice the sorts of actions and skills they will be using during the game and prepare the right muscles.” Both the South African and Pakistani players enjoyed Crompton’s routines. Crompton even said that he got the famously lethargic Imzamam-ul-Haq running around trying to outdo his team-mates. Inzy scored a lot of runs during his test career, only two less than Pakistan’s all-time leading run scorer, Javed Miandad. Big and burly, he didn’t like running much, so needed good eyesight to work out where all the gaps in the field were.
For many county sides, too, Crazy Catch has replaced the old slip cradle as they embrace the concept of developing visual performance. Warwickshire coach, Dougie Brown, uses it with both first team and development squads. “It’s versatile, robust and enables you to vary your warm up routines and fielding drills, making training more enjoyable,” he says.
At Northants, David Capel uses Crazy Catch to add variation to his coaching routines ‘You need a consistent return for slip catching routines and a more inconsistent return when practicing fielding slip to a spinner or at short leg when the type of catches you receive during games are less predictable,’ he says.
Essex swing bowling legend and Lashings Manager, John Lever, also believes Crazy Catch helps cricketers develop good catching skills. ‘The more you practice something the better you become,’ says Lever who has coached at Middlesex and at Bancroft’s School in London, ‘with Crazy Catch, catching practice becomes great fun and something you can do on your own. You don’t need someone to hit the ball to you or stand the other side of the slip cradle.’
Lever who played with some great slip catchers for England and Essex, believes taking the ball with soft hands is the key to good slip catching. Time and again the likes of Keith Fletcher, Mike Hendrick, Ian Botham, and the best he ever saw, Mark Waugh, picked up catches off his bowling. Lever remembers the time when Botham actually dropped one. ‘Beefy just shrugged, apologised, but still wanted the next one to come to him, and never lost confidence that he would catch it,’ Lever says.
Andrew Flintoff Academy coaches too, see Crazy Catch as an ideal way of simultaneously enthusing and developing quality young cricketers. ‘Brilliant, fun, love ‘em,’ says Academy head coach, Rupes Kitzinger, who first brought Crazy Catch to England, from New Zealand, a few years ago. ‘You can do a multitude of different things – play competitive fielding games like crazy ball, test hand eye coordination in a way that you can see players fundamental skills visibly improve.’
Crazy Catch is imported into the UK by Flicx and owner Richard Beghin added ‘It’s so flexible. You can use it in PE lessons, after school clubs, at cricket clubs and in the back garden. Children of all abilities can get something out of Crazy Catch. Boys, and girls, primary or secondary – everyone can use it.
Beghin explains how schools use Crazy Catch to get reluctant kids doing physical activity and to provide an alternative to traditional team sports. ‘Many teachers use it together with large soft balls to support children with learning and physical disabilities,’ he says. ‘Others take advantage of the unpredictable insane side to extend their gifted and talented performers.’ Flicx have also invented a fast-paced invasion game, Crazy Ball, where kids score points by taking catches off two Crazy Catches, from their own, their team mates or the opposition’s throws. ‘Kids only need basic skills to play Crazy Ball,’ he says. ‘It’s a game youngsters who feel threatened by sports like rugby, can cope with.’
In the game
As a fielder, Durham’s Dale Benkenstein, was up there with Rhodes, Gibbs and Crookes during his early years in South Africa. For Benkenstein, a fielder’s eyes are the most crucial part of their body
‘In the covers, watch a batter’s back-lift really closely,’ he says. ‘If it’s high and they’re attempting a big shot, get into a goalkeeper-like position with weight evenly distributed, ready to react or if necessary, dive. If the back-lift is lower and grip relaxed, for a more defensive shot, be on the balls of your feet so you can move forward quickly.’ He explains that fielders need to stay alert though, because if you’re moving forward too fast and the batter smashes the ball at you, it’s very difficult to react in time to stop it.’ …For this, you need your eyes.
‘Mid wicket is a crucial position when a spinner’s bowling, particularly in a limited over’s game,’ Benkenstein continues. ‘If a batter comes down the track or moves down the wicket they will most likely hit the ball through mid on or straight mid wicket. See them move back, and the ball will probably go squarer. If you’re already on the move, you can cover a wider area. The batter will have a mental picture of where fielders are, so if you’re quick enough you could even create a run out.’
