Nothing will stand in the way of Trent Alexander-Arnold's future vision
You know all about Trent Alexander-Arnold's England heartbreak. Now, Trent's Vision reveals his behind-the-scenes work with a leading sports vision coach. Here's what we learned from watching it...
Trent Alexander-Arnold's selection for England's Euro 2020 squad in June was hard-earned, having been dropped by manager Gareth Southgate earlier in the year.
However, the joy was short-lived for the Liverpool star. In a warm-up match against Austria the very next day, he suffered a grade two tear to his left quad; an injury bad enough to rule him out of the tournament. It was a devastating blow for a player who'd worked so hard to earn back his place in the team.
Back in March, around the same time that Liverpool's top four hopes remained in the balance, the Premier League and Champions League-winning right-back enlisted the help of renowned sports vision expert Dr. Daniel Laby to help take his already world-class game to even greater heights.
The highs and lows of their journey have been documented in Trent's Vision, available to watch now for free on Red Bull TV and in the player at the top of the page. The film begins with the England defender being put through his paces in a darkened arena, which feels as much like a prime-time TV game show as it does any sports science lab.
Conducting a series of high-tech tests, Dr. Laby is given a complete overview of Alexander-Arnold's visual capabilities and then over six weeks the pair are shown working closely to put in the practice before the player goes back for round two.
Courage? Drive? Intuition? Whatever you want to call it, Alexander-Arnold shows just how he's made himself a homegrown hero for his boyhood club, applying the same work ethic to his visual training during arguably his toughest period in professional football. Without further ado, here are some of the key takeaways from one of the best sporting films you'll see this year.
1. Alexander-Arnold was clearly in very safe hands
“How many sports do you know where athletes play with their eyes closed?” Quite. Based in New York, Dr. Laby is an ophthalmologist who has trained the vision of hundreds of elite athletes in North America and beyond. His previous clients include Manny Ramirez, who, in 2014, led the Boston Red Sox to their first World Series in 86 years and was voted MVP. “I was given a championship ring that year,” says Laby. “I now have six of them." Who knows, maybe he’ll be getting a gift from TAA in the near future.
2. You can start bettering your vision with a regular eye test
Dr. Laby bases his visual testing plans around a visual training pyramid, "building from the bottom" upwards and even starting with a regular old eye test akin to one you'd find in any opticians. In other words, Alexander-Arnold has to walk before he can run. “The [lower part of the pyramid] is about what each eye individually can do,” explains Dr. Laby. "How sharp is the vision? How well can it detect contrast? And how quickly can that eye process visual information? I tried to get into Trent’s head, to know what his visual system can do, his motor system can do, his decision-making abilities."
3. At one point, Alexander-Arnold goes full pirate
One of the early tests involves the Liverpool star watching flashing objects on a screen, using only one eye. He has to then mirror the movement he sees by swiping on an iPad in the same direction. It's a struggle for the defender and the penny drops that it's not going to be such a walk in the park. Not that Dr. Laby is surprised: “The targets are very small, very faint and are only shown for a very short time. By combining those three elements we get a much better reflection of the abilities of an athlete. In football [the player] doesn’t have time to study, they have to decide quickly, and this test forces quick decisions."
4. Foot-eye coordination drills are an actual thing
Goalkeepers and F1 drivers are used to training on Bartak Machines, i.e. hitting flashing buttons on a wall, but it turns out there is a way for outfield footballers to test their reaction times, too. For one challenge, Alexander-Arnold is stood on one leg over a number of buttons, using his free foot to hit lights that pop up beneath him, touching only blue and avoiding the red ones. More importantly, it's another level up the pyramid. “Now we can see what the brain does with that information and how quickly he can react to things he sees,” says Dr. Laby.
5. Alexander-Arnold adapts his play to maximise his vision
When Alexander-Arnold is standing in front of a row of boards, each with a little light above them, attempting to play ground passes into the ones that flash up, he grows increasingly frustrated. Muffled swear words can be heard echoing around the arena as the right-back struggles to find any accuracy under pressure.
The elite athlete changes what they’re doing to make it work. The ability to do that quickly is a key piece of success
Ever the competitor, ever the perfectionist, he cuts a frustrated figure. But after starting with a one-touch technique, he goes again and changes to two-touch precise passing that instantly improves his scores: "An average person hits their head against a wall and doesn’t come up with something new,” Laby tells Alexander-Arnold. “The elite athlete changes what they’re doing to make it work. The ability to do that quickly is a key piece of success.”
6. You can harness peripheral vision with a central gaze
Another challenge sees Alexander-Arnold faced with three giant luminous rings. As the rings flash with different colours, the England defender, who also wears camera glasses so the team knows exactly what he's looking at, has to identity which one briefly goes blue and then put the ball through the opening of said ring in the moment they all turn yellow.
“We wanted a true experience like he has on the pitch – identifying a target knowing he has a short time to make that target and kick the ball to that target. The goal is to keep your eye looking at the centre and use your peripheral centre to look at the other two rings,” adds Laby. “If you blink you’re gonna miss it."
