VRguy podcast Episode 29: Dr. Daniel Laby discusses Sports and Performance Vision

My guest today is Dr. Daniel Laby, of Sports Vision. Dr Laby began his work in sports vision more than two decades ago with the MLB’s Los Angeles Dodgers. He has also been responsible for the visual performance of the New York Mets and St Louis Cardinals, and currently works with the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Houston Astros, Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago Cubs. Dr. Laby spent three seasons working with the NBA’s Boston Celtics as well as the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings. He also worked with the US Olympic team prior to the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 and attended the games with the team.

Dr Laby has been fortunate to have contributed to an MLB American League Championship team as well as 4 World Series Championship teams.

The interview transcript appears below the media player. This episode was recorded on Nov, 9th, 2017.

David and I discuss the “sports vision pyramid”, the pathway from photons to sports decision making and how to improve it. We also discuss how these techniques may be applicable to driving and even to music.


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Yuval Boger (VRGuy):    Hello Daniel, and thanks for joining me today.

Daniel Laby:       Thanks, Yuval. My pleasure.

VRGuy: So, who are you? And what do you do?

Daniel: I’m an ophthalmologist who, for the past 25 years has worked a fair amount in professional sports and athletics, elite level athletics, both the pro level and Olympic level. Trying to understand what the vision, what the visual performance, cognitive visual abilities, the hand eye coordination and reaction time. All sorts of metrics, all based on, at the root, on how visual function impacts performance.

VRGuy: Any particular teams that I might know?

Daniel: Probably. If you’ve watched the World Series over the last several years, three of the past five World Series winners are teams that we’ve worked with. Including the most recent, Houston Astros, a couple weeks ago.

VRGuy: Congratulations.

Daniel: Thanks.

VRGuy: Is that for pitchers? For hitters? For managers? Who do you work with most?

Daniel: Some might ask for the umpires, but they’ve been a hard nut to crack. No, it’s mostly with the batters because, as some people have talked about, hitting a baseball is one of the most difficult things to do in all of sports. And certainly in order to hit the baseball, you have to see it properly. Quite a bit of work has been done by our group and several other groups across the country, and even around the globe, in trying to understand what the vision requirements are for a batter to hit a thrown baseball. And you’d be surprised, it’s certainly not very easy.

VRGuy: As I think about hitting a baseball, you got to see it well, right? You have to have the correct refraction. But there must also be some brain function, right? Or brain training. Where do you focus your effort?

Daniel: When I lecture to my students, I show some slides. I’m interested in the entire pathway of the point of the photon of light leaves the baseball, in the pitchers hand, just before he releases it, 60 feet away from the batter, until it goes all through the ocular system, the brains part of the visual system, into the parts of the brain that have to then integrate visual information into the vision making, and ultimately into a go/no go muscular action. Until that point, where we can’t distinguish an action related to that photon. I’m interested in the entire pathway. So, I look at the whole thing.

VRGuy: Where do you start? Let’s say I’m a pro athlete, which as you know, I’m far from it. Let’s say I want to hit better, where do you start?

Daniel: We’ve developed a concept we call the Vision Pyramid. And clearly, as people say, “If you can’t see it, you can’t hit it.” The bottom of the pyramid is the simple visual function in each eye independent of sharpness, we call visual acuity, that’s that 20/20 or 20/25 or 20/10 number, and something called contrast sensitivity, the ability to detect a target from a background. Those are functions that are relevant to each eye individually, and that’s where you start, to make sure that the visual acuity and the contrast sensitivity is at the level required to be able to hit this baseball.

VRGuy: Okay, so that, just making sure that I’ve got that right, contact lenses or the proper LASIK procedure on my eye?

Daniel: We actually take it one step further, even. You’ve been to the eye doctor and you’ve seen the eye chart where you have rows of letters and you have to identify and say what the letters are. And in fact, you have as long as you want to stare at the letter and you may change the letter “E” to an answer “F”, or the “O” to a “G”, depending on how sure you are. And you go back and forth and you finally give your “Final answer”. And that’s what gets recorded.

