“Keep your eye on the ball” is essential advice for many sports, from golf and tennis to basketball and baseball—but as you probably know, that’s not as easy as it sounds. Playing a sport well requires countless skills, and many of these—often taken for granted— involve vision and hand-eye coordination. That’s why many professional athletes undergo vision training.
But what about recreational players? Say, for instance, you notice that you’re consistently fooled by certain shots when playing tennis, or you have trouble judging the speed of a baseball and thus usually swing late, or you can’t stay focused on the golf ball before your swing. You’ve checked with your eye doctor and you know that your eyes are healthy and your glasses are correct. You do all sorts of physical training to improve your game, but perhaps your eyes could benefit from some training, too.
Eyes wide open
Among the vision skills needed for sports are the abilities to keep your eye on a fast-moving ball or a target, judge distances accurately (depth perception), change focus quickly to a variety of distances, perceive things from the corner of your eye while looking ahead (peripheral vision), see well under varying lighting conditions, and be able to concentrate visually without being distracted. Some studies, but not all, have found that elite athletes do better overall on tests measuring such skills than novice players or non-athletes. This suggests that playing a sport may help train players’ eyes, though it’s also possible that people who start with good vision skills are more likely to succeed as athletes.
Sports vision training won’t improve eyesight (visual acuity)—no training can do that—but rather it aims to enhance the brain’s ability to process visual data. It’s often similar to the training that fighter pilots go through to hone their ability to judge distances and other vision skills. Baseball players may, for example, train using a special bat with a hole in the middle, through which the ball is supposed to pass when they swing. Or they may wear special glasses with one red lens and one green, and then try to hit red or green balls, in order to get the eyes to work better together. Over the years many professional or collegiate teams have reported success with various types of vision training.
Assuming that training can enhance vision skills, can this actually improve your game? It’s hard to predict, since there are many different types of vision training—which increasingly use special computer programs or video games—and some may work better for certain sports than others. Studies, mostly positive, have been small, usually involved young athletes, and rarely had control groups. Marketers of some programs make claims that go far beyond the research findings.
Keep in mind that it’s not clear how much the skills developed during vision training are generalizable—that is, will they help with other aspects of the sport and carry over to other sports? It’s also not known how long and how often vision training must be done to retain any benefits.
The quiet eye
In recent years researchers have been studying a type of training called “quiet eye,” which was developed by a professor of kinesiology at the University of Calgary and is used primarily for aiming sports such as golf and tennis. As much mindfulness training as vision training, it involves, for instance, intensely focusing on a golf ball before putting, long enough to process “aiming information” and eliminate mental distractions. In a 2012 British study in Psychophysiology, young golfers who received quiet eye training performed better than those coached on swing technique. Similar improvements in shooting accuracy have been seen in studies on soccer (for penalty kicks) and basketball players (for free throws).
If you play a sport and think your game may be off because of a vision problem, see an eye doctor. You may simply need glasses or different lenses, or you may have an eye disorder such as the beginning of a cataract. If everything checks out okay and you’re serious about your game, you may ask for a referral to an eye care professional or clinic specializing in sports vision training—or a sports trainer or coach knowledgeable about it. Some universities have sports vision centers. You can also search for a specialist on the website of the American Optometric Association; click on “Advanced search" and specify “Sports vision section.”
By the way, don’t confuse sports vision training with eye-exercise programs promoted online (such as the See Clearly Method) that claim to eliminate or reduce nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism. The notion that these common vision problems are caused by weak eye muscles has been debunked for decades, but marketers keep making money selling such eye-exercise programs.