The Gold Coast SUNS AFLW team is eyeing off a competitive advantage from a peculiar source ahead of the upcoming 2022 NAB AFLW Season.
The club has engaged a specialist sports optometrist to help players train their eyes in ways to perform better on the field.
Patrick Gerry has worked with professional sporting organisations across the globe, including Cricket Australia and the International Cricket Council (ICC), focussing on eye-training techniques to improve hand-eye coordination and peripheral vision.
“The public perception of vision is it’s either clear or it’s blurred and you need glasses or you don’t,” Gerry told SUNS Media.
“But vision’s more than that, vision’s about how the eyes work together, and if they don't work together we get problems with our binocular vision and our depth perception.
“If your vision is blurred or your depth perception or binocular vision is poor, you have to either compensate or concentrate to manage it.”
Gerry explains that the more you concentrate, the more your peripheral vision is decreased, which can have an impact on professional athletes and their performance.
This has more or less been described as tunnel-vision, for example where players with poor vision are concentrating so hard to keep their vision clear that they are unaware of their teammates or the opposition.
Fixing poor vision is one thing, but it’s another matter entirely to train athletes how to better use their eyes.
Gerry speaks about depth perception and timing, and how the two go hand-in-hand to improve performance.
“Timing is interpreting what we see, we're trying to work out where it is and where that object will be at another point in time, and so our eyes tell us where to go for that,” he explained.
“You need to be able to intercept the ball at the point of contact, so in AFL that point of contact is your eyes need to be where your hands are.
“If your eyes are beyond where your hands are, then you're not going to make good timing and so the ball could hit your hands hard or you could go for a mark early, you just completely mistime it.”
Gerry says something as simple as retraining the way you “watch the ball” can show massive gains in performance.
“In my world, the biggest misguided advice to a young sports person is to watch the ball from where it's coming from,” he said.
“If we challenge them to (look at the point of contact) as a warm-up drill, it just becomes second nature, and so becomes part of something that they'll do in a game.
“It sounds silly saying oh you’re teaching someone where to look, but you'd be surprised how many players’ eyes aren't on the ball.”
One of the tests Gerry implements to demonstrate this is called tennis ball testing, or rapid ball catching.
It involves him throwing four tennis balls in quick succession to a player who has to catch and quickly drop the ball before the next one arrives.
The drill is designed to test, under pressure, how a player is able to keep their eyes at the point of contact, which is where their hands meet the ball.
“There's several players here where their vision is absolutely fine, they don't need any intervention from me, but their eyes are just nowhere near where their hands are,” Gerry explained.
“To me that’s a really important test, because then I can talk to them about what they're doing and how it relates on the football field.
“I do it with cricketers and often very highly skilled cricketers come to me and say they’re not seeing the ball - there’s nothing wrong with their eyes, they’re just in the wrong place.”
So what is all this testing and theory trying to achieve?
It’s simple according to Gerry. The aim is to minimise errors.
“The errors that we're trying to identify through visual or eye-hand errors, the coach can't do anything so they can become a coach killer,” he explained.
“If you get a clean mark that’s dropped uncontested 30 metres from goal, and it's a turnover and goal at the other end, there's a 12-point turnaround.
“So we're really trying to remove the basic errors that we just don't understand that are occurring because they are undetected visual problems that you can’t expect a coach to know.
“If you can minimise errors, you can hopefully take the players to that next level of pressure on the opposition.”
While Gerry’s help has been widely welcomed by the playing group, one of his recommendations for those with visual problems wasn’t met with the same level of eagerness and optimism.
No phones on game day.
For players that have issues with their vision, Gerry says looking at your phone can strain the visual system, resulting in poor performance on the field.
He equates it to the same as running 10km before a game – why fatigue your legs before a match?
The eyes are just as important.