                While, you know, it takes a baseball a quarter of a second, about 400 milliseconds to make it from the pitcher to the catcher’s glove. In that period, you only have 100 milliseconds to actually see it, before you have to start making decisions, and beginning motor actions, and actually moving the bat. Which takes the greatest part of that 400 milliseconds, 150 milliseconds. So you only have a tenth of a second to see the pitch and it’s quite a ways away. It’s probably about 55-60 feet away on a 90 mile-an-hour fastball.

                And, to have an eye test where you just have to read the chart, and you have 30, 40, 50 seconds to change your answer and stare at the sheet, didn’t seem to make sense to us. So we developed the system that we’ve put together using iPads, where we show targets of small size, obviously a baseball is very small, of low contrast, because to see the seams and how they spin on the ball when the pitch is thrown, is not black on white, it’s red on white, or red on brown, depending on how dirty the ball is. So, it’s a low contrast situation. And, as I mentioned, you only have 100 milliseconds.

                So, we only show those targets on the iPad per 100, maybe 300, sometimes 800 milliseconds. But never for an infinite amount of time where you have the ability to stare at it. So, in order to hit the ball, and to see how the vision is, we give you something that’s as realistic as possible. It’s a small target, a faint target, for a short time. And that’s what we use to decide whether you need to have a change in your contacts, a change in your glasses, et cetera.

VRGuy: So, if I went through that test, would it be possible that I’m using different contacts for game time, than I would use in everyday life?

Daniel: Certainly could be. Especially if you’re an older player who’s beginning to have some trouble in reading. Maybe you’re hitting your 30’s, you’re a pitcher, let’s say, in the National League, and you’re still batting. And you still have to be able to see the signs of the catcher. You may have contacts that we give you for on the field, which is all distance. None of it is reading up close, in a matter of inches. It’s a matter of many feet, tens of feet. We may give you contacts that get your vision to the Major League Baseball average of 20/12, or at least the minimum that we feel is important, 20/15 vision. Whereas, when you went home and read at night, in some dim light in your study, with a fire going, you would need some reading glasses. And that would be a different prescription. So it really depends on your prescription, your age, what your needs are. But I can certainly envision different prescriptions for different purposes.

VRGuy: Once I’m fitted with a prescription that’s right for me, and I’m sure that may need to change every couple of years, there must be some brain training component to it.

Daniel: That’s moving up the pyramid. So, when you move up from what each eye does individually, the next step is how the eyes work together. And that’s going to be 3D vision, stereo vision, depth perception. And remember that each sport has a different requirement. We published a paper, a few years back, on our experience with the U.S. Olympic Team, for the Beijing Olympic Games. And we documented how different sports have very different visual demands.

                And to say that one sport needs better vision than others is probably an oversimplification. Some sports need better sharpness; some sports need better depth perception; some sports need peripheral awareness and knowing what’s happening in the periphery. Think about a basketball player going down the court, how they’re able to pass the ball, literally behind them, right to their colleague and teammate, perfectly. Even when they don’t actually see them, at that moment when they make the pass. That’s a skill that doesn’t come easy and that takes some development, but that’s totally not required in baseball, where your action is right in front of you, to hit the ball.

                So, each sport has a different requirement. We want to make sure that depth perception is good. We want to make sure the ability to integrate that single, the three dimensional target into higher functions of the brain is proper. That you can track multiple targets at the same time, we have a specific test for that. That the hand eye coordination is what it needs to be, another test for that. And many different nodes, if you will, in this process of seeing and action that we’ve tried to identify and then benchmark against what’s required for that particular sport or that position. And make sure that the athlete has, at least, the minimum required to perform and to show their natural inborn athletic ability to the best.