Benkenstein adds that the further away from the bat you are, the easier it is to anticipate. He says: ‘If you’re on the boundary, watch the batter closely, work out what they are likely to do and if you can, move before the batter even hits the ball. Even if it’s going to a player in the ring, assume a misfield, because if you wait for the ball to go past your team mate before moving, the delay will mean extra runs for the opposition.
Hands and eyes need to work well together behind the stumps, too. Former Leicestershire, Kent and England gloveman, Paul Nixon, wants his fellow keepers to expect the batter to miss or nick every ball. ‘Ignore the batter and follow the ball from the bowler’s hand,’ he says. ‘Always be in position to take the ball regardless of whether the batter hits it. If you wait until the ball is missed or nicked before moving, you have less time to perform the skill. Want every ball to come to you. Expect a low down nick.’ ‘Hands go towards ball first, then head then feet,’ Nixon adds.
Nixon believes good hand-eye coordination is even more crucial when it’s swinging and seaming. ‘The full ball is the danger ball, especially when it’s angled in,’ he says. ‘You need to be in position to take the catch, if the ball holds its line, and the batter gets a nick’. Nixon tells keepers to delay their movements and watch the ball for as long as possible, before making the decision about which way to go. ‘When it’s swinging, your head goes even more towards outside foot, so you’re in position in case there’s a nick, but bring your head back in to catch the ball if the batter misses it.’
Learning from other sports
Hand-eye coordination is important in all sports. Not just those that use a ball. A skier anticipates and react instantaneously to the nuances of their course and bobsleighers need impeccable timing to maximise speed and prevent accidents. Even Formula one drivers have to rely messages taken in by their eyes, to their hands, via their brain. And all this at high speed. Often, what is relevant in one sport can be applied in another.
For instance, GB Badminton’s speed and agility coach, Andy Alford, says, there’s more to agility than a flexible body and an ability to move fast.‘There’s a visual and cognitive aspect to agility as well as a physical one,’ says Alford who used to train Nathan Robertson and other UK badminton stars. ‘Before you can respond physically you, have to see it, and process it – work out what decision to make based on what you have seen.’ Only then, Alford explains, can a player make the best possible physical response to either change direction, employ a particular shot.
In any sport, at any level, there are people who aren’t as physically gifted as their peers, but who perform well because they are able to think and respond more quickly than others. Similarly, how many formerly great players have kept going too long, or made an ill-advised comeback, long after their capacity to see, process and respond at the necessary speed, has waned? Even Sir Vivian Richards, struggled by his own enormously high standards, once his eyesight, something that set him apart from all other players of his generation, began to wane.
‘You take in about 85% of the information you need to play badminton through your eyes,’ Andy Alford says. ‘Your eyes enable you to track objects, give you a perception of depth and peripheral vision.’
Andy Alford splits agility into three levels: visual, cognitive and physical, and uses Crazy Catch to assist with each.
To get a player to focus solely on their visual skills, Andy asks them to take catches off a Crazy Catch from a kneeling position. The coach throws the ball from behind the player. All the player has to do is track the ball with his or her eyes, from the time it appears over their shoulder, then off the net and finally, into their hands. There is no sideways or up and down body movement required, ‘If the player kneels closer to the Crazy Catch, you reduce the reaction time,’ he says. Andy also gets the players to catch with right and left hands individually. This helps train players to use both eyes when they have to respond to something that happens to one side of them (check), not just the nearest eye.
The player sees something and processes it before sending a message to the hand and body about how to respond. The point of Andy’s cognitive agility training is to help the player improve decision making and reaction speed. ‘You process through your eyes and other senses,’ Andy says, ‘If you make the wrong decision it doesn’t matter how agile you are, you won’t make the play.’ Next, Andy gets his coaches to throw two different coloured balls at the net. The player then takes in the information through their eyes, filters the relevant from the irrelevant, and makes a decision to go for the correct ball.
