“Keep your eye on the Ball”- a common saying that is not often taken literally, but Vision Training has been thought to give this phrase a more meaningful purpose. Vision Training, also known as Vision Therapy has been said to be one of the most controversial procedures in Vision Care to date. It has been used for a variety of purposes over the years from helping those with Learning Disabilities to helping correct conditions such as Amblyopia, Strabismus, and Accommodative issues. In past years, Olympic athletes have also been known to undergo a subtype of Optometric Vision Therapy called ‘Sports Vision Training’. The word ‘training’ here is preferred due to it being used to enhance skills and not correct a problem suggested from the word ‘therapy’. Sports Vision Training introduces methods that should hopefully enhance an athlete’s performance by looking at several qualities a great athlete should possess and working parts of the eye and brain to improve those skills. This sport-specific program has been debated to be able to greatly improve the performance of competitors in their field of play. But is there solid evidence to prove these training methods having a direct link with improved sports performance?
Firstly, let’s look at why even our top performers may need this extra training. It is common for some athletes who have no refractive errors and no physical issues to feel they are underperforming. When they feel they are physically trained to the best of their ability coaches can offer Vision Training as a possible solution to those who are not achieving the best results. For top performance, athletes have a much higher visual demand and are required to possess excellent visual abilities. These qualities include having a boosted dynamic visual acuity, which is the ability to see a moving object clearly and considers head movements. This needs to be optimal in sports like cricket with a fast-moving ball. Eye-tracking is also essential, which is where “keep your eye on the ball” comes into play, this helps improve balance and increases reaction time. They also require adequate peripheral vision, for example in football players must be able to keep moving with the ball whilst being aware of what is going on around them without turning their heads. Depth perception is also vital for some athletes, for example, divers, who must be able to judge the correct time to make body adjustments prior to hitting the water. Some other skills include hand-eye coordination and binocular vision, which are both important in making a great athlete.
An important way to look at the success of Vision Training in Sport would be to assess previous studies completed and weigh up if there is enough evidence to support Vision Training having a direct link to increased performance from those competing in the sport.
The first study entitled ‘Visual adaptations to sports vision enhancement training’ was written in 2006 by Michael F. Zupan- a professor at the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA). The study used 922 college athletes from the Academy and collected results over various years of the students participating in their Sports Vision Training Programme. One large aspect that was looked at was Accommodation speed and Vergence flexibility. One test completed was a Flipper Exercise where athletes viewed a card with multiple lots of three random letters while holding a set of ±2.00D flippers before their eyes at 0.3m from the card. They had to flip from plus lenses to minus lenses and each time read the letters out loud, this was repeated for 1 minute, and the sequence of letters was recorded by the athletes and they were given a score. Each time the lens was flipped, the eyes accommodation system had to re-adjust to be able to see the letters clearly.
Another aspect that was looked to be improved was Hand-eye coordination. This is a vital part of many sports and is the ability to use our hands and eyes simultaneously. One of the pieces of equipment used was the Accuvision 1000, and this helped complete two tests, fixator on and fixator active. Fixator on had the athletes touch a series of 60 lights across the Accuvision board at a rate of 2.78 targets per second. The number of hits, late hits and misses were recorded. This test was designed to test central and peripheral vision. Fixator active was very similar, however athletes were only to hit the targets when a green fixation light was present in the middle of the board, with the athlete being penalised for every incorrect hit.
Overall, the study states if two athletes of similar physical training compete, and one has had Sports Visual Training, that they are more likely to perform better due to a boosted visual system, which is agreeable to some degree, but it seems difficult to know of this would actually have an impact on their performance within their sports, as so many sports have different visual requirements as discussed earlier, and at no point does the study actually look at the athlete’s performance prior to and after the Vision Training.
A third study I chose to look at was ‘The Impact of a Sports Vision Training Programme in Youth Field Hockey Players’ by Sebastian Schwab and Daniel Memmert. This 2012 study was completed at the German Sport University of Cologne, and it aimed to improve visual performance of 34 male hockey players over a six-week period. They were split into two groups, one group would train as normal whilst the other group named the ‘intervention group’ would undergo a six-week visual training programme which utilised the following equipment Dynavision D2 Trainer, Eyeport, Vision Performance Enhancement Program, Hart Charts, and P-Rotator. The D2 board is designed to enhance hand-eye coordination, reduce reaction times and improve perception in the periphery. The Eyeport Vision Training System pushes the ocular muscles to their limits, requiring the hockey players to follow flashing blue and red lights in various directions. This helps to improve gaze motor activity as well as the skill of diverging and converging the eyes. Next, the Vision Performance Enhancement Program was used, which is an online software that trains various visual aspects, including; central and peripheral vision, stereopsis and dynamic visual acuity. The fourth station consisted of the athletes using Hart Charts. These are charts of a given distance between each other on the wall that have letters of varying sizes on each chart. The idea was for the hockey players to locate a specific order of letters on the chart, with the distance between the charts increasing between each session. The last station the athletes participated in was The P-RotatorThis machine is a rotating disc that moves in different directions and speeds. It has two rows of letters in a clock-like order and the hockey players need to identify given letters on the disc.
Both the control group and the intervention group were measured for reaction times at three different points; pre-test, post-test then finally a retention test to see if their skills were keeping up after the vision training.
From the results there is a clear increase in gap between the two groups. The control group results remain consistent for all three measurements, whereas the intervention group’s reaction time drops and only slightly increases during the retention test, which does show it has been effective if they can maintain an improved result.
After considering all factors from the studies and other sources, I think it is fair to say that Vision Training does have an impact on certain visual skills, especially reaction times. It is, however, very difficult to say whether the Vision Training has a direct link to an increased sporting performance, as so many other factors need to be considered. In study 2 there is an increase in batting average over the two years, but how can we directly link this to the Vision Training when there are so many other key things to consider including the Hawthorne Effect. This is a key aspect that needs to be considered, and it describes the effect of a greater performance of the athlete’s working harder, not visually, and as a result performing better in their sport due to them being watched and/or assessed. This could be true for some of the studies, especially Study 3 where one group is competing. Also, none of the studies considered using a placebo group, which in my opinion reduces the reliability of the results, as athlete’s could be performing better purely due to harder physical training, and not actually related to the Vision Training. Overall, I do not feel there is enough scientific evidence to support that the Vision Training directly improves the performance of an athlete. Since there is no solid evidence to either refute or back up the hypothesis, I think the most reasonable conclusion to make is that Vision Training is an effective way of improving certain visual skills for certain athlete’s, and this could possibly have an impact on their performance.