Choose a full evaluation over a vision screening to make sure eyesight isn’t hampering athletic performance

In a recent ESPN article, Steven Hitzeman, OD, FAAO, clinical associate professor of optometry at Indiana University, had some pointed comments concerning Heisman Trophy candidate Jameis “Squintston” Winston and his decision to forgo contact lenses during football games.

Jameis Winston

Jameis Winston photo by Melina Vastola/USA Today Sports

Winston said his squinting is never a factor in his performance as Florida State University quarterback. Hitzeman says vision is almost always a factor in athletic performance, regardless of the sport. Based on his research, good vision can give elite athletes the edge they need over competition — he’s seen it time and time again.

“The better the acuity, the quicker you respond to visual stimuli. The quicker you respond to visual stimuli, the better decisions you’re going to make. The quicker decisions you’re going to make, the better you’re going to play,” he said in the ESPN piece.

“If I was his optometrist, if I was his coach, if I was his parent, I would make sure he’s wearing correction when he plays,” Hitzeman said. “His performance should be better with contacts than without. … I would think that he would see much better and play much better wearing visual correction.”

Hitzeman is director of the Sports Vision Program at IU and conducts vision evaluations of athletes performing at Junior Olympics to determine which athletes potentially could perform better if their vision was corrected. His statistics show that 40 percent of the athletes he screens have never had an eye exam — these athletes range in age from 8 to 18 and represent a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds.

I thought 40 percent sounded high, considering that schools often offer vision screenings for students. Vision screenings can miss things, however, or can be manipulated by clever students, Hitzeman said, and should not be considered a replacement for a full vision exam.

“(A screening) picks up most of the visual problems, but it doesn’t pick up all of them,” he told me. “If you have a young athlete, he needs to have a full visual evaluation to make sure he doesn’t have any performance limiting problems.”

Vision — including depth perception, hand-eye coordination and the ability to locate objects in space — is an issue in just about every sport, too. The role in baseball, football and tennis is obvious. My son, however, runs cross country. Hitzeman drew parallels with his work with Olympic skiers. The more detail they can see in front of them, the faster they go.

“In cross country, if you’re seeing all the dips and all the things coming in front of you, you can run with reckless abandon because you can see everything around you,” he said. “If you don’t see as well, you’ll run with hesitation (a.k.a. slower).”

Hitzeman said wearing contacts during competition is preferable because of distortions created by glasses. He also offered an exercise to give athletes an advantage: learn to juggle.

“Once your visual motor system is accustomed to keeping several balls in the air at once, hitting one with a tennis racket won’t seem so difficult,” he said in a media tip about poor vision in athletes.

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