Sports and contact lenses - keep your eye on the ball!
There's no denying that sports are an integral part of life in the UK. Popular sports like football, tennis, and cricket get a lot of media attention and have big name players that have practiced their skills enough to become the best in their field. But don't forget the smaller activities that any one can do in their free time, no matter how skilled they are. In fact, sports like running, swimming, cycling and climbing make up a large percentage of sports participation as a whole. Every week more than 15 million people participate in one type of sport or another.
The popularity of sports is likely due to the long list of benefits that they offer, both to individuals, and to the population as a whole. For those that participate, the advantages include a decreased rate of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, obesity, and mental health problems. Team based sports help build confidence and self-esteem, especially in children, which in turn can contribute to reduced crime rates. Even those that don't participate in sports themselves can benefit. According to sportengland.org, sports in the UK are an ₤11 billion per year industry, employing more than 400,000 people.
Importance of Eyesight in Sports
When playing sports, some senses are more important that others. Smell and taste, for example, are rather unimportant for almost any sport imaginable. Hearing is critical for team based sports that require communication and team work. But more than any other sense, vision is absolutely critical. No matter the sport, a vast majority of sensory input is taken in through the eyes.
In relation to sports, vision is much more than seeing things clearly. Each eye is responsible for focusing light onto the retina and sending an image to the brain and together they coordinate to judge speed and distances, as well as identify, track, and react to moving objects. These functions play a critical role in hand-eye (and foot-eye) coordination.
Because so much of body coordination begins with what the eyes see, it's vital to make sure they're seeing as clearly as possible. Any improvements that can be made to an athlete’s eye sight will have a direct improvement on his or her performance, for both competitive and recreational sports, no matter the skill level.
Before any improvements can be made, a baseline score needs to be established using a sports vision evaluation. The evaluation (available from Optometrists with experience in the subject) will measure more than just visual acuity, but several other facets of visual performance as well, including consistency, accuracy, and ocular stamina. Tests will be administered that focus on eye dominance, visual tracking, hand-eye coordination, depth perception, peripheral awareness, colour identification, light sensitivity, contrast sensitivity, and visual reaction times.
Sports Vision Evaluation
In addition to a standard a standard eye exam, which includes a visual acuity test, four other tests can be administered for the purpose of improving sports vision.
- Bassin Anticipation Timer – A method of testing visual coincidence anticipation, a person’s ability to predict when a moving point meets a set destination. This is used to simulate moving objects, and is directly related to hand-eye coordination. A light moves across a screen towards a fixed target, and the subject indicates the exact moment the two meet. The speed of the moving light can change, moving as slowly as 1 mph, or as fast as 500 mph. The parameters of the test can be changed depending on the relevant sport that the subject is participating in. Visual acuity is not a factor of this test.
- Sports Vision Trainer – A large grid of lights that are responsive to touch are placed in front of the subject, and are lit in a computer-controlled pattern. The athlete reacts by touching the lights as quickly and as accurately as possible. The focus of this test is on hand-eye coordination, peripheral awareness, and reaction times.
- Dynamic Fixation Test – Used to measure the speed and accuracy of intra-ocular muscles, which are used to change the shape of the lens in the eye in order for it to focus on either near or far places. A card with a hole in the middle, and letters or numbers all around is held up close to the subjects face. Through the hole, on a distant wall, another set of letters or numbers is visible. The goal of the test is for the subject to read the characters as quickly as possible, alternating from the near card to the far card and back. The test is designed to simulate the changes in focus experienced in sports with fast moving objects. A score is give based on the time taken to complete the test, and scores can be improved over time with regular practice.
- Contrast Sensitivity Test – During a contrast sensitivity test, you will be asked to identify the orientation of parallel gray stripes against backgrounds of various colors. The backgrounds gradually begin to match the shades of the stripes. Low contrast sensitivity, especially in low-light conditions, will make it more difficult to track objects. A variety of solutions can be effective for addressing contrast sensitivity concerns.
The Advantages of Contact lenses for Sports
Any steps taken that increase visual acuity will directly improve performance in almost all types of sports. But contact lenses provide more than just clearer vision. When compared to other methods of vision correction, contacts have many strong advantages.
