LOOKS GOOD FOR HOCKEY: a new visual training program improves game skills in elite players

Sherylle Calder, Acuvue Sports Vision Centre, Sports Science Institute of South Africa, Cape Town, South Africa. scalder=AT=sports.uct.ac.za

Sportscience News May-June 1997

Four weeks of normal training in elite hockey players produced improvement in three of 22 skill tests. A standard visual-skills program on top of normal training improved performance of nine of the 22 tests, and when visual "awareness" coaching was also added, performance improved in 16 tests.

The author using her hockey and visual skills
In team sports, vision is the undisputed king among the special senses. "Good eyes" are important for motor skills like catching a ball or contacting a ball with a bat, but they also contribute to the rapid succession of decisions that comprise tactical elements like player movement and shot selection in everything from table-tennis to soccer.

Revien (1981) claimed that the visual functioning of the average person is far from the achievable optimum. In plain language, our visual systems aren't fit. But visual abilities can be trained, and visual-skills training is now recommended for the correction of certain visual disturbances (Stein et al., 1982).

Are these findings relevant to athletes? Highly skilled players already have better visual abilities than non-athletes (Winograd, 1942; Graybiel et al., 1955; Christenson & Winkelstein, 1988), so maybe their eyes, like their bodies, can't get much fitter. But the results of several recent studies show that visual training can improve sport performance (Kluka et al., 1996; Worrel, 1996). In fact, it's probably only a question of how best to adapt visual training to the sport setting.

As part of my PhD work, I have compared two visual training programs for their effects on performance in hockey. The first was a generic visual skills-training program, and the other combined this program with a sport-specific visual awareness coaching program. I'll describe these two programs, then tell you how they worked.

The Visual Training Programs
The first was a standard visual-skills program, in which the athletes performed eye exercises designed to improve visual accommodation, acuity, convergence, depth perception, peripheral vision, span of recognition, and speed of recognition. The visual skills sessions lasted about 10 minutes, five days a week.

The second was a sport-specific visual-awareness program focusing on the biomechanics of sport skills, body position, correct use of the eyes and visual system, and ball-placement skills. It consisted of guided activities with the hockey stick and ball that were designed to maximize the players' use of their visual system. For example, players were taught how to use their dominant eye to improve their skill performance. In some instances, body positions were altered and in other instances, new performance techniques were developed. Hitting technique was improved by altering the position of the head in relation to the dominant eye and the ball. The visual awareness sessions took p one hour, three times a week.

The Study
Twenty-nine elite female field hockey players from the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa took part in the study during part of the outdoor season. I randomized them to three groups . The first group trained normally, the second did the visual-skills training as well, while the third group received the visual-awareness program on top of the visual skills and normal training.

I tested the athletes on their performance of 22 field-hockey skills before and after the four-week training period. The tests were designed to simulate the ball-receiving and ball-passing angles and movement directions in competitive field hockey. They included ball and stick skills like penalty corner shots and receiving a ball from behind while on the run and immediately delivering a shot on goal to a specific target area. Each player completed five trials of each skill. Scoring was based on a combination of both ball placement accuracy and speed of movement.

Did It Work?
Here's what happened after 4 weeks of training. The control group improved in only three of the 22 tests, despite considerable motivation to beat their teammates! The group doing visual skills alone improved on 9 of the tests, but the group doing visual skills and visual awareness improved on 16 of the 22 skills tests. I can't discount a placebo effect, but I doubt whether it could account for all the differences I have observed.

These results appear to be clear cut and exciting. At the elite level, improvements in performance with any type of training are few and far between. It looks like combining a general eye-function program with coaching sport-specific visual awareness is a winning combination... unless, you're on the other team!

Burroughs, W.A.(1984). Visual simulation training of baseball batters. International Journal of Sports Psychology 15, 117-126.

Christenson, G.N., & Winkelstein, A.M. (1988). Visual skills of athletes versus non-athletes: development of a sports vision testing battery. Journal of the American Optometric Association, 59, 666-675.

Graybiel, A., Jokl, E., & Trapp, C. (1955). Russian studies of vision in relation to physical activity and sports. Research Quarterly, 26, 480-485.

Kluka, D.A., Love, P.A., Hammack, G., & Wesson, M.D. (1996). The effect of a visual skills training program on selected female intercollegiate volleyball athletes. International Journal of Sports Vision, 3, 1.

Revien, L., & Gabor, M. (1981). Sports Vision. New York: Workman Publishing.

Stine, C.D., Arterburn, M.R,. & Stern, N.S. (1982). Vision and sports: a review of the literature. Journal of the American Optometric Association, 53, 627-623.

Winograd, S. (1942). The relationship of timing and vision to baseball performance. Research Quarterly, 13, 481-493.

Worrell, B.E. (1996). The impact of specialized sports vision testing and therapy on baseball batting averages. International Journal of Sports Vision, 3,1.

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