© Greg Coleman
Football

The science behind Trent’s Vision explained

How do you make a footballer see more of the game? We spoke to sports vision expert Dr. Daniel Laby on the techniques that can transform an athlete’s visual performance.
Written by Rebecca Denne
What makes an athlete reach pro status? Their ridiculously strong physique from hours of dedicated and gruelling training? Their well-honed instinct of predicting their opponent’s next move? The hours of high-octane pressure under their belts, preparing them for their next match?
My aim is to get him to juggle with two footballs!
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Sports vision specialist Dr. Daniel Laby would argue that it’s partly down to an athlete’s superhuman visual efficiency. Being able to see an incoming cross is one thing, but it's quite another to have the motor skills and coordination to turn that cross into a goal.
Dr. Laby is the consultant on Trent’s Vision, a project to help improve Trent Alexander-Arnold’s ability to see the game, for Liverpool and for England.
Here, Dr. Laby explains the importance of optimum vision for athletes, how he’s helped develop Trent's eyesight and why he’s teaching him to juggle…
If you're driving a car, that's one thing, but if you're a player like Trent on the soccer pitch, you'll have different visual demands

How would you sum up sports performance vision for those of us not in the know?

A player like Trent has specific visual demands on the pitch
© Greg Coleman
Sports vision is really just a subgroup within performance vision. When we talk about performance vision, we're talking about the vision needed to perform daily tasks. Take driving, for instance. Think about the difference between driving on a sunny day along the highway [motorway] or driving on a bendy road you're not familiar with compared to doing the same thing on a cloudy, foggy, afternoon. Your vision is going to be very different. What performance vision is trying to evaluate is what can we do to help somebody turn that rainy, foggy day into a clear sunny day. What can we do, in terms of vision, to lead them into a decision, and therefore a visually guided motor action? Performance vision looks at all aspects of vision, visually-based decision making and visually-based motor actions.
If you're driving a car, that's one thing, but if you're a player like Trent on the soccer pitch, you'll have different visual demands. But it's all under the same umbrella of optimising those three aspects of vision.
Watch the Trent's Vision documentary to see how Trent performed. For the best experience, watch in the Red Bull TV app.

So, what are the key principles that make up an athlete’s optimum vision?

Most people think about vision as being their eyes. But the truth is, the eyes are simply a camera. Not a completely dumb camera, but a relatively dumb camera. There is some processing that goes on within the eye, but most of it happens beyond the eye. And so there are things in ‘the camera’ that could interfere with that process of vision, decision and motor action. I use a model that I call the sports vision pyramid. If you think about the pyramid, it’s built on a base and if the base isn’t very strong, it’s going to collapse. So the bottom of the pyramid is purely visual. What I want to know when working with someone like Trent is what’s going on in the eye, especially the tear film, the cornea, and so on, that could be affecting the bottom of the pyramid.
Dr Laby uses the vision pyramid when consulting with new clients like Trent
© Mark McQueen / Stamp Films

So a simple problem could impact someone like Trent quite significantly?

Yes, but at this early stage of working with an athlete, any issues could potentially be fixed. We worked with a Boston Red Sox player in 2013, but for some reason in that period of the season, his batting performance was way off – he was batting successfully around 15 out of every 1,000 attempts. So he came to my office and I determined that he needed a contact lens. Now the contact lens had very minimal power but when we put it on, it lubricated his eyes properly. The next day, every time he went to bat, the trainer actually put the lens in his eye in the dugout area. He went out there to bat and he had four chances that day. One chance he didn't do well at all. The second time, the first baseman made a very heroic diving catch, and it would have been a hit, but it was stopped. But the next two, he got a hit, and he hit a home run. And that home run probably sealed the game for the Red Sox, who won the World Series that day.
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1) Optimum vision is key for Trent's performance
© Greg Coleman
2) A minor problem with Trent's eyes could significantly effect his game
© Greg Coleman

How about the neurological aspect of vision?

The real vision comes from our brain. There's a specific part called the visual cortex, which is in the back of the head. But there are other side routes of vision that don't go back there and instead go to other areas of the brain directly that are very sensitive, for example, to motion. There's a condition called ‘blind sight’ – so people who are completely blind, while they can't see you, if a ball was thrown at them, they will tell you that a ball went past. The fibres that give that motion ability branch off early, go up to the brain, and interact with your consciousness.
The question is, can we intervene, either with glasses or contacts or some sort of training programme to improve their visual performance?

Have you worked with lots of pro athletes during your 30-year career?

I've worked with athletes from all different sports – baseball, soccer, you name it. There are 30 baseball teams in the league, and I've worked with 15 of them. At the moment, I have a player from one of The National Football League teams who had some trouble in the past season and they think that might be related to some of these visual aspects, so he's coming to see me. Just before lockdown, I was working with a Korean baseball team during their spring training. These are all young people I’m talking about – they still have changes in their vision, so you’ll notice that a lot of the time these players have done well, and then they’ll suddenly slump in their performance. We identify what their problem is visually and when we have corrected that, their performance improves again.

What’s the first part of the process when working with an athlete like Trent?

There's a couple of different aspects of this initial testing stage. I call it ‘testing and benchmarking’. It’s something that we do on the day of meeting a new client and it takes an hour and a half or so. At that stage, we haven't corrected anything and we haven't trained anything – we just benchmark their vision. The question is, can we intervene, either with glasses or contacts or some sort of training programme to improve their visual performance? Ideally, everybody we see scores 100. That's obviously not ever the case!
Dr. Laby and Trent have been working together since January
© Greg Coleman

And do you have to do homework on individuals’ performance before training them?