- Visual Acuity – Contact lenses can improve visual acuity. An athlete with clear, crisp vision is one that can see the ball fly down the fairway -- and see where it lands, spot shifts in the backfield, see the line at the far side of the tennis court, see the bobbin dip below the surface of the lake, and keep a sharp eye on the sails.
- Peripheral Vision – Contact lenses will offer a full field of view, more than any other type of vision correcting lens. Seeing things at the edges of your vision is especially important for team based sports. Good peripheral vision makes it easier for runners to maintain awareness of competitors' positions, running backs to see when the tackle is coming, volleyball players to see what's happening all around the court, and a student of karate to see where the blow is coming from.
- No Distractions – Regular eyeglasses have lenses that can fog up, collect dust and water droplets, and get caught on clothing or equipment. Contact lenses don't have any of those issues, and will stay clear and out of the way for the entire time they are worn.
- Better Depth Perception – The thickness of eyeglass lenses, combined with their distance from the eye, cause light to bend in a way that makes it difficult to judge distances accurately. Objects may be closer or farther away than what they appear, which can cause big problems for athletes, for example, when trying to catch a ball. Golfers use depth perception on the tee and fairway to determine where and how hard to hit the ball. Tennis players rely on their depth perception to be able to judge where the ball is going to drop. Contact lenses are ultra thin, and rest directly on the eye, so there's no magnification or minification to worry about, so depth perception is significantly improved.
- No Glare or Reflections – For well lit indoor sports, bright lights can cause distracting reflections off of traditional lenses. This problem can be completely avoided with the use of contacts.
- UV Protection – During a sking holiday, your eyes are exposed to as much Ultra Violet radiation as your skin. However, since they don't tan or burn does not mean you don't need to worry about them. As a skier you most probably spend a lot of time outdoors, enjoying fresh air, wide, open spaces and the pleasure of being among the elements.
However, regardless of whether it's sunny or cloudy, hot or cold, summer or winter you are constantly exposed to harmful ultra violet radiation from the sun. You can protect yourself from these damaging rays by covering your face and arms with suncreams and lotions and wearing a cap, but what about your eyes? Just like sand and water, snow reflects an average of 85% of U.V rays. These rays can damage our eyes, and, since eye tissue cannot regenerate it can lead to serious eye conditions such as cataract, loss of vision or photokeratitis (snow blindness).
That is why it is extremely important that we protect our eyes in these environments. Contact Lenses with ultra violet protection were designed to help in these situations. Unlike sunglasses, which still allow scattered UV radiation to enter from the sides, top and bottom, contact lenses offer complete protection. Several companies manufacture daily disposable lenses with built in UV protection which are ideal for outdoor activities
How do Contact Lenses Benefit Different Sports?
Each sport is going to have its own set of conditions and requirements that make it unique when choosing the right contact lens. Wet environments versus dry, long distance focus versus short range, peripheral viewing versus narrow, the list goes on and on. Below are several popular sports that each present a different set of challenges, the visual skills they require, and the best lenses suited to the job.
- Football – A sport that requires a lot of peripheral awareness, the ability to judge distances and speed, and good foot-eye coordination. Contact lenses can provide clear and focused vision throughout the entire field of view, and can address any astigmatic problems as well. Tinted lenses are available to make the ball contrast more with the green grass, improving contrast sensitivity in low light conditions.
- Tennis – At the professional level, a tennis ball can move up to 160 miles per hour as it bounces back and fourth across the court. Incredible dynamic visual acuity is needed to stay clearly focused on the ball as it moves. Outdoor players should consider lenses that have UV light protection, and tinted lenses for better contrast.
- Archery – Unlike most other sports, where both eyes are used, archers typically focus on the target with just one eye. Very high levels of visual acuity are needed to see distant targets, and long periods without blinking call for contact lenses with high wettability that won't dry out too quickly.
- Sailing – Windy, salty environments can be very harsh on both eyes and contact lenses, so every bit of protection that is available should be used. UV protective contacts will help block the UV rays reflected off the water, and polarized wraparound sunglasses will aid with wind and water. Sailing involves judging distance and speed plus good peripheral vision to help spot any obstacles in the water.
