Georgia Southern football players have nicknamed Statesboro optometrist Dr. Horace Deal’s vision training machine "The cat and the laser pointer."
On Friday, GSU quarterback/slotback/defensive back Jerick McKinnon was the "cat" and Deal controlled the "laser pointer."
McKinnon visited Deal’s Vision Source office on Savannah Ave. to demonstrate how GSU football players are utilizing Deal’s Dynavision D2 Sports machine, a $12,000 piece of equipment that helps athletes improve their visual perception and reaction time.
GSU’s football program is among the few college football programs throughout the country that is using the cutting-edge sports technology. The Dynavision D2 is a light-training reaction device developed to train sensory motor integration through the visual system. It helps an athlete train and assess his or her ability to react to situations and be proactive in tracking, decision-making, cognitive processing and peripheral awareness.
The machine records data that allow athletes, doctors and trainers to assess the results and help athletes improve upon their weak areas.
The Dynavision D2 Sports machine was developed in the late 1980s.
"At that point there wasn’t a whole lot of interest in sports vision," Deal said. "What they found was there was a lot of rehab interest. We know that in a stroke patient there may be one area that is not working as well or that may be slower. Or maybe they, physically, don’t see in that area. And so we can actually teach them."
Deal offers tailored vision training programs for anyone in the area. GSU’s football team is working with him. The Eagles’ volleyball, softball and basketball teams will begin working with him when fall classes begin, he said.
‘The cat and the laser pointer’
McKinnon is standing inches away from a large, black rectangular board. There are more than 60 white buttons scattered across the board, and his task is to press each button as it turns red. He must stare straight ahead at a tiny blue box in the middle of the board. When a white light turns red, McKinnon must use his peripheral vision to locate the red light and touch it with either his left or right hand. The red lights flash randomly, so there is no way to memorize the board. The goal is to see how quickly McKinnon can react during this 60-second speed drill.
"The board is fully adjustable down to wheelchair height all the way up to about 8 feet," said Deal, who is sitting to McKinnon’s left and in charge of making the white buttons turn red. He’s also tracking McKinnon’s progress through a laptop computer that is connected to the board.
"They call this the cat and the laser pointer," Deal said, laughing.
McKinnon, at first, called the drill crazy.
"I was like, ‘What is this? How does this work?’" McKinnon said. "But it’s a neat thing, definitely. I’m very glad that we have the opportunity to work with it with Dr. Deal. We’re fortunate to have him.
"My score goes up every time so it must be working some way."
McKinnon, on his first attempt Friday, scored 102. He scored 111 during his second attempt and got 116 during his third attempt. Later, he scored 119 to tie offensive lineman Cole Peeples for second place. Offensive lineman Hunter Lamar, a Statesboro High School graduate, holds GSU’s record with 122. Defensive end Terico Agnew is fifth at 114. McKinnon was the only player to work out from 1:30-3 p.m. Friday.
To put the scores into perspective, Deal said former Baylor University quarterback Robert Griffin III, last year’s Heisman Trophy winner and now a rookie with the Washington Redskins, scored 130 during the drill. A newspaper reporter visiting Deal’s office scored 74 on his first (and only) attempt.
"It’s definitely a challenge," McKinnon said. "You want to have one of the highest scores but, unfortunately, it’s hard to the point where you know you can’t have a high score all the time. But you definitely have to challenge yourself, coming in and doing that kind of stuff.
"It helps you improve your peripheral vision and helps you get a broader view of everything instead of it being narrow, but at the same time focusing on something that’s right there in front of you. Also it helps you, say in a game you make a bad play, you have to get rid of that and move on. It’s the same concept here with that."
Deal keeps a history of each player’s scores so he can chart their progress. As an athlete improves, obstacles are thrown in such as a blue, ball-like cushion that he makes a player stand on as he tries to keep his balance while pressing the red buttons.
There’s also a five-digit drill, where a player has to read and recite five numbers that flash in the middle of a tiny, blue screen every 10 to 15 seconds as the athlete presses the red buttons. It gets hectic when the balance drill is combined with the five-digit drill.
Seeking a competitive edge
Deal and Tom Melton, GSU’s director of strength and conditioning, work closely with GSU’s football players to help them develop their skills.
