New tech makes NFL players faster, smarter

The Whac-a-Mole looking tech that's revolutionizing the NFL. J. Meric/IMG Academy

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 29 NFL draft preview issue. SUBSCRIBE TODAY

In the weeks leading to February’s NFL combine, the draft hopefuls at the IMG Academy sweated through an intense battery of drills and workouts. But they may have exercised their synapses hardest of all, thanks to an electronic version of Whac-a-Mole called the Dynavision D2 machine. First, the players stood in front of a large board studded with blinking lights, which would each randomly flash for a few seconds. The players would then slap each light as quickly as possible while a technician evaluated their response times. Did we mention a screen just above the middle of the board that would display numbers, letters and math equations, which the players would have to read aloud as the lights flashed?

The Dynavision D2 is as entertaining as it sounds, but it has a much deeper purpose. According to University of Cincinnati neurology professor and athletic trainer Joseph Clark, who uses the D2 in his research, it’s a pioneering way to measure and improve players’ hand-eye coordination, reaction times and peripheral awareness. And that could result in increased on-field awareness—like “wiping away the dirt on a camera lens while also adding pixels,” he says.

David da Silva, who heads the vision training programs at the Bradenton, Fla.–based IMG Academy, says the $15,000 machines can improve reaction time by a tenth of a second in as few as three sessions—the difference between beating a lineman off the line or getting pancaked. One of the top performers among linebackers at this year’s academy, according to da Silva? Heisman finalist Manti Te’o—not that it slowed his draft free fall.

IMG began using Dynavision machines two years ago, and the technology is also a fixture in the Steelers’ locker room, where offensive linemen vie for supremacy in the test every Thursday during the season. But that’s just the beginning of its potential applications. Forty Veterans Affairs hospitals use Dynavision to retrain hand-eye coordination in soldiers who have suffered traumatic brain injuries. Similarly, because delayed reaction time can be a symptom of a concussion, the University of Cincinnati is using it as a tool to address football players’ head injuries. Team officials take a baseline measurement of each player’s score at the beginning of the season, and they won’t let someone return after a concussion until he can meet that baseline. “It works for me in both diagnostics and rehabilitation,” Clark says. “And if there are athletes who want to improve their performance, I can write programs for that too.” No doubt, in a flash.

The process works in 4 steps…

1. Seeing the lights requires surveying 16 square feet.

2. Lights can flash randomly or in a set pattern to the player’s blind spots.

3. An advanced setting requires the user to read numbers or letters off a screen while hitting the lights.

4. Real-time results chart improvements, allowing intra-team competition.