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Making it look easy: Do elite athletes have super-normal vision?

17 September 12

People who excel in fast-moving sports are often described as 'making it look easy' or that they appear to have 'all the time in the world'. Researchers at the three UK universities have been awarded a £521k grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to investigate whether elite athletes have exceptional vision compared to the rest of us, and how vision may be a factor in explaining why they excel in their sport.

The research, led by Dr Brendan Barrett from the Bradford School of Optometry & Vision Science and Dr John Buckley (School of Engineering, Design & Technology) at the University of Bradford is a joint study with Liverpool John Moores University, the University of St Andrews and the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and will examine vision in high-level cricketers.

Dr Barrett said: "It seems obvious that good vision is a pre-requisite in many sports, such as a cricketer's need to accurately anticipate the speed and direction of a fast-moving ball.

"But do elite cricketers have superior vision to non-elites or novices? And if elites do have superior vision to non-elites or novices, is this the cause or a consequence of their exceptional sporting performance? These are the questions we'll be aiming to answer".

The researchers will assess vision and visuo-motor skills in elite cricketers and in non-cricketers, in an attempt to discover how the visual processing abilities of top-level players contributes to why they have reached the pinnacle of their sport.

The tests will involve setting up infra-red motion capture systems to measure and monitor how players catch balls fired from a machine and how they perform other high-speed interceptive tasks.

"Cricket is the sport we have chosen because the visual demands in this sport are really high.

Dr Barrett added "this is not about the players eye-sight as it would be assessed during a standard eye exam. It's about how well their brain extracts relevant information from what they see, and in particular how this is done when there is limited time available because the ball is travelling towards them at close to 100 miles an hour.

"It may well be that due to having highly-honed motor skills elite players don't have to think about how to perform the task, e.g. how to hold their hands or where they should be placed to ensure success, and this then means their brain can concentrate more on processing the information they see, which is why they appear to have extra time when performing such tasks."

Dr Barrett pointed out that the results could have major implications for other sports and for more everyday tasks.

"Our results in cricketers could generalise to other sports, particularly those featuring a fast-moving ball such as tennis or squash. But they could also apply to more everyday situations featuring precise, visually-guided, motor control. If excellent vision is a factor in elite sporting behaviour then vision may also limit our performance as we interact with our surroundings in general, for example in the workplace", he added.

17 September 12

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