Hitting a moving object with another moving object is the most visually demanding task in all of sport. It might also be the most difficult. Combining visual acuity with memory practice, courage, and willingness to accept risk without the ability to see exactly what is coming ahead is not just a metaphor: it’s the definition of how one becomes a great hitter in baseball. It’s also a great example of how one can take a native talent, build skills with it, and add a strong dose of confidence in order to achieve excellence.
Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters to ever live, was known to have incredible vision. Williams, in addition to playing baseball was a Navy fighter pilot in WWII and Korea, another occupation where good vision is not just an asset but a necessity. Williams’ vision was so legendary that many myths emerged depicting him as having superman-like eyesight. According to urban legend, Williams’ vision was so good that he could see the laces on the ball as it approached at speeds above 90 mph. Another rumor was that he was able to read the label on a 78rpm record as it spun! Perhaps the most a farfetched urban legend was that in exhibition games during the war, the opposing pitchers would write words on the ball and bet William’s whether he could actually read them. Supposedly not only could Williams read the words on the ball, he once pointed out a misspelling! While these are obvious exaggerations, the military ophthalmologist who performed his initial entry examination tested Williams’ vision at 20/8 and estimated that is was a 1 in 100,000 occurrence.
Just how good is 20/8 vision? If you have 20/20 vision, we like to call that “perfect vision,” and you have better vision than ½ of the American population. The term “20/20” is derived from the Snellen visual acuity system developed by Herman Snellen in 1862. Snellen designated a testing distance and established it as “normal.” In the US, the accepted distance is 20 ft. From that distance, vision is measured based on whether or not a person can see all letters on the 20/20 line. Those that can only see the larger letters above the line have less than perfect vision (20/40 or 20/60). Those that can see the smaller letters below the 20/20 line have better than “perfect” vision (20/15 or better). You also don’t have close to the vision necessary to play major league baseball, in spite of the probable exaggeration of Williams’s incredible eyesight. The average ball player has vision better than that. Players that aren’t 20/15 or better are often referred to a special ophthalmologist to get corrective lenses. With those lenses, the player can then get to 20/15 or below. Most major league players end up being around 20/12 or 20/13. That means that they can see from 20 feet away what the average person sees from 12 feet away. If by chance you can read all the letters on the chart at 20 feet away and want to test yourself, all you have to do is back up a foot at a time and do the math. Most ophthalmologists agree that the best vision humanly possible is around 20/8. That means a person with 20/8 vision can see something from 20 feet away that most us can only see if we are 8 feet away. Since most US vision acuity charts only measure to 20/15 or 20/10, Ted Williams’ eyesight was literally “off the charts.”
But the Snellen test is really not testing all aspects of vision. It’s actually only testing visual acuity. That’s because the observed object (a particular letter on the chart) is stationary. It’s also usually black against a white backdrop (contrast). At nearly 46 years old I still have 20/15 vision, but I’m fairly certain that I can’t hit a Major League fastball. Clarity and the ability to process the information quickly in order to track the object are equally, if not more important, than just having great acuity. A 90 mile an hour fastball takes less than ½ a second to get to the plate 60 feet and 6 inches away. A player must make a decision and swing to the anticipated spot in the hitting zone in less than .434 seconds. That means the hitter must gather enough information about its likely flight path in less than that time. The better the clarity, the faster a decision can be made. Of course, he also has to have the necessary bat speed (fast-twitch explosive muscle fiber), which is another physiological component determining who can and cannot potentially hit a Major League fastball. As in all rotational sports, technique of the rotation (in this case the swing), its efficiency, and repetitive technical practice are also imperative. The faster and more efficient the swing, the more time the hitter has to recognize the pitch and make a decision.
