Soften the eyes and extend the gaze

Elite athletes will tell you how important it is to have ‘good body language’ during competition.

Under stress, the energetic system of the athlete tends to tighten and rigidify. In extreme cases of stress, the athlete can get immobilised and stuck at critical points during the competitive contest. This hinders the spontaneous movements that are required to execute complex physical actions. In such cases, there is greater possibility that the visual system misjudges the movement and distance of the ball and/or the movements of an opponent.

When dealing with stress during competition it is important that the athlete learns to (a) soften the eyes and (b) extend the gaze.

In stillness: Two klipspringers extending their gaze
In stillness: Two klipspringers extending their gaze

Many years ago, I did a night walking exercise with my friend, Dr Ken West (who specializes in sports vision). Before the walk, I learned that there were two types of photoreceptors in the retina, (a) cones, that were condensed in the centre of the retina, and (b) rods that covered the rest of the retina. The cones were responsible for color and daylight vision and provided us with our sharpest vision, or highest acuity of vision. The rods did not detect light as sharply as the cones did, but were more sensitive to low light levels than the cones were. Finally, there were many more rods than there were cones in the retina.

From a sporting perspective, the cones are used to focus eyesight in a concentrated way (watching the ball), while the rods are used for peripheral vision (broader awareness of the surroundings). Of interest, I established that the reaction time for spontaneous action of motocross racers at the start line was significantly quicker if peripheral vision was used (as opposed to focused vision on the start gate). The fundamental reason for this difference in reaction time is that the cones are linked to conscious thinking, while the rods are associated with the unconscious (which bypasses logical thinking).

During the night walk, we had to utilise our rods (peripheral vision) to navigate our way. The purpose of the night walk was to activate the unconscious and stimulate creative thinking (via the use of peripheral vision). While asleep that night, I had such vivid dreams, that to this day, I can still remember them. My friend, Ken, also reported having vivid, unusual and intense dreams.

Precision in action: A green backed heron striking a fish
Precision in action: A green backed heron striking a fish

During stress, intense focused vision tends to gets over-activated, which in turn, tightens the visual system. To soften the eyes, the athlete needs to go into peripheral vision at times when there is no activity or concentration required. In cricket, for example, the batsman can go into peripheral vision between the balls that are bowled. This helps the eyes to relax and also stops the mind from thinking too much or too logically.

The eyes can help improve the body language of an athlete. When dealing with failure, an athlete’s body tends to cave in, with the head and shoulders dropping (indicating heaviness). As this unfolds, the vision is directed down, almost in shame. This sinking sensation in the body can be countered if you look up or extend the gaze. By looking up, I don’t mean staring up into the heavens, but rather lifting the gaze. As you do so, the eyes lift the body as well as the spirit.

An elite athlete needs a visual system that is alert and relaxed in order to perform optimally. Softening the eyes by activating the peripheral vision and extending the gaze into the distance will help the athlete to achieve this.

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