Michael Peters’ blurry eyesight gave him a clear vision of his future career at an early age.
His interest in improving athletes’ eyesight was piqued during his high school days, when he struggled to play basketball with bulky glasses, and was honed in his final days as a college linebacker and receiver who couldn’t focus on the ball.
“I literally hung up my cleats because I couldn’t see to play,” says Peters, an optometrist who heads the sports vision program at Eye Care Associates in North Raleigh. “I decided to be an eye doctor because I thought, ‘I can’t be the only one.’”
Peters has focused his career on exploring the tricky connection between vision and athletics, both by helping athletes to deal with poor vision and training others to improve their eyesight in ways that enhance their performance.
He is the team optometrist for the Carolina Hurricanes, the Durham Bulls and other teams, and has worked with professional football teams and Olympic athletes. He’s written a book, entitled “See to Play,” detailing his experiences working with athletes and his methods for improving vision.
Peters recently co-authored a set of guidelines for diagnosing and treating the damage to athletes’ vision caused by concussions, an emerging issue in professional sports. Based on a three-year study, that protocol was recently published in a peer reviewed trade journal, now open to doctors nationwide.
Jay Harrison, a former Hurricanes player who was treated with the new protocol, says Peters’ innovative solutions to vision problems are key in getting athletes like him playing again.
He also says Peters and other sports doctors are also helping to make these high stakes games safer by creating a better understanding of how concussions affect the brain.
“Dr. Peters is on the cutting edge of what he does, and he’s always thinking of how he can best serve athletes,” said Harrison, who now plays for the Winnipeg Jets. “He’s so determined. Every time he sees a little more and learns a little more, it snowballs into something new.”
NFL career thwarted
Peters moved around as a child because of his father’s job as an electronics salesman, but by high school the family had settled in a small West Virginia town – and Peters had settled on a dream of playing in the National Football League.
He played high school basketball, football and track, earning letters in all three. He played football at West Virginia University briefly as a walk-on. But at the higher level of college play, his vision problems were more difficult to overcome.
“The contacts they made back in the day didn’t stay in place, and the glasses didn’t fit under helmets,” he says. “I’d play without them and I couldn’t see a thing.”
He recalls a particular practice when he caught a pass thrown by Jeff Hostetler, who would go on to play with the New York Giants. Peters was thrilled to find the ball in his hand, but not so thrilled that his ill-fitting contact lens had gotten stuck under his eyelid during the play.
He decided to channel his frustration into a career as an optometrist. The Triangle was his first stop, thanks to an early internship, and he started building his own practice in Raleigh in the late 1980s.
It is a general optometry practice; he fits all kinds of clients with glasses and contact lenses. But his specialty has always been working with athletes.
The first team he worked with regularly was the Durham Bulls, and he would go on to work with the Atlanta Braves and several other major-league teams, as well as the Carolina Mudcats.
He started with the Carolina Hurricanes in the 1990s, and has been a regular presence both at their games and behind the scenes working with players ever since. He’s also worked with National Basketball Association trainers and players.
In addition to his more high-profile clients, he frequently treats young people who suffered concussions playing youth soccer or other sports, as well as adults whose vision was affected by car accidents.
“From my little office here in Raleigh, we have a nice national reach,” he says.
Training the eyes to see
The idea that vision is a key component of athletic prowess has slowly gained credence over the decades that Peters has been in practice. Studies have shown, for instance, that elite athletes on average have much better vision than the general public.
Yet Peters says many players and coaches still discount the importance of vision.
“Eyes are still the most overlooked thing in sports,” he says.
Peters’ methods to improve vision evolved as he experimented with new techniques. At first he worked on developing exercises to help athletes improve hand-eye coordination. Later, he realized that eye movement was important, and started training his patients to train their eyes as they do other muscles.
Over the years, trainers and coaches started realizing the value of this work.
“They’re getting to know there’s a lot we can do to help athletes use their full potential,” he says.
His book, published in 2012, talks about aspects of vision that are important to sports but typically overlooked, such as the ability to focus quickly and block out visual noise.
The protocol he helped develop for vision problems caused by concussions involves a series of tests to identify the area of the brain affected, followed by targeted exercises.
Peters says the foggy vision, light sensitivity and other vision-related symptoms that often accompany concussions were traditionally treated with pain medications. By the mid-2000s, these problems were accepted as signs of a specific type of concussion, yet treatments varied widely.
He and his business partner, Jason Price, conducted a study of 137 patients over three years to develop ways to diagnose and treat vision-related concussions, focusing on therapy rather than medications or surgery.
Most of the exercises can be duplicated easily by any doctor without special equipment, which Peters hopes will allow them to be used in patients who aren’t professional athletes.
Peters says most of these problems aren’t actually in a person’s eyes, but in the signals sent from the inner ear and brain to the eyes.
“Most of your vision is all about your sense of space and time,” he says. “That’s what gets hurt in a concussion.”
He compares the brain’s healing process to a computer rebooting in “safe mode” after a trauma. But all of the extra stimuli the brain encounters delays this healing.
The methods he’s developed can speed that process along in athletes for whom each week is incredibly valuable, and can also promote healing that might not take place otherwise.
“The protocol is to figure out which part of the visual system is overloaded and start back at the basics,” he says.
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Michael A. Peters
Born: November 1962, Columbus, Ohio
Career: Partner and director of sports vision program, Eye Care Associates
Education: Regents B.A., West Virginia University; B.S. and Optometric Doctorate, Pennsylvania College of Optometry (now Salus University)
Family: Wife Stacey; daughters Kelsie, Carson and Kerrigan
Fun Fact: Peters says that some sports, such as baseball, require better vision than, say, basketball. “Hitting a baseball is one of the hardest things to do visually,” he says. “You have to be able to see the seams of the ball and how they’re rotating.”