Linking Perception to Action in Sport: Does superior visual perception explain why good players make it look easy?

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bradford
Department Name: Sch of Life Sciences

Abstract

It seems obvious that good vision is a pre-requisite for the exceptional visuomotor skills needed in many sports. For example, to catch a cricket ball requires anticipation of the speed and direction of travel of the ball. But do elite cricketers have superior vision than sub-elites? Does having 'excellent' vision go hand-in-hand with elite sporting ability? And if elites do have superior vision than non-elites, is this the cause or a consequence of their exceptional ability? These are the questions that are of interest to us in this research project.
From a review of 'popular' sports literature, it appears that two beliefs are commonly held, first, that athletes have superior use of their vision than non-athletes and second that vision therapy improves sporting performance. However, neither of these holds up under scientific scrutiny. Previous research has dismissed the influence of visual factors, but we suggest this is because others did not use the right tests: tests that measure visual brain function, not simply eye function. Our research will establish whether elite sporting performance is linked to visual abilities determined by brain functioning in vision-specific brain areas, and, if the two are linked, to examine how they are linked. Previous research in another elite population (pilots) shows that some laboratory measures of vision are linked to flying performance whereas clinical visual measures do not.
We will assess vision and visuo-motor skills in elite- and club-level cricketers and in novices. We have selected cricket because of the complexity of its visual demands. However, our results will generalise to other sports, particularly those with a fast-moving ball (e.g. tennis). We have established links with the England & Wales Cricket Board and with a centre of cricketing excellence and both will provide us with access to elite players for testing.
We will develop and run behavioural tests designed specifically to measure visual brain function. Studies of brain imaging tell us about brain functioning and connections between processing networks, but it is only feasible to study a small number of elite athletes using this approach. Our proposed behavioural studies thus offer a more practical approach to studying visual and fine-motor control abilities in elite athletes.
We will measure visual abilities in situations that mimic the sporting environment; for example, we will test the ability to see and discriminate motion and depth, and test the ability to anticipate the future location of a moving object. We will relate these vision measures to performance on a cricket task (one-handed catching) and to a more general hand-eye co-ordination task (pointing). We have infra-red motion-capture camera systems that allow limb and body movements to be carefully measured and monitored when a real-world task (e.g. catching a ball ejected from a machine) is undertaken. Thus, in addition to measuring visuo-motor task success (e.g. proportion of balls caught) we will establish the movement control parameters for individual sportspeople as they perform these tasks.
To ensure that we fully reveal the extent of the links between visual ability and the fine-motor control required in sport we will examine individual differences in vision between good and poor ball catchers under optimal visual conditions and when vision is degraded (e.g. low light levels) because it is here where the impact of vision-related differences may emerge or be exaggerated.
Although the focus here is to understand the link between visual and motor abilities in high-performance sport our results will hold direct relevance to everyday scenarios where visual perceptual skills limit motor control as we interact with the environment around us. Thus we aim to identify the nature of the relationship between visual and motor capabilities using elite sport as a vehicle for understanding how perception and action are linked in more everyday tasks.

Technical Summary

Our understanding of visual brain processing has made major advances in recent years and yet, we are still a long way from understanding how visual neural processing limits fine-motor control as we interact with the environment around us. Such neural processing limitations will be particularly important where humans operate at the limit of their motor abilities and one such area is in elite sport. Elite versus non-elite differences in anticipatory skills have consistently been reported. However, there are unsubstantiated claims that these differences stem from an underlying superiority in the visual processing capabilities of elites. Past research in sportspeople has relied upon the use of standard clinical measures of vision. We argue that these are not sufficient to test specific neural visual function, and propose tests that will probe visual brain processing in detail, in participants with skills levels ranging from novice to elite. Interestingly, associations between military flying performance and laboratory, but not clinical, tests of vision have previously been reported. Our visual measures will include speed and motion discrimination, and tests of stereovision, and time-to-contact and flow parsing for dynamic targets. We will relate performance on these tests to catching performance for which we will have success measures and kinematic data. We start by examining the link between visual and catching ability under optimal viewing conditions but will repeat both the sensory and visuo-motor testing under conditions of degraded vision if differences in visual ability between good and poor catchers are not apparent with full vision. To assess the generalizability of our findings we will compare visual performance with that of a generic (pointing) task. Our aim is to characterise the nature of the relationship between visual sensory and visuo-motor behaviour using elite sport as a vehicle for the assessment of more general neural perception and action links.

