(CNN)Look left, look right. Look up, look down.
Whatever you will observe, whatever you may encounter, you won’t see what Dr. Sherylle Calder can see.
The South African has been described as the most successful individual in game. She is frequently known as a pioneer, a visionary.
She is the go-to trainer for many of the world’s elite athletes, standing alone in her area, an authority in an area that is frequently overlooked; enhancing what is regularly abused, even by those in the summit of their sporting abilities.
Speed, strength, mental fortitude — the key components to sporting greatness. But it is incremental improvements, frequently called marginal gains, which can separate the good and the good, be the difference between losing and winning.
For Calder, the eyes would be the missing part of this sporting decoration, a weakness that can become a power.
Specializing in eye-hand, body and foot co-ordination, she’s the girl charged with assisting athletes see better, expect faster.
It is not about getting impeccable vision, she says. Her work is not sight-related, but relies on enhancing decision making and the motor system.
“Your eyes have to proceed efficiently, the same as the entire body,” Calder, the very first sports scientist to be awarded a doctorate in visual performance, informs CNN Sport.
“Most people today believe we are born with the machine we have, but you can train the eyes, the brain and the entire body to do better.
“We heat up the rest of the body, but roughly 80 to 90 percent of the details which you base a decision on comes in the eyes and it is the only system we put by the wayside.”
The creme de la creme of world game
Calder currently works with England’s rugby union team, Formula One driver Valtteri Bottas and Kenny Stills, the Miami Dolphins wide receiver that has thanked her for adding “the border” to his match.
The sport scientist was tagged as the “secret” into Ernie Els’ victory in the British Open in 2012 after the South African golfer had sought her aid in the months leading up to his victory in England.
The listing of Calder’s past clients is exhaustive. It is the crème de la crème of the sporting world: the All Blacks, Australia’s cricket team, English Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur, the Prada Yachting team and French Ligue One side AS Monaco.
She can also lay claim to having won back-to-back Rugby World Cups with different nations, first with England in 2003 along with South Africa four Decades later. Former Springboks winger Bryan Habana thanked her for creating his eyes as quick.
Calder says that the winger’s intercepted try against Argentina in the semifinals of the 2007 Rugby World Cup won the Springboks the championship and was evidence that, in subtle ways, visual training impacted the performance.
“Elite athletes believe they’re great whatsoever. They believe they’re perfect, particularly in regards to visual motor skill level,” Calder says, grinning.
“We show them they have strengths and weaknesses and it is really exciting for all of us to make every player just a tiny bit better.”
The electronic decrease
The professional athlete of today lives in another age to the stars who were idolized in years gone by. The use of social media, the digital era, the soaking up has created new problems.
Calder says she’s scientific evidence which indicates that skills and visual awareness, like the processing of data, concentration, co-ordination, to name a couple, are in decline.
People in the “better-in-my-day” camp, bemoaning that today’s ball players haven’t the flair or the skill of their predecessors, may have been on to something after all.
Sport’s best of the best, as are the rest of us, are suffering from digital corrosion due to our irresistible digital devices.
“We’ve found in the past five to six years there has been an overall decrease in the visual motor skill level of elite players,” she says.
“Your eyes were not designed to work on small apparatus and, due to that, we’re actually abusing how we ought to use our eyes.
“If you look at your phone there is restricted eye movements happening and everything is really static.
“When we’re on electronic devices we actually have limited attention span so our ability to focus and pay attention to a specific job is deteriorating.
“Any machine you do not use efficiently or abuse deteriorates so we believe that every individual in the world ought to do some type of eye/brain training to prevent the decrease of this machine.
“Looking up to the furthest point you can concentrate on assists, and therefore looking up again and now could be a beginning. However you need to specifically train that system.”
‘We are trying to modify behavior’
Calder admits that she sees elite athletes in their telephones or iPads “all the time.”
Over the next three years together with England’s rugby union squad, as the country assembles to the 2019 Rugby World Cup, she will attempt to alter customs.
“We are trying to modify behavior and some other behavior-change takes time,” she says. “From the time we reach the World Cup we will be ready to carry out.”
Players have been advised to not use their apparatus on match day, while they’ve been asked to reduce their electronic intake during training weeks.
What will the long-term impact of this digital decrease have on sporting performance? Particular sports won’t suffer more than other people because, says the decrease, Calder.
“People do not notice because everybody’s doing the same,” she says.
“In 10 years’ time the situation might be better, I am sure it is going to evolve. The consciousness of the problem is beginning to surface.
“You must discover a way of training the visual motor system — that is actually the one thing you can do.”
Coaching the eyes in the gym
It is winter in England and Calder is overseeing her very first training sessions as England’s visual awareness trainer, an appointment made by head coach Eddie Jones that January. The Six Nations, which England will go on to win undefeated, is only weeks away.
