In sports competitions, the outcome of an entire game may be determined by a single play that is won or lost.  Often plays are made by just a half or single step rather than by an athlete winning the ball by a matter of yards.  The athlete who sees first reacts first.   The athlete who reacts first begins to move first.  The athlete who moves most efficiently and with the highest levels of power, wins.

Efficiency = Effortless Power

While combat is neither sport nor defined by rules, combat athletes have common ground with their sports brethren.  Combat athletes who move the best, and see and react the quickest, have a distinct advantage during combat operations.  Identifying threats more quickly when clearing a room, picking up movement (of potential threats) in peripheral vision, and moving quickly under load for unknown distances (and having reserve capacity to move again at a moment’s notice) are expected of good combat athletes. At a base level, the combat athlete with the best functioning brain – WINS.

WE HAVE A BRAIN SO WE CAN MOVE

Why do we even have a brain? Most people presume it’s to “perceive the world or to think,” but neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert says that assumption is completely wrongThe actual purpose of our brain is to produce adaptable and complex movements. Movement is the way we affect our environment and the world in which we live. Nearly everything we do in life is a contraction of muscles: speech, gestures, walking, laughing, smiling, and athletic movements. For tactical athletes, movement means the accomplishment of mission and survival.

SENSATION CREATES MOVEMENT

Our brain needs to receive quality sensory information to create efficient and powerful movement.  When it comes to sensory information – the Visual system is KING.  An estimated eighty percent of overall sensory input comes from VISION. The remaining sensation originates from the vestibular system (balance and head movements), and the sensors found in joints, muscles, soft tissue, skin, and organs which provide proprioception.

FASTER REACTION TIMES RESULTS FROM ALL SENSORY INPUTS SAYING THE SAME THING

The better all inputs match, the faster a motor decision is made. Optimal performance happens when all sensory inputs are in agreement with each other.  The greater the mismatch, the more time it takes to react as the nervous system has to choose which sensory input to trust.

MOVEMENT IS THE OUTPUT

The brain creates the best movement plan available based on the information it is receiving from the senses.  As movement occurs, the muscles and joints involved in the movement create new sensory information in the process of moving, which is then sent back to the brain, thus completing the “loop” so the nervous system can fine-tune the movement.

IF WE WANT TO MOVE BETTER, WE NEED TO DEVELOP BETTER VISUAL INPUT

“We see with our brains, not with our eyes.”
― Norman Doidge, author of The Brain That Changes Itself

As vision provides 80% of all neural input, it makes sense to focus our efforts on TRAINING and IMPROVING our visual performance.

EYESIGHT is like seeing 20/20 during an eye exam and is simply the hardware.  The eyes send the visual image to the brain so it can interpret the meaning.

Eyesight = Hardware

(structural components of the eyes)

Vision = Software

(processing in the brain)

In the words of Dr. Donald Getz, a world renown optometrist, VISION is the ability to “take incoming visual information, process that information and obtain meaning from it.”

marksmanship principles
image courtesy: flickr.com

IS IT POSSIBLE TO IMPROVE VISION?

Simply stated – YES.

Current scientific literature provides ample support that training visual skill leads to improved performance in various aspects of sports, ultimately leading to the top level of competitive performance – desired by most athletes.

As vision resides 100% in the brain, the question we should be asking is:

“How can we change or improve the function of the brain?”

NEUROPLASTICITY – HOW THE BRAIN CHANGES ITSELF

Neuroplasticity refers to the method by which the brain changes itself.  Some neuroscientists consider it an evolutionary adaptation that enables the nervous system to adapt to environmental pressures, training, and physiologic changes, as well as life experiences.

According to Norman Doidge, author of “The Brain That Changes Itself”, Mark Rosenzweig, was “one of the first scientists to demonstrate neuroplasticity by showing that activity could produce physical changes to the [anatomical] structure of the brain.”

It is profound to think that virtually any stimulus you provide your brain – whether it be from movements in your workout, playing chess, reading, thinking or playing a sport all have the capacity to change the physical structure of the brain so that you perform future instances of the activity more efficiently.

By directly guiding the type of stimulus, the frequency, and duration, you can actively guide the changes your brain undergoes to become more efficient at the desired task.  At a high level, this explains why physical training and practice is so important and necessary for becoming a top level tactical athlete.  At a more granular level, this process of training can be applied to a particular sensory system, such as vision, to create the desired visual skill performance improvements needed to up-level your overall performance as a combat athlete.