Planned Impact

The most immediate impact of our results/conclusions is likely to be felt in the sport of cricket whose
players will have participated widely in our research, and this impact will be generated irrespective
of the outcome of our experiments. If we do reveal links between measures of vision and visuomotor
performance, the potential impact upon this sport could be that detailed assessments of visual
performance helps to predict those who have elite potential and, following on from this, that vision
training offers a means to further improve performance. The same could potentially apply to many
other sports, in particular, fast-moving/ball-sports where visual demands are, as in cricket, exacting.

If, on the other hand, it transpires we find no evidence that excellent vision contributes to sporting
excellence there will again be an important impact because there are many extant, but currently
unsubstantiated, claims that vision training offers a means for enhancing performance in high-level
sportspeople. Should it emerge that visual and sporting abilities are not linked, these claims would be
seriously challenged and the very basis for vision training in sport would be undermined.

As well as sport-related tasks, our experiments include the generic visuomotor task of pointing. Should
we find links between visual abilities and performance on the pointing task, there is potential for our
research impact to extend well beyond high-level sport. For example, our results could have substantial
impact in more everyday situations, for example in training/selecting individuals who would be suitable
to carry out fine-motor control tasks on a production line, or in scenarios where vision is below normal
or visuomotor control is reduced (e.g. by ageing). For these reasons, our potential stakeholders come
from a wide variety of backgrounds, both within and outside the domain of sport.

As well as presentation to scientific audiences (conference presentations and peer-reviewed
publications), we will disseminate our results to the clinical and sport-science communities, to our
stakeholders (real and potential) and to the general public. To disseminate our findings as widely as
possible, and to engage with actual and potential stakeholders we will:

(i) Present our results at national and international conferences on vision & neuroscience,
optometry/ophthalmology and sport science.
(ii) Publish our results in high-impact, peer-review journals, in particular journals with a multi-
disciplinary readership.
(iii) Post the most salient findings from our research on discussion forums/interest groups
frequented by vision scientists, sports scientists and clinicians.
(iv) Design a stand/display that will be used at public engagement events such as the British Science
Festival and at public events/open days held at our universities.
(v) Invite representatives from all stakeholder groups to the University of Bradford for a workshop
that will run in the final three months of the grant. The purpose will be showcase our results
and to explore potential for application and exploitation of our findings.
(vi) Host a workshop at a national sports science conference in the final year of the project. The aim
will be to ensure maximum exposure of our findings to the sports science community so as
to enhance the likelihood of application and exploitation.
(vii) Disseminate findings to under-graduate and post-graduate students on relevant study
programmes at our institutions so as to ensure that we fulfil our commitment to provide
research-led teaching.
 
Description The following represent out findings to date:
-Correctable visual problems are common in elite sports people. We have gathered data to examine the effect of refractive correction on visuomotor and psychophysical test performance.
-Reaction times are faster in sports-people but this is not linked to better control of their eye positioning.
-The ability to predict when moving targets will contact with stationary or other moving targets is not linked to elite sporting behaviour.
-For our novel prediction motion tasks our results will require explanations that differ from those which successfully account for results in classic prediction motion tasks.
Exploitation Route Too early to say at this point. Vision training is the obvious place where there could be a potential application for this research. In cricketers, our findings that elites athletes commonly have correctable visual loss has already led to recommendations about the value of frequent, routine eye examinations.
Sectors Healthcare,Other

