As humans, we rely on our sense of sight more than all of our other senses combined. If we hear a noise we turn and try to locate the source with our eyes. If we feel something crawling on our bodies we search with our eyes to find the culprit. If we smell something delicious you bet we’re going to find where it’s coming from using our vision! After we see something, we’re able to gather more information and analyze it as best we can in order to make a good decision. Without seeing our target we’re extremely limited on how we react. More than 80% of the sensory information processed by our brains comes from our vision!
Sight is a sense; vision is how we use that sense. Vision is a skill that is developed over time. When we are born we have sight. Babies are able see soon after they’re born, but not well; they’re vision is very poor. They need to time to develop their vision skills; just like they need time to develop physical skills like walking, and mental skills like learning language.
The great thing about skills is that they can be improved with training and practice. Baseball players continuously hit off the tee and play catch to train fundamental hitting and throwing skills. Basketball players practice dribbling to better their ball handling skills. Hockey players train their accuracy by practicing their shooting skills. And all these athletes train their strength and speed skills for durability and power in their sport.
Ok, so how can we train our vision skills? “I see 20/20. I have perfect vision!” This actually means that you can see as clearly as the average person standing still! Not only is 20/20 average, but also it’s only one visual skill: Static Visual Clarity. Static Visual clarity (seeing clearly with no movement) is surprisingly one of the least important visual skills for athletes, while skills such as Dynamic Visual Clarity (seeing clearly with movement), Depth Perception, Peripheral Awareness, and Eye-Hand Coordination are crucial!
Let’s take depth perception, for example, and look at how this skill helps an athlete. Depth perception is our two eyes aiming together at a single target to judge its location in space (distance), its speed, and its trajectory. Depth perception is essential for athletes to accurately judge where a target is going and when it will get there. A center fielder uses this skill to take the best route to a fly ball as soon as the ball leaves the bat. A hockey goalie uses it to block a shot at precisely the right moment and position. A tennis player uses it to decide whether or not the opponent’s shot is going out of bounds.
Training depth perception involves exercising the muscles that move the eyeballs. Six muscles move our eyeballs up, down, left, right, and all around. Just like the muscles in our legs, we can train them to be faster, more coordinated, and have more endurance. With the proper equipment and instruction we are able to stimulate our ocular muscles and improve our vision skills, like depth perception. After athletes develop better control of the muscles used for depth perception, they can locate targets precisely to judge where it is and where it’s going much quicker and more accurately than before.
Let’s look at another skill: Smooth Pursuit Tracking. We use this skill when we’re following a moving target or if we’re focusing on a target as we are moving. These are the only times our eyes move smoothly. Any other time we use rapid eye movements (REM), also known as saccadic movements. Picture a bird moving its head, looking around at different things. This is how our eyes move any time we aren’t tracking a single target. To improve this skill we need to gain better control of the ocular muscles that move our eyeballs. Compare this to balancing a tray of glass cups full of water. You need to balance the tray with your arm muscles. The better control you have of these muscles, the steadier you will balance the tray. Similarly, if we have good visual tracking skills, then we can follow a moving target with our eyes seamlessly, without losing it for even a nanosecond.
It’s best if an athlete is able to visually follow a moving target (i.e. a ball) with superb control and accuracy. If our eyes follow the target in a jerky fashion, then there will be moments when we lose sight of it. This may only be a millisecond at a time, but in sports one millisecond can be the difference between success and a mistake. Remember, 80% of the sensory information processed by our brains is from our vision. As a tennis player tracks a serve coming toward them the brain is processing even more visual information than usual. The more visual information the player can get on the serve the better. Those milliseconds of extra information give the player a better chance to make a good decision on how to react. Swing? Let it go? Forehand? Backhand? More visual information gives athletes more opportunities to succeed because they’re able to make better and quicker decisions.
Let’s briefly go through some other vision skills, define them, and give an example of how athletes in different sports put them to use:
- Central/Peripheral Awareness is the ability to focus on a central target while maintaining full peripheral awareness. If an athlete cannot maintain peripheral awareness while focusing on a central target, then they will experience “tunnel vision”. Tunnel vision makes it difficult for athletes to be aware of other players on the field, field boundaries, and unforeseen contact.
- Ex. A football quarterback watches his receiver run his route (central) as he moves up in the pocket to avoid a defensive lineman (peripheral).
- Focus Flexibility is the ability to maintain clear focus on an object moves closer or farther away. In sports this is done at a very fast pace.
- Ex. A hockey goalie follows a puck rapidly moving toward the net. He is able to maintain clear focus on the puck until he traps it in his glove and makes the save.
- Visual Memory is the ability to quickly recall what is being seen, and immediately using that information to react to what is about to happen.
- Ex. A softball batter sees how the pitcher releases the ball and immediately recognizes that a curveball is coming.
- Visual Stamina is the endurance of the ocular muscles. Good visual stamina means an athlete can maintain high functioning vision when the body or visual system is fatigued from extended activity.
- Ex. At the end of a long round a golfer finely pinpoints the green from the 18th tee as she shifts focus from the tee to the hole. She gets to the green and is able to carefully analyze the green to sink her championship put!
- Contrast Sensitivity is the ability to detect subtle differences between a target and its background. Good contrast sensitivity allows athletes to more easily pick up the target and identify spin and trajectory more readily.
- Ex. A baseball batter recognizes the pitch is a two-seem fastball based on the spin of the ball.
Those are a few vision skills that athletes use all the time in every sport. Of course, different skills are more important depending on the sport and position. All of those skills are depended on before an action is made. In our Performance Process we illustrate the sequence every athlete goes through every play. It starts with vision (must see it precisely), then to the brain (process that visual information and make a decision), and finally to the body (react with a motor response accordingly).
This process takes time and practice to refine. The best athletes in every sport are not only super gifted athletically, but they are the best at seeing, processing, and reacting to they’re environment at a very high level. Look at Steph Curry! He is undersized in stature, and doesn’t necessarily look like anything special. But he makes incredibly fast decisions and reacts very accurately based on what he sees. Does he practice his performance process? Oh yeah!