How your eyes get you in the zone

A basketball player hurriedly squares up a jump shot, a hockey goalie tracks an opponent careening towards them; a soccer player pounces on a loose ball—in all these and many more, “quiet eye” plays a significant role in the elite athletes’ ability to move in just the right way in relation to their environment.

Quiet eye is the process of fixing your eye on something for a minimum of 100ms[1], either while it’s moving or you are. It’s a way to define a state of being ‘locked in’, or ‘in the zone’ when tracking an object in space. Why would anyone care about this? Studies have shown that experts demonstrate more quiet eye on the same tasks compared with novices, and that more time spent in quiet eye correlates with better performance in various sports situations. Golf putting[2], hockey goaltending[3], serve returns in volleyball[4] and table tennis[5]—the list goes on of studies showing a relationship between increased quiet eye and increased sport performance.

But why would this extra time with the eyes locked onto the basketball increase the player’s chances of sinking a shot? That’s where the brain comes in…

To understand this, it’s useful to understand the two-stream model of attention processing. This model holds that there are two ‘streams’ where information can be directed to after being processed by your visual system. If you are paying more attention to ‘what’ (that is, the identity of an object), this information is transmitted via the ‘ventral stream’, to brain areas that represent the identities of objects; while if you’re paying attention to ‘where’ information, this activates the ‘dorsal stream’, directing the flow of information towards brain areas responsible for processing where they are in space with respect to their environment.

Although we can’t fully measure brain activity during quiet eye in a competitive scenario, researchers have looked at the differences between athletes and non-athletes while tracking objects in a video—where they are required to predict, for example, whether the soccer free kick will be going to the left or the right. What they’ve found is that when tracking objects in a sports situation, in addition to more quiet eye, experts show more activity in the dorsal vs. the ventral stream compared with novices[6]. What’s more, one study scanned the brains of novice golfers then provided them with 40 hours of golf training, finding that after training subjects produced more dorsal stream activity. This suggests that the unique way in which experts pay attention to objects in space contributes to their ability to act on these objects in a more precise, repeatable way.

What might this look like in action? Let’s go back to that first example—a basketball player squaring up a jump shot in a hurry. What needs to happen for the shot to go in? It’s well understood that a key factor determining whether the shot will be good is the players ability to quickly complete the physical movements required for a jump shot—and of course the more skilled the player, the more automatized these movements will have become (for a quick review on the stages in which we learn movement skills, check out our post on choking). But this research suggests that another factor influencing the ability of the player to score is the time spent in quiet eye—in this case, that would mean the amount of time the player has their gaze unflinchingly locked-on to the rim of the basket. In basketball, this has been tested[7] and found to be the case.

It seems that by taking in more information about the spatial location of objects, experts’ brains endow them with a richer understanding of their relation to objects in space—allowing them to better predict the movements of the objects being tracked (for a more complete picture on action prediction in athletes check out this previous post), and critically, to allow them to move their bodies in relation to these objects with a high degree of precision.

While we think of great athletes as people who have become stronger and faster, it’s clear their brains also change in ways that grant them an enhanced ability to understand their own motion, as well as the motion occurring in their environment. Can you think of a time where you were shooting a basketball, you had all the time in the world and in your mind’s eye it seemed so simple? Just a matter of making the right movements. What quiet eye does is allow experienced athletes to reliably move in the manner they intend to in relation to those objects.

What’s more, studies have shown that quiet eye isn’t just a side-effect of becoming an expert—it can be directly trained. Several visual training studies have shown that simply making a conscious effort to pay closer attention to the objects involved in your sport can improve performance[8]. Unfortunately, at the moment I’ve yet to see a great technological solution for this type of training (apps, etc.), but the principle is simple—devote your attention to keeping your gaze as closely fixed on the objects involved in your sport for as long as possible. This type of training is certainly not a magic-bullet shortcut to success, but these data suggest there are performance gains to be had by consciously prioritizing your gaze. So keep your eyes on the prize!

[1] Specifically keeping the gaze locked in within 3° of visual angle—though the precision required for it to be determined ‘quiet eye’ varies based on the distance to the object, as well as the object’s size

[2] Mann et al., 2011; Vine, Moore, & Wilson, 2011; Wilson & Pearcy, 2009

[3] Panchuk, D., & Vickers, J. N. (2006). Gaze behaviors of goaltenders under spatial-temporal constraints. Human Movement Science, 25, 733-752.

[4] Vickers, J. N., & Adolphe, R. (1997). Gaze behaviour during a ball tracking and aiming skill. International Journal of Sports Vision, 4, 18-27.

[5] Rodrigues, S. T., Vickers, J. N., & Williams, A. M. (2002). Head, eye and arm coordination in table tennis. Journal of Sports Sciences, 20, 187-200.

[6]  Wright, M. J., Bishop, D. T., Jackson, R. C., & Abernethy, B. (2010). Functional MRI reveals expert-novice di erences during sport-related anticipation. Neuroreport, 21(2), 94-98. 10.1097/ WNR.0b013e328333d 2; Wright, M. J., Bishop, D. T., Jackson, R. C., & Abernethy, B. (2011). Cortical fMRI activation to opponents’ body kinematics in sport-related anticipation: Expert-novice di erences with nor- mal and point-light video. Neuroscience Letters, 500(3), 216-221. 10.1016/j.neulet.2011.06.045

[7] Oudejans, R. R., van de Langenberg, R. W., & Hutter, R. V. (2002). Aiming at a far target under different viewing conditions: Visual control in basketball jump shooting. Human movement science21(4), 457-480.

[8] Vine, S. J., Moore, L. J., & Wilson, M. R. (2014). Quiet eye training: The acquisition, refinement and resilient performance of targeting skills. European Journal of Sport Science14(sup1), S235-S242.

Vine, S. J., Moore, L. J., Cooke, A., Ring, C., & Wilson, M. R. (2013). Quiet eye training: A means to implicit motor learning. International Journal of Sport Psychology44(4), 367-386.

D’Innocenzo, G., Gonzalez, C. C., Williams, A. M., & Bishop, D. T. (2016). Looking to Learn: The Effects of Visual Guidance on Observational Learning of the Golf Swing. PloS one11(5), e0155442.