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Sporting heroes may not have elite vision

Posted on 24 November 2017

Elite sports players can often appear to have superhuman powers that let them compete at the highest level - but research has shown that when it comes to their eyesight, they may be no different from everyone else.


Eye and vision tests were conducted on cricket players

A new study involving the University of York has found that vision problems, like short and long sightedness, are common among top cricketers and rugby league players. 

More unexpected was that many of the athletes did not attend regular eye examinations and consequently were perhaps not seeing as well as they could while on the playing field. 

The findings suggest that clear, pin-sharp eyesight might not be as important for playing cricket or rugby league at the highest levels, as many might believe. 

Sub-optimal

Dr Jon Flavell, a Postdoctoral Research Associate with York’s Department of Psychology, began working on the study at the University of Bradford before continuing in his current role at York.  

Dr Flavell said: “Vision is key to acquiring accurate real-time information on target positions and helping us judge when someone, or something, will be at a certain place. 

“Despite this, we found that the incidence of vision testing and optimal visual correction in nationally and internationally competing athletes was surprisingly low. Researchers and trainers could now consider whether appropriate correction would improve performance further, and how the brain is compensating where vision is sub-optimal.”  

Cricket

As part of the study, researchers from the Universities of York, Bradford and St Andrews, and Liverpool John Moores University, conducted a series of eye and vision tests on players from the England women’s cricket team, university cricket teams and the Huddersfield Giants rugby league team. 

The study, which is published in the journal Sports Medicine (Open), found that while two thirds of those who took part had undergone an eye examination within the past two years, around one-in-five had not been tested in the past past five years or had never had an eye exam. 

Visual anomaly

A similar proportion of players had a visual anomaly, which mostly consisted of uncorrected or under-corrected problems that are usually easily treatable with a new or updated optical prescription. 

Among the participants who wore glasses or contact lenses in everyday life, a number chose not to wear anything to correct their vision while on the playing field. 

The research was led by professor of visual development, Brendan Barrett, and RCUK Research Fellow, Dr John Buckley, both of the University of Bradford. 

Elite-levels

Professor Barrett said:  “You might expect sports people at the top level to take measures to make sure their vision is perfect, particularly given that in cricket, for example, the ball is small and often traveling very fast. 

“But we found a surprising proportion of people who are playing high-level sport without being optimally corrected or indeed corrected at all. It opens up some interesting questions - would they play even better if their eyesight was fully corrected, or is it the case that acute vision is not actually necessary to play high-level sport?” 

The study forms part of a wider research project, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), which is examining the contribution that vision makes to the potential for reaching elite-levels in sport. 

Dr Flavell said further research is needed to examine whether players might perform better if they took steps to correct their vision problems when on the field. 

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