Saturday, October 27, 2012

Athletic Vision: Your First and Best Defense

It amazes me how many young athletes don’t take care of their eyes. Yearly check-ups are a good start, but if you’ve heard some of the stories I’ve heard about how terrible kids are with taking care of their contact lenses, you’d be astounded. Example: I once had an athlete come in with terribly red eyes, so I advised him to see an optometrist. He informed her that he’d been putting his contacts in the same solution at night for two weeks. That’s like reusing the same bath water for 14 days – except the eyes are worse because they’re more prone to infection.

About a month back I had the pleasure of reading a new book, See to Play: The Eyes of Advanced Athletes by Dr. Michael Peters, discussing the role of the visual system in athletics, as well as some easy at-home assessment and training techniques to assess specific visual qualities. Dr. Peters strongly believe that a lot of players AND students have significant performance limitations based on visual limitations that are simply missed in traditional screening. He also believes that this information provides an alternative explanation to some of the postural, motor, and musculoskeletal issues we see commonly AND heavily influences symptoms and return to play times following a concussion.

Dr. Peters is the team eye doctor of the NHL’s Carolina Panthers and has also worked closely with athletes in all of the major professional sports leagues. Through his own experience, Dr. Peters speculates 4 out of 10 athletes don’t make it to the professional level because of something wrong with their visual system.

The benefits of excellent vision may seem obvious but there are a few details that are not quite so clear.  The eyes are our first line defense from injury.  Our bodies fight and flight mechanism is on high alert and this is the first role of vision.  Many of you may remember Barry Sanders from his playing days with the Detroit Lions.  He was small in stature by professional football standards but it was as if he had eyes on the back and side of his head because he always avoided a catastrophic direct hit.

In his book Dr. Peters discusses the detailed vision zone.  In his opinion the athletes with larger zones see more of the playing area see more of the play developing and can react to where they need to be to make a play or in the case of Barry Sanders where not to be to avoid the big hit. Visual acuity is also very important because this affects reaction time.  Athletes who don’t see clearly do not react as quickly or accurately.

According to Dr. Peters:
Athletes overlook vision.  They think they see “good enough”.  The problem with that thinking is that elite athletes see the best! They’re vision is awesome.  This is because of a physical trait that they were gifted with or they were smart enough to get to the eye doctor early and often.  Maximizing visual acuity insures athletes are allowing their eye hand coordination to develop to its fullest potential. Another limitation I find is that athletes don’t use their complete area of vision.  The detailed vision zone is the most important visual trait for hockey athletes and through vision training, athletes can insure they are maximizing their genetic potential and not allowing this zone to shrink due to disuse. 

What visual system qualities may be overlooked in a typical eye exam?

During routine eye exams, eye doctors test for visual acuity and eye health.  We don’t normally test for an athlete’s detailed vision zone, their speed of focus and perception.  Separate exams, known as sports vision exams, provide this extra testing to help fully evaluate athlete’s visual system.

What role does the visual system play in returning from injuries like concussions?

The eyes take a picture and send it back to the brain to decipher it.  Concussions can affect the part of the brain that is in charge of figuring out the picture the eyes have taken.  Athletes with visual issues in their concussions will complain of blurred vision, dizziness, light sensitivity, decreased concentration, anxiety when walking into a crowd of people and motion sickness when driving or riding in a car. Usually, these visual issues resolve with rest.  For the athletes with lingering symptoms, we use vision training to help speed up recovery.

I often play a game with kids where I have them lie on the bellies and on my command they have to get up as fast as they can and balance on one foot.  To make the game more challenging I will have them start on the ground with their eyes closed, then they get up and attempt to balance on one-foot with their eyes closed the entire time.  When their vision is taken away the body becomes very sensitive to the slightest change in equilibrium because it senses how vulnerable it is without the ability to see. This game is an excellent example of how powerful vision is to body control and spatial awareness, two elements that are crucial during athletic development.

This book is definitely worth checking out as it provides more of the low-lying fruit  (posture, nutrition, sleep) that is so easy to get to with very little physical or monetary investment, yet has powerful implications on sport and academic performance in addition to injury prevention.

While I am on the topic of eyesight a lack of physical activity has been linked to vision loss:

The book See To Play:

Story Update:

Earlier this summer a bill was making in its way through the state legislature that would require youth sports organizations and schools to adopt concussion-awareness guidelines.  Governor Snyder signed the bill this week.  Here are the details:

Head injuries and concussions are a real problem based upon the need for this legislation as well as conversations I have had with a local high school athletic trainer, chiropractor (#1 reason young athletes come to see him, head injuries), and concerned parents.  Awareness and education is key to safeguard your kids.  This book is an excellent resource that can help:

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