If you were flying through the air at high speeds, and at great heights, where would you look? How would you prepare – within split seconds – a landing that will not only put points on the board and maybe a medal around your neck — but also will keep you from breaking your neck?
These are questions Olympic athletes face constantly, during the two-week competition in places like Tokyo, and during the years of prep work that got them there. (As we all know, athletes are getting an added year of training due to the rescheduling of the Tokyo games to 2021.) As you can imagine, vision plays a major role in helping athletes pull off their high-flying, high-speed feats, but did you know that small differences in how they use their eyes can make the difference between gold and bronze?
Eye-tracking research in driving and walking has shown that people generally look in the direction that they want to go. In other words, they look ahead instead of looking down at their feet. When athletes like skiers make their way down a curving slope, their line of vision can also influence the path they take to ensure the fastest course.
Sport scientists have begun applying eye-tracking research in a variety of sporting events to measure the eye movements of athletes while they are competing. For example, researchers have fitted Australian ski cross athletes with goggles that include a tiny eye tracker to record a play-by-play of where the competitors look during their runs. Researchers can then measure the amount of time spent looking at different elements of a course and study how athletes use vision to navigate the course and plan their movements accordingly.
In highly competitive sports, like those at the Olympics, the athletes are already in peak physical condition, have access to world-renowned coaches, and are equipped with the best apparel, shoes, swimwear, etc., on the market. They are always looking for the next performance aspect that could set them apart, and eye movements might play a role.
Once critical gaze behaviors that lead to better performance are identified, sports scientists and coaches can create training strategies to help athletes focus on places within the competitive environment that lead to faster race times.
So, when you watch the athletes compete in Tokyo next year, keep in mind that they may not have their eyes focused on the podium after all, but that where they focus could certainly lead them there.