Keep Your Eye On The Ball

Written By: David Burns

eye on ballHow many times have you heard a coach or parent say “just keep your eye on the ball”? Sometimes this seemingly simple task is not so simple for a player. In order to keep your eye on the ball several brain areas need to be functioning or conditioned. These areas may not be functioning at levels that allow a player to maintain gaze fixation and track the ball. Without overt symptoms that would suggest a decreased level of function the player is never assessed and will continue to perform at a lower level than they are capable of.

If the eyes are not following the ball than the eyes must be the problem, right? Wrong. The eyes provide the “window” into the brain areas that actually control the functions necessary to track the ball. In order for a player to track (i.e. smooth pursuit), at least four key areas of brain must come into play. These areas include the cerebellum, occipital temporal, superior parietal and frontal cortex.

You can’t track what you don’t attend to. The frontal cortex is important to maintain gaze. You need to be able to ignore other visual or auditory distractions, in order to not deviate eyes from the intended target. Any attentional deficit disorders (ADHD), or even diminished function of visual attention areas, may cause the player to deviate their gaze. Our motor function is a reflection of our brain function. If our mind can’t stay with a thought (i.e. can’t lock in on a mental task) and is constantly bouncing around this can be reflected in the eyes not being able to “lock in” either.

Inattention, is not just a frontal function. Deficits of the posterior parietal area of brain can cause one to essentially neglect one half of the visual field. This neglect is usually the left visual field of view and is a consequence of deficits within the right posterior parietal lobe. This is not noted as some big black spot in our vision. The person would not be aware of this neglect even in gross pathological states. I’ve noted significant differences in player’s ability to perceive or “register” their peripheral field of view and have noted improvements with subsequent training.

Just like the rest of the body, eye movements need to be coordinated. Coordination is a key job description for the cerebellum. The cerebellum is a wrinkled little mass that sits underneath the occipital lobe in the back of the head. The cerebellum has various regions that have different responsibilities when it comes to tracking a ball. There is a difference between the eyes only tracking versus eyes and head together. There is a difference between predictive tracking and an unpredictable target. There is a difference between the function needed to track a target that is at a steady speed versus one that is accelerating. All these scenarios require a high functioning cerebellum to appropriately coordinate and execute these visual tracking demands.

So as you can see, it may not be so easy to “just keep your eye on the ball” and simply stating or directing a player to do so, may not bear fruit. Moreover, traumatic brain injuries, like a sports concussion can cause diminished function in any of these brain regions that allow a player to perceive motion, visually fixate on target, and coordinate smooth pursuit of the intended target (i.e. ball or player). Sports performance optimization and sports concussion management should incorporate appropriate diagnostics to truly assess the integrity of the visual tracking “brain muscles”. These “brain muscles” can be conditioned to perform at higher levels through “brain training”, much in the same way that the body is conditioned to perform.

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