With the Canada Games running throughout August, all eyes are on the more than 2,000 athletes competing in everything from basketball to archery. Watching the competitions, there’s no doubt it takes years and years of training to achieve the level of skill required to be a competitive athlete, but there’s even more to it than meets the eye.
We spoke with Dr. Sheila LaPlante and Dr. Kevin Loopeker, who both specialize in vision sport testing and training, to learn about what goes into examining the eyes of athletes and training eyesight for optimized performance. Plus, they shared tips on how non-professional athletes can improve their vision for sports using simple eye exercises. (And no, TV marathons are not a sport.)
Eye Exams and Protocols for Athletes
The eye exam for professional athletes may start with a basic eye exam, but where it ends is entirely different. Dr. Sheila LaPlante, who’s particular interest is sport vision training for prevention of concussions, notes that the first step in treating athletes is ensuring perfect vision, and then it shifts to vision training, and as Dr. LaPlante points out, it’s a highly personalized process, “It’s different for every athlete, and different for every sport. Once you see what the challenges are, you can start doing vision therapy.”
Dr. Kevin Loopeker, who specializes in sport vision at a multidisciplinary sports medicine site, added that a regular eye exam is static: you’re sitting in a chair, reading a static chart and being tested for visual clarity. For athletes, they’re testing and optimizing so much more than just eyesight. As Dr. Loopeker explains, an athlete's eye exam encompasses “contrast sensitivity” (which is one’s ability to spot and track objects against all types of backgrounds–if you think of tennis, a huge skill in that sport is contrast sensitivity), coordination of the eyes, depth perception not only at a distance but also at near. We look at the body moving through space, too. So a lot of our tests are done standing up and moving and involving balance and eye hand coordination.”
Dr. LaPlante adds, “Contrast can be really important, and we don’t always test that in a basic eye exam. We always check the speed of recognition for athletes–that’s something we don’t do in a basic eye exam.”
The process of vision testing athletes can take several hours–this isn’t your average eye exam. (But then again, these aren’t average eyes, they’re the difference between silver and gold!) The rigorous testing is vital for understanding the weaknesses of the eyes, which then determines the treatment and training program. “We test to know how to train. During the exam, we take measurements of all their visual skills, and depending on their strengths and weaknesses, we’ll really go and train the weaker results.” Dr. LaPlante explained.
Once vision testing is complete, the training can begin. This can occur on a weekly or bi-weeklybasis, or as frequently as an athlete's schedule allows. Dr. LaPlante urges athletes to begin their vision training six to eight weeks before the sports season begins, and has seen improvements in some of her patients in as little as four weeks.
Dr. Loopeker explained that because every athlete and sport is unique, requiring a different combination of skills, the testing and vision protocol is entirely unique too. This means Dr. Loopeker and Dr. LaPlante are continually bringing creativity to their practices, to find new ways to analyze and train their patients. Sure, an athlete can catch a ball, standing on two feet, but Dr. Loopeker wants to see when the struggle begins. He does this by overloading the athlete’s cognitive and visual motor systems. Only then can they begin to recreate the experience and stress of an actual game or race, and discover where an athlete’s weaknesses lie.
That one or two percent improvement in vision can make all the difference for an athlete. Dr. LaPlante always advises her patients: “If you see better, your global visual performance is stronger, and your information processing will be more accurate, so you can make decisions faster. And we know in high-level sports, milliseconds can change the results.”
Professional Approaches for Non-Athletes
When it comes to treating non-athletes, Dr. LaPlante and Dr. Loopeker apply much of what they’ve learned working with athletes to the exam room. Dr. Loopeker always asks his patients about their hobbies and interests in order to understand a patient’s day-to-day life, and how they’re using sight, in order to tailor his exam and recommendations to suit their needs.
Dr. LaPlante points out that just like with athletes, “there is no cookie cutter answer for everyone,” when it comes to refractive correction. Optometrists will always make personalized recommendations to suit the needs and comfort of their patient. Contact lenses are a good option for vision correction during sports, as they reduce the risk of further injury from glasses, but corrected sport goggles are a great solution for athletes that aren’t able to wear contacts. And if it were up to Dr. Loopeker, more athletes would be wearing safety goggles!
Training for the Average Eye
He encourages patients to follow the 20-20-20 rule when they’re focusing on a task (“every 20 minutes, look up and take a 20 second break, and look at least 20 feet away”). This helps the eyes release and relax. To strengthen eye movement, he recommends picturing a clock, and moving your eyes up to 12, then down to centre, and up to one, then back down to centre, and continuing all the way around the clock.
Enjoy Better Vision
Bottom line, whether you’re an athlete or simply a fan, there is always more you can do to improve your vision, and the first step is the same for everyone. Dr. LaPlante encourages everyone to reach out if they have concerns, “Anybody that wants to improve their vision or feels like they’re lacking something should come in and we’ll help you - we can help you enhance your vision and enjoy sports more.”
Book a comprehensive eye exam at an FYidoctors clinic near you.