Improved Performance Through Better Vision

The AchieveVision Program challenges some Olympic athletes to see their best before they head for Beijing


Improved Performance Through Better Vision

The AchieveVision Program challenges some Olympic athletes to see their best before they head for Beijing.

By Jennifer Stewart, OD

Dr. Stewart founded the Performance Vision Club at New England College of Optometry. She is currently in private practice in New Paltz, NY. Contact her at (845) 255-6780 or For more information about the AchieveVision Program, visit

When Johnson & Johnson became a Worldwide Partner of the International Olympic Committee, the company started looking for ways to make an impact through its sponsorship beyond just running ads featuring athletes. The Vision Care Institute, LLC (TVCI), a Johnson & Johnson company, convened a council of sports vision experts, eyecare practitioners, trainers and others to explore how we could best work with the Olympic athletes. As a relatively new optometrist and former college athlete, I was proud to serve as a member of this council.

We helped develop the AchieveVision Program, a customized, state-of-the-art visual skills assessment and improvement program designed to maximize each individual's vision for his or her specific sport and lifestyle. Through this program, some of the latest and best sports vision testing and training equipment available was housed at TVCI facilities around the world.

To date, more than 175 U.S. Olympic athletes and hopefuls who compete in softball, volleyball, soccer, archery, speed skating, fencing, boxing and track-and-field have completed the assessments. About 10-to-15 percent of the assessments have resulted in prescription updates or visual skills training for the athletes, which means that on a small team of 20 people, two or three competitors may be seeing better than before.

Olympic Gold Medalist Tairia Flowers from USA Softball works with Dr. David Kirschen on the Smart System II 20/20 — Professional Sports Vision Testing System from M&S Technologies as part of The AchieveVision Program, a visual skills assessment for elite athletes training for the Olympics.

Assessing Athletes

In late 2007, I helped with assessments of the U.S. track-and-field athletes. The assessment is certainly not your typical eye exam. In addition to visual acuity, we tested visual skills such as eye-hand and eye-foot reaction, contrast sensitivity and distance depth perception, among others.

On a personal level, it was absolutely amazing to work with men and women who are icons in their field — some of whom were an inspiration to me in my own collegiate track-and-field years. One thing you notice right away is just how fast these athletes are. I enjoyed watching the 100-meter sprinters go through eye-foot reaction time testing, which is a good indicator of how fast they are able to leave the starting block during a race. With hurdlers, it was easy to tell which leg they lead with over the hurdles because it was always faster than their other leg.

As the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games approach, athletes in every sport are spending nearly all of their waking hours training for the big day, but many either don't have access to or don't avail themselves of routine vision care. A survey conducted by the United States Olympic Committee found that less than half of the current Olympic athletes and hopefuls received an eye exam within the past year.

USA Softball player Tairia Flowers admits that she'd never undergone a complete eye exam before her AchieveVision assessment. Through the program, Flowers discovered that the vision in her right eye was a little weaker than in her left, hindering her depth perception at bat. She now wears a low-prescription daily disposable lens in the right eye.

"I noticed the difference in my vision right away, especially at night when there is glare from the lights," she says. "Wearing the contact lens helps me pick up on whether it's a fast ball or a changeup, so I don't swing too early or too late."

Flowers has an impressive resume: Two-time all-American at UCLA; two-time world champion, gold medalist at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games and at the 2003 and 2007 Pan-American Games. "But I think if I'd had my eyes checked earlier, it might have made me an even better player," she says.

Making the Connection

Just how strong is the connection between eyesight and on-field performance? Flowers said she noticed that the best hitters on her team also scored highest on the vision testing. Research has also shown a strong correlation between peak performance and excellent visual skills.

One heptathlete, for example, is hoping that the vision training she started after our assessment can help her shave 0.01 seconds off her time for each hurdle. That might sound like a tiny amount, but at this level of competition it can mean the difference between making the team or not, or between earning a silver or a gold medal.

But it can be difficult to directly measure the impact of a visual change on sports success. "There are so many factors that influence performance," acknowledges Graham Erickson, OD, chair-elect of the American Optometric Association's sports vision section. "We can only isolate critical visual performance factors and attempt to correlate our results to the athletes' subjective impressions," he says.

