May 2004. I woke up in total darkness.
I soon found out that two months earlier, I’d been involved in a horrible auto accident. After losing control of my car, a tree had broken through the windshield and impaled me in the face. My jaw was wired shut, an infection on my brain was killing me, another infection was attacking my sinus cavity, and my brain had been swollen for so long that my optic nerve atrophied.
The doctors told me I’d never see again.
I wish I could say I popped up in that bed and said, “No problem! We’ll make it through this.” But that didn’t happen. I had a long, long recovery process. Worst of all, four brain surgeries later—with cyclical and ridiculous amounts of at-home IVs, plus prescription bottles that needed to be kept in a large shoebox—the surgeons still hadn’t saved my life. The brain infection was still killing me. When I woke up in the ICU after that fourth brain surgery, the incredibly emotionally intelligent brain surgeon asked me if I wanted to die.
That didn’t rattle me as much as it might most people. I didn’t know how I was going to survive in that moment, and I don’t think the surgeon truly did either. It was a pathetic attempt at patient compliance. But, moments earlier, I’d made a choice. And sometimes I need to remind myself about that choice and the unifying strength in all of us. If I’m going to die, it’s not going to be in pain. I’m going to live my life.
A Life in Sport
Sport doesn’t care who you are or where you come from. It is our world’s common denominator, with a breadth that surpasses language, skin color, and imaginary lines we’ve drawn on maps. Sport unifies us, and sport divides us. It brings us together for a single purpose unlike anything else. In many ways, sport creates an international society of one.Sport doesn’t care who you are or where you come from. It’s our world’s common denominator, says @TannerGers. Click To Tweet
Before I started high school, I’d lived in more cities than the number of grades I’d completed. It was hard being the new kid every four or six months. But, through sport—the great equalizer, the great unifier—my brother and I made our way. It was through sport that we made friends; through sport we created meaning for ourselves, developed our identities, and found sanity.
Dad was gone, mostly. Mom was working, mostly. And then we’d move again. No matter how many times we were forced to say goodbye, start over, and adapt to whatever new school we’d be enrolled in, we knew there would be at least one constant between this city and the next one: Kids play sports. And we did too.
As “Irish twins,” we were fortunate enough to play together on multiple teams for many years. It also made it easy on our mom, as there was only one practice she had to get us to. And, she raised us well—well enough that coaches loved us right from the first practice. Yes, sir. No, sir. Thank you. No thank you. And then hustle our asses off. What’s not to like?
In high school, I was fortunate to play on a nationally recognized team in Arizona. My junior year (in 2000), we made USA Today’s Top 25 Teams in the Nation and beat the No. 4 team in the nation. After my senior year, I was fortunate enough to play a little collegiate lacrosse, while my dream of being Barry Sanders, the next 5’ 8” running back, didn’t quite pan out. (He’s the GOAT—I was a goat.)
A New Beginning
When I lost my vision, everything changed. Everything had to be done differently. From peeing standing up, to getting toothpaste in my mouth and not all over my fingers and the counter, to just walking down the street, being successful with blindness is about doing things a little differently. The same is absolutely true for developing athletic and sports performance for blind athletes—just because we have to do it a little differently, doesn’t mean it can’t be done.Developing athletic and sports performance for blind athletes may require doing things a little differently, but it can be done, says @TannerGers. Click To Tweet
Sure, I was motivated to make something of myself despite being permanently disabled, but realizing sports were still a possibility dumped gasoline on that motivational pilot light.
It was learning how to develop to the peak of my given genetic ability with cutting-edge opportunities, an unshakable will to push myself hard through every barrier in front of me, and the courage to break the rules that enabled me to experience the opportunities I have had the honor and privilege of experiencing. Such opportunities include becoming: a U.S. National Team athlete for multiple years; 2011 Para Pan American gold medalist; 2012 Paralympian; 2013 World Championship team member (in track and field across the long jump, 100, 200, and 4×100 relay); 2015 and 2016 national champion in track cycling (1 km); and, in the sport that stole my heart, 3x MVP and 6x All-Star in beep baseball.
Performance Training for Blind Athletes
Developing athletic performance as a blind athlete is challenging. I have an advantage though: I’ve seen before. But even then, even when you’re working with an athlete who has seen before or has not always lived life with a disability, there are challenges that need to be overcome. These challenges become exponentially difficult when you’re working with an individual who has a congenital disability. Or, as often occurs, multiple disabilities: physical and/or cognitive.
