VISUAL SKILL AND POLE VAULTING

By BRIAN RISK, NATIONAL POLE VAULT CHAIR FOR CANADA

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(This is a very slightly edited version of an article published in the Winter 2000 edition of Track Coach. Serious vaulters and coaches should read "Heat It Up!: Achieving Full Potential in the Pole Vault" by Risk. Ordering information and other good PV info is available at:

http://www-chi.nearnorth.edu.on.ca/polevault/index.html

(that is correct, there is a dash after www)

I recall talking to an Olympian following the Games in Atlanta. She had competed in her second Olympic Games, performed a new personal best but, was quite distraught. Her performance had been superb. But, she was a mere twelve-hundredths of a second from gold and four-hundredths from bronze. She was fourth and would receive no financial reward from the business world. Fourth place finishers simply do not attract the necessary corporate support to train, live and survive on the world scene. She would retire and not attempt a third Olympic Games due to financial hardship.

The difference in performance between first and fourth is often minuscule. In fact, at world levels, the top ten performers are notably similar. It is the slightest of edges that make the difference on race day.

Researchers have tested athletes and determined quite conclusively, that the elite are often very alike in physical preparation. Their talents in strength, speed and stamina are virtually identical with most employing mental preparation experts to ensure they will access full potential on the big day.

Gymboss Timers

However, one common link amongst the super-elite is the speed of their vision. The medallists in the high-speed sports which demand superior skills in balance, precision and perception have exceptional visual prowess.

These visual skills are frequently the difference between the gold medal and fourth. These visual skills allow precise information processing at a very high speed. This is sports vision.

Sports vision is an area of study that combines science, motor learning, biomechanics, sport psychology and neuroanatomy. This article will review sports vision practice and its application to pole vaulting. It will, serve to identify the sports vision needs involved in vaulting, thus enabling the vision care professional, coach and athlete to approach this aspect of training with more precision.

INTEGRATION OF SYSTEMS

Vision is the first step of information processing and visual skills can be improved with training. The eyes send information to the brain where it is integrated with other data. The other data includes sensory perception, memory and conditioning.

Vision provides 80 to 90 per cent of the vital information and is critical to the response process. If the data is unclear, incomplete or distorted in any manner, the reaction is less than desirable. In track and field it often generates a timing problem. It is especially critical in the timing events in which performers must negotiate barriers or crossbars as in pole vaulting and hurdling.

Coaches, researchers and athletes have known for decades that high performance sport requires the successful consolidation of numerous bodily systems. These systems are trained systematically for specific tasks in order to enhance performance. Visual information is fundamental to spatial orientation, anticipation, reaction time, timing, static and dynamic balance. Athletes who attempt to process information which is fuzzy, incomplete or unbalanced will exhibit delayed response times and or inappropriate kinesthetic reactions.

VISUAL NEEDS OF POLE VAULTING

To the lay person, it is obvious that a pole vaulter would need good eyesight. However, upon analysis of the vaulter's visual demands, the commonly accepted standard of 20/ 20 vision is not enough for elite-level performance. The necessary visual components for a pole vaulter include:

If any one piece of information is inaccurate, incomplete or slow in processing, the result is a poorly timed vault. At the elite level, vaulters have minimal room for error. They frequently have all the tools to jump on a large pole but lack consistency to jump with confidence. Consistent, accurate and fast visual skills will allow the athlete to process information faster and more completely. These fast visual skills will give the vaulter more time to respond and perform correctly.

TRACKING AND FUSION

Throughout sport performance, the athlete must track objects visually. The central nervous system uses many different processes which allow the eyes to observe objects of various detail and at different rates of speed.

Casual observation or scanning allows the eyes to continuously move through the visual field. The visual field is all that we see.

In casual observation we see everything, but nothing in fine detail. When something is selected for detail, both eyes track the object. The visual information is sent to the brain as a three-dimensional image. Each eye will send data and the brain must process the input to develop one image.

This integration process to produces one image is known as fusion. As a result, eye teaming or the coordination of both eyes is a critical skill.

As both eyes track an object, the shift from seeing everything to something specific is called fixation. The fixation range is about three degrees of the visual field. The objects in this field are the only ones seen in fine detail. Other objects exist but are out of focus in the peripheral field.

This three-degree range can be illustrated as you read this page. It equates to about one line of information. You can see all the lines but only one in focus.

The pole vaulter focuses on the box through the runup, but peripheral vision must pick up mid-marks and pole tip position. The mid-mark provides a cue for approach dynamics while the pole tip position is important for plant and takeoff timing.

