Imagine stepping into the batter’s box and attempting to hit a baseball coming at you at 90-plus miles per hour. According to the International Sports Vision Association (ISVA), the time it takes for a pitched ball to reach the plate is approximately 0.4 seconds. Baseball batters have about 0.17 seconds to decide to hit a pitch and choose where to swing. In that time, the batter needs to spot the pitch, assess the rotation and direction of the ball, and make a decision whether to swing or not.

Or picture being on the ice as a hockey goaltender and attempting to track the puck from a 90 miles per hour slap shot through a maze of players in front of the goal.

Now imagine attempting these sports scenarios without your vision at its best.

 Alireza Somji, OD.
That’s where sports vision, the science of helping athletes reach peak levels of performance through enhancement of visual skills, is becoming more important in training for all ages and skill levels. Vision, just like speed and strength, is a critical component in how well athletes perform in any sport. According to the ISVA, there is a growing body of evidence that confirms that visual abilities can be strengthened and enhanced by means of appropriate visual training.

Optometrists with expertise in sports vision assessment and training, along with other professionals such as ophthalmologists, athletic trainers and coaches can work together to train athletes of all ages and skill levels to help improve visual function, leading to improved performance.

According to Alireza Somji, OD, president of ISVA, “Optometrists understand the visual system inside out. We understand binocular vision, the oculomotor system (saccades, pursuits, fixations, etc.) and how everything integrates to result in an executed decision from a visual input. It's important that ODs help coaches and athletic trainers understand that vision doesn't only equate to eyesight or 20/20,” he said.

“Athletic trainers are a vital part of the sports vision equation. They coordinate athletes’ schedules and are an OD’s liaison with a team and between players. Depending on the level of the athlete, access to coaches can vary. At lower levels you may have more access, but at higher levels of sports it may not be possible. What's important is that the line of communication is always kept open with athletic trainers to ensure athletes get a visual performance evaluation and then follow up with a sports vision training program.”

Batting is an activity that has rigorous demands for eye-hand coordination, requiring concentration and good visual acuity as well as depth perception.

Eye tracking ability is important in soccer.

One of the key aspects of proper sports vision training is knowing the competitive level of the athlete, according to Somji.

“When designing sports vision training drills for athletes, it's important to think about their level of play. Recreational and amateur athletes seem to gain a lot from foundational drills relatively quickly,” Somji said. “On the other hand, professional athletes need higher level, more intense sports vision training techniques that constantly challenge them on a cognitive level. What is common between them is that most techniques share the same sports vision foundation, and the intensity or 'loading' of drills is what separates professionals from the others.

“We're seeing more parents of younger athletes seeking out sports vision training to get an edge. It makes sense as there's a strong visual and decision making component in sports, highlighted by several high profile athletes.”

According to Somji, building a strong foundation of visual skills is important for all sports, while specific sports require skills that are paramount in their sport.

“I like to think of first building strong core visual skills irrespective of the sport being played. Once an athlete has a strong visual system, you have to take into account specific visual and cognitive skills required in their sport,” Somji said. “For instance, sports require strong dynamic vision, scanning and searching skills while others need more eye-hand or eye-foot coordination.

“With the athletes' sports vision profile and entrance questionnaire in mind, their sports vision training program should incorporate more sport specific techniques. For example, a mountain biker is constantly in motion and has to make decisions rapidly based on what visual information they get from scanning ahead.

Football players often have to react to changing game situations very quickly, such as tracking the ball, and quickly and accurately seeing and anticipating where their teammates and opponents are on the field. Good visual acuity and peripheral vision are critical to assure a competitive advantage.

Basketball is a sport of almost constant motion, for the players and the ball, so well developed dynamic acuity is just as significant as good static acuity.
“A soccer goalkeeper has to scan but requires intense fixation to look for subtle changes in the spin of a ball and also be aware of where they are in order to make a save. Both athletes require scanning to be incorporated into their sports vision training program, but they will have very different types of drills,” Somji said.