 
Description Examination of visual and visuomotor performance in elite-level athletes: As part of our data gathering exercise, we tested elite level participants from a variety of sources and sports. We tested the highest-level male cricketers from Universities in the north of England and the majority of England women's first team who had prior to their participation with us been involved in their Ashes series with their Australian counterparts. In addition, we tested a large sample of elite-level, professional rugby league players (Huddersfield Giants). In total we gathered data from over 100 participants, including age- and gender-matched control groups against whom our elite-level groups will be compared. Presentation of Results at National & International Conferences: To date we have made 8 presentations of our results. These include presentations at national and international conferences of vision science(European Conference of Visual Perception, Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology and national conferences) and of sports science (British Association of Sports and Exercise Science). Publication of Results in High-Quality, Prominent Peer-Review Journals We have 2 papers for publication in the past year. We expect to make 2 further submissions within the next 12 months. Engagement activities: A wide range of engagement activities has been pursued, including: -Participation in the British Science Festival : We held an event (presentation followed by workshop) at the British Science Festival in September 2015. This event attracted a large volume of media interest (written and audio/radio) [see "engagement activities" section of the ResearchFish submission] -Other presentations: Several other 'engagement' presentations have been made (e.g. to the optical profession, and to the sports science community) and an article about our research aims and project was also published in an optical trade magazine. Presentation of results at Experimental Psychology Society (EPS) workshop held at Liverpool John Moores University in January, 2017. -Links with stakeholders: The PI has several meetings with the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and with other sporting bodies (e.g. Huddersfield Giants) about the project and about initial findings. In addition, the PI has participated in an ECB working group, the result of which was the emergence of the standards for the frequency and content of eye examinations to be conducted in cricketers. Following on from this research project, we have been contacted by other high-profile sports organisations and in some cases we have also worked with them. For example in February, 2017, a team of clinicians from the School of Optometry & Vision Sciences at the University of Bradford went to St George's Park (Head-quarters of the English FA) to examine the eyes of the Premier League's referees and assistant referees. The PI has also worked with (and recently published results from studies on) top-level Portuguese football match officials. As well as providing basic-eye care to top level FA referees and assistant referees, we are in the early stages of designing a study that will examine the prevalence of, and factors that influence, decision-bias by football match officials. Aside from football, we are currently also in discussions with other high-profile sports players (former and current) about attempts to solve vision problems related to their sports. For example, we are in discussions with Olympic Skeet and Trap shooting coaches about the issue of eye dominance, a pervasive problem in any sport when the participant must choose one eye to use when carrying out the sport (and therefore, at the same time, ignore the view from the fellow eye). So far, although our research is generating interest from the elite sporting community, we are not of the opinion that it has yet demonstrated impact. To get 'a foot in the door', we have been willing to engage in service provision (e.g. eye examination for high-level players & officials). Some of these results have just recently been published. On the back of this access, we are setting up further research studies that will enable us to answer research questions that are directly relevant to the sports players and/or officials. When these studies are conducted, and depending upon the results and conclusions they generate, we anticipate that there could be the beginnings of evidence for 'impact'. -BBSRC promotional video. The BBSRC made a video about our project when they visited to coincide with testing of the England Ladies Cricket team in September 2015. -Based upon our findings that basic visual anomalies are common in high-level cricketers, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) set up a working group to agree policy on the frequency of eye examination for players and the investigations and tests that should form part of these examinations. The PI was a leading member of the group that produced this policy.
Sector Healthcare,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism
Impact Types Policy & public services

 
Description Phd Studentship
Amount £51,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Bradford 
Department School of Life Sciences Bradford
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2013 
End 10/2016
 
Description Portuguese Referees Collaboration 
Organisation University of Minho
Country Portugal 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Visited Portugal to run a battery of vision tests on referees and assistant referees in summer 2013 when they gathered for their annual conference. Data collection continues to this day.
Collaborator Contribution Access to the referees via their annual conference.
Impact Presentation of paper at the "First International Conference on the Science and Practice of Sports Refereeing", 22nd-24th June 2014, Clermont-Ferrand, France. The title of the conference presentation title was "Visual Characterization of Elite Football Referees and Assistant Referees" Book of abstracts available at: http://perf.arbitrage.univ-bpclermont.fr/?leng=en Also, a book chapter has been published: Book title: The Science of Officiating in Portugal. Chapter Title: The eye in action: characterization of vision in football referees. 1st paper submitted for peer-reviewed publication in February, 2017.
Start Year 2013
 
Description ViiHM network: Visual image interpretation in humans and machines 
Organisation University of Birmingham
Department School of Psychology Birmingham
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution EPSRC funded network, I am a member.
Collaborator Contribution A network funded by EPSRC -- Schofield at Birmingham is the PI
Impact None yet
Start Year 2014
 
