Sports Vision – More Information

What matters most

We know from our work over the last decade with elite athletes that sportspeople are far more likely to experience difficulties with their depth perception than with their actual visual acuity. Three times more likely, in fact.

What does this mean? It means that the most common problem a player will face with their vision is not being able to judge where exactly the ball is despite being able to see it clearly.

The solution given by others is often simply more practice — which only leads to practice compensations, not improvement in performance. Ultimately the failure to identify and correct the visual problem at the source of the problem leads to continued variable spoting performance and a lack of confidence.

Once confidence is affected, the road back is a long one, when it could have been easily corrected if appropriate vision testing was performed early in a player’s career.

Boy testing his vision

What if we told you that “Watch the ball!” is wrong?

Whether it is the way that instructions are given, or a general misperception of vision, we believe it is time to stop using this phrase for experienced officials and sportspeople. The ball isn’t the answer, but rather the contact zone — you need to be able to anticipate where the ball is heading and look into that zone. If you try too hard to “look at the ball”, your eyes will remain there, i.e. where it was, and as the ball moves you spend your time trying to “catch up to the ball” meaning you are behind the ball and too late. In our years of working with elite sportspeople, whether it is Rugby League, AFL, Cricket and even Netball, we have found that those who are having handling difficulties or form slumps are indeed trying to watch the ball! What else would they be doing? However in trying hard to do so, their eyes get stuck where the ‘was’ and don’t move to where the ball is going. This leads to them trying to catch or hit the ball using their peripheral vision, increasing the chance of error.

For example, a Rugby League player shouldn’t worry so much about seeing the ball in the dummy-half’s hands but rather he needs to see the ball in the space he is running to. i.e. as soon as the dummy-half releases the pass, the player needs to direct his eyes and attention to the space the ball is being passed to. Similarly a batsman in Cricket needs to watch a bowler release the ball and then get his eyes into his 1/3 of the pitch to where the ball is coming. If he spends too much time analyzing the ball from the hand, he will find his eyes behind the ball as it approaches and hence playing the ball away from his body as he uses his peripheral vision to try to ‘see’ the ball.

In discussing this concept, it is evident to us that there is a misperception of “vision”. When we discuss the “zone” theory with coaches it seems that it is their belief that vision is pinpointed, or very focal. This belief is incorrect and then leads to confusion. Vision is not pinpoint but rather it is like a cube or a box. Depending on how far away the contact zone of interest is, then the size of this box varies. The box is smaller at near and larger further away. Because the box has depth, height and width your vision is able to include all of the information within that box, so that even when you are looking at a given point, you receive and are able to process information around it.This also means that an object can pass through the box and without moving your eyes you are aware of its motion and speed. Once you interpret the action of the ball, you then need to move your eyes to the contact zone. Whilst it sounds like you are taking your eyes off the ball, you aren’t as your peripheral vision locates the ball. Fast eye movements, known as saccadic eye movements, allow your eyes to get to the “contact zone” and then as the ball enters this zone you are able to process its movement and speed with more time and clarity. It is this process of knowing where to look, that enables experienced and skilled individuals to perform at elite level and appear to do so with an amount of time that the lay person can only hope to do so.

This principle can be applied to any sport and we’ll give you some examples. It is this process of knowing where to look, that enables experienced and skilled individuals to perform at elite level and appear to do so with an amount of time that the lay person can only hope to do so.

Let’s use a cricket pitch:

cricket pitch vision

If you look at the image above you will see an indoor cricket pitch with seven red balls, one yellow ball and one blue ball. If you look at any of the balls you will notice you can see all of the balls. So if you think of looking at a point on the pitch and the ball is moving, you are still able to see the ball as it travels along the pitch. Looking at any given ball the balls nearer to it are clearer than those further away. So in this case imagine you are the batter. If you look at the end of the pitch, or even look at the yellow ball you will notice the blue ball isn’t clear, that is because it is not in your central vision. (You also need to remember in this example that most of the picture is close to you central vision, so in a real situation things would be worse.) Now if you look at the blue ball, it obviously will be clearer. The point is that although you are looking at the blue ball you can still see the other red balls, this demonstrates that you in fact do not lose sight of the ball in flight, and by making this adjustment you are allowing the ball to come into view, or rather come into the contact zone and hence it is clearer.

If using a still image is difficult, please follow these links to watch our YouTube videos which demonstrate the same point. You’ll see balls from a bowling machine and then as a cricket umpire sees it. You may want to replay the video several times. The videos are from different perspectives – the first 3 are from the umpire’s end and the following 3 are from the batsman’s end. The principle though is the same, if you are looking in the right areas then the ball will be easier to see and importantly appear “slower”.

 Next up: Videos – Watching the Ball