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Skill

Vision training and young athletes

Brian J Grasso explains what it takes to 'Keep your eye on the ball' and why it is essential for young athletes

Although often overlooked from a training and development standpoint, the need for good and even specified vision in sport is a paramount issue. At virtually every little league baseball game, you will undoubtedly hear the mantra that has become so synonymous with coaching younger athletes in visually-based sports - 'Keep your eye on the ball.' What does it mean to keep your eye on the ball? How do you keep your eye on the ball? Is specified vision a trainable commodity? Having worked the past few months with a legendary baseball coach, vision training expert and member of this State's Baseball Hall of Fame, I can tell you that vision training should be a component of the development programs produced for young athletes. Pardon the pun, but all my work with this vision training specialist has really served to open my eyes!

Physiology

As with anything else in the world of sport science, it is prudent to understand the physiology behind the system before you actually learn the training application. Vision is most typically defined as a process through which data is received and integrated with other input into the brain, and with stored information, so that the meaning is abstracted and the organism institutes the appropriate output. Vision is the trigger that initiates many chain-motor systems within the human body. For instance, vision is the primary signal that causes a hitter in baseball to swing or a boxer to duck a punch. The entire visual process begins with the basic component of light, which is the catalyst in eventually producing what we see. Light is measured in wavelengths with a visual spectrum ranging from between 380 and 780 nanometres. Within this range, several different colours can be seen.

The eye itself has a primary goal of shaping incoming stimulus into something the can be used by the brain. Simple visual patterns can be detected and converted to useable neural signals more quickly than complex visual patterns; the difference in processing time being between 80 milliseconds for simple images versus 260 milliseconds for complex images. Quite obviously, the difference in processing time affects reaction time which in turn can drastically affect sport performance. An example of this would be the relatively simple visual nature of a fastball versus the more complex visual image of a curve ball. Many baseball players, including major leaguers, can absurdly hit a fastball better than a curve ball - and this reality is directly proportionate to the visual complexity difference between those two pitches

Key parts of the eye are as follows:

  • Cornea - transparent outermost layer, it is kept clean by tears. Light rays entering the eye are refracted (which means bent) by the cornea and subsequently by the lens. This light redirection allows all the light rays to converge at a single point after passing through the lens.
  • Pupil - The dark hole at the centre of your iris. It will change size in reference to the amount of incoming light. A little known fact is that the degree of constriction and dilation of the pupil can have a profound effect on the ability to discern details of an image. Wide-open pupils for instance, limit the range of distances at which objects are in focus.
  • Retina - Objects come into focus on the retina. The retina serves to convert light into useful information for the brain. Light sensitive cells make up the retina and are known as rods and cones. The greatest concentration of cones is in the fovea, which is responsible for visual acuity. Cones are responsible for the perception of colour. Rods are more sensitive to light than colour, and are critical for peripheral vision and dimly lit situations.

When rods and cones are stimulated, the will deliver information along to bipolar cells which in turn pass the information from one part of the retina on to the other, and eventually on to the ganglion cells. The ganglion cells collect all of the information and process it on to the optic nerve. As the optic nerve ascends to the brain, it actually splits at the optic chiasm.

Within the context of sport, vision can be defined as reactive (the eyes will tell the athlete what they see), or inhibitory (the athlete tells the eyes what to look for). Vision is also thought of as learned. The later point is a significant issue with regards to this article - while of course much of visual ability has a hereditary component, a great deal of research has shown that their exists a strong learning component to vision as well. In fact, vision training is not unlike strength training in many ways. While playing football will certainly increase your strength, adjunct and specific strength training will increase your strength even more and contribute to you becoming a better football player. Vision training can be looked at in the same way - specified visual skills can be improved through isolating and training them separately. This is especially rewarding when an athlete has reached a limiting developmental threshold - the point at which playing the sport will no longer lead to specified visual improvements.

Visual sport skills

  • Acuity - defined as the sharpness of a visual image. Static acuity refers to the ability to see while stationary (as in golf). Dynamic acuity refers to the ability to see while the athlete, or the perceived object, is moving. Tracking ability (i.e. 'locating' a fly ball) and reaction time (i.e. committing to swinging at a pitch) are both aided by good acuity.
  • Accommodation - defined as the ability to change focus rapidly from one point to another. This is crucial in 'quick' sports such as basketball, in which the athlete must be able to focus on the ball, teammates, opponents and the basket at the same time.
  • Central Field Awareness - defined as the ability see what is directly in front. This can also be likened to 'fixation' - a tennis player, for example, will shift focus from near to far within the central field and concurrently be able to fixate on the ball and subsequently, where they hit the ball.
  • Eye Tracking - defined as the ability to follow the path of the moving object. While tracking particularly fast objects (such as tennis serves and baseball pitches) the eye goes through an involuntary, jerky movement known as saccades.
  • Eye-Hand-Foot Coordination - defined as the ability of the visual system to guide the motor system efficiently.

This represents only a partial list of visual sport skills.

An example of a training tool used to improve specified visual skill, would be to have a young athlete play catch with a beanbag under a strobe light. The increased visual noise produced by the strobe will cause the athlete to concentrate harder on catching the beanbag which will in turn improve the motor systems ability to respond to visual stimulus (i.e. eye-hand-foot coordination).

Vision training is an incredibly fascinating topic with definite positive results for the athletes who partake in it. Do not assume that your young athlete is receiving an optimal amount of vision training merely by playing there respective sports, either. Like any other adjunct training, vision training can improve countless qualities associated with the skills of various sports.


Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • GRASSO, B. (2005) Vision training and young athletes. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 19 / February), p. 4-5

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work then the reference for this page is:

  • GRASSO, B. (2005) Vision training and young athletes [WWW] Available from: https://www.brianmac.co.uk/articles/scni19a3.htm [Accessed

About the Author

Brian Grasso is the President of Developing Athletics which is a company dedicated to educating coaches, parents and youth sporting officials throughout the world on the concepts of athletic development. Brian can be contacted through his website at www.DevelopingAthletics.com

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