The Science of Sports Vision

By  Dr. Charlie L. Ho

Simply put, Sports Vision is a branch of optometry that deals with vision care services provided to athletes, including the examination of an athlete’s ocular health, correction, protection, management of eye injuries, and sports vision training to enhance performance.

1The United States was the first to form an entity through the establishment of the Sports Vision Section of the American Optometric Association (AOA) in 1978. The section has been active in interprofessional relations with other organizations such as the US Olympic Committee, Special Olympics, Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympics, American College of Sports Medicine, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Other countries with sports vision are Canada, United Kingdom, Italy and Australia.

In the Philippines, the Sports Vision Institute of the Philippines (SVIP) brought the training technology into the country in 1996 and is considered the pioneer of sports vision practice in Southeast Asia. The first entity to offer “head training” for athletes, it has worked with numerous professional basketball teams, referees, amateur, professional and national athletes. Here, we break down the sports vision service into several stages:

  1. Ocular health examination

A comprehensive eye examination is performed on the athlete to determine various  conditions, including refractive status of the eye, binocular vision function – responsible for depth perception, contrast sensitivity function of the retina, and the ability of the eye to maintain fixation and focus on the target, among others. Defects in the eye and visual system that affect specific tasks of the athlete are detected and managed as well.

  1. Correction / Vision Therapy

During this stage, practitioners provide expert consultation services to athletes regarding vision correction and the potential uses and benefits of ophthalmic products, as well as advise athletes on the advantages and disadvantages of spectacles, protective eyewear, contact lenses and refractive surgery. Athletes having difficulty with proper function of vision can always opt for vision therapy to strengthen the binocular vision system, reduce myopia, as well as retard or delay presbyopia by using a neuro-vision stimulator, commercially known as EyeRelax. (Tip: EyeRelax may also be used to relax the eye and warm up the brain just before a game.)

Medical student giving eye exam|CC BY-SA 3.0
Medical student giving eye exam|CC BY-SA 3.0
  1. Sports Vision Testing Assessment

Vision care for athletes should begin with the identification of visual factors that potentially contribute to peak human performance so that these specific functions can be isolated and measured, if possible. A task analysis process is made to enable the practitioner to provide appropriate vision care for athletes in any sport or position. Once visual factors essential to performance are identified, an evaluation is created to measure the quality of those skills in the appropriate, accurate and repeatable manner. Skills, such as reaction time, visual memory, speed of recognition, eye-hand coordination, eye-foot-body balance and reaction time, and peripheral reaction time are measured to obtain baseline data of athlete’s skills and to spot his/her strong and weak areas. This will enable the doctor to design skills and sport-specific training programs for individual athletes, in partnership with team coaches and trainers.

  1. Protection, Contrast Vision

The risk of sustaining an eye injury in sports is high especially in dynamic and contact sports. Sports vision practitioners educate athletes on how to prevent sports-related eye injuries, delivery of immediate first-aid management if an eye injury occurs and referral to appropriate specialist, if necessary. For instance, an eyewear with the right lens tints for better discrimination of details in various lighting conditions is advised to be valuable for golfers, shooters and outdoor sports enthusiasts.

  1. Enhancement of Visual Skills in Sports

Visual performance enhancement training has similar goals of transferring improvements in function to athletic performance as do other areas of performance training, such as strength training, conditioning, speed and agility training, nutritional regimens, and sports psychology. SVIP uses several training procedures and exercises to improve visual skills of athletes. Several areas in the visual performance enhancement for sports are:

  1. Remediation of vision inefficiencies that may have negative impact on performance consistency;
  2. Enhancement of visual skills critical to optimal sports task performance;
  3. Enhancement of visual information processing skills to facilitate rapid utilization of critical visual information;
  4. Enhancement of visuo-motor proficiency;
  5. Enhancement of cognitive functions that is critical for visual decision-making during competition.

Visuo-motor Skills Training. Visual skills required for each sport are identified, analysed and enhanced, such as dynamic vision, eye-hand coordination, eye-foot coordination (footwork), visual concentration, reaction time, and visual memory, among others. Some of the training methods may be performed in school, the gym or even at home.

Philippines v. American Samoa Rugby League Nines by Naparazzi | CC BY-SA 2.0
Philippines v. American Samoa Rugby League Nines by Naparazzi | CC BY-SA 2.0
  1. Sports-specific Precision Training 

Sport-specific training methods are also designed to teach athletes how to use their vision for better precision. Targets and devices are used and installed to help athletes direct motor outputs combined with other skills.

  1. Cross Training

Specific skills such as ambidexterity, focus, balance, footwork, et al, may be developed from training methods used in other sports.

  1. Sensory Integration

Incorporating additional sensory demands while performing these visual sensitivity training procedures is essential to match ergonomic demand encountered in the sport situation more closelyand build automaticity of the visual response. The difficulty level may be varied to increase the stress experienced by the athlete while using these skills.

SVIP: For High(er)-Performing Athletes

Sports Vision Institute of the Philippines (SVIP) provides coaches, athletes, trainers, and parents with more than 50 sports vision training exercises and activities. Based on proven training techniques shown to deliver solid results, the exercises are sport-specific and easy to use at home, on the field, orin the weight room. In the past, sports vision training has been done primarily in clinical settings. Today, SVIP takes sports vision out of the lab and onto the field, school, sport by sport. It challenges the athlete to reach the next level of performance.