It is not a surprise that vision is an important aspect of an athlete’s functional ability, but it can also be a reliable source to indicate neurologic abnormalities resulting from traumatic brain injuries or concussions. So superior visual skills not only enhance athletic performance, but they also allow for the prevention and detection of brain injuries. This is the reason why one of the first field tests performed after an athlete experiences a sports-related head injury focuses on detecting visual changes. One of these field tests is the King-Devick test which is a functional assessment taught to optometry students to assess eye movements.
Just think about it: what questions are usually asked immediately after an athlete experiences a significant impact to his/her head and neck area?
Are you having difficulty focusing on near text?
Do you have blurry vision?
Do you have double vision?
Are you experiencing loss of concentration and memory?
When an athlete experiences a concussion, axons are damaged in the brain causing dysfunction in visual processing among many other complications. Vision is way more than visual acuity or recognizing letters on a chart. Vision incorporates skills such as binocularity, reaction time, visual motor integration, contrast sensitivity, depth perception, and peripheral awareness, all of which are essential in any athletic activity.
Sports vision is a program and subset of optometry that is currently implemented professionally and in numerous collegiate athletic programs. As an OS-3, I have had the opportunity to rotate through the sport’s vision program at my university and work with college athletes from varying sports programs as well as high school athletes that wish to prepare for college-level athletic programs. The most advantageous aspect of this program is that it is individualized not only based on the athlete’s sport but also his/her position.
At the start of sports vision training, the athlete will be evaluated and assessed to determine his/her baseline visual skills which are then analyzed and compared to other athletes at his/her specific sporting position and level. This analysis allows the optometrist to detect the patient’s strengths and weaknesses and create a therapy plan to improve skills that will enhance athletic performance and reduce the likelihood of vision-related injuries.
The typical sports vision session will last 30 minutes to an hour and the athletes will simply walk in and work with someone that monitors his/her performance in therapy and on the field. Typically, each session incorporates training equipment as well as simple techniques that can be utilized at home. Some techniques assess and develop one skill while others like the SENAPTEC vision station cover a wide range of skills. At the start of sports vision therapy, it is most important to assess multiple skills in order to obtain a baseline.
SENAPTEC is a vision training software that evaluates, trains, and monitors 10 different visual skills. All of these skills are useful for assessing neurologic function after a head injury to determine if significant damage has occurred post-concussion. This is a more sophisticated alternative to on-field testing in order to assess whether the athlete is ready to safely get back on the field or not.
In addition to the vision trainer, SENAPTEC, the program employs the use of simpler but still very useful equipment. Some of the other equipment used includes Strobe lights, Dynavision, and Makoto Arena.
Dynavision is like some of the activities featured in Senaptec except the doctor can customize the lighting pattern to either target the athlete’s weak spots or areas that are crucial for their sporting position. I have trained a softball player on Dynavision and focused the lighting pattern along the rim of the radial image in order to improve her extension ability and peripheral vision.
Pictured above is the Makoto Arena. When athletes train at this station they focus on utilizing limbs that are predominately used in his/her position and sport in order to develop hand-eye or foot-eye coordination. I have trained a soccer player using the arena and was able to program the computer to mainly display lights at knee and foot level.
If the athlete misses a session or does not have time to physically attend the program, at-home techniques can be used as a supplement. The techniques that can be incorporated into an athlete’s program simply improve basic visual skills. Examples of these techniques are Hart chart for accommodation or tracking a flashlight beam for pursuit development.
All of the techniques mentioned above can be used in different combinations. With close monitoring and evaluation of visual skills, athletes will decrease their likelihood of on-field injuries and improve their athletic abilities.
Talia Tunstill is a Doctor of Optometry candidate at the University of the Incarnate Word Rosenberg School of Optometry. She mentors undergraduate and high school students that are interested in STEM programs. Through her Youtube channel and Instagram, she educates her followers about optometry school and vision health.