Vision Therapy and Sports Training Discussion with Dr. Fuerst
How would you describe yourself?
I enjoy learning and creativity. I read daily—the Wall Street Journal, Optometric and Ophthalmologic journals. I also am on news feeds for things pertaining to vision, eye health, photography, and guitar. I love the creativity of photography and music, and find a lot of enjoyment in these. Additionally, I enjoy the creativity at the forefront of my chosen profession of optometry.
New technologies are flooding into eye and vision care. Virtual reality helps with vision therapy and sports vision; CT scans make it easier to accurately fit custom contact lenses to diseased corneas, and increasingly high definition imaging of the retina and ocular tissues make earlier diagnoses possible—resulting in better treatment and better vision.
Where did your interest in vision therapy come from?
My interest in vision therapy is intensely personal. My father was an optometrist, so I have grown up immersed in the field of vision. Unfortunately, when I was in first grade I struggled. At the first parent teacher conference, my parents were taken aback when the teacher stated, “Your son and another boy are in the lowest of the lowest reading group. It’s like he can’t see the words on the page. He listens to what the other kids are reading, looks at the pictures, and, when it is his turn to read, makes something up. The other kids start laughing, and oftentimes he starts to cry.”
As an optometrist, my father was stunned. He began studying and attending continuing education seminars related to vision therapy. For months I did numerous vision tracking, binocular fusion, focusing (accommodation), and visual perception and visual memory drills. By the time I reached fourth grade, the principal brought my parents in to discuss possibly moving me ahead a grade, and I later graduated valedictorian from high school. So, for me, vision therapy is a fascinating field.
With more than 60% of the brain dedicated to vision, there is so much we do not know. What I do know, however, is that vision therapy made an enormous difference in my life. I have had the wonderful opportunity to share significant vision and visual processing improvements that have, in many cases, led to life changing improvements for many of the patients I have been blessed to be able to help.
What is your experience with sports vision and training athletes through visual techniques?
This has been something that was “being in the right place at the right time”. My father had begun working with professor Denise Stone at Sierra College with a vision therapy course that she ended up running for more than 35 years. The San Francisco 49ers began holding their summer camp at Sierra College. I made some inquiries to the team—and they provided me the opportunity to provide vision care and sports vision to a number of their players. I had this opportunity for nearly five years. Concurrently, the NBA Kansas City Kings moved to Sacramento.
I was offered the opportunity to provide sports vision care to the Kings for 20 years. I provided sports vision evaluations to the NBA Pre-Draft physicals in Chicago from 1994-1997. Additionally, I was hired as a consultant to the Oakland A’s, was the team optometrist to the San Jose Sharks in 1992, and provided sports vision evaluations to the Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors. Other teams and organizations were the 1993 US Pan-Am games teams; and the WTA for a sports vision screenings at the Bausch and Lomb Amelia Island Tennis Tournament.
What types of athletes can benefit the most from visual training?
There are two benefits of sports vision training. First,we can decrease reaction time, improve depth perception, dynamic visual acuity (the ability to pick up detail in moving targets), improved focus, and tracking. The ability to visually process more accurately and quickly affords better performance. The second benefit is the development of visual processing centers within the brain.
Research has shown a substantive drop in concussion in athletes undertaking sports vision therapy. In fact, neurologist Joseph Clark of theU of Cincinnati medical school now has 9 year successive data showing an 80% drop in concussion with their NCAA Division 1 football team (U of Cincinnati, Joseph Clark) So, for virtually all sports, vision is an important aspect of success. In sports where concussion is also a risk factor, vision training also serves the purpose of acting as a protective factor.
What are the main differences between vision therapy and sports vision training?
In vision therapy, we are often attempting to bring substandard performance up to age appropriate levels. Sports Vision training is where we work to take visual skills to advanced levels. We also incorporate balance and increased focus on faster levels of tracking, depth perception, and focusing. For many of our standard vision therapy patients, by bringing up their levels of visual processing, tracking, focusing and binocular vision, we get improvements in sports performance as well.
Why do you like working in vision therapy?
The rewards and warm satisfaction in helping a child overcome visual difficulties that interfere with reading and performance is one of their most enriching professional experiences I am able to participate in. Kids who cannot read for more than 10, 20, or 30 minutes before having the words go blurry, double, and frequent loss of place— to dramatically reduce these symptoms affords them the opportunity to put their concentration into higher cognitive function— i.e., comprehension.
Do you have a favorite patient story? What are some notable experiences you’ve had through your involvement with vision therapy and sports vision training?
I have a number of stories—as I have been providing vision therapy since starting practice in 1983. I was fortunate to join my father’s practice, which he started in May, 1960. When I arrived, he already had a thriving vision therapy practice in place, affording me a wonderful opportunity to work with a busy practice from day one.
