by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
In a continued effort to present and briefly explain areas of sport science that are relevant to rugby, in this column offering, we explore sports vision. Sports vision is an area of sport performance study that encompasses vision science, biomechanics, neuroanatomy, motor learning, sports psychology and the role these elements play in visual performance. In 2003, Clive Woodward’s Rugby World Cup winning England team was at the forefront of sports vision training in rugby. It can be argued that the vision training performed by the English played a role in deciding the outcome of the RWC in Sydney that year.
Vision may be the most varied and selective off all the senses. Our eyes are under strenuous workloads during a rugby match, attempting to take in information for the brain to integrate and interpret as a three-dimensional phenomenon. In the science of vision, fusion occurs when both eyes are synchronized in creating these three dimensional images. This process takes a conscious effort, otherwise our eyes will continue to move throughout our visual field. This is likely where the generalized coaching cue of “focus” was intended to articulate. When something gets our visual attention, we focus both eyes on the object, a momentary pause referred to as fixation. Today, sports vision research might rather have coaches say “fixation”, not ”focus” to more accurately convey the desired coaching instruction.
One of the most important areas of sport vision for rugby players is termed visual search. Visual search is the act of an athlete fixating the eyes, so information can be gathered. I can remember having a conversation with fellow Harlequin teammates French flyhalf Thierry La Croix and New Zealand legend Zinzan Brooke on this subject in the late ‘90’s. During our conversation, Zinny and Thierry were both in agreement that the best players continually performed visual search and thus were able to “slow the game down” by allowing themselves more time to make a good decisions during a match.
The location, order, and duration of these fixations reflected the decision-making strategies used by these world-class players to extract information in the moment. This allowed for better positioning and anticipation of what might likely happen next during the course of play.
When things happen very quickly our eyes must go through repositioning called saccades. This repositioning allows the eyes to cope with high velocity events without missing any action. Because rugby is a dynamic sport, at times our eyes will experience what is referred to at saccadic suppression, which is necessary to prevent a blur of vision as the eyes move across the visual field. In a sense, the eyes are “turned off” between fixations. This temporary occurrence is similar to blinking of the eyes, when eyes are closed for one tenth of a second. It is worth noting that more anxious an athlete is, the more likely they are to blink in competitive situations. It is no wonder then that in big matches players occasionally knock on a ball that they otherwise might not because of this eye function.
Vision training activities are easily incorporated into skill acquisition periods during rugby training sessions. The key is to understand the basics of sports vision and how it can be improved through training. Encouraging players to begin to scan their visual field early, by location, with a descending order of importance will allow them to be better decision makers.
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand (Bay of Plenty), the U.S. (The Old Blues), England (London Harlequins), and Wales (Pontypridd) for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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