The NFL Combine just wrapped up and the IMG Academy NFL Combine Training Program left no stone unturned in making sure their clients were ready for the biggest job interview of their young lives.
Speed and movement training along with position work are two things that the football players work on daily while at the Bradenton, Fla. campus in preparation for the NFL Draft.
There is also the fighter pilot training.
No, IMG Academy isn’t putting projected first rounders such as Bjoern Werner (Florida State), Eric Reid (LSU), Tyler Eifert (Notre Dame) and Justin Hunter (Tennessee) into million-dollar jets and flying them across the Sunshine State sky, but they are doing similar things the Air Force uses for vision training.
David da Silva heads the program at IMG Academy. The athletes spend once a week with him for 30 minutes going through four to five different exercises. A football player with better memory that can see clearer, react faster and process information at a much quicker rate is a better player on Sundays.
“In terms of our athletes, we’ve been able to help them a lot,” da Silva said. “Vision training is a lot of different things. Many that have done our program have said with their peripheral vision, they’re seeing things out of corner of their eyes better. When walking down the street, they’re seeing things better. Just in terms of seeing the ball clearer, being able to see sharpness and being able to see it in slow motion. “
Football players aren’t the only ones that use the vision training program at IMG.
“Whether it’s a tennis player, a soccer player, a goal keeper or quarterback, it makes them better decision-makers and helps them better see their target. I’ve heard from our students that the vision training has helped them be able to read faster, it’s helped with long-term concentration and focus. One of the things coaches have noticed is a difference in memory, reaction and timing. Vision training is about decisions and sharpness and our students feedback is they notice things sharper and they are able to do more with less time because they are reacting faster.”
It’s called progressive overload by da Silva. He wants to overload the brain and have it quickly adapt.
“Kind of a whirlwind activity,” he laughed.
After World War II, the U.S. Air Force began putting its pilots through vision training to help them be able to process all kinds of information quicker.
“We’ve been fortunate to be one of the few programs that have very similar if not the same program they use,” da Silva said.
Some of the things the athletes use during their vision training exercises include a Dynavision D2 board set up with lights that requires a player to slap the lights as they flash. The computer times the athletes reactions and analyzes whether they were faster on their right or left side, or looking up versus looking down.
“This board is quite large and they have to trust their peripheral vision to see these lights all across the board,” da Silva said. “The further apart they are, the harder it is to see the light. We’re working on the coordination as well as the peripheral.”
The NeuroTracker is another favorite. The athletes are unleashed through two or three sessions that help them with their concentration. There are eight targets and balls light up and the player has to move around the cube as they brighten. They bounce and move in various speeds. Kind of like a linebacker or safety having to evaluate a play happening in front of them.
“We found good results from our athletes to stay focused and pick up the right targets and identify football movements and the right target to see,” da Silva said.
There is also the goggles with LCD lenses you’ll see being worn around the practice field. They flash, they obscure vision, and the players have to perform agility drills and make decisions, such as a quarterback throwing the football or a receiver trying to catch it, with the glasses on. It’s a simulation for signal-callers throwing with havoc all around them, or a pass catcher trying to haul in a pass with obscured vision during the ball’s flight.
Then there’s the tachistoscope. In da Silva’s words, the challenge is to identify and write down numbers that flash on the screen. Those numbers (anywhere from one to six) flash between .13 and .49 of a second, meaning if a player blinks, he could miss the whole thing. They come in different backgrounds and different colors.
“A lot of the guys, it depends on their position, but most of the guys do basic key visual skills,” da Silva said. “With the amount of training each athlete has done between two to six sessions, it hasn’t made them improve in large amounts but in small amounts. Like weight training, you want to do vision training long term and see gradual improvement.”
There have been many standouts in this draft group.
“Everyone has improved,” da Silva began.
“I would say Justin Hunter has been really good on the Dynavision board. Very fast hands and able to process information very quickly. We have another exercise where they have to track moving targets and a lot of receivers have been able to do that very well. Justin and DeAndre Hopkins (Clemson), they’ve been able to practice on the field with the strobe goggles and have benefitted from that.”
“Manti (Te'o) has been very good. He’s improved very well on the NeuroTracker. Gavin Escobar (San Diego State tight end) has done well in the concentration factor and J.C. Tretter (Cornell) has done well. Garret Gilkey (Chadron State), he’s been quite consistent in training. Nick Williams (Samford) has been doing very well too.”
When the players arrived at the IMG Academy in late December in preparation for the NFL Draft, the vision program is one of the more foreign things to them.
However going through it has been fun and helpful.
“Touching stuff on the [DynaVision] board, I didn’t really know that had anything to do with your coordination in football, but it really does when you look at it,” Hopkins said.
“Vision Training surprised me,” former SMU defensive end Margus Hunt said. “I really didn’t know what it was. Vision in football is a huge thing. You have to react really fast on any given play, make a change on the fly. You have to have great eyesight and have good peripheral vision.”