Geno Smith, one of the top quarterback prospects in this year’s NFL Draft, threw for more than 4,200 yards, heaved 42 touchdowns, and completed 72.1 percent of his passes during his senior year at West Virginia University.
At the NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium this weekend, we’ll find out how many times the 22-year-old can bench press 225 pounds, how fast he can run 40 yards, and how high he can jump. But there’s one stat that won’t be measured, and it just might make or break Smith’s career: How well can he see?
In 2012, only 20 percent of professional football players on the field, compared to 54 percent of all American 18- to 24-year-olds,either needed glasses or contact lenses, or had LASIK performed to correct their vision, says Michael Peters, O.D., team optometrist for the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes and the author of See to Play. Peters worked with the NFL for two seasons to compile those numbers. “The amount of detail a player can see in front of him determines how quickly he reads a defensive formation, or where a pass is headed,” he says.
Even high draft picks can make it to their initial team medical exam with undiagnosed or poorly corrected vision problem, says Peter Kaiser, M.D., an opthamologist at the Cleveland Clinic who works with the Cleveland Browns. “If they’re not in a marquee position, it may not be a big deal, but for a wide receiver or a safety, it might factor into the team’s decision,” Kaiser says. If the eye problem can’t be fixed, the player’s career may be in jeopardy.
Even if you’re not being scouted by the NFL, you can still stand to strengthen your vision, whether it’s to improve your performance on the playing field or simply see what’s in front of you. While only corrective lenses or laser surgery can actually improve your visual acuity—the level of detail you can see 20 feet away—some simple exercises can help your brain process visual information more quickly, and hone your body’s movements in response.
Peters recommends performing these exercises for 3 to 5 minutes each, for a total of no more than 20 minutes a day, every other day:
1. Card Swing
What it does: Improves your peripheral awareness.
How to do it: Hold a playing card at arm’s length straight out to one side. While keeping your eyes fixed straight ahead, rotate your arm behind you until you can no longer see the card. Next, slowly bring the card forward until you can just see the edge. You can shake the card when you’re first starting out to help, because it’s easier for your eyes to notice movement. Repeat five to 10 times, then switch to the other side.
2. Card Read
What it does: Helps to identify detail in front of you.
How to do it: Similar to the card swing, hold a playing card at arm’s length, this time 45 degrees left or right from center. It’s better if you draw the card and put it in position without reading it first. Then, slowly rotate your arm to the center, keeping your eyes fixed directly ahead, until you can correctly identify the value and suit of the card. “Most people only have around 15 degrees right or left of detailed vision, but some elite quarterbacks can see up to 25 or maybe even 30 degrees on either side,” Peters says.
3. ESPN Double Take
What it does: Helps you focus on objects at different distances.
How to do it: Sit 15 feet from the TV with ESPN or a news channel on, holding a book, magazine, or playing card 6 to 8 inches from your face. Read one line of the book, then look up and read the news crawl at the bottom of your TV screen, then go back to the book. Repeat for up to 5 minutes.
4. Tennis Ball Bounce
What it does: Improves your hand-eye coordination.
How to do it: Have a partner stand a few feet behind you. Your partner then throws a tennis ball at a wall, and you try to catch the rebound on the first bounce. If you’re ready for a greater challenge—or can’t find a partner—keep your eyes closed during the throw, and open them only when you hear the ball hit the wall.
5. Tennis Ball Read
What it does: Increases the speed that you process visual information.
How to do it: Follow the procedure for the “tennis ball bounce,” except use a marker to write a different number on several different tennis balls. Again have your partner bounce a tennis ball against the wall for you to catch. Before you catch it, you have to read the number on the ball out loud.
Adapted from Men’s Health