I want you to be aware of this as you consider working with such athletes. I will provide some insight into how I approach this situation, and then let you decide whether creating more meaning for a person with a disability through sport and physical preparation is right for you.
I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to directly work with and coach Paralympic athletes—including athletes who are above- and below-the-knee amputees, those living with cerebral palsy, and athletes who require the use of a wheelchair—as well as Special Olympic athletes with cognitive impairments. However, for the purpose of this article, I’m going to focus on athletes who are blind, like me, or athletes who are low-vision or visually impaired.
Categorizing Blindness for Sport
There are three levels of blindness recognized by international sports federations like the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and the International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA), and each category has its own set of unique challenges. The categories include B1, B2, and B3.
- B1 athletes are the athletes with the most severe vision impairment, such as total blindness or no light perception.
- B2 athletes can see colors and shapes, and some can even mobilize their bodies without the use of a mobility device (such as a white cane or guide dog).
- B3 athletes can mobilize their bodies safely through space without the need of any assistance and may even be able to drive. (Think about that the next time you hit the road.)
Since these classifications are only relevant for athletes competing at the highest levels of Paralympic sport, for the sake of this post, I will group these athletes under one umbrella, “blind.” Unless there needs to be a distinction for specific reasons, I will refer to all blind, visually impaired, and low-vision athletes as blind athletes.
When working with any blind athlete, just like you would with any other athlete, it is important for you to ask questions and learn about the level of their blindness. Similar to femur length, muscle fiber type, individualized training adaptation responses, or neuro types, understanding one’s level of blindness (or visual acuity) may have a significant influence on how you approach training with that athlete.Understanding a blind athlete’s level of blindness or visual acuity may influence how you approach training with that athlete, says @TannerGers. Click To Tweet
Next, how do you help them overcome the fear of doing something new?
Let me share a quick story to illustrate exactly what I mean. When I showed up to the first beep baseball practice that I ever attended, no one knew I was coming—I just showed up. After introducing myself, I stood on the sideline and listened to what was going on.
During batting practice, Daniel Green, the team’s pitcher, asked me if I wanted to give it a shot. Excitedly, I jumped at the opportunity!
They gave me just a little instruction before Daniel threw the first pitch. I hit it into right field. I hit the second pitch up the middle. Daniel was loving it. Soon, he told me, “OK, Tanner. Now you’ve got to run.”
“What?” I asked, shocked.
“Yeah, hitting’s great, but you’ve got to touch the base in order to score. So, you’ve got to run when you hit the next one.”
I noticed something hit the back bottom of my underwear.
Scared, timid, I ran through all the questions a blind individual will ask themselves the first time they are faced with being a blind athlete. What if I fall? What if I hurt myself? What if they make fun of me? I don’t want to. I’m scared.
It was pretty weird for this fear to come over me like that. Here I was, a lifetime athlete scared to run down the baseline, something I did as a sighted athlete for as long as I could remember.
When I hit the next ball, I slowly jogged down the baseline. And the entire time I ran toward the buzzing base, I was terrified. I was most worried I would run into something. Maybe a rope that would hit me right in the throat, or maybe an ice chest, a chair, or another person. Eventually, though, I touched the base, unscathed.
The next time, I ran a little faster. The third time, I ran even faster. And by the fourth time, I was running as fast as I could. The wind in my face, the freedom I felt to demonstrate something so simple, something so natural, something I was born to do, was liberating.I love working with blind athletes because I know what going from fear to fearless feels like. I know how liberating athletic expression is, says @TannerGers. Click To Tweet
I don’t love working with blind athletes because it’s easy or because I happen to be a B1 athlete. I love working with blind athletes because I know what going from fear to fearless feels like. I know how liberating athletic expression is. And I love working with blind athletes because sport creates a society of one. Not just for the fans, the competition of international teams, billions of viewers from across the world, and the blood, sweat, and tears of everyone involved. But that moment. That gift. That joy athletes feel for the first time when everything clicks.
