Learn how to assess, correct, and integrate one of the oldest systems in our bodies to unlock movement capacity and improve athletic performance.
Vision is everything. It is how we perceive the world around us visually, and what we use to perceive threats coming at us from the front. If we didn’t have the ability to see, we would likely be very hindered as human beings from an evolutionary standpoint.
Of course, now we are hindered visually by screens and have developed an inability to deal with the hold that our visual system has on us because we use it for everything. Think about it – you drive, you stare at a screen for hours a day, you coach, you train, and you of course participate in other non meat monkey life activities. That’s a lot of input to the system each and every day.
Many of these things are not something the human eye and brain has evolved to be able to do well. As a result of this, we often see individuals who can’t see far away, and can’t use other senses to feel the ground as they walk. They need to see what is right underneath them in order to sense the world. Sure, you can get by on a day to day basis living like this due to our modern (and rather cozy) lifestyles, but if you’re looking to become a true apex athlete, you’re leaving performance on the table by not addressing these underlying issues.
But First, Anatomy!
First we need to start with some basic anatomy of the eye musculature. The sphenoid at the right great wing can elevate, internally rotate and move posteriorly in some individuals as a result of stress, leading to an inability to breathe well without overusing the sternocleidomastoid and other accessory respiratory muscles. Because of the sphenoid movement mentioned above, the eye musculature can become strained, dominantly “focus” on the area in front of you and put tension on the muscles attached to the sphenoid. This includes the levator palpebrae superioris (originates at the sphenoid part of the orbit), lateral/medial/inferior rectus; superior oblique (originates at Annulus of Zinn, which connects to the sphenoid during development through tendons of the three recti). The picture below demonstrates the anatomy of the connections of the eye to the sphenoid.
If you think about the above aforementioned shifting of the sphenoid, then you can see that there can be a shift in the eyes, where the right eye sits further back than the left one.
As this occurs there is a loss in the ability of the eyes to track well on the left side. Furthermore, you are straining your eyes to see out in front of you, which can increase sympathetic tone due to the perceived threat of having your peripheral senses being taken away.
Additionally, your eyes start to adapt to what is actually placed in front of them because the brain is predictive, plastic and makes changes based on previous behaviors. If you are a running back, you need peripheral vision to see what is about to hit you. If you are a human being, you need peripheral vision to see what is around you, know you are safe, and in an area that does not requires a fight or flight response. By increasing our ability to track with our visual system and open up our peripheral senses, we can unlock hidden movement capacity, decrease stress, and enhance athletic performance.
Assessing Your Visual System
One of my favorite and most simple assessments is one I stole from Sean Light utilizing a single leg deadlift. Essentially, I want you to close your eyes, lift one leg up off the ground, and perform the SL Deadlift while reaching down to touch your toe with the opposite hand of the leg you are standing on. If you fall, or feel very unstable, you likely have a visual system that has become overly dominant, and needs to be turned down.
Here we have fellow CSP-FL intern Tim Dempsey first performing the Single Leg Deadlift assessment and as you can see, he’s very wobbly – making him a great subject for our article.
Exercise #1: “Three Blind Mice”
This one is super simple. Grab a broom handle, and scatter some medicine balls or other non harmful objects in an area in your gym. Put the broom handle in your left hand, and close your eyes, using the stick as your “visual system”. Tim walks around this gym five days a week, and knows every inch of it, so he can guess where things are just by feel, and if music was playing, by that too. Go for 2-3 rounds of 30-60 seconds each. This exercise is simply to reduce the reliance on the visual system.
Exercise #2: Hello, Left Hamstring, Thy Name is Left Lateral Pterygoid
In an effort to keep this super simple for everyone out there, this is an excessively easy positional activation of the left lateral pterygoid (LLP). Check out this pic for a little more anatomy on where it attaches to the sphenoid:
By giving the LLP a position in which to activate, and then breathing through that position in a modified box breathing pattern, you are able to pull the sphenoid into a position that opposes the positions mentioned in the above paragraph. I personally recommend 5 sets of isometric holds for about 10 seconds, trying to slowly inhale, exhale for a long while and then P A U S E at the end of the exhale for about 3 seconds.
