Doctors of optometry help Olympic shooters hit the target

August 17, 2016
Competitive shooting events and eye gear put focus on sports-vision enhancement

With the end of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, within sight, the most memorable event for some doctors of optometry may have been the opening day.

That's when Virginia Thrasher, a 19-year-old West Virginia University student, won the women's 10-meter air rifle competition. Her victory earned Thrasher the first gold medal of the games.

Also grabbing attention during the games' shooting events was the eye equipment worn by competitors. An article on called the futuristic eye gear in the 25-meter pistol event "cyborgian spectacles."

"The use of specialized training equipment—such as the other-worldly looking frames shown in the article—raises the public's awareness that vision is more than just being able to see small black letters on a white background," says Karl Citek, O.D., Ph.D., chair of AOA's Commission on Ophthalmic Standards and a professor of optometry at Pacific University College of Optometry in Forest Grove, Oregon.

"More than 20/20 visual acuity is necessary to have 'good vision,'" Dr. Citek adds. "Eye preference—in sports that require monocular fixation, such as certain shooting sports, or binocularity, in most other sports—as well as accommodation, convergence, contrast sensitivity, color vision, depth perception, eye movements, visual perception and reaction time often play even more crucial roles in an athlete's success than visual acuity." 

Doctors of optometry, familiar with the apparatus and related devices, have spent decades helping elite competitive shooters and weekend warriors alike to improve their aim using lenses, blinders and mechanical irises.

Eye contact

Elite shooters usually have a very good idea of how doctors of optometry can help them improve their performances, says Fred Edmunds, O.D., chair of the AOA's Sports Vision Section (SVS), who practices in Victor, New York.

"It all starts with a comprehensive eye exam with special attention paid to refraction and optimized distance visual acuity," Dr. Edmunds says. "Depending on which category of shooting sports you're dealing with, our intervention may be either optical or performance-enhancement training. In marksmanship, which is static or stationary, we provide more of an optical solution using apertures, lenses and occluders.

"In more dynamic shooting sports, such as skeet, trap and sporting clays, we can assist the athlete with visual skill and visual processing exercises to help him or her 'see' the target faster and predict its location more accurately," he says.

Shooting—specific eyewear—with multiple tints, but no lens prescription—starts at more than $500 and costs mount if prescriptions, apertures, occlusion and more are included, says Alan Reichow, O.D., MEd, professor emeritus at Pacific University. 

"Athletes in the shooting sports are extremely conscious of the critical role of vision in their performance success," says Dr. Reichow, who has worked with elite shooters since the 1980s.

Fraser Horn, O.D., associate dean of academic programs, College of Optometry at Pacific University, and SVS immediate past president, adds, "Many of those who participate in shooting sports are aware of the role of vision and the importance of blocking out their nonsighting eye and providing the best possible focus with their sighting eye. Ultimately, the goal is to maximize the visual performance—clarity, contrast, alignment, reaction time—of the competitors."

So shooters can assess what's in front of them—a target—and then perform.

The stakes—a gold medal—aren't as high for weekend warriors, but they take their vision and sport seriously, says Hal Breedlove, O.D., who sees a number of hobbyists at his Virginia Beach, Virginia, practice.

By comparison to elite athletes who have fired hundreds or thousands of shots a day for years, weekend hobbyists are learning how to align their aim between front and rear sights, how their rifles might move when a shot is taken and the variability of their physical environment.

They also must train the body and visual system to compete with the nonaligned eye covered, which is not easy to do, Dr. Breedlove says.

"When you are occluding half of the visual information, you're not getting efficient firing through the brain," Dr. Breedlove says. "When I get my weekend guys, and they cover their nonaligned eye, they're putting their bodies into stress by taking away 50% of the visual information that allows the body to respond to the target."

That takes training, he says.

"The biggest variability in competitive shooting is the human factor," Dr. Breedlove says.

An opportunity for doctors of optometry

Dr. Horn says doctors of optometry can help competitive shooters by:

  • Maximizing the athlete's visual acuity and contrast through the correct prescription.
  • Adjusting focus for the sighting distance. Pistol shooting is for the sight; trap and skeet shooting are for distance target.
  • Utilizing tints to maximize contrast. After that, there are multiple training tools that can aid with eye-hand reaction time.

Read about the doctors of optometry who have changed the game for Olympic athletes on page 18 of the July/August 2016 edition of AOA Focus.

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