High-Performance Vision

Improving your visual skills — and acuity — can give you an edge in virtually any sport. Here’s how to start seeing more.

Eighty percent of all sensory information comes from sight, so it makes sense that mastering the visual skills most useful to your sport would be a prime performance-enhancing technique. But recent advances in sports-vision training have taken that concept to a new level, producing a progressive and interactive series of vision exercises (provided by software or a specialist) that can help improve your peripheral vision, eye-hand-body coordination, depth perception and spatial awareness.

There’s been little research on how — or even if — sports-vision training works, but its anecdotal success is compelling enough that many Olympic and professional athletes, as well as high school and college sports teams, are making it part of their fitness programs. It’s easy to add a few elements of vision training to your regimen as well.

The benefits of vision training are obvious for baseball, football and hockey players. In baseball, for instance, improving eye-hand-body coordination and depth perception can reduce strikeouts and help you more easily field the ball.

Athletes competing in endurance sports such as triathlon, running or cycling can benefit in similar ways, says Thomas Wilson, OD, coauthor of Sports Vision: Training for Better Performance (Human Kinetics, 2004). “Those are very visual sports, too,” explains Wilson, who practices in Colorado Springs, Colo. “The athlete is constantly reacting to a changing visual environment.”

Benefits of Better Vision

Sports-vision training can help you improve your performance in a variety of ways:

How much you see. Training the eyes to comprehend more objects in a short period of time allows you to collect more data for decision-making and improve reaction time.

Eye-tracking ability. Looking efficiently from one point in space to another will improve your position and help you avoid obstacles.

Focus. The goal goes from keeping your eyes on the ball to focusing on the trademark symbol on the ball’s logo.

Angles of pursuit. You constantly adjust your course to be the shortest and most efficient path between you and the object you’re trying to reach.

Speed trajectory. The quality of visual information affects your ability to perceive speed and direction, which affects timing, balance and decision-making.

Depth perception. Knowing how far away objects are also influences timing, balance and decision-making.

Eye-hand, eye-foot, eye-body coordination. The synergy between your vision and your movement is a critical skill in a wide variety of sports.

Spatial awareness. You can improve your ability to determine how your position relates to other athletes and objects.

Peripheral awareness. Increasing your ability to view objects around you provides a great advantage in a number of different sports.

Be a Good Pupil

Sports-vision-training techniques can vary among specialists, but you’ll typically go through certain steps in any reputable program. First up is an eye examination and corrections, if necessary, to bring your general eyesight up to speed. (See Web Extra! for tips.) Next, the specialist will evaluate your sport-specific visual skills.

You might don various shaded lenses and 3-D glasses to help gauge your skills under different conditions. You might play a series of “video games,” recalling the direction of a series of arrows or attacking dots as they move around a screen. With a pair of red-blue filtered glasses, you might assess your aim by placing a red image on top of a blue image or finding one image that isn’t like the others.

After the assessment, your doctor will prescribe various eye exercises that address your weaknesses and cultivate sport-specific skills. With repeated experience, the brain will retain these more efficient and improved processes — very much like the muscle memory involved in training for a marathon or hitting a tennis ball. “The wiring between the brain, the eyes and the body have an impact on long-term visual memory,” says Barry L. Seiller, MD, founder of the Visual Fitness Institute and Vizual Edge, a software company in Vernon Hills, Ill.

Wilson will often “load” his patient’s eyes with information while the athlete is working on a sport-specific skill such as passing a basketball, kicking a soccer ball or riding a stationary trainer. On a bike, for instance, the athlete works on changing his focus from what is immediately in front of him to what is coming up ahead, to decide what he should react to immediately and what he needs to anticipate. As an athlete becomes proficient, Wilson ups the ante by making the physical work harder — increasing speed or resistance, or making the athlete stand up and sit down while doing the eye exercises. The same eye exercise becomes tougher because of the physiological distractions, but such conditions mimic actual game or race conditions — or even go beyond. “If you stress the visual system to its limits, and then you take it back to status quo, it will perform more efficiently,” he says.

You can also incorporate sports-vision therapy through your computer. Seiller’s Vizual Edge Performance Trainer CD-ROM includes a visual skills assessment that allows athletes to evaluate their visual skills before and after training. Through a series of interactive exercises, athletes train their eyes in various skills and get instant feedback on their strengths and weaknesses.

Visual Cues

Maybe your favorite sport doesn’t require you to “keep your eye on the ball” or find the open areas in a field of players. Still, a keener sense of sight might provide subtle benefits that mean getting to the finish line faster or preventing mishaps that could hinder your ability to get there at all.

If your performance is at a plateau, even though you’ve maxed out all training possibilities, sports-vision training might be just the resource to help you break through.


Broomstick Balancing

Purpose: To develop hand-eye-body coordination and fine motor control

Materials: Broomstick, dowel, racket or other sport-specific implement

1. Place the end of the broomstick or implement in the palm of your hand.
2. Practice balancing the stick while standing upright.
3. Once you become proficient with one hand, switch hands.
4. Once you’ve mastered both hands, try to move the stick from fingertip to fingertip without dropping it.
5. Repeat step four with the opposite hand.

Signs of Improvement: Increased ability to balance broomstick


Vision Resources

Books and Games
Sports Vision: Training for Better Performance by Thomas Wilson, OD, and Jeff Falkel, PhD (Human Kinetics, 2004)

Flash Focus: Vision Training in Minutes a Day — In October, Nintendo released this vision-training game based on programs used by top athletes.

www.vizualedge.com — Learn more about Visual Edge Performance Trainer software packages.

www.aoa.org — Go to the American Optometric Association’s Web site to search for an optometrist certified in visual therapy. Click on “Find an Optometrist” in the upper-right corner, then choose “Sports Vision” in the “Practice Emphasis” menu.

www.exerciseyoureyes.com — The EYEPORT Vision Training System is a new high-tech gadget that uses alternating red and blue lights to challenge your vision skills and coordination. While it doesn’t correct pre-existing vision problems like nearsightedness or astigmatism, it does help strengthen your eyes' focusing and tracking abilities.


Get Your Vision Up to Speed

The first and most obvious step in vision training — for any athlete — is to attain 20/20 vision. If you aren’t seeing clearly, you can special-order goggles with prescription lenses, as well as corrective sport frames for running and biking (check out www.rudyproject.com). Contact lenses are another obvious choice, and many athletes are turning to surgical correction, too.

“If someone is doing well in corrective lenses and can put up with the hassle involved, there’s no need to make any optical correction changes,” says Barry L. Seiller, MD, founder of the Visual Fitness Institute and Vizual Edge, a software company, in Vernon Hills, Ill. The downside to contact lenses, he adds, is that they can get dislodged or can shift slightly, not to mention get lost, broken or torn. “In cases like this, athletes might be better off having laser vision correction surgery, assuming they’re a good candidate,” he says.

Another corrective and nonsurgical option is corneal refractive therapy (CRT). “In the right candidate, CRT can reduce nearsightedness down to zero,” says Sue E. Lowe, OD, who specializes in vision therapy at the Snowy Range Vision Center in Laramie, Wyo., and is the former chair of the sports-vision section for the American Optometric Association. With this method, the patient sleeps in special hard lenses for anywhere from six weeks to six months. The lenses eventually alter the shape of the cornea.

Kara Douglass Thom is a freelance writer specializing in health and fitness.

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