"Coach Melton and I have been talking about sports vision training for the last couple of years, and we’ve been researching what would be the best devices to bring on campus," Deal said. "We settled for the strobe glasses last year. Got those guys in and working. And this year we’ve been really pleased to start working with the machine you see back behind me, which is this Dynavision D2 device. It trains peripheral vision.
"The thing that everybody is familiar with is visual acuity, 20-20, 20-whatever. Most folks will do central vision, and the central vision is absolutely an important part, but the peripheral vision is more important toward balance, speed and reaction time. This machine can give us a great, repeatable test of how they balance and react to their side vision, and where we’re at with training."
Last year, GSU football players began training with Nike strobe glasses, which cost $250 apiece. They still use the glasses, which constantly flash and challenge you to concentrate on tasks like catching a football.
"The strobe glasses are excellent because what that does is it trains the system to react in a portion of the time," Deal said. "Once we see that reaction time start to speed up, the athlete feels like they have twice as much time to make the reaction. So they see how much quicker they can be and it gives them tremendous feedback almost immediately."
The Dynavision D2 board provides more in-depth training.
"We’ve had really great reaction from the guys that have been in here to work with it," Deal said. "At the beginning, they’re learning the board and so it takes a little bit of time, and so we’re seeing the scores start out fairly low and then they move up.
"We get different information as we watch every player. Some players will be very right-handed, and so we’ll work particularly with their left side. Some folks will do a little bit better higher, so we’ll work lower. Some folks will have an issue where they’re thinking it through too much. If we see them thinking it through, we work with them on how they can react and not think about it.
"At this level, what we know is these athletes have good muscle memory. They are great as far as how to react. Where they come into problems is when they have to start trying to think it through. When they start trying to tell their muscles how they’re supposed to react rather than react that slows them down and, typically, it makes it harder. If you saw me trying to dance, that would be a good analogy. Because I have to stop and think about what I’m doing. The flow is not smooth. Well, what we’re trying to work on now is to try and get that flow smooth where they can just react and not worry about it."
Deal said the performance of GSU’s offensive linemen, like Lamar and Peeples, has been surprising.
"When we first looked at it, my theory, my idea was that we would see maybe the wide receivers and the quarterbacks would be better," Deal said. "What we’re seeing is actually in our first few weeks of doing this is the offensive line guys have been better. When we start thinking about it, maybe that makes sense because their hand quickness is probably more important and more something that they’ve trained all their lives for.
"Right now, we’re learning as we go. And what we’re seeing is some of the surprises like with the offensive linemen. One of the things that we’re working with with the quarterbacks is we have the ability to flash a set of numbers up on the screen, and that set of numbers will cause them to react and memorize this part. They give me the feedback immediately but they still have to react to this part out here, to the periphery. And so what we’re getting is just a great idea, a great feedback, for that."
Deal said the primary objective is to react and not think.
"Going back to the slogan ‘Just Do It.’ That’s the idea," Deal said. "We want to see them react to it. For the college athlete, we see they already have the muscle memory and so now we’re just sort of training them to be as efficient as possible with their muscle memory. What we’re trying to get them to do is not to over-think it. Just react. Just to go out there and do what they know they’re supposed to do."
McKinnon said he believes the Eagles’ vision training will translate into success on the football field.
"Our peripherals will have a wider view," McKinnon said. "Say you run the ball and focus on one defender. (Now) you’re going to see a defender to the side of you as well, and you better make a move on him as well.
"At quarterback, you have to have a real broad, broad, broad view of the field. You have to know where everybody is. You have to know where your receiver is going to be at. You also have to know where their defensive backs are going to be at and where they’re playing at."
Deal said the vision training complements the Eagles’ workouts in the weight room and practices at Beautiful Eagle Creek.
"When we’re measuring, we can measure up to a hundredth of a second," Deal said. "If we can make the athlete a tenth of a second faster that could be all the difference in the world on making a play, not making a play, going to one side when they should be going to the other. … We’re trying to make them the most efficient athlete that they can be, physically. Coach Melton has got them in great shape. I’m trying to tune their system so what they take in, the brain can immediately react to that and they can make better decisions."
Noell Barnidge may be reached at (912) 489-9408.