Fortunately, elite athletes are very perceptive and analytical about everything that contributes to their performance, so we're learning a lot from them about the visual demands of their sports and the results of various interventions we've recommended.

Soccer player Heather O'Reilly won a gold medal at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games and hopes to lead her team to another one in Beijing. "When I first started wearing contact lenses, I was shocked at the difference in what I could see," she says. "With proper vision correction, I've noticed a change in my game. I can actually see the spin of the ball, which helps me anticipate where it's heading and makes my shots and passes more precise," O'Reilly says.

According to Donald Teig, OD, a mentor of mine and the senior consultant to the AchieveVision Program, we can't assume that every great athlete already has great vision. "Many succeed in spite of a visual deficiency — and they may not even be aware of it," he says. For some, like Heather O'Reilly and Tairia Flowers, that deficiency can be corrected with a new prescription that provides better visual detail. Others might need a special tint for their lenses, or training to work on alignment and timing.

Tips to Take Home to Your Practice
■ Engage your patients in conversations about their occupation, hobbies and sports.

■ As you interview patients about their visual demands, watch for opportunities to provide better patient service by improving their visual performance.

■ Recommend protective eyewear for sports.

■ Recommend UV-blocking contact lenses for outdoor enthusiasts and young people.

■ Consider contact lenses for children as young as 8 years who are active in sports.

■ Consider daily disposable modalities for wearers exposed to wind, dust and other environmental challenges.

Olympic Gold Medalist Jennie Finch from USA Softball works with Dr. David Kirschen on the Bassin Anticipation Timer as part of The AchieveVision Program.

"We want to make sure that an athlete's vision is not in any way limiting their on-field performance," says Daniel M. Laby, MD, assistant clinical professor of ophthalmology at Harvard University and another AchieveVision council member.

"The ultimate goal is to provide athletes with the visual abilities they need to perform at their personal best and at the level of others on their team," he says. In some sports, that might mean an athlete needs to have better than 20/20 vision to be at the same level as teammates and competitors.

Dr. Teig agrees. "No matter how good an athlete is, there is always the potential to enhance their visual-motor performance," he says. The AchieveVision Program has a device that teaches users, through repetition, how to better anticipate the movement of an object and to react to it more precisely. "This device can mimic a baseball coming towards you or a shot going away from you toward a target," Dr. Teig explains.

Of course, not every Olympic athlete has access to state-of-the-art assessments and interventions in their home countries. As part of the athlete polyclinic, Johnson & Johnson Vision Care is establishing an eye clinic on site in Beijing and is partnering with a local hospital to deliver free vision care and eye exams to athletes from around the world. For many of the athletes, the polyclinic represents an opportunity to receive healthcare services they would never get otherwise.

Beyond Beijing

It's wonderful to have an opportunity to help Olympic hopefuls and athletes see gold at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. But as a young practitioner, one of my interests is in bringing the lessons learned from this program home to my own practice.

I would like to use some of the testing and training equipment more broadly. I know I would personally have liked to have had this kind of assessment available to me as a college athlete, and I think kids from youth sports right up to the professional leagues can benefit from maximizing their visual potential. With well-rounded training — including vision training — today's middle school athlete just might be tomorrow's Olympian.

Moreover, I know the benefits of "performance vision" extend well beyond sports performance. Many of the same eye movements used in sports are also used in reading. Research has demonstrated that children who have vision problems generally perform below their capability in school and during extracurricular activities. It's just common sense that a child who is fully corrected and whose eyes are able to track along the page and work well together is going to do better in school.

A member of the Men's USA Volleyball team works on the Sports Vision Trainer as part of The AchieveVision Program.

At the end of the day, what is needed even more than sophisticated equipment is simply a shift in attitude. A performance evaluation is all about maximizing vision for a patient's lifestyle, vocation and avocations. It's about giving patients what they need to perform the way they want. That is something we can take into every patient encounter. CLS

For references, please visit and click on document #152.