Nevertheless, without well above average eyesight an aspiring athlete with the necessary fast-twitch fiber can exercise and practice all they want. They can gain strength, improve their technique and still not be able to hit a ball consistently when thrown at high speeds. Add in movement to the ball and trickery by the pitcher and they might better take up soccer. There’s way more to hitting a moving small round object with an also moving stick-like implement. In an eye-opening study (pun intended) done by three individuals, Dr. Daniel Laby, M.D., Dr. David G. Kirschen, Ph.D, and Tony Abbatine, National Director of Instruction for Frozen Ropes Training Center, they tested over 1500 major and minor league ball players. But they didn’t just test for visual acuity. Their tests included stereo acuity (depth perception) and contrast sensitivity training (being able to pick a target out of a background). They found that the ball players were much better on these tests than the general population. For viewing and connecting a bat in motion with a ball in motion, the image of the ball and the rotation has to fall clearly on the back of the eye, a component of vision that some refer to as peripheral motion acuity. The eye needs to successfully track the image. The brain uses the tracking information to project the future position in space (over the plate) that the ball is likely to end up. The hand-eye motor coordination needs to time and place the swing of the bat to coincide with the tracking system projection of where the ball is headed. Estimates need to be made of where the plate is in relationship to the pitch using peripheral vision cues simultaneously as speed is estimated by the rate at which the image of the ball is transmitted across the retina. Depth perception information is used to adjust each of these calculations. All this has to be done in less than .434 seconds. Taking all of this into consideration, the act of hitting a ball, especially a 90 mph pitch, seems visually statistically impossible. The optic nerves simply should not be able to pick up the necessary signals that quickly. Yet Major League batters often connect with 90 mph fastballs almost effortlessly. If the pitcher isn’t changing speeds or creating the illusion of movement by spinning the ball a certain way as it is released (i.e. curve balls, sliders, cutters etc.) a Major League hitter will be unlikely to miss a straight 90 mph pitch! How is this even possible?
In David Epstein’s book The Sports Gene, he analyzes Jennie Finch and her ability to consistently strike out Major League hitters. She once stuck out Mike Piazza on three pitches and also stuck out Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols and Barry Bonds during different exhibitions. Only two hitters, Sean Casey and Scott Spiezio, were ever able to put the bat on the ball against Finch! Why? The MLB hitters had the eyesight, they had the fast twitch fiber, the bat speed, and they certainly had the confidence. So what was it? Epstein concludes that to a large extent the hitters are anticipating where the ball is going based on a database of past knowledge. The aforementioned study corroborates Epstein’s conclusion that in spite of all the superior visual ability of MLB players, they still can’t really see the ball all the way from the release to the hitting zone. “It is physically impossible for the human eye to track the baseball from the pitcher’s hand to it striking the bat.” (Laby, D. et al, 2016). Instead, hitters must be able to predict where the ball will end up and swing to that spot. The player must use the visual skills to quickly pick up the cues that will increase the accuracy of the prediction. Here is where experience and practice comes in to play. Facing Finch, it was from a different distance, she had a different release, different spins, different release point, and new angles. They had no visual memory to draw data from and were thereby unable to predict the flight of the ball. They were strictly relying on their physical and physiological abilities. Although visual acuity, depth perception, peripheral motion acuity, and contrast sensitivity are vital to the hitter, visual memory, the ability to recall past cues, is equally if not more important. “A superior player must use visual functions to quickly and properly identify the fine details of an object in order to produce a mental image of the object and allow for correct identification the next time an identical or similar object is seen” (Laby, D. et al).
Laby, Kirschen and Abbatine go on to study the visual stress response of players and the various potential psychological responses athletes have as it pertains to hitting a baseball. This is a completely different aspect of the make-up of each individual athlete and what might and might not contribute to their performance. At the same time, it suggests that the psychological state of the athlete can determine how and if the visual cues from the eyes are registered with the database (the brain). Depending on their psychological reaction in the moment, they can either increase their processing speed or become temporarily paralyzed from confusion and panic when the image of something coming at them, that can potentially kill them, disappears from the brain’s imaging center. The ability to process and recall past visual memories rapidly while under duress is every bit as important as seeing the baseball at the point of release.