VRGuy: Is that a technique that needs to be learned, like preparing for the SAT? Or is that something that I need to be trained on an ongoing basis, even refresher training in the off season, or during the season?

Daniel: Some of them are immediate fixes like, you mentioned, the contact lenses and glasses. That’s pretty immediate. That’s something that, the minute you have the proper lenses, the light is focused on the retina, and the vision improves. The depth perception is a little bit more intermediate. That will improve both with sharpness as well as with potential training. But, as you move higher up to the cognitive areas, the decision making, those require more time. The hand eye coordination, for example, requires training that can take several weeks, in the order of six to eight, maybe ten to twelve weeks, depending on how fast someone improves. The same thing with the ability to track multiple targets. That’s something that you have to learn over time.

VRGuy: And is training live? In the sense, do I … Are baseballs thrown at me while I do this training? Or is it just with an iPad or with a virtual reality device?

Daniel: Most of the training is virtual. It’s not on the field. In fact, I just wrote a post on our blog how I think batting practice is actually, not only not beneficial, but proved very harmful to players. So … Practicing, if you will, in an environment that is not reflective of the need is probably not as useful as what could be achieved in a virtual type of world, where you can actually simulate that specific task and train somebody in their ability to perform that task. And that’s how we do most of our training. It’s in the “lab”, either virtually or on the system that tries to isolate just that technique to improve just that, without spending peripheral time or wasted time on other things that may not be important.

VRGuy: Would you expect the player to, just like you envisioned them, on a team bus looking at game tape, instead they would do some cognition exercise to improve a particular visual function?

Daniel: Yeah, that already happens. Not that looking at tape is bad. Looking at tape, actually, could be useful. But in addition, there are other techniques that are done on either a smartphone or on a tablet type device, that has specific targets other abilities, that certainly can be done on a bus, on a plane, and is done in those situations, currently.

VRGuy: How do you measure success? I understand that if I’m fitted with better contact lenses that I could see better. That’s easy to measure. But, are you sure that the technique works? Other than just placebo effect, that the player is getting more attention in a particular area?

Daniel: That’s a great question. Being an academic professor and physician, I’m really tied, if you will, and some people will say, “Too tied”, to outcomes and scientific evidence. And, we look at it in two stages. The first stage is being able to tell whether somebody has the common visual functions required of their group.

                So, in other words, we know that the average vision in baseball is 20/12. We found that if you’re 20/15 or better, you have the sharpness/resolution ability to hit the baseball. And so, we don’t have … What we want to do is measure someone’s ability to see and see if they have that 20/15 or better. If they do, we don’t try to improve them anymore. There’s no evidence that 20/12 or 20/10 or 20/8 is going to give you a higher batting average than if you’re 20/15. But if you’re 20/30, there’s pretty good evidence that you’re not going to be as effective and we need to improve you to that 20/15 threshold, or better.

                And so, we look at it as a comparative, trying to decide what the norms are in the sports, for the positions, and make sure the athlete has the abilities for that position, at a minimum.

                The second fold then becomes, well, if you have somebody that doesn’t have that, is that just a strike against them? Or, can you correct them and we’ll see improvement on the field? And in some those we have some good evidence, and some of those, we don’t have enough data yet to be convinced that by moving somebody forward, we can actually improve them better. Let me give you an example. A paper that’s in review, that hopefully will come out shortly discusses the use of one of these techniques on something called Plate Discipline.

                Plate Discipline is how well you can decide to swing, or not swing, at a strike or a ball, on the field. And what we found is a very significant difference between the players on this vision test that were in the top 20%, versus those in the bottom 20%, in terms of their plate discipline ability. For example, their walk rate. How many times do they get on base, or walk, each time they’re at bat. And we found a very significant difference between those two groups.