7. Alexander-Arnold didn't expect his England omission
When Alexander-Arnold received a call from England manager Gareth Southgate in March, informing the 22-year-old he wouldn’t be making the national squad, he admits it caught him off guard. “Normally you just get a text off team operations to say you’re being selected," he says. "And the manager’s name popped up, so I knew what was coming from then. I wasn’t really expecting it."
“Trent not getting called up for England hit him hard,” says Liverpool team-mate Andy Robertson, just one of many interviews in the film by those who know him best. Meanwhile, the man himself is remarkably candid and honest about what became a national news story: "You’re a little bit angry, disappointed, disappointed in yourself. It hurts your pride too, you’re a little bit ashamed, a little bit embarrassed. I have to do more to earn that place. It’s not just going to happen because your team’s won the league. I have to earn the right to play for England now."
And earn the right he did, only for it to be cruelly snatched away by injury on the eve of Euro 2020.
8. Visual training requires a LOT of practice
In the film we see Alexander-Arnold at home working on his visual skills with iPad app tests and more advanced tests with VR devices. While he admits to being mentally and physically worn out by trying to balance club training with visual training, the young defender credits his ability to push through the tough times to Dr. Laby. The pair kept in contact over video call on a near-daily basis. "The Doc helped me with words of encouragement,” he says of this transatlantic bromance. "He pushed me, he was pivotal."
9. There are a few bumps along the way
“Remember: no pain, no gain,” remarks Dr. Laby, who watches on as Alexander-Arnold prepares to take this advice rather literally. Stood in his bedroom, VR headset on, a controller in each hand, readying himself for Swat Speed training – a game which sees the Liverpool academy-graduate test his motor function by batting away objects, – he starts by smacking his hand against a low ceiling. He quickly laughs it off and goes again. In fact, tapping into his competitive side is what made all the difference. Much later, on another late web call with Dr. Laby, he asks Alexander-Arnold where he was on the leaderboard with the Swat Speed game. “Top of the table, Doc!" he beams.
10. His 'target tracking' vision improved massively
When Alexander-Arnold returned to the training centre six weeks later, he tried once again to hit balls through the neon rings and this time he smashed it, with his statistics on target tracking tests three to four times better than before. He'd taken advice about keeping the gaze central from the last time and made it stick. “I tried to look down the middle and trust that I’d be able to see it. “That’s exactly what I’m looking for,” responds Dr. Laby, "for you to trust your vision, and trust your eyes to give you what you need to trust your decision."
11. Some of the VR is 'revolutionary'
According to Dr. Laby, there are two areas for measuring an athlete’s visual training: near transfer (“the improvement of a person’s basic visual skills”) and far/distance transfer (“the improvement of visual skills on the pitch”). To achieve the latter, Dr. Laby design what he calls a “revolutionary” test which placed Alexander-Arnold (who wore a VR headset and had a real ball on the floor) into an actual Premier League game.
12. A faulty headset isn't always a bad thing
Throughout their many months working together, Dr. Laby found new ways to challenge Alexander-Arnold. “I wanted to measure the effect of interfering with his vision – how resilient is he visually?” says Dr. Laby of his decision to make the defender's VR headset constantly flash. “This flashing has two effects,” he explains. “Number one, obviously there’s a flash in your eye, and number two it takes away depth perception. You don’t get any depth perception when you only see with one eye at a time." Speaking of his experience, Alexander-Arnold later admitted that the flashes made it much harder, "because you’ve got to process one side at a time and piece it together."
13. Alexander-Arnold is his own worst critic
Early into the documentary, Alexander-Arnold refers to himself as the “yardstick” that he measures himself against, in the sense that he constantly wants to improve himself. This is particularly fitting later on when Dr. Laby reveals that the VR match he was thrown into actually used the data of a real moment in a game he played, delivering a successful cross for Liverpool team-mate Roberto Firmino to head in. “You were playing against yourself this whole time,” enthuses Dr. Laby of his Christopher Nolan-like twist. “Despite the visual difficulties we introduced through the VR experience, thanks to your training you made the exact same pass to the same player with the same success.”
14. Alexander-Arnold had to make decisions faster than the blink of an eye
A good way to blur the lines between visual training and actual physical matchplay is to increase the speed. As Dr. Laby tells Alexander-Arnold, "I was trying to place you onto the pitch to perform a pass but give you less time to do it, less time to identify your target and less time to complete your pass, because maybe the defender’s coming to you." In his second attempt of the ring challenge, Dr. Laby gave increased the difficulty “to the point where we’re going to go down to five one hundredths of a second identification, which is much faster than the snap of a finger, much faster than a blink of an eye."
15. Multiple object tracking is particularly good for footballers
One of the most effective app games for improving Alexander-Arnold's peripheral vision was based around eight fast-moving yellow balls. His aim was to track three of them and identify them once they'd stopped, an ideal mind drill for a player whose career is built on keeping track of multiple runners. After the first test, however, Dr. Laby was quite concerned that he scored only 0.39, when he was looking for a score above one. Happily, six weeks later, Alexander-Arnold tries again for the official test and sees his score go from 0.39 to 1.33, a whopping increase of 240 percent. “You skyrocketed," enthuses Dr. Laby. "This is a star result, we went from trouble into excellence. This is a nice connection to what you had to do on a football pitch using the visual skills that we’ve trained and tested."