Barry L. Seiller M.D.
The eyes guide the body. If an athlete with a well-trained body is unable to use his or her eyes to their full abilities, they are not performing at their maximum potential. Professional and weekend athletes have found that vision can play an important role in sports performance. It might be the one thing that keeps a good athlete from being an exceptional one. It also can be the all-important factor that pushes a good athlete into an elite athlete.
But just as strength training was largely ignored or misunderstood in the 1970s, vision training is often an afterthought into today’s sports realm. Slowly, that is changing, as sports vision experts are helping coaches and athletes focus on the three C’s – consistency (of performance), concentration and confidence. Superior athletes possess superior visual skills. Some are born with these skills others have to work hard to improve them. Visual skills can be evaluated, trained, practiced and perfected. Vision training can improve deficiencies while enhancing skills that are already efficient. Researchers found that gamers who devote much of their free time to Grand Theft Auto and Super Mario may be able to scan their environment and spot the target of their search more quickly than non-gamers can. The findings, published in the journal Acta Psychologica, suggest that the vigilant watchfulness video games require makes for quicker visual processing.* The basis of vision training has been known for years and was originally developed for children with reading disorders. In the past this field was limited to a small number of interested eye practitioners. Ophthalmologists are medically trained physicians who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of ocular disease. Assessment completed by the ophthalmologist concentrates on determining the presence of pathology and structural dysfunction of the eye and its neuromuscular control, often omitting vision training directed at addressing cognitive and functional problems. Optometrists are health care professionals specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of ocular refractive disorders. (looking for myopia, hyperopia and astigmatism) An optometric examination typically concentrates on determining whether the patient requires correction of an ocular defect with glasses, contact lenses, prisms, or patches. Many optometrists offer vision training for children with learning disorders and athletes. Many coaches are aware of the visual aspect related to athletic performance but lacked resources and support to offer visual skills training. However, in recent years with the development of non optometric athletic oriented devices coaches have made attempts to incorporate this field into their athletic training regimen. In addition to a routine eye examination, which should evaluate the refractive component and health condition of the eyes, the following are visual skills that can be evaluated in a sports vision assessment:*
1. Visual acuity
Clarity of vision (static visual acuity) is critical in all visual sports. This factor should be tested in addition to contrast sensitivity, which may be even more critical in athletic performance. Contrast sensitivity measurements give an indication of visual sensitivity to detail and how well the eyes see during different weather and lighting conditions. If needed it can be improved with glasses, contact lenses or laser vision correction. It is imperative to maximize an athlete’s visual acuity. One study reported improvement of CSF* with the use of video games. Dynamic visual acuity is a measurement of how clearly an athlete can see moving objects while stationary or in motion. *No reliable clinical method has been developed to measure this ability.
2. Eye Alignment
The ability to “aim” the 2 eyes to sight a target quickly and accurately using a series of eye movements called fixation The two eyes may not always aim accurately on a given target. The eyes can be straight, have an inward posture (eso) or an outward posture (exo) and the amount of deviation can be measured. An imbalance in the aiming can impact timing and the perception of where the ball is in free space. If the eyes are inward they fixate in front of the object, this can result in inconsistent performance, early swings or movements, and frequently difficulty with off speed pitches in baseball. If the eyes fixate in back of the ball, this can result in late swings or movements and inconsistent performance. The quality of visual information from the skill of aiming the two eyes and shift of the gaze impacts timing and decisions made on field.*
3. Eye movement skills
Two types of eye movements are inherent. *Saccades are eye jumping movements when looking from one object to another. Pursuits are smooth eye movements which are important in tracking moving objects. When tracking moving visual stimuli, primates orient their visual axis by combining two kinds of eye movements, smooth pursuit and saccades, that have very different dynamics. *Many devices are available to measure target tracking ability.
This is the ability to efficiently change eye focusing (accommodation) and eye aiming when looking between objects at different distances. Efficient accommodation and vergence abilities are critical for any athlete involved in a sport which requires visual awareness of objects or players at different distances from the athlete. The vergence movements consist of divergence and convergence abilities. *The testing should also probe the athlete’s likelihood of visual judgment errors when fatigued or experiencing high levels of stress.
5. Depth perception/eye teaming
Depth perception is the ability related to two-eyed aiming and should be evaluated at various distances and positions of gaze. These skills are critical in the athlete’s judgment of distance and speed.
6. Central/peripheral visual recognition
This is a skill that measures the athlete’s accuracy and quickness in recognizing visual information and measures the response time to information in the peripheral field of view.
7. Eye-hand-body coordination
These skills are critical in any fast moving sport. The speed and accuracy of eye-hand coordination and body movements in response to visual information should be tested. In addition, the visual factors involved in maintaining balance during athletic performance should be evaluated using a sequence of vision/balance tasks which simulate actual sports performance conditions.
8. Visual concentration
This is the ability to focus your attention on the athletic task while filtering out peripheral distractions.
Visualization involves picturing different parts of your activity in your “mind’s eye” while your eyes are seeing and concentrating on something else, usually the performance. Studies show that when you visualize yourself performing a particular activity, the muscles of the body actually contract. This is a form of actual sports training. Visualization can boost your confidence and aid in greater focus on your athletic goals.*
If a weakness is found in any of the above areas, a sports vision enhancement or training program can be developed to improve these skills.* In addition to testing and training these visual skills, sports vision also encompasses providing custom designed and sports specific contact lenses and protective eyewear for the athlete.
Until 2001 there were a multitude of devices that existed that attempted to measure the most important visual skills. A vast majority of these devices were produced by a variety of clinicians but most had no credible basis especially for researchers looking to examine the validity of this field. The Vizual Edge Performance Training (VEPT) system was developed to address the issues inherent in these previous devices. It allows for consistent, reproducibility, and since it is internet based, easy access for users.
Because it creates metrics, the program can be used to reliably to measure the most important visual skills and create a database of user scores. The system offers valuable information to athletes, coaches and researchers. On the clinical side it allows for a comparison of one athlete’s skills to another and also a method to monitor training progress. Researchers have used the program for a variety of investigational studies in multiple sports. This has also lent new credibility to visual performance testing and training which now can be correlated to on court, field, ice, performance.