                Interesting, though, what we found when we looked at the middle 60%, not the top and not the bottom 20, but the middle 60 … We found that as long as you’re in the top 80%, it doesn’t make a difference how visually good you are. If you’re in the bottom 20, it makes a difference. And so to train somebody who’s at the 60th percentile to move into the 40th percentile, doesn’t do anything for them, in terms of statistics on hundreds. Literally, 500 players, professional major and minor league players. But if you’re in the bottom 20%, you certainly need to be improved. And, we’re looking at data now, whether those who improve on the system, actually improve on the field. That’s part two and that still pending.

VRGuy: I understand. Now, if you do training or some of the tests that you do with virtual reality goggles, one of the things that we’ve seen is that allows you to control whether you show the stimuli in one eye or both. And some people, especially in the concussion or neuro testing, are using eye tracking to see if you follow the targets correctly, and so on. Do you use these kinds of techniques in your work as well?

Daniel: Yeah, eye tracking is real important. There’s a body of knowledge around the concept that’s called the “quiet eye”, developed by a colleague of mine, Joan Vickers, in Calgary, who identified the period of time it’s actually not moving, the eye, it’s called “quiet eye”. At one point, just prior to, during, and just after the critical action in the sport, are your eyes fixed on a specific target.

                We showed it in baseball, what the batters are actually looking at during the windup and the delivery of the pitch. And those batters who do that more efficiently and more properly and have what’s called a “longer quiet eye”, in fact, go in advance. They start out looking at the glove and then, as the pitcher winds up, they move their eyes to the point that they anticipate will be the release point of the pitch, get there before the hand, and the ball does, stay on there during the release, and actually for a short time after release. That’s the quiet, no movement of the eye. Those players tend to have a much better success in hitting the ball than players who are looking at many different points throughout the pitch, and not being quiet. That’s been shown in basketball. It’s been shown in hockey. It’s been shown in golf, quite a bit, with putting. And that, actually, lack of eye movement, during that critical point, becomes critical.

                And so, we do look to see how the person is using their eyes during the critical periods of the pitch delivery and want to make sure it’s quiet during the most important time.

VRGuy: And, can you train to improve on that parameter? You can?

Daniel: Absolutely. Alan Alda, for example, if someone wants to go back and look on PBS special online, did a thing about the quiet eye, where he, Alan Alda, went down to Calgary and they demonstrated what it takes to shoot a basket, to score the basket from a free throw. And what the technique was to train somebody to do that. And there was an interesting demonstration of that on the program, on PBS, several years back. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=knfC978EoWc

VRGuy: Have you considered using these kinds of techniques for fields that are beyond sports?  I mean, I, for instance, play the violin. I don’t want to say unprofessionally, but as an amateur. And when you have sheet music in front of you, there are a lot of things going on. You’ve got to read the music, you have look ahead, you have to process it. That information has to go to your fingers to actually play. Have you considered using it outside sports?

Daniel: Yeah, in fact, I’ve tried to move the field away from sports vision to what I call “performance vision”. Whereas, sports is just one component of what people need to use their visual and cognitive systems to perform in whatever task they want. And there’s no question that in music, that’s something that’s multifaceted. There’s, obviously, visual information, there’s cognitive processing, there’s decisions, and there’s hand eye coordination, hand foot coordination, or eye foot coordination, depending on what you’re doing, where it all has to come together properly in order to make music.

                We haven’t done so much in the music realm, but we are actually starting some work in the driving realm. As you imagine, like here in New York, in Manhattan, where I am, or any other large city, driving in the city is not indifferent from running down the field on the Super Bowl. You have multiple targets. You have multiple speeds. You have to make decisions rapidly. You may not know where you are. You may not be familiar with it. You have to read street signs. Contrast can be low. It could be brightness and glare with the sun in your eyes. It could be a cloudy day or dusk, where the lighting is poor. And all of those things will impact your ability to successfully navigate without crashing into a car or, God forbid, a person, as you drive through the city.

