What is Sports and Performance Vision?

A Q&A with Dr. Daniel Laby, director of the Sports and Performance Vision Center

Can you explain what sports vision is and how you became involved with it?

I became interested in sports vision over 20 years ago while at UCLA. The LA Dodgers came to UCLA with interest in learning what made a professional baseball player different visually. I began working with the Dodgers in 1992 and as they say, the rest is history!

Over the years we have worked with many teams, in a wide variety of sports. In baseball we have worked with American as well as National League teams, and currently work with five different major league teams. Although baseball represented our initial work in the field of sports vision, we have also evaluated and cared for other teams, including a NHL team, a NBA team as well as several Division I NCAA College teams. Additionally, we were honored to work with several parts of the US Olympic team prior to the Beijing games. In fact, we were able to join the team in Beijing and observe the effect of our care as well as the team’s success in the games.

In the past, sports vision has suffered from a lack of scientific objectivity. Far too often, doctors were pushing exercises and treatments that they felt would help an athlete do better without any objective scientific basis. Having been scientifically trained, I apply basic scientific principles to my work in sports vision. Like any heath care specialty, sports vision needs to be evidence-based and recommendations from doctors need to be based on solid, peer-reviewed science. Over the past several years, we have seen a large increase in the number of high-quality scientific studies and this has helped to push forward the best practices for our athletes. Also, several sports vision centers have opened at major academic institutions across the country, including the Sports and Performance Vision center here at SUNY.

Which sports tend to see the biggest benefit from sports vision training?

One of the main ideas behind sports and performance vision is the need to first consider what each individuals hopes to achieve and then work toward helping him or her achieve that goal. Clearly, vision is critical for hitting a baseball, for example, but vision is also critical for many other tasks and vocations, such as driving at dusk on a foggy evening or flying an airplane. I view sports and performance vision as a mind set – a way to approach our patients to insure they have optimal vision for whatever vocation or recreational activity they wish to take part in.

In looking at athletics, different sports have different visual requirements – in fact, we published a paper several years ago detailing the different visual functions required for different Olympic-level sports. In that paper we found that although archers need to have excellent visual acuity (or sharpness of vision), they don’t need to be concerned with depth perception. Softball players, on the other hand, had very good visual acuity as well as depth perception. Meanwhile, boxers and track and field athletes did not require the same level of visual acuity in order to succeed. In other sports, such as basketball, players need to have good visual acuity as well as a well-honed ability to detect and react to events in their peripheral vision. Every sport requires a different package of visual needs and once these needs are identified we can help athletes meet those needs.

What are some of the techniques involved?

I like to consider the vision of athletes as a pyramid. As is true in any pyramid, the height of the pyramid and its stability is directly related to the base of the pyramid. If we consider the apex of the pyramid to be ideal athletic performance, the portion from the ground up represent different visual functions. The basic visual functions—visual acuity and contrast sensitivity—are represented at the bottom of the pyramid. The next level up on the pyramid is examining how both eyes work together as represented by stereo depth perception. The next level then represents the brain’s use of the visual information and its integration into the decision making process in sports. The next level then represents the use of the visual information to integrate with the extremities (the arms and legs). If each level of the pyramid is optimized and corrected for the needs of a specific sport, then we will achieve maximal on-field performance.

Generally we direct any interventions and treatments in order to improve each level of the pyramid from the ground up. Sometimes athletes try to improve the upper levels of the pyramid before evaluating the lower levels but we find there are no shortcuts. In order to improve the ability of athletes, one needs to work from the bottom up to maximize each level and build the strongest pyramid possible. Think of it this way: it doesn’t make sense to buy a toddler a $200 pair of cleats when they don’t even know how to walk yet. Likewise, it doesn’t make sense to train eye-hand coordination of a baseball or softball player before making sure that he or she can see the ball properly. We work in a systematic fashion from the bottom of the pyramid to the top, optimizing each step fully before progressing to the next higher step. This approach has proven to be the most efficient and beneficial to the athletes we care for.

Is sports vision training only for elite athletes or are there potential benefits for others and for non-athletes?

Sports vision training and evaluation is valuable for athletes of all ages in all sports. You could be a young child just starting or an accomplished professional, without a pair of eyes and a visual system working at its best, on-field performance will suffer.

But the name of our center – The Sports and Performance Vision Center – says it all. Each one of us needs to perform in some way on a daily basis. Whether we’re talking about success on the athletic field or in life, we all depend on our vision to guide us through each day and help us be successful. Thus, everyone, athlete or not, should have optimal visual function. Police officers, members of the military and any number of other professionals could benefit greatly from optimal vision. Using the same paradigm as for athletes – we approach each patient individually and make sure they have what they need for the tasks that they perform. This may include different corrections for different activities – each designed to maximize vision for a particular portion of one’s day. We already take advantage of bifocals in order to see clearly at near, as well as at distance with the same glasses. Although very basic bifocals are a first step in this process, other interventions may include certain tints to increase contrast of the visual scene or to enhance ocular comfort during the task. Additionally, work can be done to enhance processing of visual information as well as hand-eye coordination and reaction times – all designed to optimize a person’s experience either on or off the field.