American Football

How Vision Problems Affect a Football Player

03 July 2020

Football is in the air, and players are practicing hard to get any type of edge they can over the competition. One area they may be overlooking is their vision - especially the impact vision problems can have on their game.

No matter how strong or fast you are, if you can’t see the ball, you can’t catch it. Unfortunately, an athlete can have vision problems that go undetected, even if they have perfect “20/20” vision.

Visual acuity and depth perception

When most people think of vision, they think “20/20”. The term “20/20” is a measure of visual acuity, which is the ability to see detail at a given distance. For a football player, good visual acuity is critical. You need to be able to see the ball clearly. 

Another important skill is depth perception, which is the ability to perceive the spatial relationships between objects in visual space. The more information our brain has about these relationships, the better our understanding of where things really are and the better our performance in sports.

How does depth perception work with a football?

Accurate binocular depth perception is critical for success in sports, and it can only be achieved if both eyes are working well together.

We have two eyes, each controlled by six muscles that move them into different positions. When looking at an object, like a football, the eye muscles automatically move the eyes so that they are both pointing at the same spot in space.

Each eye has a slightly different image of the target, and the brain combines these images into one complete image.  This is considered binocular depth perception, or stereopsis.

So just how important is binocular depth perception?

Think about when the football is flying through the air to an intended receiver. Many players see the ball as quite small, but those with good depth perception may see it as much larger. Obviously, the larger the ball appears, the easier it will be to catch.

Larry Fitzgerald, wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals, is a perfect example. Fitzgerald had vision therapy as a child to help correct a depth perception problem. Today he’s a Pro Bowler and one of the elite wide receivers in the game.

If a player has a vision problem, difficulties will extend beyond the football field and a few dropped passes.  He or she will notice a myriad of vision-related symptoms, such as headaches, difficulty reading, low attention spans, and tired eyes. Grades will slip, and in some cases, dyslexia or attention deficit disorder may be diagnosed.