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OD’s sports vision training helps ballplayer

September 13, 2011

Dr. Smithson

Outfielder Bryce Harper is being widely heralded as baseball’s next great star. With perhaps unprecedented natural ability (as well a brash and colorful personality), many believe he could become a major sports phenomenon, on a par with Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, or Michael Jordan.

If he does, he will almost certainly focus new attention on the importance of good eyesight for athletes, according to Keith Smithson, O.D., team optometrist for the Washington Nationals.

An eye examination, contact lenses, and sports vision training provided by Dr. Smithson this past spring are being credited with re-charging the young power hitter’s career just as it appeared to stalling.

Harper was the first pick in the 2010 Major League Baseball (MLB) Draft. The Nationals gave the 18-year-old, Las Vegas native a highly publicized, five-year, $9.9 million contract. Sports Illustrated featured Harper on its cover, proclaiming him to potentially be among the best players ever to pick up a bat. ESPN noted that Harper had dominated high school and college ball like no other player in decades. He was designated the “top prospect” for baseball stardom by the Web site Baseball America and other media with such rankings.

However, Harper’s minor league career got off to an unexpectedly slow start. His statistics after joining the Nationals’ AA farm team, the Hagerstown (Md.) Suns, were unimpressive. Harper was batting just batting just .231. Sportswriters described his performance as “uneven” and “nondescript.”

Time magazine questioned whether Harper would live up to his highly touted potential.

Then, in April, Nationals coaches sent Harper to Dr. Smithson for an eye examination. To both the ballplayer’s and the optometrist’s surprise, fairly serious refractive error was diagnosed.

Dr. Smithson prescribed Harper a set of contact lenses to correct acuity. He also initiated a comprehensive vision training program to strengthen Harper’s eye muscles and allow him to process what he sees more quickly.

The night after the examination, Harper hit a double and a single. The next night, he homered. The night after that, he singled, doubled, homered and drove in six runs. In 20 games following his visit to Dr. Smithson, Harper hit .480 (36 for 75) with a .547 on-base percentage and an .893 slugging percentage — with 7 homers, 10 doubles and 23 RBIs.

In July, Harper was promoted to the Nationals’ A league affiliate, the Harrisburg (Pa.) Senators. As this AOA News went to press, his batting average stood at .304 and he had just recorded his first A league homerun.

“It was like I was seeing in HD,” Harper said after being fitted with his new contact lenses. During one interview, Harper stated that, in retrospect, he felt he had been “blind as a bat” prior to seeing the optometrist.

During lectures on sports vision at optometric meetings, Dr. Smithson notes that such reactions are not uncommon among athletes following sports vision care.

Because of the great demands placed on their vision, athletes often find that even relatively minor correction results in a very substantial increase in quality of vision, Dr. Smithson says.

Dr. Smithson attempts to correct all of his baseball playing patients to average acuity levels found in MLB players in a study by Daniel M. Laby, M.D., of the Harvard Medical School and David G. Kirschen, O.D., of the University of Southern California based on a study of MLB players.

Correction to the average acuity found in the major leagues often does not require a strong prescription but often does result in a very satisfied patient-athlete, Dr. Smithson noted during one recent lecture.

“In baseball, acuity is so critical that it can certainly intensify the effects of correcting just about any level of refractive error,” Dr. Smithson said. “Many cases, prior to a good sport vision examination, players simply do not have the acuity needed to maximize their performance at the highest level.”

“It was not until he was faced with the competition of professional league play that he realized he was not seeing the ball as well as he should,” Washington Post sportswriter Dave Sheinin observed in a feature article on the eye examination and Harper’s subsequent improvement in play.

Harper had once tried contact lenses and given them up.

“I needed (the contacts) in college,” he said. “But I tried them for a while in high school, and they gave me headaches really bad. So I just got by without them. But these are a new kind (of lenses), and they really help. The difference (in vision) is huge.”

Harper has now effectively become America’s best-known example of a previously unsuccessful contact lens wearer who has been reintroduced to the lenses successfully thanks to new lens materials and designs, Dr. Smithson noted.

Harper’s rapid improvement was not surprising, Dr. Smithson observed. In addition to the immediate improvement in visual acuity provided by the lenses, Harper likely saw improvement in his visual processing skills quickly, he said.

“Studies tell us that vision training, after as little as two sessions, can show statistical improvement,” Dr. Smithson said. “It’s a pretty dramatic improvement, pretty quick with certain things.”

It is impossible to say exactly how much of Harper’s on-field improvement can be attributed to the lenses and how much is the result of the vision training, Dr. Smithson said.

Contact lenses and vision training are not the sole reasons for Harper’s improvement on the playing field this year. The young outfielder continues to benefit from professional coaching, physical training, and experience against more highly skilled players, baseball writers note.  Nor has it meant the end of his problems on the diamond. Over recent weeks, Harper’s performance has again reached a plateau in at least some respects.

However, the sports media almost universally expects Harper to move on to a highly successful career in the major leagues.

As he does, Dr. Smithson believes, demand for proper vision correct and vision training among athletes – and the general public – is likely to increase.

The eye examination and Harper’s subsequent on-field improvement have already the subject of coverage in Washington-area media and baseball Web sites.

Dr. Smithson is the sports vision specialist for Northern Virginia Doctors of Optometry, a 13-practitioner practice with six offices in the suburbs south of the nation’s capital.

In addition to the Nationals, Dr. Smithson is the team optometrist for the Washington Wizards of the National Basketball Association and the DC United major league soccer team.

He has also served as a sports vision consultant for the Baltimore Ravens of the National Football League, Washington Freedom professional soccer club, Washington Mystics of the Women’s National Basketball Association, and Nike.

However, virtually any practice can provide at least some sports vision services and should be prepared to do so, Dr. Smithson believes.

Dr. Smithson is a member of the AOA Sports Vision Section, which offers advice on sports vision practice and information on various sports vision programs through its AOA Web site page (www.aoa.org/x4787.xml).

The AOA Web site also offers information on sports-related vision issues for the general public on its Sports & Vision page (http://www.aoa.org/x5277.xml).

How to Get Started in Sports Optometry, an article on the introduction of sports vision services in an optometric office and the sports vision acuity standards developed by Dr. Laby and Dr. Kirschen, appears in the August edition of Optometry: Journal of the American Optometric Association.

2 comments

  1. my son plays college baseball and already where’s corrective contact lenses. is it possible that his vision could be improved even more through the right doctor or right types of examination?


  2. There is a possibility of further improvement. Vision is more than just seeing 20/20. It is a set of visual skills, and most eye health and eyesight exams don’t delve into evaluating these skills relative to how your son uses his eyes in his sport. I would recommend seeing an optometrist that specializes in sports vision for an individual evaluation of your son’s vision system and how it relates to how he uses his vision when playing baseball.

    Christopher I. Clark, OD



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