3 Great Exercises to Use with Blind Athletes
I had been incredibly blessed to have sight for over two decades, which provides me with a significant advantage and memory catalog to draw from. Not only have I seen athletic movement, but I’ve expressed athletic movement with sight across baseball, football, lacrosse, soccer, swimming, golf, basketball, track and field, BMX, and all the other sports you play as kids, from four square to dodgeball to kickball to tag.
But athletes who haven’t been able to see what athletic expression looks like; who haven’t been able to sprint freely for 40, 60, or 100 meters; who can’t cut on a dime and change directions; who can’t separate their shoulders from their hips while running… they often suffer from some of the most horrific basic movement patterns. And what I’ve found really helps is getting back to basics in the safest ways possible.Athletes who haven’t been able to see what athletic expression looks like often suffer from some of the most horrific basic movement patterns, says @TannerGers. Click To Tweet
One of the most common patterns I observe in blind athletes is the inability to push and accelerate. For example, after hitting the beep baseball and coming out of the box, some blind athletes immediately stand upright, and their foot strike is so violently in a heel to toe pattern that their feet sound like they’re clapping the ground as they run to the base. A clearly audible clapping noise! On grass! For 100 feet…
This is one of the many reasons why injuries are so prevalent in beep baseball. While typically not experienced in the naturally gifted and fast blind athletes, “lower level” athletes experiencing ankle sprains, hamstring pulls, and patellar tendon, MCL, and ACL tears are not unusual. Not too long ago, playing against a team in the World Series, an athlete literally snapped his femur in half sprinting to the base, believe it or not. It was unforgettable: a loud, cracking sound followed by the most painful screams. It was a terrible sound.
1. Resisted Running with a Prowler or Sled
To remediate the aforementioned mechanical issues and teach athletes how to push, accelerate, apply force into the ground in the right direction, and quickly improve acceleration mechanics, I put them under load using a prowler or weighted sled, or have them perform the run unloaded on a steep hill. I do this for a multitude of reasons:
- They cannot push a heavy sled or prowler or sprint up a steep hill while clapping their feet with an aggressive heel strike.
- It teaches the athlete how to lean forward and push through the forefoot, and develops the strength needed to successfully achieve a forward lean for unloaded accelerations.
- It is a safe exercise that enables a relatively large amount of repetitions in patterns we want to develop, while also eliminating significant external loading, such as with a squat or deadlift.
Once you feel confident in your blind athlete’s ability to push with mechanics that don’t sound like a standing ovation, a fantastic exercise progression is the push-up sprint start. This will help them transition more smoothly into a natural forward lean while accelerating and develop the confidence in themselves to sprint on their own accord. And, when contrasted with the loaded sled, they will be able to experience that intimate and real feeling of sprinting faster.
You might be wondering how to keep athletes who cannot see running straight when sprinting uphill, pushing a prowler, pulling a sled, or executing a push-up sprint start. There are a multitude of creative, orientational means I’ve incorporated to facilitate my ability to do all of the above. Everything from using a beep baseball, a Bluetooth speaker, a combination of clapping and calling, or some other audible device like a megaphone. And, yes, I’ve used all of these for directional awareness for my sprinting. Using a megaphone enables me to sprint 100 meters without a guide runner!
If you use a device to create an audible signal, you would put that device, like the Bluetooth speaker or beep baseball, at the location you want the athlete to sprint or push the prowler to. Ensure the athlete is orientated appropriately toward the desired direction, ask them to make sure they’re comfortable and aware of which direction they need to go, and then give the command to start.
2. Extreme Isometric Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat with Front Forefoot on a Plate
Some coaches who’ve inspired me and taken the time to work with me to develop my capabilities as an athlete include Cal Dietz, Chris Korfist, Dan Fichter, Joel Smith, Alex Natera, Mike Robertson, Willie Williams, Joel Jameson, Lee Taft, Jake Epstein, Carlo Buzzichelli, Bob Seebohar, and many, many more.
I am probably most influenced by Chris, Alex, and Cal, as seen in the video below from the middle of my isometric triphasic block, but I love all these coaches. And I love how each one hungrily pursues continued excellence. They’re never satisfied. There’s always room to grow better, stronger, longer, harder, and faster.
Video 1. Extreme isometrics are a great exercise for blind athletes. For more remedial blind athletes, I recommend a more conservative lunge exercise first, beginning with a reverse lunge into an extreme iso hold, before progressing to more explosive iterations.
