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Seeing your way to success: do elite sportspeople have exceptional vision?

Published: Thu 9 Oct 2014

Andy Murray and Ian Bell may make it look easy, but only a very few players reach their level on the tennis court or cricket field. Now new research is looking at what role vision plays in the success of elite players to find out whether they excel in their sport partly because their vision (compared to the rest of us) is exceptional.

The study – led by the University of Bradford and funded by the Biotechnology Biological Sciences Research Council – will compare elite players from fast-moving ball sports such as cricket, tennis, table-tennis, hockey and squash with non-players or players at a lower level. The aim is to identify whether there is something exceptional in the speed and accuracy with which elite players process and respond to visual cues.

Lead researcher Professor Brendan Barrett, from Bradford’s School of Optometry and Vision Science, explains: “We’re not assessing eyesight as it would be tested during a standard eye exam. What we’re looking at is how well the brain extracts relevant information from what a player sees, and in particular how this is done at speed, such as when the ball is travelling towards the player at close to 100 miles an hour.”

The research team has already carried out a pilot study with 30 First Class level cricket players and 30 non-cricketers who were matched with the players in terms of age and gender. Initial findings indicate that the cricketers respond faster to some visual cues, so the team now want to validate these results through a larger scale study, involving more detailed experiments with 100 participants and covering other sports.

“The pilot involved screen-based tests, where participants saw moving objects for just a few seconds, and had to pick up information on motion and direction based on that,” says Professor Barrett. “In the main study which we’re just beginning, we’re also going to look at the way visual cues impact on participants’ ability to catch a ball, using motion capture technology.”

The test will launch balls towards participants, who will wear infra-red motion capture sensors on one hand and goggles that restrict how much they see of the ball’s trajectory. This will enable the researchers to determine the minimum amount of visual information a player needs to get their hand in the right place to catch the ball.

The team – from the University of Bradford, the University of St Andrews and Liverpool John Moores University – is now starting to recruit elite players for the study. The England and Wales Cricket Board, one of the project partners, will help in the recruitment of cricket players, but the team also aim to bring on board elite tennis, hockey, squash and table-tennis players. Non-players and lower level players will then be chosen to match the elite players, to ensure that other factors such as age and gender don’t affect the results. The researchers also need to ensure that players and non-players are matched in relation to computer games, as Professor Barrett explains.

“There’s some evidence to show that visual skills honed through computer games can relate to visual skills on the sport field, so we want to eliminate this as a factor too,” he says. “We’ll be asking the elite players what kind of computer games they play and how often, so we can ensure the gaming activity of our non-players is at the same level.”

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