Across pro sports, neurovision training is fast-becoming the latest way to get an edge over the competition. A blend of optometry, sports vision training, and brain training, the neurovision approach is a sophisticated new way to enhance athletic performance. As such, specialists from a variety of fields are sprouting up dedicated performance centers all over North America and Europe. This is a fresh bid to raise the game of professional sports. Let’s take a look at why.
In the same way that an athlete improves sports performance by training the body for strength and endurance, visual skills can be improved and enhanced through a wide range of conditioning techniques. These are some examples of specific visual functions that vision specialists typically train.
Peripheral Awareness – allows perception of what’s going on at either side of you without turning your head
Dynamic Visual Acuity – enables sustained and clear focus on objects when they are moving quickly
Depth Perception – provides spatial judgments, such as how far away an object or person is
Hand-Eye Coordination – involves the coordinated processing of visual input and motor-skills involved in hand movement
Color Vision – the ability to detect different colors and hues to interpret subtle features in the environment
Contrast Sensitivity – the ability to distinguish between fine increments of light versus dark
Performance training of these skillsets is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach, as the vision skills for optimum athletic performance will vary, depending on the demands of each sport. For example, tennis players need excellent hand-eye coordination, teams sports place large demands on peripheral awareness, and contrast sensitivity is key for skiers, who must perceive their path via snow shadows.
Rather than the traditional approach of simply testing, corrective and training eye functions, the neurovision approach tries to bring the whole perception to action loop together.
Because of this, neurovision coaches use a variety of tools and techniques to test for specific weaknesses and improve performance. These may actually be quite basic – in fact, many of the above can be trained at home. That said, most vision training specialists largely rely on a battery of hi-tech technologies. These facilitate conditioning of a wide range of specific visual skillsets to advanced levels.
A Growing Movement
In particular, many optometrists are evolving their practices to incorporate neurovision training to serve the increasing demand from professional athletes and teams. An increasing amount of media attention is covering the sports vision movement in elite sports, for example, there has been a lot of press on Stephen Curry’s recipe for success. Dr. Charles Shidlofsky, a neuro-optometrist who has worked with many pro sports teams for decades, commented on this trend.
“I always knew we could enhance the visual system in a way that could help athletes become better performers. I started studying sports vision performance in baseball 28 years ago when this was a relatively new concept. One of the most interesting things we’re seeing in the last year or so is pro sports teams becoming much more interested in this type of technology to measure and see improvements over time.”
What are the Benefits?
Vision is the primary sense used by athletes and may account for 80% to 90% of the sensory processing demands during sports activity. Many sports science studies show that visual function is directly related to athletic performance. Enhanced situational awareness, focus flexibility, reading of human movement cues, and tracking of dynamic scenes are some of the abilities that vision specialists aim to bring to competition performance.
Dr. Paul Rollet, a developmental optometrist who specializes in neuro-visual rehabilitation stated,
“It may surprise you to learn that batting percentage, free throw percentage, goals against average and many other measures of athletic performance can all be improved by drawing one’s attention to the basic visual skills that are utilized in the performance of a given sport.”
Connor McDavid, named the best player in the NHL going into the 2017-2018 season by Hockey News, is the captain for the Edmonton Oilers, a team that has invested years of sports vision training into his career. His agent, Jeff Jackson, believes his boosted visual skills gives him a critical edge on the ice.
“Connor sees things happening in front of him and behind him and only needs a glimpse to know what is going to happen two seconds later. Offensively, he sees things developing before anybody else. It is like he has a freaking GPS. He senses what is going on around him.”
How the Pros See
Specifically, research has found that experts across a range of sports not only search more accurately but use fewer searches of the most informative points on display, combined with longer fixations. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘quite eye’ technique. Contrastingly, novices are less informed, even though they scan more points.
Effective visual search techniques utilize experiential knowledge to enable the player to decide information priorities in order to selectively update detail in real-time. The crucial point here is that when fixating on a point for longer, the eyes are still, and the peripheral field of view can now be processed. In this sense, top athletes can narrow in on detail, hold their gaze, and simultaneously pay attention to what’s happening in the periphery. This is a sublime perceptual-cognitive skill that gives them an almost sixth sense of awareness.
Boosting Peripheral Vision Abilities
Visual pivot training teaches the technique for effective vision behavior. However, it does not train up the mental muscle for actually processing visual information. Sports can deliver overwhelming payloads of information through an athlete’s peripheral field of vision. The good news is that the brain’s visual capacities can be trained to improve the amount of information which can be processed. The goal is to increase the brain’s bandwidth for vision so that more information in a sports scene can be perceived and understood at any given moment.
In the case of NeuroTracker’s 3D multiple object tracking, a visual pivot is used to help athletes spread their visual attention to track many things happening at the same time – without moving their eyes. This, with progressive overloading the brain’s visual capacities, quickly builds up the mental skills needed for situational awareness.
Taking it to the Field
To use baseball as an example, here are some of the ways neurovision training could help players on the field.
Pitch Recognition – Batters have about 250 milliseconds to identify the type of pitch being thrown, predict its path into the strike zone and direct the bat to that location. The more efficient batters are in processing this rapid stream of visual information, the more quality at- bats they will have. Multiple object tracking and perceptual-cognitive training could increase baseball players’ ability to identify key visual cues in the pitcher’s wind up and release. This could permit them to accurately predict where and when the pitch will cross the plate and determine whether to swing or not.
Effective Playmaking – Once the ball is in play runners and fielders have to rapidly assess the situation, anticipate what’s next, evaluate their options and execute, often in a split second. When the game is tight the pressure on these athletes can be enormous. Multiple object tracking and perceptual-cognitive training could enhance athletic performance by improving cognitive function, which in turn is a crucial element in making rapid decisions under pressure.
Mental Endurance – Baseball interposes long periods of inactivity with brief episodes of intense action. But the periods of inactivity are only physical. Mentally, the players on the field and at the plate must remain cognitively sharp and in the moment. Multiple object tracking and perceptual-cognitive training could increase cognitive stamina, much like strength and conditioning training increases physical stamina. Multiple object tracking and perceptual-cognitive training could also help improve attention and focus, so players can maintain situational awareness and retain their competitive edge throughout the entire game.
Beyond Elite Athletes
As most athletes know, good situational awareness is critical for making game-winning decisions under pressure. With the example of NeuroTracker, the training gains continue to grow over time, with some NeuroTracker veterans boosting their visual processing capacities by over 400%, after completing hundreds of training sessions. This combination of efficient visual strategy and boosted visual capacities, any athlete has the potential to acquire a sixth sense level of situational awareness like top pros have.
Though most pro sports teams engage in some form of vision training, practitioners don’t just cater to elite athletes. Dr. Shidlofsky highlighted how training can benefit performance at all levels:
“Every athlete can benefit from enhanced visual processing and attention. In our traditional practice we’re taking people with below-normal neuro-visual skills to normal level, but with athletes, we’re actually taking those with normal skills to elite level vision skills, and then on to next-level performance for superior awareness and reaction times.”
The applications aren’t limited to just performance enhancement either, in fact, neurovision therapy is becoming a primary modality for rehabilitation and brain injury therapy. Vision-based assessments also show promise as a method for predicting injury risks.
The bottom-line is that pretty much anyone can benefit from neurovision training. In fact it’s now used by F1 drivers, but of course any driver could make use of better situational awareness to keep them safe on the road. In this sense professional sports is paving the way for everyone to have the opportunities to improve their performance using the latest technologies.
Want to learn more about vision? Then check out some of our related blogs here.
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