By STEVE KRAH
Dr. Joe LaPlaca — founder of Ares Elite Sports Vision and Ares Sports Vision Academy — has long had a goal.
Graduated from Illinois College of Optometry in 2009, LaPlaca started his sports vision optometry practice in 2018.
“I noticed there’s a gap in the market for vision and how it relates to every sport,” says LaPlaca. “In optometry schools and athletics we’re missing it.
“There’s a big opportunity there and something I always wanted to do.
“Eighty percent of how we experience the world is through our eyes. How do we make this better?”
A lifelong athlete, LaPlaca has been involved in soccer, baseball, hockey, wrestling, tennis, football and martial arts and more.
“Sports has always been a passion of mine and understanding the nuances of the games and understanding how vision relates to all those sports,” says LaPlaca. “I take this very seriously. It’s primarily for research. I know what impact this can have on an athlete.
“This could be the thing that gets a kid a college scholarship or not. This is the thing that could take a Triple-A baseball player up to the major leagues.
“If we can clean things up and I can get them bought-in and processing — and I know I can — it’s huge for a lot of people.”
“I want to make the biggest impact I can on the sports world.”
LaPlaca’s practice is located inside Mojo Up Sports Complex in Noblesville, Ind.
LaPlaca sees vision and cognitive training working together.
“How do we take all the information we’re getting from the vision side and how does our brain make decisions?,” says LaPlaca. “How does it orient in space?”
LaPlaca says athletes encounter visual discrimination.
In baseball, batters must learn to recognize pitches based on factors like rotation, release point and speed.
“The ones that excel at that are the ones who are able to make the decision once they’ve seen the actual pitch and process that information,” says LaPlaca. “It’s called choice reaction time. Do I swing or do I not swing? If we can break it down to simple steps of ‘do I go’ or ‘do I not go’ that’s what — hitters especially — are concerned the most about.
“That’s the holy grail that everybody is chasing right now. How to I train at that piece and how do I know I’m getting better at that thing?”
In LaPlaca’s practice, he makes it a point to track all the analytics.
“Through training we can equivocally say you’re getting faster in your choice reaction time,” says LaPlaca. “It should improve your batting average, your strikeout percentage (and more). Those are the things coaches are (seeking).”
LaPlaca says it is progressions that he puts athletes through that makes the difference.
“A lot of people train with their tablet or their phone,” says LaPlaca. “We do a lot more free space. We’re connecting the visual stimuli to an action for your right hand or your left hand or a closed fist or an open fist. There’s eye-hand coordination drills.
“All these things are custom for that specific athlete based on specific areas of weakness.”
Currently, the youngest Ares client is 9 and the oldest is 64.
“There’s no age limit to it,” says LaPlaca. “13 is probably the best. They’ll start going through puberty. They’ll have growth spurts. We can stay on top of how their eyes and brains connect to their body (as they grow).
“On the other side they come out and are a lot stronger than kids who weren’t doing vision training.”
LaPlaca doesn’t see an end point for this training and that those wishing to be a NCAA Division I athlete or professional will continue this training for a long time.
Currently, LaPlaca is working with the baseball programs at Purdue University and the University of Maryland and has worked with Butler University in the past. He has also visited with a Major League Baseball organization.
LaPlaca estimates that few of the collegians or pros he works with had heard of vision training and more than a third had never had an eye exam.
“That seems to be the more glaring thing,” says LaPlaca. “They think that just a vision screening is good enough. When in the world are they just standing and looking at one specific spot?
“They’re using their visual and neurocognitive systems way more frequently than they even understand.”
Typically, athletes are evaluated and ranked against their teammates and against other athletes of similar caliber.
LaPlaca can identify those with serious visual issues and refer them to a local vision therapist.
Ares Elite Sports Vision is on Facebook and Instagram.
LaPlaca has been a frequent podcast guest.
Here are links to some of those episodes:
- If You Don’t Grind
- Vision Is More Than 20/20 1
- Vision Is More Than 20/20 2
- Vision Is More Than 20/20 3