Science & Environment

Eye test to spot future sports stars

cricketer taking a catch Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Does visual ability underpin the skills of elite sportspeople?

Top sportspeople often seem to possess visual "superpowers", making near-impossible rapid reactions look easy.

Researchers in Bradford are looking for the link between visual processing and sporting performance.

Their research could lead to a lab-based test that finds hidden talent and the cricket stars of tomorrow.

It could also help elite sports teams to place individuals into their optimum roles within the team, or plan specific vision training to improve performance.

In cricket, fielders in the slips often have less than half a second to respond and catch a ball travelling towards them - all with the added pressure of a match- or series-winning, or losing, moment.

This skill of tracking a trajectory, such as that of an oncoming ball, and coordinating your movement to catch or intercept it, is called "coincidence timing".

It is pivotal in fast, dynamic sports like cricket, football and tennis.

A team at the University of Bradford, led by Dr Brendan Barrett, secured a £500,000 grant from the BBSRC to see if there is any scientific link between vision and coincidence timing.

Image copyright University of Bradford
Image caption The researchers used infrared motion-capture sensors to observe the catching hand and arm

They have put elite cricketers and rugby league players through a battery of dynamic visual tests.

Up next month are the England women's cricket team - likely still raw from relinquishing the Ashes this summer.

Members of the public were also tested and divided into "sporty" and "non-sporty" groups; over 400 participants were tested overall.

Eye on the ball

This is not your average visit to the optician. Tests included repeatedly attempting to count the number of dots on a screen after glimpsing them for just 150 milliseconds (0.15 seconds).

Another involved trying to catch a tennis ball travelling towards you at 35mph, wearing goggles programmed to increasingly restrict your vision, while your movements were tracked by infrared motion-capture technology.

This was a feat at which most of the elite cricketers excelled.

Dr. Barrett commented that a couple of "non-sporty" people had unexpectedly high levels of attainment.

However, no hidden talent was discovered among the assembled journalists today at the British Science Festival in Bradford.

With collaborators from John Moores University, Liverpool and St Andrew's University, as well as links with the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), the team has collected all its data and started the lengthy task of analysing the results, which should be available in the next year.

Image copyright University of Bradford
Image caption Howzat! Special goggles were used to block the participants' vision at different stages of the test

Dr Barrett said: "Our belief is - we have some preliminary evidence - that faster pickup of visual information is extremely important in sports like cricket. Better performance on the counting task and better performance on the catching task, matched with evidence from the kinematics, [would be] strong evidence that the two are linked."

If there are particular aspects of visual processing that improve performance and are specific to the elite players, such super-vision might be a natural or an acquired ability. "We don't know whether this is an innate skill," Dr Barrett explained, "because [they have done] many thousands of hours of practice. Once we find the link then we will be able to explore it."

This research could pave the way for finding hidden talent amongst children and encouraging them to pursue sports in which they are likely to succeed.

It could also help team selectors identify the best position for a player - for example a player with excellent dynamic visual skills may be placed in the slips rather than the deeper field.

Trying to gain that extra 1% or 2% at the top end of elite sport is crucial, and being able to identify which players would benefit most from focussed training could make the difference between winning or losing a match… or the next Ashes series.

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