Today’s Post is part 1 of a 3 part series as we tackle vision training. In this first installment, I’m going to try to explain the importance and reasoning for vision training as well as some affects that it can have on just about any task. Make sure you check back later to see the second installment that will deal with more specific scenarios for sports and the third one that will give you some drill and programming scenarios that you can use yourself. Enjoy!
For every action, there is an equal or opposite reaction. In the world of sports, this stays true between competitors. The accuracy and level of this reaction is determined by the perception, strategy and physical ability of the athlete. There are thousands upon thousands of articles written about the later two, but very few on the topic of perception and its role in the way we move and perform.
First, let’s define perception and it’s affect on the way we move. Your perceptions consist of the sensory input that your brain collects from your internal and external senses. Essentially, every movement that you have ever performed has been based off of these perceptions. Your brain collects all the different factors of your environmentthrough your sight, hearing, taste, feel, proprioception, smell, vestibular feedback(think balance) and relates them to past experiences. Based on the combination of past experience, current conditions and the task at hand, a movement is chosen and performed. An example of this would be running on wet grass. You seldom consciously think, “I better brace my movements so I don’t frickin’ eat it when I change direction.” You naturally change the length of your stride and adjust the angles appropriately. This is because your brain processed the sensory information: the feel of dampness, the sight of the glistening grass, the proprioceptive feedback of where your legs moving, the vestibular feedback of your body leaning, and the sound of feet skidding on the grass, then reflected on a past experience (probably of biting it on wet grass). It then pieced together a motor program in the cerebellum to be carried out by the body and caused you to run more carefully on the grass.
The outcome of this motor program will be more or less, “recorded” for future reference when you need to complete a similar task. Whether the task is successfully completed or not and how it made you feel, determines if the program will be closely replicated next time.
All of this is relevant to keep in mind when it comes to any type of training, but it encapsulates the whole premise of perceptual training. Perceptual training consists of helping the athlete to identify key elements in their environment to cue them on how to react with the appropriate movement.
Now you can get pretty deep in sport-specific factors that may be important in perception, but for the purpose of this installment, we are only going to look into the visual elements of general sport. For starters, a few key visual factors that will influence all sports are eye dominance, spotting and the vestibular system.
Eye dominance plays a key role in how your brain handles site. Just as you have a hand that you prefer to use, you also have an eye that prefer to see from and they may not be the same side. Because both eyes send slightly different portraits of the world, the brain chooses one that is trusts more. In this eye, images may appear clearer, more stable, larger and it has even been suggested to have perceptual processing priority. Some have even hypothesized that it can actually inhibit the sensory information from the non-dominant eye.
There are several types of dominance and honestly, it can all get pretty thick, but the key point to hold onto is that the information gathered through the dominant eye is going to be more credible, processed more quickly and may potentially affect the action taken as compared to if processed primarily through the non-dominant eye. Now there are studies that look into if cross-dominant individuals(right-handed and left-eyed) have an advantages in side-stanced skills like batting due to the closer position of the dominant eye, but they have found no relationship. This is because the stimulus is still well within the focal system of vision, just as it would be with a non-cross-dominant individual.
Now here’s where the shizz-nit gets cool for coaches. Though the athlete may not have an advantage to the dominant side of focal vision, they should theoretically have an advantage in that side’s peripheral vision. This is because the peripheral vision is dependent on the ipsilateral eye, as noted on the above diagram. If we know that one side’s ambient/peripheral vision will have a decreased response time, we can play it to our advantage This could be a game changer in where we position certain athletes.
Another important note to make is that the ambient system is largely controlled by subconscious function. So to take it a step further, you could start performing reaction-type drills within the athlete’s dominant peripheral vision so that the desired response is autonomous(done without thinking). This would help to ensure not only the decreased response time, but more desired responses. This may include drills such as setting a volleyball to a player from their dominant side just within their peripheral vision.
No I do not mean the action of helping your bro with his bench press. The spotting I mean is the action of fixating on a particular point during a rotational movement to help reduce dizziness and keep the athlete oriented. You see this when a dancer spins, they will look to one point and keep their eyes set on that point until they are forced to reset. This serves as more of an internal cuing for the vestibular system, but it can be very important in skill acquisition and perception.
As many coaches can note, vision drives movement and wherever the eyes go, the body will follow. This is why appropriate spotting is key in a variety of movements. If the athlete fixates in the wrong position or the wrong time, they could easily throw off their movement, timing and overall performance. An athlete that seems to be over-spotting could be compensating for a vestibular issue. If that’s the case, no amount of technique work will bring that skill to fruition until their vestibular input is restored.
Just the same, there are several cases where the spotting point should be coached to help drive a skill. Think about the individuals who adjust their vision as soon as they hit a golf ball and how it affects their follow through. Or how some baseball players may prematurely look into the field when they hit and negatively affect their swing. You want them to stay fixated on a spot so that the movement can be completed smoothly without alteration of perception.
As I mentioned when reviewing spotting, the vestibular system is going to play a vital role in an athlete’s perception. The vestibular system is an internal sensory system that controls the sense of movement and balance, soooo it’s kind of a big deal. It’s largely overlooked in many training programs, especially considering it is the system that will influence EVERYTHING we do. In fact, it is so important the first sensory system to fully develop(at 5 months post conception).
The reason I am including this system in an article on visual training is that the vestibular system will rely heavily on sight for reassurance. It’s always trying to find equilibrium to keep you from falling on your face. Whereas most of the informationused for equilibrium comes from balance organs in the inner ear, it’s estimated that 20% comes from your vision. Consider the fact that most people do not regularly challenge the sensory organs in their ears(rolling around, tumbling, etc.) and yet they are almost ALWAYS using their eyes for feedback, you can see how a compensatory relationship can form.
If an athlete does have a dysfunctional vestibular system, you may see several signs: a loss of mobility when the head is no longer neutral, constant spotting, poor overall balance, etc. The easiest way to rule this out as an issue is to have them stand on one leg with their eyes closed. If they truly suck at this, THEN IT NEEDS TO BE ADDRESSED. Motor control cannot be progressed without the athlete first being able to figure out where they are at in space.
** Fun fact: Regularly working the vestibular system through activities that will work the inner ear organs will help to keep an active brain and grow new nerve cells.
Putting it together
With these factors in mind, I coach can easily address vision training on the field or in the weight room. Knowing an athlete’s eye dominance, when they should be spotting and when their vestibular system is the limiting factor are all HUGE factors of performance. Being able to incorporate the appropriate drills and strategies to match these needs can easily take your athletes to the next level. My next installment will include more sport-specific and task-oriented elements that will help you to take your drills a step further and have your athletes a step ahead of the game.