World Cup 2014 panel

Time to focus – eyes overlooked in World Cup build up

Baseball appears to take eye fitness seriously. Sister72, CC BY-NC-ND

World Cup footballers will now be turning their thoughts towards those last tweaks of preparation. Most of the work will have gone in over the past weeks and months to get players into the best possible shape physically, technically and tactically. England’s inclusion of psychiatrist Steve Peters in their backroom staff also gives hope that psychological preparation is beginning to be taken as seriously as other elements by teams – something that has been lacking in elite football for far too long.

But there is still one area which seems to be glaringly disregarded. I may be biased, as this is my area of expertise, but we seem to be overlooking the eyes. Think about when you are playing any sport: where do you get the information on which to act?

There is a degree of muscular feedback that goes on, usually there are some helpful teammates yelling at you, but the vast majority of information will come through your eyes. In fact it has been estimated that more than 80% of the information used to make decisions comes through our visual system – so what can the England team be doing to ensure their eyes are working to their full potential?

All in the preparation

Well, much like other areas of their physical preparation, most of the hard work should have gone in before now. Each eye is controlled by six muscles which work in the same way as any other skeletal muscle: they can be trained to work faster, for longer periods without fatigue and in better co-ordination with each other.

In footballing terms this means that a player with better vision will be able to take in more information in a shorter period of time (and so have more time to either start their action or make a better decision), will experience less visual fatigue (and their visual system will be less affected by emotions such as stress) and they will be able to predict ball flight and judge distances more effectively.

Eyes on the prize. Mike Egerton/PA

You may assume that by the time a player reaches this elite level of the game they would already have the necessary visual skills, but examples come up all the time which prove this isn’t the case. One instance which led to disastrous consequences and an early exit for England was in the 2002 World Cup. England were lining up to defend a free kick against Brazil. All seemed to be under control, defenders were marking tightly, Seaman in goal appeared to be in a good position. But, as the ball was delivered, Seaman completely misjudged the cross, stepped forwards and the ball soared over him into the back of the net.

The only logical reason for doing this was that he thought the ball was heading in front of him. Now I’m not suggesting that if Seaman hadn’t moved forwards it would have been an easy save – but his chances would have been much better. And if his two eyes had been working in better co-ordination he would have been able to read the ball flight information more accurately and not put himself in the irretrievable position he did.

Considering the conditions

Most visual training programmes implemented on athletes show improvements after around 5-6 weeks. In the short-term, the best way of making a difference to performance would be to consider the conditions in which we will be playing. The hot and humid Manaus is going to cause clear physical problems that will affect eyesight and decision making.

Games played later in the day, under the shelter of the stadium should ensure that the glare from the sun will not be an issue. But the temperature will cause issues to the tear fluid of the eye. I’m not talking about the type of tears shed by Gazza in 1990, but instead what are known as Basal tears which are what keep the eye lubricated. They also provide the film over the eyes which help refract light and keep an image sharp and clear.

These tears are made up of a number of different things but I have found a high percentage of the elite athletes I work with have a deficiency in the lipids, which are the fats that help spread the watery fluid evenly over the eye. This means that when they blink it can seem as though someone is smearing Vaseline on their eye, making the image blurred. In the athletes I work with the problem generally stems from the pores which supply the lipids to the eyes becoming clogged up.

This is something that can occur naturally in some people (just as some people naturally have oily skin and others dry skin), but the environment can make it worse – particularly heat and air conditioning, the two environments our players will likely be alternating between throughout the whole tournament. Focusing on a screen such as a tablet or smart phone for long periods is also an issue.

The good news for players is that this is a condition which can be managed through simple processes such as applying heat masks, massaging the eye lids and wiping away the blockages. The bad news is that many of them may be unaware this is a problem they could face. So if players find themselves blinking lots, rubbing their eyes, and having less clear vision, they may need to swap their iPad for an eyebag in their hotel rooms.