Bob Orsillo played offensive tackle for Middle Tennessee State University in the early ‘70s. He never made it to the professional leagues, but he loved the game. These days, Dr. Orsillo is an optometrist. He splits time between Orsillo Vision Care LLC in Tallahassee, Fla., and running his tech startup, ProVectra. He is also the optometric physician for all sports at Florida State University.
“Vision is likely the most important sense for anybody in sports,” says Orsillo. “Vision was designed for action. The whole purpose for the eyes was to help early man hunt his prey and kill it, so he could eat and survive. Vision wasn’t initially designed to read books and identify math variables, or many of the things we use it for in modern times. Vision was designed for action and reaction.”
Orsillo saw enormous promise in helping student-athletes train their vision, much like they train their bodies. His early research migrated away from the eye’s retina and focused on the visual track in the human brain to understand how vision works. He developed a variety of concepts that led to a software/hardware combination that helps players improve, making them “become better hunters.”“A player’s brain can’t gather endless information about his surroundings and store it,” he says. “There’s not enough room. But, it knows when things change, and the player must change with it. That’s when the brain decides.”
The brain makes decisions in a variety of ways. One way is to sense stimuli in the environment, compile that stimuli in a coherent picture of one’s surroundings, measure that picture against experience and plot a proper course of action. This is accomplished with preparation, practice, repetitions and feedback. You don’t stop coaching when you first get it right, but you must continue until you never get it wrong. As you might imagine, navigating this decision tree of learning takes time. Therefore, once you have completed this learning course of action you have created a habit or instinct which now resides in the region of the brain where perfect decisions and actions are driven by emotion at lightning speed.
This area of the brain makes decisions without deliberation or thought, reacting extremely quickly. One example — as described by anthropologists and laymen as an instinctual response — is called “fight or flight.” Athletic performance coaches would refer to this player’s behavior as being “in his zone.”
With ProVectra, Orsillo helps student-athletes embrace rapid hand-eye, and body-eye reaction times by perceiving, moving and completing tasks in milliseconds, free of errors. He has shown that athletes can make decisions faster and with fewer mistakes by inspiring the plasticity within their brains to use instinctual on-field decision making, while eliminating many of the mistakes that are the result of “paralysis by analysis.”
“We use widescreen displays and a game-type environment to work on performing around 120 movements in 60 seconds,” says Orsillo. “When you’re working around half a second — or 500 milliseconds — players develop the ability to use the subconscious part of the brain to make decisions in this visual/action game. Reacting instead of thinking requires a different pathway in the brain and can fire up the motor area of your brain, leading to precise body movement. With proper preparation and vision training, athletes will learn to trust their eyes and perform at the highest level.”
Visual skills — especially important for elite athletes — involve spatial awareness. This is something everyone’s basically familiar with, but rarely thinks about. Spatial awareness is letting your eyes synchronize with your brain to let you know where you are in three-dimensional space and where everyone is located. For example, a quarterback has an innate understanding of how far he is from an interior lineman or how close a defender is to a receiver.
“Strangely enough, we’re finding that a lot of the quarterbacks we work with don’t have great spatial awareness,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, they throw a great ball. Their brains even know they need to find a particular receiver, but they are less than perfectly accurate because their eyes aren’t giving their brains the right information, which is misinforming the arm how hard and how far to throw the ball.”
Interestingly, Orsillo is using the same technology to train spatial awareness in disciplines as far-flung as bow hunting.
“When hunting elk, a hunter can have difficulty ranging and shooting arrows quickly and accurately because there is very limited time to react. He can’t sit there and think about firing an arrow,” says Orsillo. “We used a system to train spatial awareness so hunters could quickly understand whether an elk was at 25 yards, 50 yards or 100 yards. We worked on positioning their eyes to triangulate the location and perceive relative size of target with relation to the surroundings. We worked on convergence and divergence abilities along shot lines. They went to Montana with three tags and they got three elk. Realistically, many athletes are similar. They see, they shoot.”
Orsillo’s software/hardware training platform doesn’t look like something “sports-related,” so there’s a bit of a learning curve for athletic performance coaches and players. They’re not training on a simulated athletic field or court. Instead, they are training against moving pillars, floating screen quadrants, moving dots and other seemingly unrelated objects. This new type of training is something coaches must embrace if they want to step into the future of brain training.
“I think brain training is the only frontier left in sports,” says Orsillo. “Athletic performance training in America is in a great place. Nutrition is great. We’re optimized all over, on and off the field. The new frontier is the mind.”
For more information about ProVectra, visit http://www.pro-vectra.com.