Blog: Dynamic Vision: The Forgotten Skill of High Performance

In today’s world of advanced statistical analysis, big data, and Artificial Intelligence (AI), performance optimization has become about identifying an edge and exploiting it for sustained success. Even if it gives us just a marginal 1% advantage over the competition, the potential to reduce an injury or position a particular athlete for success – we are on the eternal hunt for it. We invest thousands of hours into sharpening our evidence-based practice, guide mental and physical preparation prescriptively, and strive to perfect the art of recovery in an effort to ensure “readiness” for that next chance at greatness. Despite these extraordinary commitments of time and resources, it occurs to me that many of us are neglecting one of the foundational elements of elite athletic performance – dynamic vision.

A growing body of evidence all support that improved dynamic vision (aka Sports Vision, Performance Vision, or Visual Skills) both enhances on field performance and decreases risk of injury, but are we even paying attention to it? Are we so caught up with what we observe and measure physiologically, that we are forgetting about the impact our brain – a critical piece of us that we cannot see – has on our performance? Let’s take a moment to explore how dynamic vision, the most underrated of performance characteristics, can help us find that extra 1% – and perhaps even more.

What is Dynamic Vision?

We are all familiar with standard vision assessments performed at the Optometrist’s office, where patients are asked to identify letters of various sizes on a chart, among other tests. This typically quantifies our visual acuity – how well we see letters and objects, and whether or not a correction is necessary to improve our ability to do so. However, this is a static measure (the letters are not moving, and nor are we!) and not a true reflection of how the world functions. The world is a very dynamic environment that we must navigate by honing our attention toward the many visual cues that are constantly occurring around us. As a result, the brain must constantly re-orient itself by accurately identify preferred visual information. This requires the brain to coordinate the activation/suppression of eye movements with the position of the head, in relation to the external environment. By doing so, the brain can synchronize us properly to time and space, allowing us to realize each of the following self to world scenarios:

  1. I am still and so is the environment around me.
  2. I am still but the environment around me is moving.
  3. I am moving but the environment around me is not.
  4. I am moving, and so is the environment around me.

Dynamic Vision and Readiness

Based on our knowledge of these orientation strategies, it makes it conceivable that we should be able to measure individual dynamic visual performance to quantify the quality of these mechanisms, due to the heavy reliance on them in our daily lives, and even more predominately in sport. Through periodic screening we can accomplish this and many other objectives, such as identifying readiness in athletes before a critical match, categorize the effect of environmental adaptation (passive improvement as a result of continuous exposure to visual stimuli), and easily identify those that may require training in order to excel in their environment.

In recent years, much has been written about the emerging evidence visual skills have on the risk of injury in sport, as well as a proactive mechanism for avoiding injuries like concussion. While I believe this is the next frontier to be realized in high performance, we must first establish athlete buy in by conveying the evidence for improving dynamic vision. By isolating and improving the functional brain systems involved in proper execution of the sensorimotor system, we reduce the frequency of common errors – movement of the eyes to the wrong location, fatigue related fixation deterioration over time, and decreased gaze stability during body movement. Each of these can impair our ability to process information, and in turn create delays in the selection of content for the sensorimotor system to interact with and respond to. When we create specific protocols to identify and correct for these errors, the result is an athlete who is ready to perform and can achieve their goals safely with minimal risk.

Dynamic Vision and Performance

Today, it is well understood that improving dynamic vision correlates with improved on field performance and many visual tasks make up common evaluation approaches used in sports like baseball. But what about other sports? It stands to reason that by screening for high performers, much can be learned about the capabilities of the brain to respond to training, thereby optimizing the sensorimotor system interactions with time and space. Through repetitive exposure to the visual tasks any sport demands, dynamic visual training replicates what the brain can expect, and prepares it to execute the sensorimotor system appropriately within the environment.

Common areas of emphasis for training dynamic vision include:

  1. Eye Teaming: How well the eyes work in tandem to accurately select and process visual information.
  2. Ocular-motor: How well the eyes can follow a moving object, or move to fixate from one object to another.
  3. Vestibular: How well the eyes can maintain stable gaze while in motion.
  4. Accommodation/Vergence: How well the eyes can adjust focus and maintain binocular vision when looking at different distances.
  5. Peripheral: How quickly the eyes can identify and respond to visual cues on the edge of the visual field.
  6. Contrast Sensitivity: How well the eyes determine the incremental differences between light and dark shades that appear in the same field of view.

Improving dynamic vision will not only improve visual-perceptual skills and refine the sensorimotor system, it will lead to a more conscious understanding of the world around us, and in turn allow for better decision making, protection from accidents and injury, and provide a deeper appreciation of the brain’s capabilities that makes us who we are. Undoubtedly, this is a worthy investment of time and resources, allowing us to discover more than the 1% we are always in search of.