During her first on-field exercises, she notices one player particularly is poor in catching the ball whenever it drops from high.
Here is just one his country’s best, a participant of considerable talents, but his ability to judge distance and space is not up to standard.
“He had been really bad at estimating where the ball was in space,” Calder recalls.
“If from 10 balls you consistently drop three, it puts pressure on you as a participant.
“If you can not catch high chunks, there’s a propensity to believe that is just the way it is, but we show them it is something that can be improved.
“When it is improved they begin to refine their skill and can proceed to the next level — they can also improve the skill of getting more time on the ball. The sooner you see, the longer you have to make a decision. That is a trainable skill.”
Calder’s function with England, the world’s second-best side, for the next 12 months is to improve how the backs — the group’s creatives, the speedsters — watch the match.
Next year she will work together with all the remaining squad members, bringing the granite-jawed forwards onto her roster.
This year she’s twice flown from her South African shore to Pennyhill Park, a lavish complex west of London where Jones and his men hold training camps, also will work in individual with the group again this fall.
Within her absence, the players are advised to go to the gym — Calder’s EyeGym, an online program developed within the past twenty years which contains 60 forms of exercises, each adapted to the person.
The EyeGym, says Calder, is an antidote to the visual system’s electronic decrease and the attractiveness of the software is that this in-demand trainer can monitor results where in the world she may be. Players may train anywhere in the world.
The EyeGym is akin to a computer game, however, based on mathematics — items whizz up and down and across the display, analyzing the user’s reactions, memory, coordination, peripheral and special consciousness.
It is the EyeGym that F1 driver Bottas utilizes before he gets in an F1 car, training the eyes onto a specially-devised warm-up drill.
“Should you make an error in F1 it is a lot more critical than in, for instance, a football game so we make sure he’s ready to do by getting the visual system fit and ready to respond to anything happening around him,” explains Calder.
It is the EyeGym which has also helped stop the aforementioned rugby union player, that Calder prefers not to name, from wobbling under the top ball.
“He’s been one of our best coaches,” says Calder.
“We are still working together with him. It’s like a fitness skill. We get them up to standard and we train these skills and we top it up all the time. There something else you’ve got to work on when you get a skill as much as standard.
“If we make each participant on the field make one greater choice per match, that could be 22 better choices in the sport.
“Occasionally when the players are exhausted and tired we put them on the training system because that is often when you have to execute.
“Your eyes and the brain get tired, just like the body does. Often with players we discover that physically they are in great shape, but if they lose concentration not because they can not get it done but they are being given advice slowly or inaccurately by the system.
“Your eyes get tired and they begin to misjudge. It’s not always because you are physically tired.”
The A-star students, such as former England outside-half Jonny Wilkinson, whom Calder describes as “one of the best coaches I have ever worked with,” will do extra sessions.
Few, Calder knows, possess Wilkinson’s relentless push for self-improvement and therefore demands at least 10-minute sessions three times a week.
Seeing things otherwise
Calder first noticed she saw things otherwise while enjoying field hockey in Europe throughout her country’s sporting isolation in the apartheid era.
“People would ask ‘how do you do that?’ ‘how do you find that?’ I presumed they all watched what I saw,” says Calder, describing how she would be first to the ball even when she wasn’t the fittest and also the speediest on the pitch.
“Most people said I had been born with those skills and I’d say I was not, that I actually trained them by being curious and testing out things.”
After 50 Tests for South Africa she retired in 1996 to begin her research into how the eyes affect performance, working with athletes from different sports and various countries.
“I decided to take the way I trained and put it in a training program,” she says. “I demonstrated in my study that in case you train your eyes in a particular way and you train about the area in a specific way, if you combine the two you can improve performance.
“As I have tested elite players, I have asked particular players to tell me about how they grew up and I have found that abilities in different states are different.
“The states where athletes grew up playing outdoors had improved abilities in certain components, but were lacking in other components.
“If you have grown up playing outdoors, you have got better coordination, better peripheral, awareness of depth, where you ought to be reaching, eye-hand, eye-foot co-ordination. Actually.
“Folks do not play outside anymore. I believe kids should be playing outdoors, climbing trees, jumping over fences, walking on walls, falling off, getting back on, learning how to do it again.”
Calder’s sway is not solely fixed on estimating where a ball is going to function as the line and length of a putt. She trains a section of society, from business people to schoolchildren and students.
“We work with everybody, normal guys on the roads, plenty of kids, lots of elderly folks on memory abilities. We work with concentration skills because with big corporates on productivity.
“Should you use your own eyes you should be training them, you ought to be keeping them fit. It applies to everybody.”
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