For the physical element of agility training, Andy uses two Crazy Catches, and has two feeders aiming the balls alternately, at either net. ‘The player has to move into position to take the catch,’ he says. A simple game helps players combine all three elements of agility. In pairs, the players throw and catch around a series of Crazy Catches. Players have to track the ball (visual), work out where their partner is before aiming the ball at the right speed and angle (cognitive) and react, push off, and change direction to get into position to receive the ball (physical)
The science of visual performance
The very best sports players see things faster and process them quicker. Whatever their sport, they use eyes, hands, brains and bodies together for optimum performance.
Sir Clive Woodward knew this, and recruited South African vision specialist Dr Sherylle Calder to help give his World Cup winning 2003 squad an edge over its rivals. ‘Our sight is the most important sense that we have in sport, so it seems strange to me that it is so often ignored when it comes to training and creating world class athletes,’ Woodward says, ‘nothing happens in sport until the eye tells the body what to do.’
Zoe Wimshurst trains the British Olympic team’s eyesight for Woodward. She explains that a person’s sight, also known as visual acuity, is the ability to see at a certain level of detail. ‘When you visit your optician they just measure your static visual acuity – usually by getting you to read a row of letters from an eye chart a fixed distance away,’ Zoe says. ‘Vision training doesn’t strengthen eye muscles as they are already as strong as they need to be, it helps develop a person’s dynamic acuity – their ability to see as well as possible whilst engaged in an activity. This is important as in sport, things are always moving.’
Another Olympic vision coach, Sherylle Calder, distinguishes between eyesight, which most people have from birth, and vision, the ability to identify, interpret and understand what is seen. This, she believes, has to be trained and improved. Response skills of eye-hand, foot and body co-ordination can also be enhanced.
‘When players see more, they can assess the situation much quicker, therefore exercising their options, and ultimately making better decisions,’ Sherylle says, explaining that developing visual skills includes learning to use both eyes together effectively. ‘Having both eyes move, align and focus as a team enhances your ability to interpret and understand the potential visual information that is available to you,’ she says.
Sherylle adds that before you process information, you’ve got to get an input which involves judging where the ball is, in space. ‘Once you see it correctly you can then process that information,’ she adds.
If sports men and women need a good level of visual performance to reach and stay at the top, what a visual genius Charles Burgess Fry must have been. Fry played cricket for England, rugby for the Barbarians and football for Southampton and held the world long jump record. Some eyes, there.
As a batsman, Fry would have been reliant on his eyes to time movements, hit the ball, and locate gaps in the field. On dodgy pitches, at the turn of the century, he’d also have to watch the bounce. Over 30,000 runs and 94 centuries says he did this pretty well. When playing football, Fry would have needed good vision to locate space, intercept the ball and make incisive passes. When shooting, he’d need what pundits call ‘an instinctive awareness of where the goal is. Quality strikers always seem to be in the right place at the right time. This is really all about an ability to see immediate specifics of a situation, whilst retaining a picture of the context, and what could come next if they were made good, quick decisions. Similarly, as a rugby player, Fry would have needed good vision to know where the best space was to attack, to kick the ball into, and of course, to track the ball when receiving a pass. Even his acrobatic party piece, jumping onto a mantelpiece, from a standing position, required exceptional spatial awareness that results from good vision.
‘Throughout that movement you’d have to track where the mantelpiece is,’ says Zoe Wimshurst. ‘A few centimetres off, and you’d be flat on your face.’ Zoe explains that someone like Fry, who played lots of different sports at the highest level, would have been developing his visual performance in all, every time he played one. Remember the Leicestershire cricket project, though. How good would Fry have been if he’d had the benefit of modern day visual learning techniques? Only as a long jumper, would Fry have been less reliant on a combination of visual performance and body movements. Even long jumpers need their eyes, though. Try long jumping blind folded.
Fry also had an eye for a story – as a writer, editor, broadcaster and publisher. He was a politician and diplomat, too. There was no CCTV in those days, so Fry, with his good eyes, would have had to watch out for back stabbing rivals, enemies and scandal, all by himself.
After the First World War, Fry was reportedly offered the throne of Albania. With Serbia set to invade, and Italy not really embracing its role as protector of the new country, the Balkans was as ever, the powder keg of Europe. Fry turned the offer down. To last more than a few weeks in such a volatile environment, he’d have needed eyes in the back of his head!