Training the eye to track success on the field

Last Updated : 15 January 2011, 14:43 IST
Last Updated : 15 January 2011, 14:43 IST

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From isolation to global recognition, Sherylle Calder’s path in sports has been a pioneering one to say the least.

The isolation, or that of her native country, South Africa, from international competition during the apartheid era actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the former international player in hockey.

Had South African teams not been cut off from the rest of the sports world, Calder might never have realised that she had an ability to see things better and process them faster than others.

It is a skill she has been able to develop in thousands of other athletes, across a myriad of sports, through her training programmes, which in turn has made her one of the most sought-after people in sports today.

Her pioneering efforts in the field of visual performance training gained huge recognition through her work with the World Cup-winning England (2003) and South Africa (2007) rugby teams. She is the only person to receive winner’s medals in back-to-back World Cups.

She describes those moments as career highlights, although not unsurprisingly the Springboks victory in Paris, against England, tugged at her heartstrings a little more.

“There’s nothing like winning it with your own country,” she admitted. “I’m a professional, and the team that I work with, I want them to win, but coming back and winning it with South Africa was an amazing experience.”

The realisation her own visual skills were superior to that of her fellow field hockey players began to dawn on her while playing club hockey in Europe during South Africa’s isolation in sports.

While South Africa’s teams did not compete on the international stage during the apartheid years, individuals, like Calder, were able to explore opportunities beyond their country’s borders, and it proved to be something of an eye-opening experience.

“Players and coaches always used to say, ‘How did you see that? How did you do that? Do you have eyes in the back of your head?”’ she said.

“I thought everyone saw what I saw,” she added. “Physically, I was initially not as conditioned as other athletes that had been playing international hockey, but I could compete with them, and that made me realise I see quicker and I time better, and all that makes you be in the right place at the right time. And that made me think a little bit.”
When she hung up her hockey stick in 1996 after playing 50 tests for South Africa, she turned her attentions to exploring her special talent and how it could be developed in other people. She used her research to complete a doctorate in visual performance training at the University of Cape Town before opening an office at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa in Cape Town.

“I decided to take the way I trained and put it into a training programme,” Calder said. “I proved in my research that if you train your eyes in a certain way and you train on the field in a certain way, if you combine the two, you can improve performance.”

In the beginning, her work was very hands-on with the players, but in 2003, as demand for her expertise increased, she realised it was impossible to be in all places at the same time.

“Then I started developing software programmes to train players when I wasn’t there. That’s how I got to the EyeGym program,” she said, referring to her training regimen. “But I always say that probably if we weren’t isolated, I might not have explored it in the way that I did and maybe not be where I am today.”

She met with a fair amount of scepticism early on but was unfazed by it. “Pioneering anything, and with any new science, people are always sceptical,” she said.

Now Calder has legions of admirers — high among them the former England coach Clive Woodward and the former South Africa coach Jake White — and she is in big demand.
She worked with the New Zealand All Blacks and the Australian cricket team in the early days but since has gone on to train some of the leading teams and personalities in cricket, golf, tennis, motor racing and field hockey, as well as an Australian-rules football team and the Vancouver Canucks of the NHL.

Most recently, she spent time working with an Olympic sailing team off the coast of western Australia and an aerial ski team in Finland.

“It’s quite amazing,” she said. “I can travel anywhere in the world and people know about the work that I do. It’s been accepted as an official science.”

Calder describes herself as a visual fitness trainer, and just as athletes must work on core physical skills to improve performance, training the eye and the brain to see, judge and react better is equally important, she said.

For rugby players like the South Africans Bryan Habana and Jean de Villiers, who are the masters of scoring intercept tries, all-around vision and reaction times are crucial.

Habana, who is one of the quickest players in world rugby, thrived under Calder’s tuition and scored eight tries at the 2007 World Cup, including a crucial interception against Argentina in the semifinals.

He credits Calder, 52, with “making my eyes as quick as my feet.”
While skills such as hand-eye, foot and body coordination, better peripheral vision and spatial awareness cut across many sports, what Calder is really teaching is the ability to see “correctly and accurately and processing that information correctly as well.”

Published 15 January 2011, 14:40 IST

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