Vision skills can lead to sports success, research claims

British Science Festival: Members of public performed like professional athletes in tests

File photograph of hurler Padraig Breheny taking part in DCU tests. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

File photograph of hurler Padraig Breheny taking part in DCU tests. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times


Elite sportsmen and women could be all around us, according to new research presented at the British Science Festival.

“Some people from the general public, even people who don’t play any sport, performed like elite athletes on complex vision and catching tests,” explained Prof Brendan Barrett, professor of visual development at the University of Bradford.

“It’s long been thought that elite athletes must have elite vision, but we didn’t have the technology to study if that was true,” he said.

“If you look at the example of hurlers in the field and the number of visual inputs they have to consider before even moving a muscle - the current position of the ball, its speed and trajectory, the position of their fellow players and the opposition, their own body position, the position of the goal, and that’s all before they even initiate a movement - that all happens in fractions of seconds.”

Researchers tested elite athletes such as rugby players, as well as sporty members of the general public and people who don’t play any sport.

The research subjects took part in a series of 20 tests, including counting flashes of dots and catching balls fired under challenging vision conditions, such as strobe effects.

Motion capture technology similar to animated film techniques was used to record catching movements.

“Better performance on vision tests like counting flashing dots was associated with better catching, even under challenging visual conditions.

“Some elite sportspeople performed poorly, so this is not the be all and the end all of sports performance, but it might be the extra one per cent that could win the game.

“What’s not clear is whether this is an innate talent or something that developed over thousands of hours of practice.

“If people do have this ability from early on in life they may be more likely to be involved in sport because they’re more likely to be good at it and get opportunities to play,” said Prof Barrett.

Peripheral vision

Peripheral vision was one of the areas in which Clive Woodward sought expert training for the England rugby team in the run-up to the 2003 World Cup.

These abilities can be improved with simple vision exercises that can be done on a phone, he explained.

“Fast-moving video games also have a beneficial effect on these abilities, so possibly parents are being given the wrong advice about getting their kids away from screens to practice their sports skills.

“Dynamic vision develops around age nine or 10 so by the time someone is in their early teens, at the age that sports clubs are trying to spot talent and invest in young people, it’s possible that this could become part of screening that would help guide coaches to knowing which position a person will best perform in,” said Prof Barrett.