It’s All in the Eyes: How Eyesight Can Make or Break an Athlete’s Career
Good vision can be much more crucial for an athlete than particularly strong lungs or the ability to run very quickly, according to Daniel Laby, an optometrist focused on eye care for professional athletes
In recent years, every sports field has been meticulously analyzed to figure out which aspects of the game, the match, or the athletes can be improved, and if so, how. Technological advancements now allow researchers to utilize fragments of data in order to create better athletes. This also lets teams assess the strengths and weaknesses of each athlete and pinpoint the ones that have meaningful advantages.
In the 1990s, Labi, together with several colleagues, published a research paper that indicated that baseball players have above-average vision and that the best players are those with the best vision: an advantage that allows them to quickly perceive and analyze the movement of a white ball with a perimeter of 235 millimeters, which is flying at them at incredible speed, and to discern it from all visual background noises on the field.
“What an average person can see from a distance of six meters, a baseball player can see sharply from as far as 12 meters,” Laby said. But visual acuity is just one element in what is known as sports vision, and the field has been seeing major advancements in the past six years, Laby said.
According to Laby, vision is the foundation of sports—the way in which light hits the retina, the way in which it is converted into nerve signals and transferred to relevant areas in the brain, and the speed of the athlete’s perception and analytic ability are vital. A person that sees slowly or not as sharp will likely not be a successful baseball batter, Laby said.
This is not the case just for baseball; almost every sports field, including soccer, tennis, and football, requires the athlete to be able to quickly process visual information about their opponent, the ball, and their surroundings, and predict what is going to happen next.
A player’s prediction ability is what distinguishes between a fine player and an extraordinary one, Laby summarized, emphasizing that a quick analysis of visual input is key to that.
Florida State University professor Gershon Tenenbaum agrees with Laby that the best athletes are those capable of “predicting the future” by analyzing what they see. In his work, he studies the cognitive, emotional, and motor skills of athletes.
“We put tennis players in front of a big screen and track their eyes as they see another player preparing to deliver a serve,” Tenenbaum provided an example for one of his research techniques in a recent interview with Calcalist. Just before the player hits the ball, Tenenbaum blocks the athlete’s vision for 100 milliseconds—or longer in more advanced trials—and the better tennis players always know where the ball went, he explained.
“If they had to rely solely on their reaction time, they would never reach the ball in time,” he said. “It is mathematically impossible to reach a ball moving through the air at 150 km per hour to 200 km per hour if you start moving after it has already been sent flying.” Good athletes, be they tennis players or soccer players, can read their adversaries’ body language and know where to aim for, he added.
Currently, Laby is working with major league baseball teams The Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros, The Cleveland Indians, The Chicago Cubs, and The Tampa Bay Rays. Three of these teams have won four of the six last World Series championships. Since founding his New York-based company Sports Vision in 2017, Laby began working with teams from other fields, including the NFL’s The Philadelphia Eagles, as well as The Philadelphia 76ers and other NBA teams. Laby also helps teams select athletes with top notch vision and further improve it through customized exercise plans.
Laby believes that standard batting practice, using a mechanical pitcher or a regular human pitcher, is ineffective because it fails to train the players’ visual and predictive abilities. Such practice, which does not simulate field conditions, might even damage the mechanics of the player’s vision, Laby added.
For this reason, Laby recommends training batters using professional pitchers from outside their team or virtual reality simulators. “Today, simulators and VR technologies make it possible to integrate a specific pitcher’s throwing style in order to train batters, which is much more effective, vision and response time-wise, than classic batting training,” he said.
Another facet of Laby’s work is identifying the players that have the best eyesight. Laby is first and foremost a doctor, and every project starts with assessing the medical condition of players to determine if any of them require glasses or contact lenses. Laby estimates that between 20% and 30% of athletes need lenses, which could instantly improve their performance. On top of that, 20% of athletes need “software” tweaking, such as better hand-eye coordination, he said.
Different sports require different visual abilities. A competitive marksman does not need very good depth perception, but does require extraordinarily acute vision, Laby said. In boxing, however, depth perception is vital in order to figure out which way the fist is coming from, but having sharp vision is not as important, he added.
“Sports that have small balls moving at great speeds—such as hockey, baseball, and lacrosse—require very sharp vision that lets players see the ball’s curve and predict where it is headed; while sports with a large ball like basketball, soccer, volleyball, and football require excellent peripheral vision and a better ability to recognize and react to other players’ movements,” Laby said.
According to Laby, in team sports different roles require different visual skills. In soccer, for instance, a forward needs better central vision while a midfielder requires better peripheral vision.
An eye exam can help determine which sport and which position is the best fit for a certain athlete, Laby said. “Generally speaking, if a normal person’s vision is defined as level 0, the average soccer player would need a vision level of 1, and the average baseball player would require a vision level of 1.5,” he explained.
Over the years, Laby also found that some degree of visual impairment could become an advantage in certain sports. People with sharp vision who have a problem seeing in 3D, for example, tend to be better marksmen, he said. “A great basketball player can have mediocre acute vision, because there are more important types of vision for this sport,” he explained.
Last month, in an interview with sports website The Athletic, Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry, arguably one of the greatest shooters in the history of the NBA, said he recently began wearing contact lenses after suffering from blurry vision for years. According to Laby, Curry just had a minor “hardware” issue, called Keratoconus, which forced him to squint when shooting, while his “software”—the ability to absorb and process information—was working perfectly and will now likely work even better. It is probable that Curry’s quiet eye abilities are very high, allowing him to focus his vision on items moving quickly, and that he has very good hand-eye coordination, which compensate for his blurry vision, Laby explained.
Laby believes vision can be trained and improved and that more and more gadgets and techniques will be developed to this end with time. But eyes and vision will always remain the most important tools in the athlete’s toolkit, he said.