Legend has it that Ted Williams, considered by many to be the greatest baseball hitter ever, had superhuman eyesight. People said his acuity was 20:3 and he could see the individual laces of a pitched ball. Like all legends, there’s a kernel of truth in these stories, but the facts have been exaggerated by admirers.
Williams did have above-average vision—20:10. And his natural and learned visual abilities did allow him to process what he saw on the field faster than most. But if you weren’t born with Williams’ natural talents, you can make up for where nature left off. There is now vision training geared specifically to baseball players.
“Many baseball athletes and coaches think of vision as just eyesight,” says Seattle sports vision optometrist Christopher Clark. “If they can see the bottom line of an eye chart, they’ll say that their vision is fine. But vision is a whole set of skills, and different sports emphasize different skills.”
Sports vision is on the verge of becoming one of the most critical skills in a young athlete’s development, and players are encouraged to do vision-based exercises.
“You have to be able to pick up the speed of a fastball or the break on a curve to be an elite hitter in the majors,” says Grant Geisser, Cincinnati Reds Minor League Director. “It’s all about gaining that edge to be successful.”
The good news is it doesn’t matter how old you are. You can start visual sports training at any age. The training doesn’t have to be expensive and requires little time. Many sports training facilities now offer sports vision software, charts and other training equipment. Specialized personal training is available as well.
For simple, home grown exercises, try these visually challenging drills that can be easily added into baseball and softball practices.
- Soft toss—where the coach kneels down beside the hitter and throws balls into the strike zone for the batter to hit—is easy to convert into a vision-related exercise. Here are some ways to use this exercise to improve hand-eye coordination and reaction speed:
- Smaller balls and bats. Try practice golf balls or a broomstick to improve hand-eye coordination.
- Colored balls. Use two or three colors of practice golf balls. Hitters can be directed to concentrate on watching the smaller ball and to react differently to the various colors. For example, a white ball could mean swing away, while a green ball means bunt.
- Numbered balls. A variation on colored balls is to cover the balls with numbers and give corresponding instructions to each.
- Multiple balls. Throw two balls and instruct the batter to hit either the top or bottom, improving concentration and reaction time.
- Toss from behind. Instead of soft-tossing balls from beside the hitter, toss them from behind. This way, the hitter is forced to use peripheral vision to locate the ball and also has less time to react.
- Closed eyes. Instruct the batter to keep his or her eyes closed until the ball has been tossed. At this point, the batter is instructed to open his or her eyes and locate the ball immediately for improved location and reaction time.
In addition to soft toss, a number of other vision drills can help a hitter’s performance.
- Finger throws. A coach stands about 6 feet in front of the outside corner of the plate, winds up with no ball and instead throws from 1 to 5 fingers. Holding a bat, the hitter must focus on the coach’s throwing hand and call out the number of fingers thrown. As the hitter calls out the number, he or she swings through and then is required to call out a second number that appears in the coach’s catching hand. This forces the batter to watch the release point but then keep his or her vision down on the ball as it crosses the plate. Try these variations:
- Partners. Pair the hitter with a teammate who stands about 4 feet on the inside of the plate and throws the second set of fingers.
- Different pitches. Increase the difficulty by giving meaning to each number of fingers thrown. One could be high inside; two could be low inside, etc.
- Baseballs. Use baseballs and show pitches to the batter without releasing the ball. The hitter is required to identify the pitch (fastball, curve, etc.).
- Tees. Set up two tees, one high and inside, and the other low and outside. Instruct the batter to either pull or drive the ball to the opposite field.
- General area focus. Instruct the hitter to first focus on an area on the pitcher’s body, like the hat. Then shift focus to the pitcher’s release and then the ball.
As with hitting, a variety of vision drills can improve fielding skills.
- Different-colored balls. Instruct the fielder to throw to first if the ball hit is white, to second if the ball is green, etc.
- Numbered balls. Do the same as above but with numbers written all over each ball.
- Closed eyes. Have players close their eyes prior to the hit and allow them to open upon hearing the contact with the bat.
- Distraction drill. Distract the fielder with runners crossing in front of the ball.
- Fixation drill. Have players focus on a high-up object while performing calisthenics and agility drills, and call out instructions for movements right or left.
Players can be caught off balance when fielding ground balls. A good field presence can keep this mistake from happening. Instruct players to close their eyes once they’ve fielded the ball, and make the throw with their eyes closed. Players will have developed good field awareness when they are able to consistently complete throws to the target.
By challenging their visual skills, some players report that they improve their focus and concentration, hand-eye coordination, alertness and field awareness, ultimately leading to better performance.