Frequently these are subconscious images as vaulters judge plant timing based on their distance from the box. When the pole tip is too high or too low, however, the vaulter must compensate. Strong peripheral vision will complement the proprioceptors and allow mid-course corrections to salvage the vault.

The central nervous system allows the eyes to track movement of objects with various processes and methodology. Saccadic (jerky) eye movements are used for rapid scanning. This would be a quick visual scan of a room for an article such as a briefcase.

Vestibular-ocular movements coordinate the eyes with the head and assist in balance. This occurs as a coach observes an athlete perform a task. Vergence eye movements allow the eyes to focus on objects at various distances.

Smooth pursuit eye movements are the continuous tracking of slow moving objects. Smooth pursuit tracking can occur until the object reaches a visual angular velocity of 40 to 70 degrees per second.

In order to observe a vault performance using smooth pursuit mechanics, the coach must be at least ten meters away. Otherwise, the jumper is only scanned and not seen. Vaulters frequently run at about eight meters per second and swing with an angular velocity of 130 to 170 degrees per second. This is why more visual information can be determined from a greater distance away.

The runup employs saccadic eye movements to track the position of the box. Although the box is stationary, the vaulter's body will rise and fall throughout the approach. If head movement is excessive, caused by poor run mechanics or inappropriate pole carry, the visual system goes into saccadic suppression. This shuts off the detailed focus during movement. Refocus occurs on the next fixation. This explains why athletes sometimes do not recall what they saw during a skill execution.

In vaulting, the vestibular-ocular visual skill which coordinates eye and head movements is crucial. The vaulter visually locks onto the box during the runup and plant phases and then upon lift-off, the eyes and head must reposition to visually fixate on the crossbar. Superior visual skills allow for faster and more accurate depth perception and body awareness adjustments.

Blinking produces saccadic suppression which lasts about one-tenth of a second. On average, people blink about 25 times per minute. This number increases with tension and stress. During elite high-level competition tension is high, increasing the saccadic suppression. As a result, skills of relaxation are valuable to maintain optimal visual skills.

VISION TESTING AND TRAINING

Vision training through concentration can improve the coordination of the eyes and improve vision almost immediately. The eyes are like gun barrels or camera lenses. They both focus on the target.

Each eye provides a three-dimensional image with data arriving at the brain at a speed of one million pieces per second. If the visual pictures are different, the processing of data will be slow.

This in turn reduces reaction time and will produce an inappropriate physical response. For elite athletes, this can be the difference between first and fourth place.

The lens of the eye is suspended by a series of ligaments and a ring of ciliary muscles. These are controlled by the autonomic nervous system. When the muscles contract, the ligaments move and the lens bulges. This occurs as one focuses on something close and then something far. This changes the focal length. Constant adjustment allows the eye to shift focus from object to object.

The most common visual test uses the Snellen Eye Chart. It measures the ability to see letters and numbers of various sizes in high-contrast conditions. Pole vaulters, however, do not perform in an environment of ideal lighting, static positions and high-contrast visual stimuli. The Snellen Eye Chart test measures static visual acuity and does not reflect the extreme visual skills of the event.

Modern science has developed a battery of tests to measure a wide range of visual skills. Vision care professionals in conjunction with coaches can now determine the visual demands of sport and then based on a needs/ability assessment, the athlete can be conditioned to improve his/her visual skills.

Eleven tests have been developed by leading optometrists. Based on the results of these tests and the needs of sport, a vision program can be developed. The following is a summary of the tests and their relationship to pole vaulting.

VISION TESTS FOR ATHLETES

I . Static Visual Acuity. This is the standard test using the Snellen Eye Chart. It measures the ability to see clearly while standing still. This exam is similar to pre-school and driver's license testing programs. Skills in static visual acuity are useful to vaulters when inspecting vaulting poles for nicks and damage, seeing the time clock, reading labels on poles and observing check marks.

2. Dynamic Visual Acuity. Good static visual acuity does not mean good dynamic visual acuity. Dynamic visual acuity is the ability to see detail while in motion. Trained baseball players can see the rotation of the stitching on a 90-mile-per-hour fastball.

These skills improve naturally through ages 6 to 20. Children develop this skill through play. Catching skills are poor at young ages and improve with quality rehearsal using larger, slow-moving objects. This allows visual tracking while moving. In most sports usually the target or the athlete is moving and sometimes both. An ability to see moving targets aids in performance. Vaulters will benefit from superior dynamic visual acuity to allow them to visually lock onto the box during the runup and then visually shift to the crossbar upon ground release.