Extreme isos are great exercises for blind athletes. I was first exposed to extreme isos by Will Roberts of Iron Will Fitness in 2011, in my first season as a Paralympic National Team athlete hopeful. Will had me perform extreme iso lunges, push-ups, rear foot elevated split squats, dips, crate crunches, and glute ham raises.
The lunge style he taught was very explosive. It taught my body how to absorb force and served as the lead-off exercise for every workout session. Basically, I would powerfully drive my working leg knee up into the air, fall down, catch myself, and hold there for a given time period.
For more remedial blind athletes, I recommend a more conservative lunge exercise, beginning with a reverse lunge into an extreme iso hold, before progressing to more explosive iterations as previously described.Extreme isometrics are great exercises for blind athletes, and for me, mental toughness was another beneficial outcome, says @TannerGers. Click To Tweet
Will would have me do a set for five seconds, stand back up, and immediately repeat the exercise, but holding for 10 seconds. This would continue increasing in five-second increments until I completed the final set at 45 seconds. I would be given about three minutes of rest before switching legs and performing the same set scheme for the opposite leg. Mental toughness was another beneficial outcome.
The same 5-, 10-, 15-, 20-, 25-, 30-, 35-, 40-, and 45-second sets were applied to the exercise list above, with the split squats as the only other unilateral exercise that required me to do sets on each leg.
Extreme isos worked very well for me. I know they were the strength and conditioning component that helped drive me to earn a spot on the U.S. Paralympic National Team due to my performance at the 2011 U.S. Paralympic National Championships for track and field, as well as my first international gold medal in the long jump later that year at the Para Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.
3. Spin Bike
When I heard Dan Pfaff on Speed Endurance describe how he used spin bike workouts for three weeks while nursing Obadele Thompson’s foot injury prior to his setting a personal best in the 200m, I thought how I might be able to use spin bikes to improve my own speed.
I’m not sprinting sub-20 in the 200, but as an athlete who is prone to injury from an abundance of violently explosive track work, I began hypothesizing how I can use spin bikes, with varying levels of resistance, to improve my nervous system’s ability to coordinate movement in my legs at rates I’m unable to achieve while sprinting. The results were very positive.
Training blind athletes is about putting them in a safe position, where they feel confident and comfortable, while eliciting positive adaptations, says @TannerGers. Click To Tweet
As it relates to blind athletes in general, spin bikes provide this and other important adaptations we can leverage in a safe way. If you haven’t started to pick up on the trend here, it’s about how we can put blind athletes in a safe position, where they feel confident and comfortable, while eliciting positive adaptations that enable them to have a leg up on the competition. Or to just feel good about themselves, their improved health, and physique.
I’ve been very successful in using spin bikes for conditioning, strength development, speed training, and mental toughness. For conditioning, I vary the tension on the pedals and manipulate set and rep schemes. For example, with a moderate amount of tension, I have athletes pedal as fast as they can for five, seven, or 10 seconds, and then take a 30- or 60-second rest, for sets of 3-5, with a longer rest in between cycles before performing another one or two cycles. Or, with moderate tension, I have athletes spin for one, three, or five minutes at a moderate pace and then rest 60 seconds between sets for 3-5 sets.
For strength development, I turn up the tension and have athletes go as hard and fast as they can for 5-10 seconds, and then rest for three minutes across a total of five sets.
For speed work, I just want the athletes to stimulate their nervous system by moving and coordinating their legs at speeds they have never achieved before. Typically, I do this for sets of 7-10 seconds, with a total of five sets.
These are just examples of set and rep schemes and you should program what you believe will work for the individual athletes you’re working with. You can get creative with how you monitor performance improvements and thereby keep motivation/ competition high through various means. Some ideas include using clips that measure wattage output, rate of turnover, or cadence, as well as the good ol’ fashioned perceived level of effort.
How Do You Coach an Athlete into a Position They Cannot Visually Observe (and Have Never Done Before)?
If you just perform the exercise and ask the athlete to do it, they will struggle or fail because they cannot see you demonstrate the movement. Remember, blind athletes are differently abled. They see with their ears and their hands. That is why an audible sound for orientation works for doing prowler/sled/sprint work.