Description Vision in referees and assistant referees: Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) 
Organisation Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Following on from our BBSRC-funded research we were contacted by PGMOL (professional Game Match Officials Limited) whose personnel officiate all Premier League football matches and all matches in the English Football League (EFL). They have asked us to perform a visual task analysis for the roles of refereeing and assistant refereeing. In other words they want us to answer questions about how visual capabilities may place a limit upon the ability to officiate at the highest level by identifying the visual aspects of the tasks of that are most challenging.
Collaborator Contribution They will provide high-level referees and assistant referees for us to conduct focus-groups with. Then, based upon the results of the focus-groups discussions, we will develop a range of appropriate tests to address questions about how visual capabilities may place a limit upon the ability to officiate at the highest level.
Impact This collaboration has just started (February, 2017)
Start Year 2017
 
Description Explorathon 2017: Harris lab exhibit at this European Researchers night event, highlighting research activity on vision. 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Explorathon 2017: Harris lab exhibit 'Vision: more than meets the eye' at this European Researchers night event, highlighting research activity on vision.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.explorathon.co.uk/standrews
 
Description BASES conference (British Association of Sport & Exercise Sciences) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Poster presentation at BASES conference on December 1st, 2015. This was the first presentation to a sport-specific audience. Very good contacts made and debate with other researchers in sport science. Poster was awarded the Cranlea prize for the best poster at the conference.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.bases.org.uk/write/Documents/Programme_and_Abstracts.pdf
 
Description BBSRC video that describes our project 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact During our testing of the England ladies cricket team in Sept. 2015, a media team from BBSRC came to the University of Bradford to make a video about our project. The video is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9gj--73CpIo
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9gj--73CpIo
 
Description British Science Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Brief presentation of the aims of our research followed by workshop/demonstration in which attendees were able to sample some of the ball catching activities that our research study participants undertook (e.g. catching ball when only part of the ball flight was visible).

This event generated significant interest and widespread media coverage including:
http://www.britishscienceassociation.org/blog/could-the-eyes-have-it
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-34204551
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0325fhk [BBC Radio 4 programme Science in Action]
http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/scienceshow/visual-processing-may-offer-the-edge-for-elite-sportspeople/7134140 [Australian radio and written coverage]
http://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/vision-skills-can-lead-to-sports-success-research-claims-1.2345877
http://www.irishexaminer.com/examviral/science-world/are-elite-athletes-super-human-352925.html
http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20150910/health-fitness/elite-athletes-ball-tracking-skills-focus-of-new-test.583900
http://www.isharescience.net/blog-adirondack/2015/9/10/british-science-festival-day-three
http://home.bt.com/news/science-news/elite-athletes-ball-tracking-skills-focus-of-new-test-11364002797330
http://www.thetelegraphandargus.co.uk/news/9933738.Bradford_scientists_are_ready_to_study_to_see_if_sports_stars_have_exceptional_vision/
http://www.bradford.ac.uk/business/news/vision-skills.php
http://bsf15bradford.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/day-3-record-number-of-lectures.html
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://bsf15bradford.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/day-3-record-number-of-lectures.html
 
Description Cafe Scientifique (Pendle) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 30 people attended a lecture entitled "Do Elite Athletes have Elite Vision?". The talk was sponsored by Fight for Sight. Half of the time was taken up answering questions and there were several email exchanges in the days/weeks following the presentation.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.cafescientifique.org/index.php?option=com_contentbuilder&title=uk-pendle&controller=detai...
 
Description Explorathon 2016: Harris lab exhibit at this European Researchers night event, highlighting research activity on vision. 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Part of a European Researchers Night event, showing academic research taking place at the University of St. Andrews
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Optical Conference (London) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation and Q&A session about role of vision in elite sport and the extent to which vision can be trained.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://www.aop.org.uk/ot/science-and-vision/research/2016/02/25/boosting-elite-athletes-vision-at-1...
 
Description Presentations to Prominent Sports Governing Body [Loughborough] 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact On three occasions the PI has presented project objectives and initial findings to prominent members of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), the premier body in the UK repsonsible for organising and regulating the sport of cricket.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Royal Society of Medicine Event (London) title "A question of Sport" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Talk and debate about the possible relevance of vision training for sport. Multi-disciplinary event that featured presentations by researchers, clinicians and sports experts (players and coaches).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL https://www.rsm.ac.uk/events/events-listing/2014-2015/sections/ophthalmology-section/opf04-a-questio...
 
Description Vision and Sport article for Optometrists trade magazine 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A description of the issues involved in studying the question of whether vision contributes to eliteness in sport
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL https://issuu.com/optometrytoday/docs/lo_res_issue_130615