MURRAY — Soccer is no longer just a pastime. It's found a permanent place in Utah's premier performance lab, and new tools to help soccer athletes polish their skills are being developed every year.
To meet a growing demand, the Orthopedic Specialty Hospital in Murray, or TOSH for short, customized one of its performance labs for soccer players about two years ago.
"There's just a mass of kids who've really been drawn to this sport in recent years," said certified trainer and TOSH coordinator Dustin Bybee.
In fact, Bybee said the majority of kids who train at the Murray facility are now geared more to soccer than any other single sport — a trend no one expected 10 years ago.
High school sophomore Matt Warne was kicking a soccer ball this week but on a most unusual field. In fact, it wasn't a field at all, but the floor of a performance laboratory at TOSH. As he would strike each ball, high-speed cameras and a computer analyzed his movements.
Matt was the first young athlete to try out the lab two years ago.
"Your plant foot, it has to be so far back. I didn't know that at all — like front or back and follow through — I just had no idea that it mattered," he said.
In frozen time lines and slow motion, Matt watched on a split screen what he did just moments ago.
"By the time a kid actually plants his foot, strikes the ball and follows through — only a second or two has passed," explained Bybee. "To see all of the little things that need to be changed within that second is very challenging."
In another session, Matt uses specially designed restraining bands to help strengthen his kicking muscles.
"It's hard telling kids that their plant foot needs to be up because they just perceive themselves kicking the ball. But when you actually give them feedback on a screen, that light finally turns on and they understand. They can see what's happening," Bybee said.
And see they do — even better in a new eye training program that TOSH will soon launch. Specially-designed glasses with a built-in strobe light trains the eye to recognize what is often overlooked.
For example, let's say a keeper is trying to use both the center and peripheral range of his eyes as he protects the goal. Training with the strobe glasses will help the eyes track a fast-moving ball that for a goal keeper is so elusive, it sometimes disappears from sight.
But the strobe glasses are only part of the arsenal. A Nike visual training system, one of only 20 in the country, is designed to strengthen peripheral vision.
As Bybee described it, "The ball's coming down but you've got a guy 10 yards away. That ball is coming towards you, but now as you start to focus on the ball you can also see that guy starting to close in."
On the visual training system, athletes like Matt punch circles as they rapidly appear. One exercise forces the eye to stay focused in the center of the screen while relying on peripheral vision to identify the circles.
A second exercise forces the eyes to move about all across the screen, picking out only the circles that matter.
Vision improvement has become a new priority among soccer players. And it's not just soccer. All professional athletes are moving to strengthen their overall vision.
"We're now trying to get athletes beyond that 20/20 acuity," Bybee said. "People say they have perfect vision at 20/20, but we're trying to get past that. Many professional athletes are now at 20/15, even down to 20/10 and 20/8."
About 43,000 Utah kids are now registered with the Utah Youth Soccer Association. Nationally, the number is at 3.3 million and growing.