Sports Vision

In sports, one of the most important (and completely overlooked) keys to performance is the processing of visual information. I just came across a study that helps demonstrate this point in an interesting way.

For the study, researchers recruited 36 healthy college students, half of whom were varsity athletes in a wide range of sports. The students were tested on their ability to cross a “virtual reality street” with virtual cars and other obstructions. The simulated scene was created with a treadmill, goggles and three ten foot square video screens.

The students were asked to walk towards the virtual street, which had virtual cars moving 40 to 55 virtual miles per hour. The students were told to gauge traffic and then cross the road. Importantly, they were told to walk not run across the street.

The athletes completed significantly more successful crossings than the non athletes, even though they did not walk any faster, or engage in any athletic maneuvers such as dodging the cars. “They didn’t move faster,” said Art Kramer, who oversaw the research. “But it looks like they thought faster.”

You mean that sports requires activity above the neck? What a shock! Of course athletes would be better at crossing the street. Sporting ability is to a huge extent dependent on quickly and accurately interpreting visual information. The key word here is interpreting - sports vision is not just accurately seeing what is there to be seen, it is using that visual information to make accurate predictions about what will happen in the next few seconds. In effect, this isn't really a visual task at all, it is a task of the imagination that uses visual information as the primary data.

Sports that take place in a changing environment, particularly team sports, place huge demands on the athletes' ability to make decisions in complex situations under huge time pressure. Elite athletic performers must therefore have an elite ability to process visual data quickly and make accurate predictions about what is about to happen.

Imagine a simple situation on a basketball court. You are dribbling the ball towards the basket while guarded by an opponent and need to decide whether to continue in for a layup or pass to a teammate who is also guarded by an opponent and running to the basket. In order to compare the different potential outcomes, you need to predict the likely trajectories, arrival times and intersection points for five moving objects: you, your defender, your teammate, his defender, and the ball.

Five different moving objects, five different speeds, five different angles, and this does not even begin to consider the fact that each of the four players could elect to change their speed or angle of movement at any point, completely rearranging all of the variables in an instant. These are calculations that would paralyze a team of physicists with computers, but an experienced player can make them instantaneously. Steve Nash would know immediately that his pass would be intercepted unless thrown from a specific place at a specific time, speed and angle; or that he needs to speed up slightly to make the layup; or that his defender will run right by him if he hesitates slightly and moves left.

Thus, a great part of the skill of any team sport is the ability to make these types of calculations accurately and quickly. In essence, this is predicting the future based on visual input. In the parlance of sport, its called “reading the game” or having “game sense.” If you can read the game you don’t need as much physical skill to get the job done. This is one of the reasons great athletes make the game look easy. The game is easy when you know what’s going to happen a split second before your opponent.

This can be particularly obvious in the highly complex game of soccer. Imagine the frustration of watching your team futilely trying to score despite consistently having the ball deep in the opponents’ territory. You will see many opportunities lost simply for lack of making the right decision at the right time. The right decision is often quite obvious when the play is over and there is extra moment for reflection. Quick thinking is what makes boring soccer into the beautiful game.

And slow thinking is what makes the beautiful game ugly. Personally, I will all too often deliberately pass to an opposing player, or maybe even the referee, simply because I didn’t register quickly enough that this guy isn’t my teammate. It’s not that I didn’t take in the visual information, because my eyes work just fine - I just didn’t process the meaning of the information quickly enough.

The importance of sports vision is why some of the greatest performers in many sports seem to have an uncanny ability to win that cannot be measured in their size, strength, power or even skill. Players such as Wayne Gretzky, Zinedine Zidane, Joe Montana, John Stockton, Lionel Messi and Steve Nash seem to have some X factor which allows them to win even in the absence of clearly superior physical skills. Part of that X factor is simply their ability to make decisions quickly and accurately in complex situations under massive time pressure.

So how can you improve your sports vision? Well there is a book called SportsVision, but I confess that I have not read it. Z-Health recognizes vision training as a top priority and has many drills to train it. I have tried some of these and noticed some interesting results.

I think sports vision training is an interesting and undeveloped area with lots of potential. It’s about way more than eyesight. “Look” into it. (“See” what I did there?)(And again!)