- Swimming – Swimming without goggles raises your chances of losing a lens significantly. If you open your eyes underwater, or get water splashed into your face, you may lose a lens. In addition, it increases the possibility of getting an infection form the water, particularly from swimming pools and you can find that the contact lenses absorb chlorine, which can then be bound into the contact lens and released into your eye later, resulting in discomfort. If you are going to swim with contact lenses, you are generally safe with well fitting swimming goggles. This is often a much better solution than prescription swimming goggles.
- Scuba Diving – Scuba diving is a fun activity and it is a pity to miss out on all the action because you can't see! Although there are prescription diving masks, these are an expensive option. If you can wear contact lenses it is perfectly safe and easy to wear them when diving. However, if you are learning to dive, you will need to 'clear your mask' (over and over again!), until you have mastered that technique. Mask clearing (letting the water in your mask and then getting it out again), is a sure fire way to lose your lenses, unless you have your eyes closed during the whole exercise. Tell your diving instructor that you wear contact lenses and ask for his advice while learning this technique - he will probably tell you to clear your mask with your eyes shut. Another risk is getting your masked 'kicked off' or displaced during a dive. If you look around to find your mask, you can lose your lenses! Try to find your mask with one eye, at least then you only stand a chance of losing just the one lens and can complete the dive - better still get your buddy to find it!
- Fishing & Boating – Spot that dry fly at the exact moment on the rise and never miss another strike. Well, wishful thinking. Contact lenses provide the convenience of not having your glasses fall into the river or lake. UV protection can also be incorporated, and polarized wraparound sunglasses will aid with wind and water. For the more active water sports like water skiing, contact lenses are the only way to go.
- Mountain/Rock Climbing – Contact lenses are perfect for rock climbing. Nothing between you and the rock face. Glasses can slip, drop or fog up whereas contact lenses are the same as natural vision. There is a similar freedom with mountain climbing - but be aware if you are an extreme climber, oxygen levels at 29,000 feet drop to those at the cornea when asleep with the eyes closed. So, where there is 21% oxygen at ground level, it falls to 7% - it is very important to have a contact lens with high oxygen transmission.
Important Aspects of Wearing Contact Lenses
Now that it's established that contact lenses are a clearly superior alternative to eye glasses, there are several details that need to be understood before choosing the right lenses. Because of how different contacts are from eyeglasses, there are features and functions unfamiliar to eyeglass wearers that need to be considered.
First of which is wettability, the amount of tears on the surface of both the eye and contact lens. Both need to be kept at an ideal level of wetness to remain comfortable and functional. Different contact lenses require different levels of moisture, and different sporting environments can effect how moist your eyes are at any given time.
Replacement schedule and cleaning regiment are also important. Some lenses are designed to be used every day for several weeks or months before being disposed of. They will require daily cleaning, and delicate care when not being worn. Unfortunately, even the best cleaning solutions cannot remove all of the proteins and lipids that accumulate on the surface of the lens, and over time they may impede vision. For athletes, daily disposable lenses are ideal. They are thrown out after a single use, and there's no need to clean or maintain them. Almost all sport contact lenses are of the soft variety, as they are very stable on the eye, and very rarely fall out.
Unlike past contact lenses, modern contacts are very well suited for correcting astigmatism. They are carefully designed so they will naturally settle on your eye in the correct position to counter the astigmatism. Very precise fittings are required, with extra care taken to ensure they maintain proper orientation for all directions the eye can move. Athletes move their heads and eyes quite a bit, and lenses that move too much can cause vision problems at inconvenient times.
It's a good idea to ensure that contact lenses remain comfortable at all times. Uncomfortable contacts will be a distraction, and can affect an athlete’s performance. Certain environments are more likely to cause discomfort for contact lens wearers, like dusty outdoor conditions, or indoor air conditioning. Lenses that have lower levels of surface friction, and are more wettable are much more likely to remain comfortable while in action.
Like all sporting equipment, contacts need to fit well to perform well. The fit of a contact lens will effect comfort, vision, and even eye health. A poor fitting lens can cause irritation, and blurred vision. Lenses shouldn't be too tight, or too loose. If a lens moves too much on the eye, it can cause blurring at the crucial moment. This is especially important for sports that are tracking a fast moving object; like a hockey puck, a tennis ball, or a cricket ball.
Author: John Dreyer Optometrist Bsc(Hons), MCOPTOM, DipCLP
Created: 1 Jun 2016, Last modified: 23 Apr 2020