USE IT OR LOSE IT

One of the most interesting concepts to come out of neuroplasticity research is the idea of neural pruning or “use it or lose it”.

Neurons that do not get used get pruned from the system and no longer exist.  An example would be injuring your arm as a kid and having to put it in a sling for six weeks.  When you first begin to move it again, it feels very hard to move and tough to coordinate.  The reason it’s so difficult to initiate movement again is many of the neurons responsible for creating the movement were discarded and to an extent, the movement now must be relearned.

In the gym, you use assessments to discover your weaknesses in the areas of movement, range of motion, strength, power, flexibility, endurance, etc.  Then you create a training plan that addresses your weak areas and helps bring them closer to your strengths as you improve and your training progresses.

USE IT OR LOSE IT APPLIES TO YOUR EYES

Your brain controls the movement of your eyes via six “extraocular” eye muscles.

You go to the gym and train your muscles, however, if you are like most, you do not intentionally train your eyes.

It is common for people to develop preferred patterns of movement that develop into muscular imbalances over time.  The same concept holds true for the muscles of the eyes.

They become tight and weak from lack of use or from overworking.

Some people even stop using their eyes to look into specific positions and instead compensate with neck movements, to aim their eyes at a target, instead of making the movement with the eyes itself.

sports vision training for shooting performance

BETTER ATHLETES POSSESS BETTER VISUAL SKILLS

Research out of Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and University of Cincinnati correlate improved sports performance to increased visual skills performance and visual skill training.

They found that in baseball, the athletes with better visual performance have fewer strikeouts, hit the ball harder, have higher batting averages and spend less time in the minor leagues before being brought up to the Majors, as compared to baseball athletes with lower visual performance.

ELITE ATHLETES ARE ADOPTING SPORTS VISION TRAINING

NBA star Stephen Curry’s performance has exploded since implementing sports vision training designed to improve peripheral awareness, hand/eye coordination, reaction time and visual processing speed.  Athletes in order sports such as Formula F1 Racing, NASCAR, World Cup Soccer, NHL and MLB are using sports vision training to improve performance.

In the next article of this series, I’m going to show you how armed forces, including SOF are using sports vision training to improve the performance of their combat athletes.

(featured image courtesy: commons.wikimedia.org)

References:

Khanal, S. (2015). Impact of Visual Skills Training on Sports Performance: Current and Future Perspectives. Advances in Ophthalmology & Visual System, 2(1), 00032.

doi:10.15406/aovs.2015.02.00032

Norman Doidge (2007-01-01T13:00:00+00:00). The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science (Kindle Location 599). Penguin. Kindle Edition.

Pascual-Leone A.; Amedi A.; Fregni F.; Merabet L. B. (2005). “The plastic human brain cortex”. Annual Review of Neuroscience 28: 377–401. doi:10.1146/annurev.neuro.27.070203.144216.

Clark JF, Ellis JK, Bench J, Khoury J, Graman P (2012) High-Performance Vision Training Improves Batting Statistics for University of Cincinnati Baseball Players. PLoS ONE 7(1): e29109. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0029109

Air Force Study Confirms Efficacy of Vision Training | STACK, http://www.stack.com/a/air-force-vision-study (accessed July 05, 2016).

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN VISUAL SKILLS AND VOLLEYBALL PERFORMANCE OF NCAA DIVISION I VOLLEYBALL PLAYERS

Frank Spaniol, David Temple, Liette Ocker, Randy Bonnette, Don Melrose, Israel Monteiro Department of Kinesiology, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, TX

EFFECT OF VISION TRAINING ON BATTING PERFORMANCE AND PITCH RECOGNITION OF DIVISION I BASEBALL PLAYERS

Frank Spaniol, Randy Bonnette, Liette Ocker, Don Melrose, Jeff Paluseo, and David Szymanski Department of Kinesiology, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, TX

The Athlete With the Best Brain Wins | Breaking Muscle, http://breakingmuscle.com/strength-conditioning/the-athlete-with-the-best-brain- (accessed July 05, 2016).

The Eyes Have It: Vision and Movement Neurology | Z-Health .., http://www.zhealth.net/articles/the-eyes-have-it (accessed July 05, 2016).

“For Stephen Curry, Basketball in Hands Is Masterpiece Theater.” SFGate. Accessed July 05, 2016. http://www.sfgate.com/warriors/article/For-Stephen-Curry-basketball-in-hands-is-6037999.php.