A team of researchers from Duke Health has sharpened a digital method to test vision, sensory, and motor skills in baseball batters. The computer testing could serve as a new tool for baseball scouts in assessing a player’s skills, or for developing training programs to improve performance on the field.
Duke Health is a research institute that includes the Duke NUS Medical School, Duke University School of Nursing, Duke University Health System, and the Private Diagnostics Practice.
In the study, the researchers had 252 professional baseball players measure their sensorimotor skills through a series of eight vision and motor tests on touch screen computers named Nike Sensory Stations.
The researchers found that the players who received higher scores on the digital tests had fewer strikeouts, more walks, and higher overall on-base percentages. Therefore, this study was proven effective in evaluating players’ plate discipline skills.
The full study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.
“Examining the test battery measured by the Nike Sensory Station devices has given us access to a very large and unique sample, and in this case we were even able to compare test performance to actual game statics,” said cognitive neuroscientist Greg Appelbaum, the study’s senior author and associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in the Duke University School of Medicine.
“By doing this we were able to show that better visual-motor skills are linked to better batting performance for plate discipline statistics, but not power hitting or pitching statistics,” he continued.
The players used in this study all came from U.S. major and minor league teams. Many of the tests resembled video games in which players touch shapes or objects that shoot across the screen.
Activities that required players to remember and recreate visual patterns, called perception-span tasks, were proven efficient in evaluating a batter’s ability to get on base. Good scores on spatial recognition tasks, in which players were required to differentiate and recognize near and far targets, were related to fewer strikeouts. Hand-eye coordination tests were most effective in proving a player’s ability to draw walks.
“The implications are that you can use tests of visual-motor skills as meaningful scouting tools for baseball, and possibly other interceptive sports,” said Appelbaum. “When combined with other research showing that the skills measured by these tests can also be improved with practice, this also means that training programs can be developed around these abilities to improve on-field performance.”
Visual training research for athletes has been around for decades, but has been limited. This new study, involving digital tools, could revolutionize the field.
“The use of digital sports vision tools is a rapidly emerging space with devices ranging from perceptual-cognitive training games, to eye tracking, to virtual reality,” said Appelbaum. “Research like this Nature Scientific Report paper, which uses real-world data to link assessment to on-field performance, provides an important step towards better implementation of sports vision tools.”
Whether visual processing skills are innate to certain athletes, or if they can be taught and improved by training, is a common debate in sports science. To further explore this dispute, Appelbaum and his colleagues opened a clinic and a lab called the Duke Sports Vision Center where they will continue to evaluate vision-based optometric, perceptual, and cognitive skills.
“In this new, joint-venture between the Urbaniak Sports Sciences Institute, the Duke Eye Center, and the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, we provide state-of-the-art clinical eye care and neurocognitive interventions to optimize and rehabilitate high performance vision,” said Appelbaum. “Through this academic-medicine program we can continue to do research, measuring vision and performance outcomes, to advance the field of sports vision.”