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The Relationship Between Vision & Sports Performance

With more than 80 percent of perceptual input coming from the eyes, vision plays a significant role in an athlete’s performance. Every decision an athlete makes can be broken down into visual, perceptual, cognitive, and motor responses. We are well versed in training the motor response and are now beginning to appreciate the benefits of training the visual, cognitive, and perceptual elements of a sport. Athletes know they can maximize performance by training speed, strength, and agility, and are now learning how sports vision training can help them see faster, react faster and improve their awareness and perception. 

What Is Sports Vision?

Sports and performance vision is a team approach to enhancing an athlete’s visual and motor performance. Through a detailed evaluation and comprehensive training program, athletes can improve eye/hand coordination, anticipation, timing, decision making, reaction time, focus/concentration, and overall performance.

Is There a Need?

Photo: Wesley Sykes / Great American Media Service

According to Project Play, a report by the Aspen Institute showed that 43.5% percent of male children 13-17 played a sport and 34.8 percent of female children. A 2015 NPR report also showed that 25% of adults play a sport, with men more than twice as likely to play than women.  According to that same report, the majority of adults (85%) said that performance is important to them, while over half (56%) also said winning was important. The same report also shows that parents place a high priority on sports, with one in four parents with a high school athlete hoping their child will become a professional. 

What Skills Are Typically Assessed and Trained?

While assessment and training programs may vary, the crux of a program is training simple skills to be more complex (as in strength training). In Olympic weight training, an athlete will not learn to perform the complex snatch until they show proficiency, strength, and skill in the movements leading to the lift. In the same way, an athlete will not progress to complex skills such as neural processing and visual integration until they have a solid base. According to two experts in the field of sports vision, Dr. Daniel Laby and  Dr. David Kirschen, an athlete must progress through monocular sensory processes, before tackling binocular sensory processes such as stereo vision and depth perception. Only then can they move into more complex training with the end goal being on-field performance.

Some examples of skills assessed and enhanced by training include (but are not limited to):

  • Visual Acuity/Clarity — How well an athlete sees at a distance.
  • Depth Perception —  Ability to judge the distance between an athlete and an object, opponent, teammate. 
  • Contrast Sensitivity —  Ability to identify and track objects on different backgrounds- important in sports with varying light levels and conditions.
  • Dynamic Visual Acuity — Ability to maintain visual clarity when the athlete and/or an object or in motion- rarely in a sport is the athlete and object standing still!
  • Eye Tracking — An athlete must be able to quickly and accurately locate and follow objects (ex. Catchers identifying pitches in baseball).
  • Peripheral Awareness — Ability to use the full extent of your visual field and be aware of surroundings, other players, and changes on the court or field (ex. A hockey goalie being aware of teammates and the puck out of the corner of their eye).
  • Speed of Visual Processing — How quickly visual information needs to be processed- in most sports, this must be done quickly for optimal performance.
  • Visual Memory — Ability to remember details, also known as taking a mental snapshot (ex. A quarterback looking at the field and remembering where all the players are as he throws the ball).
  • Eye-Hand-Foot-Body Coordination — How well can an athlete interpret visual input and make the coordinated motor response. This is important in most sports because of timing and body control.
  • Anticipation Timing — Predictive visual information about the “where” and “when” behavior of critical factors in sports (ex. A batter tracking a baseball pitch).
  • Accommodation — Flexibility of focusing and the ability to change focus from distant to near targets and vice versa. This helps keep an object in focus and lets an athlete change focus during a game. (ex Catcher tracking a ball to their glove and then throwing to first base).

How Is A Training Program Structured?

Photo: Wesley Sykes / Great American Media Service

With all sports having different visual and motor skills that are essential for success, a training program will take the sport’s unique needs and add complexity. After first having a comprehensive eye exam to fully correct an athlete’s visual acuity (with contact lenses, sports eyewear, or refractive surgery), a full assessment of skills such as the ones above is done. We identify any areas of opportunity, especially if they are critical for an athlete. For example, a baseball player who has poor tracking will likely notice poor performance on the field. A training program is structured to build complexity while improving these skills. This can be done in several ways (similar to a strength training progression) by adding balance, distraction, cognitive challenges, and sports-specific movements and drills.

What Technology Is Used For Assessment and Training?

There is a wide array of tools available, from analog/low tech to digital/high tech. This will vary depending on the sports vision practitioner and practice but can include traditional vision therapy tools and more high-tech solutions.

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In the last few years, there has been an explosion in the technology now available. One tool that has a great range of use is the Senaptec Sensory Station, which can be used both as an assessment and training tool (along with having a database of athletes for comparison). Other high technology tools include Neurotracker, FitLight (also widely used in conditioning), Binovi, Cognivue, Reflexion, and RightEye. Many sports vision training centers will have some, but not all of these tools. Some are portable, allowing for on-field training, while some are used primarily in-house.

What Is The Benefit of a “Team Approach” In Sports and Performance Vision?

Whenever I work with consulting clients who are interested in starting or expanding a sports vision practice, I start by stressing the team dynamic when working with athletes. While many sports vision practitioners are optometrists, we are a cog in the wheel of the team that is essential to an athlete’s success. I rely heavily on my colleagues in the strength and conditioning world when working with athletes to build a program to work on any deficiencies or areas that are important for an athlete. I also work closely with athletic trainers who work very closely with my athletes daily. Chiropractors, physical therapists, sports psychologists, nutritionists, coaches, sports medicine doctors, and other professionals are also part of my network and I consult them when designing a program and working with an athlete.

How Can I Get Involved?

You can join the International Sports Vision Association (www.sportsvision.pro), an interdisciplinary group of professionals dedicated to advancing the field of vision training for athletes of all ages and levels to improve performance. We work to increase public and professional awareness through education, training, and sharing of research. We also encourage a team approach of coaches, trainers, and other athletic professionals to include optometrists and ophthalmologists on the performance enhancement team.  

Sports and performance vision is an extremely rewarding field, and with proper assessment and training, it can give an athlete an edge to improving their performance.

Dr. Jennifer Stewart is the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of Performance 20/20, a sports and performance vision trainer facility located in Stamford, CT. She is also a partner at Norwalk Eye Care, a large multi-doctor practice in Norwalk, CT.  Dr. Stewart was awarded The Theia Award for Innovation by Women in Optometry for her work in sports and performance vision. She has worked with athletes from the NHL, NBA, NFL, as well as numerous professional, elite, college, and youth athletes to improve performance. She is an Advisory Board Member for the International Sports Vision Association and a frequent speaker, writer, and consultant.  She is a former Division 1 Track and Field athlete and still holds two current records. She is now a competitive Olympic Weightlifter and runner.