Exercise #3: “Lollipop, Lollipop”
This one is easy too. Grab a friend, and have him/her move their index finger around in front of you to improve tracking. I like to focus on the left side and peripherals when I perform this, and move my finger towards the nose to see how well the eyes are tracking together. If this isn’t working, then the individual may need a “grounding” sense via some input through contraction or pain. Try either a low seated box and have them pull their heels into the box to gain hamstring contraction, or have them dig their finger directly under the xyphoid process. Again, just breathe. Perform 3 rounds of roughly 15-30 seconds each time. This is to gain eye independence from the sphenoid after it has been repositioned.
Exercise #4: Left Stance Orbital Motion
The final exercise we shall perform is going to be basically burying someone in left stance to again, reverse that position of the sphenoid, and then gain orbital control by staring at a fixed point in the distance, and rotating the head side to side while doing so. Again, we’re going inhale long and slow, exhale long and slow and pause at the end of the exhale for three to five seconds. The individual should feel their left hamstring, their left oblique, their left adductor, and their right glute max. In the video, you see that I have Tim standing on a plate to elevate him into his left hip, his ankle is dorsiflexed to promote a stance phase of gait on the left side, and his right ankle is everted and minorly plantarflexed to promote a position of swing phase on the right side. Do this for 2-3 rounds of 8-10 breaths. This is to allow sphenoid and orbital motion by shifting the head from side to side in a “gait” pattern.
And now, we’re going to re-test Tim’s Single Leg Deadlift . As you can see, there is marked improvement from just a handful of drills that took minutes to complete. While he can still get better, I’ll take what I can get with this 5 minute intervention. Tim also made some anecdotal observations on an increased sense of awareness and visual acuity . Not to mention that some knee pain he had been experiencing from his days of distance running were all but gone.
Once you’ve cleared the SLDL test there are two things I think you can do to “keep” your new found vision gains. The first is the classic hockey goalie drill of throwing tennis balls against walls for coordination.
Integration #1: Clarke, the Canadian Hockey Goalie
Get into a little bit of a squat. Begin by throwing one ball against the wall and catching it in either hand, while shifting your weight side to side. Track the ball with your eyes the whole time, do not look just at the wall. Go for anywhere from 1-4 rounds of 15-60 seconds. Progress this as you see fit. I think you can go from a static left stance into small shifts into larger shifts into catching with one hand each round into multiple balls. The point of this drill is to get eyes tracking stuff that moves instead of staying static to one point, which is really hard.
Integration #2 – Nature Walks
Walk around outside while trying to pay more attention to your peripheral vision than anything else. Don’t do this in a city. Please do it in a rural area or your neighborhood where you won’t get hit by a car or a person.
Integration #3 – Use Walls
If you know someone is extremely visually dominant, simply have them stand in front of a wall (a non injury threatening distance away). This will force them to shift back because they can see the wall directly in front of them and get you those almighty HAMSTRINGS.
What If You’re Just Unstable?
I see one huge flaw, that I bet you’re drafting up an email to tell me about: instability. “But guy, what if they’re just unstable??” Alright, you got me. If there’s an ankle pathology then maybe they are unstable. But if the pathology was idiopathic, couldn’t they be visually dominant? Additionally, pay attention to where you look when you do single leg work and/or balance work. Do you stare at one point on the ground, or are you just letting your body move and allowing your vision to go with it? Probably the former. You’re locking on to one point instead of freely moving your eye, allowing what you perceive to be instability by creating a need to fix your vision to one singular point. You’ve created visual dominance and “stabilized” through your visual system.
Where To Go From Here
While you probably don’t want to spend a bunch of your precious training time devoted to vision based drills, my hope is that you took away the fact that vision is important enough to start having some increased awareness around it. We focus much of our efforts on our muscular systems and cardiovascular systems, but can easily neglect the primordial vision system. Armed with this information, you can easily incorporate these concepts into your day to day while taking away zero time from actual training. Don’t forget to use all of the tools at your disposal on your path to becoming a true ‘apex athlete’.
About the Author
Declan Morrissey is in his last semester of undergrad work at Springfield College for Exercise Science, where he has coached Team Ironsports, the school’s powerlifting team. He has coached from high school to the pro levels, is a competitive powerlifter, and a human performance nerd. @dfreakinmors