3. Fixation Disparity. This test measures the ability of both eyes to see the same thing. The stability, accuracy and consistency of eye teaming is critical for performance. It is this stereoscopic vision which allows the performer to judge depth. It is important that both eyes register the same information regarding the distance from the box because vaulters must carefully negotiate a 5.Om pole into the plant box for a safe and effective takeoff.

4. Speed of Stereopsis. This is a measurement of the speed of depth perception. Vaulters must judge depth accurately at maximum speeds. If the information is slow or incomplete, the performer will exhibit problems in timing. The result can include late plants and incomplete rock-backs.

5. Ocular Preference. This test determines which of the eyes is the dominant eye. It is useful in ascertaining which eye performs a few milliseconds faster than the other. The information is vital in shooting sports but not in the pole vault.

6. Accommodation/Vergence Facility. This test measures the ability to make quick and accurate visual adjustments of distance and direction. Weak skills in this area would be reflected by inconsistencies in timing. Vaulters would plant early, late or inconsistently. This can be a factor when dealing with head or tail winds as they can have an impact on runway velocity.

7. Refractive Condition. This is also known as Objective Refraction. It determines near/farsightedness and astigmatism. Nearsighted people must sit close to the television while farsighted are the reverse.

Astigmatism is blurred vision at all distances due to an irregularly shaped cornea. Often headaches afflict those with astigmatism. Vaulters would be challenged by the fuzzy images or images coming into or going out of focus.

8. Contrast Sensitivity. This test measures the ability to recognize subtle differences in color contrast. It will affect the vaulter's ability to see the box should its color be similar to the runway or mats. Additionally, crossbars set against the sky will be seen more readily allowing better timing of the rock-back and extension.

Various environmental conditions influence the level of contrast, including rain, sleet, haze, air pollution, indoor ceilings, darkness, stadium lights, television lights, glare, bright sun and overcast conditions.

The function of contrast sensitivity decreases with velocity. Therefore high speed approaches require higher level skills. Some conditions can improve with the use of sunglasses. Special tints are available to accommodate sunny, cloudy and hazy conditions.

9. Eye-Hand Coordination Response Speeds. This test measures the ability of how well the eyes and hands work together and the speed and accuracy of visually guided hands. This ability will influence the timing and placement of the hands in the planting process. Failure to use the hands correctly results in sub-par performance,

IO. Eye-Hand/Foot Reaction/Response Speeds. This test measures the visual reaction time of the hand and feet to visual cues. In the vault this is not critical because movements are not responses; they are timed and sequential.

I I. Peripheral Awareness Time. This test will measure visual awareness and response time to peripheral stimulus. This can be a factor in seeing the check marks and the position of the pole tip. Often this information along with other sensory functions contributes to the final timing of the plant. However, speed of response is not a critical issue.

FIELD DETECTION OF VISUAL PROBLEMS

The only true test of visual skill is a doctor's examination. However, coaches can detect visual problems in the field. Athletes will exhibit various signals of difficulty including squinting, use of their finger to help reading, spilling things, poor timing, headaches and burning eye sensations. Vision testing is recommended as part of the annual physical checkup.

CONCLUSION

These eleven tests will provide data for the eye care professional. Based on the results, a training program can be implemented to improve visual prowess. The vision therapy is specific visual tasks to improve muscle and visual skill. The more valuable skills for the pole vaulter include:

Frequently, many of the visual therapy routines can be done at home and need only a short time commitment on a regular basis.

Much success has been documented in cases involving F18 fighter jet pilots, Formula One drivers, alpine skiers, NFL wide receivers, National Hockey League goaltenders and major league baseball players. The vaulters who maximize their visual potential will improve their precision and consistency.

Visual Needs Assessment for the Pole Vaulter

Test

Rating

Test Description

Static Visual Acuity

6

Standard Visual Test

Dynamic Visual Acuity

10

Visual skills in motion

Fixation Disparity

10

Teamwork of the eyes

Speed of Stereopsis

10

Speed of depth perception

Ocular Preference

5

Dominant eye

Accommodation/vergence

7

Speed of visual adjustment

Refractive Condition

5

Near/farsightedness, astigmatism

Contrast Sensitivity

8

Recognizing subtle difference in color

Eye/Hand Coordination

7

Eye/hand movements

Eye/Hand Response Time

5

Eye/hand speed

Peripheral Vision

6

Seeing the entire visual field

The rating systems assumes that 5 is good eyesight for an average person. The numbers represent the relative importance for the pole vaulter. The highest value is 10.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT

Special thanks to Dr. John Peroff, Chairman of the Sports Vision Section of the Canadian Association of Optometrists and Sports Vision Consultant.

link to a paper on sports vision improvement drills

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