Vision specialist schools hitters on pitch tracking

USA TODAY: College Report, March 7, 2001

The great Ted Williams credits Rogers Hornsby for sharing the most important advice of his career: “Get a good ball to hit.”

The mantra still stands 60 years after Williams became the last big-leaguer to hit .400 in a season. The simple fact is that hitters go nowhere without vision and discipline.

Strangely, the experts have largely ignored the importance of vision as it relates to hitting, says Tony Abbatine, the man behind the Frozen Ropes Training Centers.

“Swing mechanics have been overanalyzed, and sport psychologists have contributed their part,” says Abbatine, national director of instruction at Frozen Ropes and also a player development adviser to the New York Mets. “I think visual mechanics will be a big topic, because that’s really all that’s left to explore. It’s the unrefuted first stage of hitting.”

Since launching Frozen Ropes in 1990, Abbatine has spent the last 10 years building a reputation as the “vision king.” He has helped hundreds of athletes raise their batting averages and cut down on strikeouts by teaching them techniques relating to vision, mental training and body awareness.

He’s developed quite a following in college baseball, building relationships with the game’s top coaches, including Ron Polk, Pat McMahon, Tony Guzzo, Chuck Anderson and Augie Garrido. Abbatine has conducted special weekend workshops with coaches and players at Old Dominion, Long Beach State, Florida Southern, Cal State Fullerton, Mississippi State, Southern Mississippi, Fordham and Maine.

Abbatine uses instruction that is a compilation of several disciplines: kinesiology (the study of human muscular movement), ophthalmology (the study of the structure and function of the eye), sports psychology and motion perception. He helps coaches and players understand that most hitting problems can be traced to an inadequate visual game plan and/or ineffective tracking skills.

“What intrigued me is that it makes so much good sense,” Mississippi State head coach McMahon says. “His system helps good hitters become better hitters. To me, vision and sight are critical issues to be successful, not just from a hitting perspective, but also where fielders must see the baseball.”

An average hitter at the University of Buffalo in the mid-1980s, Abbatine turned to coaching while attending law school. After graduation, he became an assistant district attorney in Bronx, N.Y., working in the courts at night so he could keep his day job teaching baseball at Scarsdale (N.Y.) High.

Abbatine spent whatever free time he had laying groundwork for Frozen Ropes, talking to coaches and players about their experiences and hitting. Pitch recognition was a constant theme, he says.

He used his law experience to dig up research compiled by ophthalmologists and scientists about the human visual system and explore the connection between visual habits and the swing.

“The thing I’m so impressed with is he has researched this thoroughly, not just with baseball men, but with the best eye surgeons and doctors,” Mc- Mahon says. “There’s credibility behind his viewpoint.”

Abbatine and his staff often spend months working with players to develop their skills. Although his college workshops are only two-day affairs, he works individually with each player.

In the first part of his workshops, Abbatine asks players to describe their visual habits from the time they step into the batter’s box until they make contact.

Next, players face live pitching while Abbatine films head and eye movements. He studies head positioning, eye levels and also looks for tension in the eyes, or a wide-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights look. (That’s bad.)

Also, Abbatine looks to see if a player is using both eyes to lock on a pitch. If not, he examines their head and neck flexibility to see if a player is unable to align his eyes to effectively track an oncoming ball.

After filming, everyone heads into the batting cage to work on drills designed to fix problems captured on video. Abbatine instructs players to put their swing on automatic pilot and pretend that their head is a giant camera. They are to “take pictures” of what they see throughout their at-bat.

“Players see me as their visual coach, so I have to talk to them in that language,” Abbatine said. “So I tell them to be aware that your legs are a tripod, your head is the camera and your two eyes are lenses.”

Once he determines how a player uses his vision at the plate, Abbatine studies how players track the ball.

“There are 180 different ways players get to that pitch window,” he says. “Some hitters approach their release point from top to bottom, from the bottom up, or by focusing almost where the shortstop is and moving over. Human eyes work better when scanning, sweeping and hunting as opposed to staring.”

Some of Abbatine’s exercises make use of the latest in visual training equipment. One new tool is strobe glasses that work on saccadic eye movement, which is a rapid, intermittent eye movement that occurs when the eye focuses on one point after another within the visual field. Worn during batting practice, the glasses barrage the eye with light, which helps players improve visual concentration and tracking skills, he says.

The workshops won’t create better hitters overnight, but the training can help remind players that pitch recognition is important.

“You can’t go into college programs and change the way they’re doing it,” Abbatine says. “I tell coaches, whatever hitting drills you have, keep. But try to add a visual component to every hitting drill.”

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