                We’re actually starting a project with the City of New York to evaluate that very question. So certainly, these techniques apply to music. They apply to driving. They certainly apply to Military, another area that we’ve done some work in. And there are many other areas, as well.

VRGuy: As we start to wind down our discussion, tell me a little bit about the effect of injury. So, if I am a player that got hit by a ball, or have a concussion, how quickly do I recover from it, and restore to the same performance levels?

Daniel: That’s actually another area where I think performance vision has a role to play. Up until now, when someone had an injury, and I’m not talking about direct injury to the eye, where the vision is damaged because of injury to the eye itself, that’s a different topic. But thinking about how that visual information is processed and decisions are made, and a coordinator action is started and achieved.

                Typically, considering concussion effects, most people who have concussions go through concussion rehab and are felt to be check marked, “Okay, can go back on the field.” And I would maintain, there’s some published literature that will support this, that those players aren’t quite there yet. They may be “normal” to the general population, but they’re far from where they were at the elite level of visual function, prior to their injury. And although they might be able to go back out on the field, that may actually open them to more re-injury, because they’re not a quick as they were before. They’re as quick as I may be, but they’re not as quick as someone might be in their opponent on the field.

                And there probably is a role for performance vision training following their completion of regular “concussion therapy” to try to bring people back to the same elite level of performance. Whether it’s on the field with sports, or driving, or whatever in the military, to bring them back and keep them safe, as well as to keep their performance, their function, up. The other aspect of that is, there’s a paper that came out a few years ago that suggested that by doing performance training, in other words, increasing peoples hand eye coordination. Their reaction time. Their ability to track multiple targets and avoid those that are actually coming right at them, that would cause concussion. By training that ability, you might be able to actually reduce either the severity, or the instance of concussion overall. And there’s certainly nothing better than avoiding the injury, as opposed to having to clean up after the injury and treatment.

VRGuy: And related to the question of genetics versus education, can these techniques be used to screen prospects? Can you tell whether a teenager could be a great baseball player? Or is all of this something that could just be learned, over time, from a cognitive perspective?

Daniel: You just opened up a half hour discussion. I’ll try and keep it short though. Most of the value that I think we bring to teams, is not so much in working with the Major League elite, top players. Because frankly, between you and me, those players, for whatever reason, have made it because of their success, to that level. And they don’t, as much, need me. Our role is much more useful in the minor league players, if we’re in baseball, or those people that are just starting out, that have been identified to have talent, but it’s not fully developed yet. And our role is to try to give them the tools to full develop that talent, to perform at their maximum.

                But even on top of that, we spend lots of time looking at players before the draft, or prospect players, to evaluate them against the established norms of ability in each of these different visual cognitive areas, to see how they match up. Certainly, if you have two players that have the same skill, that is felt to have the same objective skill, one player has all the visual abilities equal to or better than average for a professional athlete, and the other one has very few of them, and you only can choose one, I would say your chances of success are better in choosing the one that has the skills versus the one who doesn’t. And that’s kind of what we do a lot of, is for the teams, and evaluating prospective players, testing prospective players, and trying to give some insight into who’s going to be the more likely, versus less likely, major league player or professional player, as they develop later on.

VRGuy: So, Daniel, where could people connect with you to learn more about your work, and others, in this field?

Daniel: There’s quite a few people that have, if you just search “sports performance vision” on the web, you’ll find all sorts of things. You still may want to, kind of, “buyer beware” as with anything on the web, and make sure that it’s coming from a credited, vetted, source. Some of these sources are based on less scientific data. Some of them are based on more scientific data. My own website is www.sportsvision.nyc. And that will take you to my website. You’re certainly welcome to contact me if anyone has any questions. But there’s quite a few people that do sports vision, or performance vision, around the globe. And I think it’s an area in sports, which is one of the last legal areas that we can enhance players and try to elevate the game.

VRGuy: Excellent. Well, thank you so much for joining me today.

Daniel: My pleasure, Yuval. Take care.


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