The amount of precision athletes have in their hand-eye coordination can be breathtaking. The fine adjustments in a tennis player’s hands, a basketball player’s hands, or a golfer’s stroke are seemingly miniscule. Yet time and again, these athletes can consistently put a ball through a hoop, a golf ball in a hole, or a tennis ball in the opposite corner.
This performance can be attributed to practice and reps, but often, even the most diligent athletes’ ability can crack under game-time pressure. The most elite athletes, on the other hand, can consistently perform at a high level. Researchers have found that the secret to this can lie in the focus of their eyes.
We are all familiar with the “eye of the tiger” effect in heated competition. When watching a game, we can discern the distracted eye from the focused, the fearful from the brave, and the calm from the excited. The type of eyes that differentiate a champion are calm, unblinking, focused, and burning with a quiet fire. Think Serena Williams, Tiger Woods, or Kobe Bryant.
This sensation is what is called “Quiet Eye”, and involves prolonged concentration of the eye on a target, whether it's on a hoop, a dartboard, or a ball. The less someone averts their eyes and the longer they focus, the better results they have with visual-motor tasks. It's easier than it sounds, but averting our eyes by a fraction of a centimeter in a millisecond can throw off our performance. In a study comparing the putting of golf players, the difference in the length of focus between a beginner and an expert can be as small as ⅕ of a second.
Finally, a quiet eye can apply outside the field of sports and in the operating room. Surgeons who partook in Quiet Eye training had longer focus and faster surgical knot tying than the group who underwent traditional technical training. players practicing free throw shooting. One group underwent quiet eye training, the control group didn’t. The result was that the Quiet Eye group improved their accuracy by 22% to 76% more than the control.
Why Does It Work?
The science behind quiet eye isn’t exactly known, but there are a few theories. It is not so much where the eye is focusing on as much as the attention. Quiet eye enables athletes to soak up as much visual information as possible to coordinate their movements. And in times when players might only have a few milliseconds to look at their target, they’re going to need all the information they can get to succeed.
In addition, the extreme concentration associated with a quiet eye has the effect of drowning out mental and visual noise. The focus helps athletes to suppress doubt, anxiety, or stress in their performance. In fact, research suggests that a quiet eye can have the effect of decelerating the heart rate. Essentially, a quiet eye maximizes important visual information and minimizes mental or visual noise.
Quiet eye is a skill that is trained for, like any other physical movement. Athletes can benefit by focusing their eyes when repping out movements like shooting, hitting, or putting. Quiet eye can also be utilized outside of sports. Focusing on something in the distance can have the benefit of relieving stress and putting us in the moment. We don’t have to be playing a sport or performing surgery to do this. Ultimately, it all comes back to concentration and staying present. Exercising that skill in our bodies and minds can really help us in our athletic or day-to-day lives.