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Using ‘Nonobvious’ Sports Training to Gain a Competitive Edge

Falling just short of obtaining your goals can be excruciatingly painful. While NC State was likely overjoyed to make it into the 2014 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, SMU was subjected to a special kind of pain as being the last team left out. Likewise, Wichita State played an amazing game in the third round, yet fell just one shot short of beating Kentucky—a moment they will remember for a lifetime.

To truly understand just how agonizing it can be to fall short of your goal, simply look to the Olympics, which routinely provides heartbreaking evidence that the difference between success and failure can be unbelievably small. If you have any doubt, just ask speedskater Koen Verweij, who finished the 2014 Olympic Men’s 1500m race just 0.003 seconds behind the gold medalist.

So what should SMU, Wichita State, and Verwiej have done differently? They came so close, yet their efforts were practically identical to those ahead of them.

The sports and business worlds often mirror one another, and it can be fruitful to watch what works in one to guide operations in the other. When competition is tight, it is often highly beneficial to look for new, and perhaps nonobvious, ways to gain an edge.

In sports, there is a new frontier emerging that offers promise for improving performance. As people realize that sports rely heavily on vision and attention, efforts are increasingly being placed on assessing and training visual and attentional skills. Seeing is not simply opening your eyes, but involves a complex set of abilities, including visual acuity, depth perception, motion perception, working memory, attention, and more. Each of these abilities provides a potential measuring stick for comparing athletes to one another and an opportunity for training. The proliferation of portable apps and new technologies offers easy—and sometimes fun—ways to train.

Researchers Greg Appelbaum (L) and Steve Mitroff ® observe while Duke University students train with Nike SPARQ Vapor Strobe eyewear.
Photo: Duke University Photography

For example, in using Nike Vapor Strobe eyewear, my research team and our partners have found evidence suggesting improvements in motion perception and central vision, anticipatory timing, and working memory. In this form of training, participants complete their normal practices using eyewear that “strobe”—the lenses alternate between transparent and opaque. Imagine trying to play catch with the ball oscillating between visibility and invisibility. By training in suboptimal conditions where it is hard to perform, attention and perception are stressed. The research suggests that this stress on the system results in measurable improvements in basic vision and attention and in athletic performance.

While Nike has discontinued the Vapor Strobe eyewear product line, other companies, like Senaptec, may soon be introducing the next generation of products for assessing and training visual and attentional abilities. With new research suggesting that training based on vision science principles might be able to help baseball players improve on the field, it is an exciting time with a variety of ways in which abilities can be measured and potentially improved.

Employee Performance
Enhancing vision and attention in sports simply makes sense, and it may be just as exciting for other businesses to follow suit. Companies strive to have their employees operating at maximum efficiency, and any industry that requires high levels of attention and vigilance should explore ways to enhance performance. From assembly line workers to stock traders to security personnel, there is no limit to the number of groups who could benefit from enhanced vision and attention.

Mel Burl, a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer, inspects bags with a x-ray machine at Logan Airport in Boston, Mass.
Researchers see strong linkages between sports visual training methods and business, such as helping to improve performance of baggage
screening. Photo: Douglas McFadd/Getty Images

My research group at Duke and our colleagues have employed vision training in sports contexts, but we also have strong interests in bringing such training to other realms. We have ties to the healthcare industry, the Transportation Security Administration, and the U.S. military, and we see great opportunities ahead. For example, airport security personnel are faced with a daunting task of trying to find dangerous objects of any shape, size, orientation, or color that could be maliciously hidden. And they are supposed to find these items with near perfect accuracy while doing their job quickly so passengers can get to their flights in time. While most passengers fail to appreciate the difficulty of airport baggage screening, I am sure no one would complain if airplanes could be made more secure and the process more efficient by creative use of technology.

Technology can also be used to improve performance when searching for rarely appearing items such as tumors or contraband. For example, my lab has done research using data from a game, Airport Scanner, which can likely be used to assess and train a variety of abilities related to airport baggage screening.

Vision training also holds promise for improving performance for health care workers (e.g., helping radiologists and physical therapists do their jobs better) and for healthcare patients (e.g., helping with recovery from a stroke or ACL tear). The possibilities here are endless, and with an appointment at the MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington D.C., I am currently exploring opportunities to use Strobe eyewear to help physical therapists enhance patients’ recovery efforts.

Whether in business, sports, or any other endeavor, falling short of your goals can be brutal. By finding creative ways to enhance performance, you can keep yourself one step ahead of the competition and for teams like SMU and Wichita State, possibly remove some of the madness that comes along every March.

Stephen Mitroff, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University. He is the director of the Duke Visual Cognition lab and a visiting research scientist at the MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington D.C.

Using ‘Nonobvious’ Sports Training to Gain a Competitive Edge was originally published on Ideas Lab

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