For something such as the isometric exercises, you will need to demonstrate the exercise, and then tell the blind athlete to touch you. Literally tell them to come feel your head position, shoulders, back, hands, arms, legs, and feet. This is how a blind athlete will conceptualize and visualize what it is you are coaching them to do, so they can then recreate the same exercise/positioning for themselves.By literally feeling your head position, shoulders, back, hands, arms, legs, and feet, a blind athlete can visualize what you are coaching them to do, says @TannerGers. Click To Tweet
Go deep. Guide their hands with your hands. Show them the isometric hold position first, and when they understand that position, show them how you got into that position. Show them how the hamstring muscle contracts when you aggressively drive your heel back. This might sound weird, but it will minimize frustrations as a coach when verbal cues are not working to get the athlete in the right position.
Let me use a reverse isometric lunge as an example.
First, ask the athlete if they know what a lunge is. If they are in a safe space to move, ask them to demonstrate it for you. If they can do it correctly, great. If they need just a little coaching, that’s fine too. Ask the athlete if it is okay if you touch them and move their body a bit to make a couple minor tweaks, and then gently move them into the right position.
If the athlete does not know how to perform a lunge, you will get into the lunge position, and instruct them to come to you so they can feel how your body is positioned. Every athlete is different, but I typically use a top-down approach—for whatever reason, starting where your shoulders and head are positioned facilitates their conceptual understanding quicker than if you were to go right to that 90-90 front leg.
While it does help to have a second coach who can verbally and physically guide their hands, you can do this successfully on your own. So, let them feel how your shoulders are positioned while you’re in the deep lunge position. Have them follow your back down to where your hips are located. Instruct and guide them to feel your front side working leg, down the thigh, down to your ankle, and all the way to the foot. Have them then work back up the leg and guide them to feel your rear leg all the way down to your foot.
Obviously, progressions can include time under tension, set and rep schemes, and load (best with dumbbells or kettlebells for safety), as well as oscillatory isometrics.
Are You Inspired Yet?
Here’s a video of me sharing this story at the National Speaker’s Association Headquarters in Tempe, Arizona. And this is a video that features me and two other athletes, Danny Fopiano and Blake Boudreaux, discussing the game that changed my life forever.
If you’re motivated to work with blind athletes, where can you find athletes with blindness or visual impairments? Great question. There are numerous places.
- State schools for the blind
- Adult vocational rehabilitation programs
- Camp Abilities
- The National Beep Baseball Association
Every state in the U.S. has a school for the blind or a school for the deaf and blind, and you should connect with the sports coach or athletic director for that school. For blind athletics, they will have teams that play goal ball (a Paralympic sport that is only played by the blind and visually impaired), track and field, and other sports. Each will be different, depending on the unique circumstances of the state, funding, coaching, and student involvement.
Do a Google search, reach out, let them know you want to start working with blind athletes, and make a positive difference in their lives. Offer to volunteer, ask questions, and figure out the best way for you to provide help and go from there.
Depending on the city and region you live in, there may be an active vocational rehabilitation program or facility nearby. Here in the Phoenix area, the two big ones are Southern Arizona Association for the Visually Impaired (SAAVI) and The Foundation for Blind Children (FBC). Both of these organizations have adult independent living programs, physical education programs, job readiness programs, and educational services to support people with blindness go to college and find gainful employment.
There are no national programs like this that I am aware of outside of the federally and state funded vocational rehabilitation (VR) programs. Every state approaches VR programs differently, but a quick Google search for “[your state/city] vocational rehabilitation blind” will get you going in the right direction.
Camp Abilities is run by my friend Dr. Lauren Lieberman and provides numerous week-long educational sports camps for children who are blind across the United States and internationally. Dr. Lieberman is very passionate about Camp Abilities and would love it if you reached out to her and volunteered support for her camps. Camp Abilities only comes to town once a year, so there is tremendous opportunity to volunteer, make a difference, and continue making a difference in the life of young blind athletes for years to come.
Just tell Lauren that Tanner from beep ball sent you.
The National Beep Baseball Association has more than two dozen teams here in the United States, as well as a team in Canada, the Dominican Republic, and Taiwan, and there are other international teams developing. If you go here, you will find the list of teams and the contact information for the teams in your area. Who knows? Maybe you’ll show up to one of their practices, fall in love with it like I did, and I’ll see you at the World Series… Just know this: You’d better bring your A game.
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