02. Experts Corner

Sports Vision Training Isn’t Just for Athletes

January 13, 2022

You’ve likely been reliant on vision since the day you were born. That said it’s quite possible you didn’t know vision could be trained, that you haven’t heard of sports vision training, or that you’ve ever thought training vision is something which could helpful in everyday life. As owner of a progressive chain of performance optometry practices, I’ve learnt first-hand why that is indeed the case. Here I’ll cover the key principles of vision and sports vision training, then outline why it holds so much potential outside of sports.

I See Everything, Isn't that Enough?

Most people tend to think that as long as they can see normally that’s good enough. And if they can’t see normally then an optician or optometrist can correct any issues. However the assumption here is that good vision is about seeing details clearly, which is a misassumption. In fact, a person's central visual acuity represents only a small portion of vision.

For example, in most situations the ability to perceive the velocity and motion trajectories of objects and surroundings is critical – you simply wouldn’t be able to drive a car without it. But other visual skills like contrast sensitivity, depth perception, focusing, ocular dominance and hand-eye coordination are just as important. It’s the whole panoply of these perceptual skills which we rely on to perform well in real-world activities. In most circumstances, the better your overall visual capacities, the better you can perform.

Can Vision Really be Improved?

A following misassumption is that once your vision is functioning healthily, it cannot be significantly improved. From a pure optometry perspective this was a long running debate, but the rise of neuroscience has broadened the paradigm of vision.

Firstly, this is because of the discovery of neuroplasticity and the central role it plays in how our brain learns, adapts and evolves at a neurobiological level, in response to how it’s is stimulated. This also includes neurogenesis, which is essentially the responsive growth of new neurons (mostly related to memory).

Secondly, it’s because investigating vision beyond the ocular level revealed that the brain segments core aspects of vision and has dedicated areas for processing them individually, before they are reintegrated to provide cohesive visual perceptions.

These factors combined mean that you can train specific aspects of visual processing, and improve them through neuroplastic adaptations.

What is Sports Vision Training?

If you’re a sports coach then you’ll likely recognize that this opens up vision to the sports science principles of isolation and progressive overload, which is what the majority of coaching practices utilize in performance training. However rather than sports scientists, it has been forward thinking vision specialists who have taken the initiative to synthesize optometry approaches with neuroscience and sports science, to give rise to the trend most commonly referred to as ‘sports vision training’.

The main characteristics of sports vision training are:-

1. Assessing visual capacities in detail

2. Detecting weaknesses and/or identifying abilities of key importance

3. Using specificity training to build-up those abilities for better overall visual performance

This methodology encompasses vision at both the level of the eye and the brain, and typically involves applying a combination of optometry tools and neurotechnologies for both assessment and conditioning.

Advanced practices of sports vision training also take into consideration neurophysical demands, such as balance, proprioception and complex motor-skills. These skills not only rely on visual processes, but from a neurological perspective, also tap into shared attentional resources. For instance, one study showed that susceptibility to ACL injuries tends to be hidden until a person engages in a complex visual task, which only then allows critical motor-skill weaknesses to be revealed.

Our Approach at eye4Vision

Our goal at eye4Vision practices in the Netherlands has been to evolve and apply the sports vision training paradigm to the best of our expertise. Over many years we have developed a range of sports vision training programs centered around training vision progressively from the level of hardware (ocular systems) through to software (the brain’s visual centers), which collectively form one of the most sophisticated masterpieces of human biology.

One neurotechnology we find especially useful and use with almost all our clients is NeuroTracker. It’s a cognitive exercise which tests a person’s ability to track complex motion in 3D space. It not only improves high-level visuo-cognitive skills very efficiently, it also provides scientific measures of those skills for both profiling and monitoring each client’s progress over time. Similarly, the Dynavision D2 system is something we find useful to test and hone visuo-motor reaction skills.

Overall we believe our programs are unique, highly effective, and that we provide a valuable role model in the field of visual and cognitive sports training. We also conduct research to demonstrate the transfer efficacy of applied training, for example our pilot programs with our elite Dutch Counter-terrorism teams, DSI and NLMarsof, resulted in significant improvements in shooting accuracy and situational as well tactical awareness.

Individualized Training

Our first step is always an extensive assessment of each individuals’ spectrum of visual capacities. Rather than asking the question will vision training work for a given individual, we ask how do we make it work the best for the individual.  For this reason we give athletes and coaches complete insight into the visual and cognitive skills we assess.

From there we customize the training program, tailoring it to both the needs of the individual, and to their current strengths and weaknesses. Just as the physical demands of different sports vary, likewise do the visual and cognitive demands (though most coaches rarely take this into account). Here is an example comparison of how visual performance demands vary from sport to sport.

This is why we have carefully crafted specific programs that optimize training to the needs of specific sports or positions on the field or ice, which make up our eye4Sport programs.

The Benefits

Generally speaking, the biggest gains with training tend to be in depth and speed perception, reaction and concentration, focus, eye-hand coordination and peripheral awareness, which we can demonstrate are clearly improved.

Then the aim is to structure the training so that newly acquired skills are fully automated. Once the gains are consolidated, these improvements in visual skills can be maintained by simply incorporating one or two key exercises into daily training. Overall athletes commonly experience the biggest benefits in maintaining situational awareness under the demands of high-pressure competition, allowing them to make more accurate decisions and execute the correct actions in complex situations more rapidly.

The takeaway? eye4Sport training turns a good athlete into an even better athlete, which is why it has been so successful and why many of our top athletes have made it an integral part of their performance regimes.

Beyond Sports

That said, the ability to focus, be attentive, and be situationally aware are skills most of us need, or would like to have, in all kinds of different situations. So, to address the title of this blog, our bigger takeaway was the value of applying sports vision training beyond sports.

Concussion Rehab - a great example of how we have had made strides in applying this crossover for our clients is with cases of complex concussions. These are notoriously difficult to treat, with debilitating symptoms often lasting months. Even after recovery from symptoms, the risk of relapse is a real challenge. With sports vision training techniques we have seen a dramatic improvement, treating over 1,000 patients with unprecedented success.

Long COVID Rehab - also very heartening is that we are having similar success treating COVID related wellness issues like depression and anxiety. Which although unorthodox, these can also be thought of as neurological related injuries, as they can result in very real structural changes in the brain, that can actually be rewired to allow recovery to take place.

Better Vision, Better Living

Our eye4Vision services have been expanded to offer specialized programs dedicated to the following human performance and wellness needs.

eye4Sports – athletic performance training and injury rehabilitation

eye4Tactical – training skills for special forces, police and tactical professions

eye4Work – corporate and career performance and wellness (particularly for burnout)

eye4Learn – academic performance, learning and reading difficulties

eye4Health – recovering from mild cognitive impairments in aging for quality of life

Based on the positive results we are getting across all domains this approach has been going from strength to strength. The conclusion is clear - the latest research and techniques that have been developed to enhance athletic abilities, transfer very positively to many other aspects of our modern lives.

The benefits of sports vision training aren’t just for athletes, they’re for pretty much anyone with vision.

Witness the benefits of NeuroTrackerX. Start Today!