February 27, 2018
Across pro sports, vision training is fast-becoming the latest way to get an edge over the competition. Let’s take a look at why.
In the same way that an athlete improves sports performance by training the body for strength and endurance, visual skills can be improved and enhanced through a wide range of conditioning techniques. These are some examples of specific visual functions that vision specialists typically train.
Peripheral Awareness – allows perception of what’s going on at either side of you without turning your head
Dynamic Visual Acuity – enables sustained and clear focus on objects when they are moving quickly
Depth Perception – provides spatial judgments, such as how far away an object or person is
Hand-Eye Coordination – involves the coordinated processing of visual input and motor-skills involved in hand movement
Color Vision – the ability to detect different colors and hues to interpret subtle features in the environment
Contrast Sensitivity – the ability to distinguish between fine increments of light versus dark
Performance training of these skillsets is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach, as the vision skills for optimum athletic performance will vary, depending on the demands of each sport. For example, tennis players need excellent hand-eye coordination, teams sports place large demands on peripheral awareness, and contrast sensitivity is key for skiers, who must perceive their path via snow shadows.
Sports vision trainers use a variety of tools and techniques to test for specific weaknesses and improve performance. These may actually be quite basic - in fact, many of the above can be trained at home. That said, most vision training specialists largely rely on a battery of hi-tech technologies. These facilitate training of a wide range of specific visual skillsets to advanced levels.
Many optometrists are evolving their practices to incorporate sports vision training as more and more professional athletes and teams become aware of the performance advantages. Dr. Charles Shidlofsky, a neuro-optometrist who has worked with many pro sports teams for decades, commented on this trend:
“I always knew we could enhance the visual system in a way that could help athletes become better performers. I started studying sports vision performance in baseball 28 years ago when this was a relatively new concept. One of the most interesting things we’re seeing in the last year or so is pro sports teams becoming much more interested in this type of technology to measure and see improvements over time.”
An increasing amount of media attention is covering the sports vision movement in elite sports, for example, there has been a lot of press on Stephen Curry’s recipe for success. This demand and awareness is, in turn, spawning the development of a greater range of new technologies and personal training solutions.
Vision is the primary sense used by athletes and may account for 85% to 90% of the sensory processing demands during sports activity. Many sports science studies show that visual function is directly related to athletic performance. Enhanced situational awareness, focus flexibility, reading of human movement cues, and tracking of dynamic scenes are some of the abilities that vision specialists aim to bring to competition performance.
Dr. Paul Rollet, a developmental optometrist who specializes in neuro-visual rehabilitation stated,
“It may surprise you to learn that batting percentage, free throw percentage, goals against average and many other measures of athletic performance can all be improved by drawing one’s attention to the basic visual skills that are utilized in the performance of a given sport.”
Ten-time Pro-Bowler and Arizona Cardinals’ wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald claimed: “There is definitely a connection between the vision therapy that I did as a child and my performance on the field.” Fitzgerald received vision training at an early age from his grandfather (optometrist Dr. Robert Johnson).
Connor McDavid, named the best player in the NHL going into the 2017-2018 season by Hockey News, is the captain for the Edmonton Oilers, a team that has invested years of sports vision training into his career. His agent, Jeff Jackson, believes his boosted visual skills gives him a critical edge on the ice.
“Connor sees things happening in front of him and behind him and only needs a glimpse to know what is going to happen two seconds later. Offensively, he sees things developing before anybody else. It is like he has a freaking GPS. He senses what is going on around him.”
Though most pro sports teams engage in some form of vision training, practitioners don’t just cater to elite athletes. Dr. Shidlofsky highlighted how training can benefit performance at all levels:
“Every athlete can benefit from enhanced visual processing and attention. In our traditional practice we’re taking people with below-normal neuro-visual skills to normal level, but with athletes, we’re actually taking those with normal skills to elite level vision skills, and then on to next-level performance for superior awareness and reaction times.”
The applications aren’t limited to just performance enhancement either, in fact, sports vision therapy is becoming a primary modality for rehabilitation and concussion management. Vision-based assessments also show promise as a method for predicting injury risks.
Finally, sophisticated vision training practices have evolved into something called ‘neurovision’ – where vision is used as a means to enhance wider brain functions. For example, studies have shown that training with NeuroTracker can widely enhance brainwave activity, including in the frontal lobe regions. This is backed-up with evidence of improved executive functions, working memory, processing speed and several forms of attention, even including auditory abilities.
Keep an eye on the movement in vision training - it might just become as common for athletic performance as strength and conditioning or cardio!
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