The eyes are the windows to the soul. But might they also be the windows to opening up a whole new world of footballing performance and skill?
We continue to learn that eyes are one of the key, if not the key, inputs and drivers for movement coordination and fluidity. The brain takes visual “data” and organises the body and movement around it. More accurate visual “data” leads to increased fluidity and performance of movement tasks, specifically those that involve a target, such as a free-kick or hitting a reverse pass across the pitch.
In recent years, the technology to track vision and record eye moments has advanced exponentially. Thanks to the advances, there is new, highly detailed research on vision and its impact on performance, namely how being able to focus on key parts of a target object or location (gaze stability) and being able to do it for longer periods of time (gaze duration) prior to initiating critical parts of a movement is a key differentiator between elite and amateur athletes.
For a prime example, in 2013 Cristiano Ronaldo’s eye movements were studied when attacking a defender off the dribble, which revealed very quick and stable eye movements on the defender’s feet and hips prior to the Portuguese forward initiating his next dribble. That quick, yet reliable, information helps guide Ronaldo on what move to make and beat the defender.
What is Quiet Eye training?
Training gaze stability and gaze duration has come to be known as “Quiet Eye” (QE) training. The “quiet” aspect refers to the eye focusing on the key variables, such as the pinpoint target on a ball where you intend to make contact, while drowning out superfluous variables.
In a study on university football players, researchers tested QE training during penalty kicks over the course of a seven-week period. Players were randomly assigned to either the QE training group or a control group which trained as usual. After the seven-week training period, the QE group showed more effective visual attentional control (being able to control your visual focus), were significantly more accurate on their penalties and had 50% fewer shots saved by the goalkeeper compared to the control group.
The research has shown carryover to other target-based sports as well. One study showed that elite volleyball players serving the ball into play spent significantly less time tracking the ball with their eyes, instead quickly moving their vision to the spot where their hand would be contacting the ball.
In a study that used QE training on skeet shooters, they had significant improvements in how quickly they located the clay, how long they tracked it and, most importantly, in their shooting performance.
How Quiet Eye training brings improvements
By using video feedback of gaze location and being taught pre-movement routines aimed at lengthening the quiet eye, athletes were able to increase how quickly their eye moves to the critical object/location and how long it tracks it, resulting in improved performance.
As mentioned earlier, the more accurate the visual “data”, the better the brain can organise movement. Accordingly, QE training research has also shown benefits in golf, tennis, and basketball. All sports that rely heavily on visual attentional focus.
Additionally, QE training has shown to positively influence how fast you can learn a skill, your level of attentional focus, and has been shown to reduce anxiety in high stress situations. The latter could be especially useful in elite football which is rampant with high stress situations such as penalty kicks or one-on-ones with the goalkeeper.
Aligning with that, research on visual focus and penalty kicks showed that higher anxiety was associated with faster first visual fixations on the keeper and significantly longer fixations towards the goalkeeper (focusing on “the threat” rather the ball); resulting in significant reductions in shooting accuracy, with shots becoming much more centralised towards the goalkeeper’s reach.
QE training is a really exciting tool and is part of the next evolution in footballing performance, skills, and athletic development.
It’s taking one of the key senses responsible for organising our movement and fluidity, breaking it down to the moment preceding the most critical phase of movement, and then specifically training that phase.
It results in improved performance, increased skill learning, and improving attentional focus during high stress/anxiety situations.
Dr Rajpal Brar, DPT, is a physiotherapist, movement and mindfulness coach. He runs the LA-based wellness and athletic development/performance clinic 3CB Performance, and you can subscribe to his Youtube channel (which posts analyses of Lionel Messi and more) by going here.