We have testimonial scrap books, and now online videos, of patients whose lives have been changed. Each personal testimony is unique and individual—and powerful. Many kids have gone from being non-readers to enjoying reading and reading for meaning, understanding and pleasure. Our online video of Rico is something that embodies this— and warms my heart every time I see it.
One of the benefits of having been in practice for some years now, is that I have the benefit of time. Time to see how truly impactful vision therapy is—or isn’t. One of my deeply moving stories is about a young boy who went through vision therapy, in the 3rd grade, and how it dramatically changed his life. He went from being a poor student, to a successful, able-to-read, achieving student. After high school, he applied and was accepted to UC San Diego.
His essay, required for his admission application, was a recounting of a significant event in his life. He wrote of his experience of going through vision therapy and the transforming impact on his life. I was stunned, seeing this so many years after he went through vision therapy. Unfortunately, on spring break of his junior year, he and some friends went surfing. He was tragically killed in a freak surfing accident.
Another, more uplifting story occurred a few years ago.
“I don’t know if you remember me or not,'’ my patient stated, “ but I brought my son to you for vision therapy when he was in the fourth grade.”
“ Thank you,”I replied, “how is he doing now? Was is helpful?”
“My son is an emergency room doctor in Truckee, California. The vision therapy you did with him all these years ago was life changing.”
I smiled, “That’s wonderful! Obviously, it takes many things to become an MD. Intelligence, perseverance, long hours of dedicated studies—I am so glad that in some small way, vision therapy helped contribute to his success!”
“No,” she retorted, “you don’t understand. Before vision therapy, he was failing in school. We look back on that time working with you on vision therapy, and it was a life changing moment for him.”
In joining my father as an optometrist, an overarching reason has been to help people—to improve their quality of life. This is a common thread for those working in health care. These stories are but just two of many stories and testimonies of where I have been blessed to provide enrichment to some of my patient’s lives that goes beyond glasses and contact lenses.
My last story involves the first pro athlete I was able to examine. Joe Kleine was the first, first round draft choice of the Sacramento Kings. I had the privilege of serving as the team eye doctor for 20 years with the Kings. Joe had been one of two collegiate players selected to the 1984 US Olympic basketball team— the original Dream Team. He stands 7 feet tall. The Kings were concerned about his reaction response time, as the NBA game is faster than the college game. The Kings had brought in a juggler to work with Joe. When I heard this, I felt I had to reach out to the Kings. Fortunately, Billy Jones, the trainer for the Kings, had been the trainer for the Kansas City Royals baseball club. He had had some exposure to sports vision, and was receptive.
When Joe walked into my office, it was a somewhat surreal experience. I am almost 6’1”, and not a small person. Standing next to Joe, I felt like I was in junior high again! But, Joe was very gracious and good natured. I then had the opportunity to work with Joe and realized that sports vision could help him—and many other—professional athletes. There is an old saying, that you can’t coach height. You can’t coach body size— whether a 5’1” gymnast, or a 6’5” 310 pound lineman. If you don’t have these attributes, you likely do not have a chance to make it to the pro, or even D1 collegiate levels. Those who somehow overcome the odds, and make it to the pros—have to be phenomenal in their talent, drive, vision, and opportunities. For a few seasons, the Kings had 5’4” Spud Webb. Amazing vision!
At the NBA Predrafts, it was interesting to see the visual skills and how then watch how, over the course of their careers, how those with exceptional vision did. Players like Gary Payton, Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, tested out extremely high at the predrafts. These are experiences I continue to cherish.
Other meaningful—and memorable—stories that involve sports vision are when I had a chance, in the training room of the SF 49ers, to talk a few minutes about vision with Joe Montana. For four years, the 49ers held summer camp here in Rocklin, CA, near our practice.
Another of my most memorable stories was during the NBA Pre-draft Physicals in Chicago, where I was heading a team providing vision evaluations to the NBA hopefuls. Jason Kidd had uncorrected vision in one eye that adversely affected his depth perception—and he was a top three pick in that year’s draft. I was able to call Dick Motta, the Dallas Mavericks coach at the time, to let him know—and Jason corrected his vision and went on to an all star career. The interesting point is that many pro level athletes are loath to make any changes to what, to that point, has been a very successful journey. Learning that they have a vision problem can be extremely jarring.
This was evident with Grant Hill. He too had one eye that was not as clear as the other, which affected his depth perception. As an outside shooter, depth perception is important. I evaluated Grant both at the Pre-Draft Physicals and, then, at camp in Detroit with the Pistons. I will never forget showing him, with Grant holding a lens over his one eye, how he had measurably improved depth perception that he could see. I will never forget him sitting there, putting the lens up and down in front of his eye. Both Grant and Jason were excellent players already. Being able to make a small change in vision with an elite athlete, is very rewarding.