Sports nutrition may also play a role in sports vision training, according to Somji, with ISVA offering Sports Nutrition for Your Eyes, an educational resource designed to help educate athletes about how proper nutrition can have preventive and protective benefits for their overall well-being‚ improve vision and eye health, and help enhance their sports performance. Also, on the ISVA website, Introducing Nutritional Supplements into your Sports Vision Practice offers eyecare practitioners advice on introducing dietary supplements into their practice.

One choice that may be difficult for young athletes to make on their own is whether to wear contact lenses or eyeglasses while competing in sports. Another is considering protective sports eyegear.

“Every athlete and their specific sport requirements should be considered when deciding on eyeglasses or contact lenses. In general, contact lenses allow an athlete to enjoy a larger field of view, less potential visual distortions and a more seamless visual experience,” said Somji.

In sports like tennis, having superior visual skills can give players a real advantage. In studies, tennis pros have been shown to perform consistently faster and more accurately than novices at skills like the anticipation of the ball's direction.

How you read a putt, how you align your body, how well you see the target and how you visualize your shot are all influenced by your vision.
“In certain cases such as high refractive error or irregular corneas, specialty contact lenses (hybrids, sclerals, custom soft) can significantly improve visual acuity and improve sports performance. Other treatments such as orthokeratology can also help athletes be free of daytime contacts or eyeglasses. Evaluate the ocular health, sport requirements, environment and time of day the athlete plays before deciding on the best option to improve their visual correction.

“Approximately 30,000 athletes visit an emergency room every year due to a sports related eye injury. Majority of these athletes are under the age of 18, and approximately 90 percent of these injuries are avoidable with the correct sport-specific protective eyewear,” Somji said. “ISVA, along with support from Zyloware Eyewear, launched an educational campaign called Protect. Prevent. Play. to help emphasize the importance of protective eyewear in sports. Based on the statistics, it makes sense to encourage all of our young athletes in high-risk sports to wear protective eyewear.”

Finally, measuring the progress and success of a sports vision training program is something that must begin with where the athlete started, as each individual athlete begins at a different place and has different goals.

“Progress can only be measured if you know where you started. Every athlete you work with should have a sports vision evaluation measuring their strengths and weaknesses with several different metrics,” Somji said.

“Examples include visual acuity, reaction time, target capture, multiple object tracking and many others. Objectively, success can be measured by comparing your pre- and post-evaluation. As there is a subjective component in vision, surveying the athlete, coaches and looking at any performance stats in their respective sports performance can also be used to measure success.

“Like good nutrition, physical training and tactics, sports vision training is not a one and done deal. Constantly training visual and cognitive skills improves athletic performance,” Somji concluded.

  ISVA Launches ‘Ask A Sports Vision Expert’ Online Resource

To help athletes, parents, and others interested in learning how improving visual function and skills may help lead to improved performance in the sport(s) they play, the International Sports Vision Association (ISVA) recently launched “Ask A Sports Vision Expert.” Optometrists, athletic trainers, researchers and others with expertise in sports vision assessment and training will respond to questions related to how the visual system can help athletes gain optimal performance in a variety of sports and leisure activities.

“Every sport requires a set of dynamic visual skills that are critical to achieving peak performance, making an athlete’s eyesight one of the most important pieces of equipment they have,” said ISVA advisory board member Melissa Bussey, OD. “Depending on the sport(s) you play, your reliance on those skills may differ.”

 Melissa Bussey, OD.
Vision care for athletes of all ages and skill levels should begin with the identification of visual factors that potentially contribute to peak performance. “By discovering if any weaknesses lie in these areas, sports vision professionals have an opportunity to help an athlete enhance not only these visual skills, but also the resulting performance,” noted Dr. Bussey.

The “Ask a Sports Vision Expert” feature is provided for educational and informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment, according to the ISVA. All questions are submitted directly through the website and no names or email addresses are required. Experts will not answer all questions submitted but ISVA will post featured questions at least once a week and then archive all Q&A on a dedicated page on the website. To submit a question, meet the experts and access the archives page, visit