There are, according to SGMA’s U.S. Trends in Team Sports research, 26.3 million Americans who play basketball, over 15 million of them casually and an additional 14.6 million who play basefcoball. While the love of sport is its own reward and a good game has the ability to help us de-stress, bond with others and work up a healthy sheen of sweat, we also can’t help but feel the need to improve our own performance. Even if that improvement was just setting up that extra point in the game now and again or hitting the ball when others fail to.

The problem with this is that most of us who play basketball and baseball aren’t professional athletes. We don’t get paid to play and usually have the drains on our time associated with families, career, education and the pressure of making a living. And these become the stumbling blocks to improvement, the obstacles we cannot realistically overcome that stop us from feeling that the sport we love playing is also, somehow frustrating us a little and doesn’t truly help us feel that we are growing inside ourselves.

But what if instead of hours spent shooting hoops or swinging a bat there were some eye exercises we could do on a personal device like a smartphone or a tablet, a few minutes each day and they helped us not just become athletically more gifted but also cognitively faster and maybe, even, smarter? The question is far from academic. There is now a body of research that lends real data to support Pete Rose’s oversimplified explanation of baseball which he summarized as a game where you “See the ball. Hit the ball.” 

Similarly there is a high degree of correlation between great vision and success on the court for professional basketball players. It is no accident that Steph Curry, the best player in the NBA right now, extensively trains his vision as much as his body. So, where does this apply to us, exactly? The ones who haven’t got much time to train at the game we love playing never mind extra time to carry out mental games and visual acuity training exercises?

The good news is that even a few minutes a day spent training our eyesight will help improve our vision. Because the retina is the only part of the body where the brain reaches out from the safe darkness of our skull and directly experiences the external world it is no surprise to learn that changes in our eyesight are accompanied by changes in the neural connections in our brain.

Eyesight is data. Data are signals that are processed by the brain to synthesize a 3D model of the world we live in. The accuracy of that model and the speed at which it can morph inside our heads form part of the process via which we navigate the world and that includes our decision making.

More than first meets the eye

The truth is that vision is a complex process that relies on brain power to adequately sort out what is relevant and what is not from all the data captured which is then used to create a picture. As a result we begin to realize that visual skills are multifaceted and they include:

· Peripheral vision: A heightened awareness of what’s happening around you that helps create more granular pictures of a court or a baseball diamond. This informs the decision-making process that is based on the perception of “what is going on.”

· Eye tracking ability: Players need to be able to see the ball accurately as it travels around the court or the field. The muscles in their eye must make rapid adjustments to track the action and this then informs the predictive mental models inside the brain that anticipate an opponent’s next move.

· Depth perception: Depth perception is calculated by judgements of size and color contrast in the visual field. Contrast enables an accurate assessment of position relative to other players. Passing the ball accurately, for example, requires that calculation of distance between players and throwing a ball depends on being able to calculate the force required based upon an assessment of position.

All of the above are required to happen, in most cases, in the proverbial blink of an eye where complex calculations are made on the fly and decisions based on them are taken and go on to determine the outcome of a game. To accurately do all that the brain has to call upon prior skills and cross-reference information from many different cerebral centers. The initial stimulus to all that brain work is the information it receives the “See the ball” moment that Pete Rose alluded to which triggers the decision-tree that will determine, in baseball, whether a player takes a swing or not.

The Brain ‘Sees’ Before the Eye

Where it gets interesting and the value of doing eye exercises comes into its own is in the neuroscientific analysis of the process of swinging a baseball bat or shooting a hoop. Research carried out using fMRI equipment where subjects were wired up to brain scanning machines while performing specific actions, showed that the centers of the brain responsible for taking action, in each case, light up long before the conscious part of the brain registers what it sees.

The suggestion here is that acuity of vision is an integral part of the brain’s subliminal response network. The better the quality of information reported by the eye, the faster the brain can trigger the appropriate subconscious response. To do that it forms complex neural networks. This is its neuroplasticity response, it essentially restructures itself during the eye-exercise process. The new structures it forms during these exercises are then activated when playing your favorite sport leading to much different outcomes, than before.

It is even more interesting to see that given the exact same game tableau subjects tested which hadn’t undergone eye-training exercises performed slower and much more poorly in their sport. They were in fact performing to the expected average for amateur players who have neither the time nor the discipline to put in regular training. Yet those who had undergone eye-training exercises performed above average in their sport despite the fact that they also were too busy to put in the necessary practice hours.

The picture that’s emerging here is a complex one that closely binds the quality of decision making in a fluid environment (like a basketball court or a baseball diamond) to the complexity and strength of neural networks formed amongst different processing centers in the visual cortex. This doesn’t fix physical defects like short-sightedness (myopia) or long-sightedness (presbyopia) but it improves the brain’s efficiency in handling visual information and that leads to improved eyesight.

While researchers are unsure about how long these changes last, their evidence conclusively shows that seeing, thinking and acting are part of the same decision tree and a few eye exercises is all it takes to exploit the neuroplasticity of the brain and deliver observable improvements in eyesight, physical and mental performance.