football player catching pass with eyes on the ball

Eyes on the Ball: How Sports Vision Impacts Results on the Football Field

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You’ve seen spectacular plays all season long, and as football season comes to an end, we thought it would be interesting to ask an optometrist—who works with professional athletes—just what it takes visually to excel on the gridiron.

So we enlisted the expertise of Dr. Keith Smithson with the Northern Virginia Doctors of Optometry, who is also the team optometrist for the Washington Redskins, Washington Nationals, Washington Wizards, DC United, Washington Mystics, and Washington Spirit—as well as a visual performance consultant for the Washington Capitals. Apparently, there’s a lot more to catching a deep pass than you might think!

“When a coach instructs a wide receiver to run down the field (to catch a pass), the last thing you do is put up your hands,” Dr. Smithson explained. “Once you put your hands up, you create a barrier to seeing things. What you should do is watch and track the ball, then extend at the last second.”

And that’s just one of the many ways vision plays out in the game. Before professional athletes even step on the field in their first game of the season, eye doctors like Dr. Smithson put them through a myriad of tests to ensure they’re seeing their best.

“We see pro athletes once a year, whether they’ve been in the league for 10 years or are rookies,” Dr. Smithson said. “That’s what is required. We do a team assessment, a team physical—testing they may have not had before, at a much higher level than they’ve had growing up or in college. There are different expectations. It’s a dynamic level of testing.”

The testing includes three phases:

  • Visual input: This focuses on the unique way that players take in, process and respond to visual data and input.
  • A muscular component: This focuses on the physical reactions of the eye muscle, from coordination, depth, and eye-tracking.
  • A neurological phase: This focuses on the decision-making aspect of the sport, such as, “Will my brain get the information quickly enough to tell my body to catch the pass?”

Dr. Smithson said sports vision testing is for performance enhancement and injury prevention. With the intense movements involved in sports (like football), a simple eye exam in a chair isn’t enough.

“It’s not testing where they are sitting in one place and not moving anywhere,” said Dr. Smithson, who is also the current chairman of the American Optometric Association’s Sports & Performance Vision Committee. “Not one sport works that way. We’re talking about an athlete in motion, dealing with a fast-moving and violent world also in motion. It’s all about creating dynamic testing, seeing if the athlete has the visual skills necessary for that sport.”

It’s not always easy getting professional athletes to come forward with an eye issue, though.

“Players don’t usually come with concerns,” he said. “They don’t like to admit weakness. Pro athletes don’t want to have a crack in the armor.”

Many requests instead come from coaches who notice, for instance, that their fastest player is dropping long passes. Instances like this could come down to something as simple as different lighting conditions affecting the player’s vision, such as the ability to catch in day games versus night games, where things are more difficult to see. According to Dr. Smithson, treatment can be as simple as wearing tinted filters or a shield in front of the facemask to limit brightness and glare, or as complex as surgery.

To determine what an athlete needs, Dr. Smithson uses sports vision assessment tools like RightEye, which provide relevant metrics on peripheral awareness, speed of reaction, and more.

“Now we can quantify on-field processing capabilities,” Dr. Smithson said. “We had an athlete with a two-tenths of a second delay (in his reaction time) who said he always felt in college he could get a jump on one side over the other. We identified and put (visual) trainings in place to possibly eliminate that delay so he doesn’t have a deficiency on his weak side.”

The tests are just as much about player safety, though, according to Dr. Smithson.

“It’s about injury prevention,” he said. “We want to avoid the blow as much as possible, creating a glancing blow versus a direct blow.”

Whether it’s for a pro athlete, a kid in youth sports, or an individual going to work every day, Dr. Smithson uses the programs he’s developed to enhance the lives of everyone he works with, from the football field to his doctor’s office.

“This is dynamic-level testing applicable to the entire population,” he said. “We do performance vision testing in my primary care practice. We’re learning things that can be applied to anyone by any doctor, seeing people in the general population, from a 12-year-old in youth sports, to people driving home on an 8-lane highway doing it the best that they can.”

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