Is your eyesight fit for sport?

The importance of good vision for sport

A woman putting in contact lenses

The Olympic and Paralympic Games are a great showcase for elite sport; athletes hone their skills over many years, trying each day to improve their performance by small degrees. But how many of them really think about vision during that training? The volunteer optometry clinic set up in the athletes' village at London 2012 performed around 2500 eye examinations and dispensed 2000 pairs of glasses. This implies to me that vision is perhaps one of the last things the athletes consider in their preparations. It would also imply that the best sportspeople aren't all born with perfect vision. 

Yet, I can only think of a handful of famous bespectacled sportspeople: Edgar Davids, Dennis Taylor, Eddie the Eagle. Spectacles and sunglasses are great for protecting the eyes from impact, UV radiation and glare but they have their limitations for sport. Even a well-fitted pair can come off with a lot of moving about, they're not great in the rain and if the sport requires you to face side-on eg cricket or golf, the frame can restrict your view. Contact lenses fix a lot of these problems because they move with the rotation of the eye and don't steam up in the rain; some have built-in UV protection.

Track and field takes pride of place at the Olympics and there is often a surge in people taking up sport in an Olympic summer. But, in my town at least, you don't see people popping out to try some hammer throwing, inspired by their evening's telly-watching. It tends to be bowls, tennis, cycling, running, golf. 

It's not until you really get in to a sport that you appreciate the visual task you're required to do and each has its own requirements. One sunny summer's evening, I stopped to watch a match at the bowling green. One team directly faced the low sun. I assumed by the age of the bowlers that there would be a few with cataracts, a clouding of the lens of the eye, which can cause a veil of glare in the sunshine. The subtlety of seeing the path of the previous ball along the grass was described to me by a veteran player. I'd previously only thought about the obvious visual task of seeing a small ball across a lawn. 

I recently fitted a famous footballer's son with contact lenses. At 10 years old, he is now starting to show promise but the club to which he is signed did not allow him to wear his glasses on the pitch. It was only when he told his mother that he needed to put them on to tell which team was his as he got out of the car, that she thought it time to bring him in for contact lenses. His strike rate has improved, I'm told. 

Find out more about looking after your sight.

Ceri Smith-JaynesCeri Smith-Jaynes is OT’s Multimedia Clinical Editor and is an optometrist in independent practice in Lancashire