Seeing Better to Play Better

Berkeley Optometry’s Sports Vision Clinic helps top athletes and weekend warriors improve performance.

Illustration of the eye

Article by Gordy Slack

A dubious but durable rumor has it that Ted “The Thumper” Williams, the legendary Red-Sox batter, could see the individual stitches on a baseball as it hurtled toward his strike zone at 90 miles per hour. True or not, something like that experience does happen to athletes at the tops of their sports, says Jeremy Shumaker, OD, chief of Berkeley Optometry’s Sports Vision and Concussion Clinic. “If you’ve got a finely-tuned visual system that is flexible and reacts quickly, the image stream you perceive will slow down,” he says. On the other hand, if you’ve got inefficient control of your eyes, a pitch is going to look a lot faster. “For many athletes, the ideal is that feeling that action is unfolding in slow motion, with plenty of time to react,” Dr. Shumaker says.

To Paul Ramsey, Berkeley grad (’86) and a 63-year-old right fielder in the Men’s Senior Baseball League (MSBL), the problem wasn’t fastballs, though. It was changeups and knuckleballs, any pitch he had to watch carefully and adjust his swing to. When he returned to the sport after a five-year hiatus in his late 50s it was embarrassing. “I was swinging half-a-second early,” Ramsey says. “I’d always been a strong hitter, but I was striking out again and again. I couldn’t time my swing with what I thought I was seeing.”

In addition to missing easy pitches, Ramsey also started losing track of golf balls he hit off the tee. “I’d have to ask the guys I was playing with where my ball went,” he says. Something was up with his vision, he remembers thinking, so he turned to the web, which eventually led him to the Sports Vision and Concussion Clinic. Shumaker told Ramsey he could help.