It’s no wonder that baseball is a game of failure. Hitting a small round object at high speeds with another round object might be the most difficult thing to do in all of sports. It is certainly the most visually intensive. If a hitter can make contact 2.5 out of 10 times, that is considered above average. The hitter fails to make contact far more often than he succeeds. The Major League player has to walk to the plate with unwavering confidence each time if there is any chance of success (the psychological characteristics that Laby et al delve in to). How is that even possible given that the batter can’t actually see the ball as it approaches? On discussing his confidence, Williams once stated, “If there was ever a man born to be a better hitter, it was me.” Given the visual complexity of the task and how physiologically, physically, and psychologically difficult it is, unwavering confidence in spite of persistent failure is perhaps the more remarkable quality in players like Williams. Visual memory therefore has to be selective.
To hit a baseball you have to be able to read the cues and nuances that can be picked by the optic nerves, process the information as it is passed from the back of the retina to the brain, then remember similar past cues from the database of visual memory for cross referencing to take place. This allows for the most accurate prediction of when and where the ball will arrive. Your psychological state also has to be optimized in order to not freeze at the point when the human limits of peripheral motion acuity temporarily blind you from accurately tracking the baseball. Prior to the moment at-bat when the ball is in motion hurling towards you, in spite of inherent disadvantage and persistent past failures, you have to find a way to visualize the potential future success at this overwhelmingly daunting objective. Using visualization, you can create images from memory and pretend they are in the future. Interestingly, the brain doesn’t recognize the difference between an actual image processed from the back of the retina and a visual memory. In performing these visualization techniques, one has to pick out images of past successes all while marginalizing those images of the relatively copious failures; selective visual memory. During this “practice,” the brain’s processing is occurring as if it were the real thing. Some visualization practitioners are so good at this form or exercise that they can actually raise their own heart rates to live performance levels, thus making the brain process in game-like conditions. The more they practice in anticipation of the psychological duress of a high pressure situation, the more likely they are to be able to process information quickly enough to actually hit the ball.
Hitting the Major League fastball is visually intensive indeed, and obviously not for the mentally meek, the risk averse, or the faint of heart. Captain Williams flew 39 combat missions, his plane was hit by enemy gunfire on at least three occasions, and he was awarded three air medals before being sent home with a severe ear infection. Williams’ hearing was permanently damaged, but luckily his visual acuity, contrast sensitivity, depth perception, peripheral motion acuity, visual memory, ability to process under pressure, and confidence were not. Williams came back from the war and went on to fail 6 out of 10 at-bats, hitting .407 in 37 games in the remainder of the 1953 season. In those 37 games he was the very best at the seemingly impossible mission of hitting a fast approaching round object with another moving object; perhaps the most demanding and visually intensive task in all of sport.
I began researching this subject for a speech I was giving at my local Toastmasters Club. As I got deeper in to my research and in my own contemplation of this topic, I came to realize that the selective memory portion of this could be used metaphorically, applicable to entrepreneurial endeavors specifically and perhaps to life itself more generally. I recalled Shawn Green’s fabulous book, The Way of Baseball, as well as the grandfather of visualization, self-help, and positive thinking, Charles F. Haanel and his original magnum opus, The Master Key System. If you have not read either of these, I strongly encourage anyone intrigued by the relativity and potential analogies of this topic to further indulge their curiosities. If you are an athlete or coach of any sport, in my view, these books are must reads. Please feel free to post your comments or thoughts. You can also email me at [email protected].
Nicholas R. Fazio, CSCS, CPT
Nick is a conditioning coach, adjunct lecturer, and presenter in the NYC area. He is also owner and founder of Infinity Fitness, NY LLC and the VP of Public Relations for the Bronx Toastmasters Club of Riverdale, NY. He’s holds certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association and USA Boxing.
Owner/Founder -Infinity Fitness NY, LLC
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