Sometimes it’s a whole team that comes to see me for a check, other times it's a specific concern over one player. If that’s the case, I’ll do some background research before I even see them. I’ll go online to look at videos of how he/she plays, where the error is, why they might not be performing at their optimum. If an athlete has got that far in their career, and they have the skill, it’s hard to believe that something hasn’t happened [to their vision]. I want to try to understand from the videos what are the things that I want to evaluate when we do meet and maybe then that opens up the ability to train something – to improve it. When the player comes in, I address the series of things I want to look at and will try to improve them on the spot. If they don’t do well on some of my tests which I give on an iPad, I'll try to get glasses or contacts that afternoon. If they do well with that, but don't do well with something like a multiple target tracking or visual concentration test, then that requires training over a period of four to eight weeks.
Trent was most challenged by the test of tracking multiple targets

How have you been working with Trent on Trent’s Vision?

I set up a programme that was going to evaluate Trent’s abilities that are critical to his position as a defender. So that's what we did in January; we gave him a series of tests and looked at the results. The programme was designed to address a couple of general things, but specifically, his areas of weakness. Trent was most challenged by the test of tracking multiple targets, so we worked on that. This test evaluates an athlete’s ability to keep track of his teammates as well as his opponents, and is a critical ability for Trent. The exercises are tough to do every day, so he’s been doing them three to five days a week. He's done well and he's improved in a lot of areas.
Dr Laby created visual exercises to mimic Trent's position on the pitch
© Greg Coleman

Tell us about some of the exercises Trent’s been tasked with

I designed the games to match his role on the pitch. He’s a defender but he’s an offensive player. His corners and cross-pitch passes are both strong and well-timed, so we’ve worked on isolated skills to assist any weaknesses that I’ve spotted, too. Some of them involve using a regular laptop or tablet and consist of gamified interactive challenges. Other exercises involved him wearing a three-dimensional head-mounted virtual reality display. I think he got quite into it. It gradually gets more difficult and there's a leaderboard, so Trent can see who’s winning – and like any good footballer, he’s competitive! He started out off the board and gradually he got on and moved up a little. And his goal, obviously, was to be the top of the table. And after a while he actually got there and stayed there for a while, which was good. I’m also getting him to learn to juggle, too. When I next see him I’m going to get him to juggle in front of me – he tells me he can do three rounds, but we’ll see. My aim is to get him to juggle with two footballs!
Trent harnessed his competitive streak for the challenges
© Greg Coleman

Any other cool stuff you’ve been working with him on?

Yeah. Another test we’ve been doing is called a multiple object tracking test (or an MOT). Trent has to track four balls as they move around, then he has to identify the ones we asked him to focus on. That task was quite challenging for Trent, but we've done a bunch of different games to train him to do better on that test, so hopefully we’ll see an improvement. Trent’s also been working on two games using a VR headset. The first is called Flow, and that’s similar to the tracking test. It’s a three-dimensional game that starts with two balls, then three balls, and so on and they gradually get faster. Trent’s job is to track them. The second one is called PADDLE, which is similar but it’s with guns – it’s a shootout game where he has to deflect the shots. It’s a really multi-action event that taps into lots of Trent’s neurological responses.
Trent's been using a VR headset to improve his visual agility
© Greg Coleman

And how does this relate to his skills on the pitch?

He’s been doing a lot of augmented reality (AR) challenges where he’s had to kick a virtual ball on the pitch. We created that using shots he’s made in previous matches. We’re testing how he chooses to pass in the AR game compared to how he plays in real life. We took his team players and digitised them so that he can see them from his own perspective and then we added elements to make it even harder for him like flashing lights and background noise. We even got some of his teammates to record themselves shouting at him as a way to distract him mid-play. We want to make it as difficult as possible for him to be successful so that it replicates a real game.
Since January, Trent’s improved across the board in terms of his sports vision abilities

Where have you seen most improvement in Trent’s vision?

Since January, Trent's improved across the board in terms of his sports vision abilities. He has improved his basic abilities by being able to see things faster, and of lower contrast. In other words, he can take a quick glance and see all the pitch and quickly process that information for an optimal decision. We have significantly increased his ability to track multiple targets on the pitch, which will certainly aid his ability to make accurate crosses and passes and ultimately aid assists. He’s become quicker in making accurate motor actions based on what he sees, which will aid his defensive ability to react to opponents attempting to get by him and proceed towards the goal. Overall, he’s been able to significantly raise his game on the pitch, which will hopefully lead to increased success for him personally and for his team overall.
At 22, Trent's vision can still change with time
© Greg Coleman

Trent is 22 – has his age impacted the way you’ve been working with him on Trent’s Vision?

The visual system focus changes throughout childhood into the teen years, but usually around 18 or 20 – for most people – it becomes fairly stable. And so for Trent, there can still be changes. Again, it depends on the sport; baseball or cricket, for instance, involve very small balls that are moving very quickly, so very fine vision is important. And other sports, like football or basketball, for example, with a larger ball that moves much slower and for shorter distances, a little bit of blur isn't going to make too much of a difference. So, for Trent, we checked his vision back in January and he did very well, he didn’t need glasses or contact lenses.

How can your work with Trent improve his performance on the pitch?

With visual performance, we think about near transfer and far transfer. Near transfer is giving someone glasses, they'll see better right away. When we get to performance on the pitch, we're definitely in the far transfer realm. There's many factors that go into his performance during a match. I can’t say he’ll score this many goals or make this many shots, because that’d be purely guessing. What I can tell you though, is that Trent’s visual motor and visual decision-making skills that are required to perform on the pitch will have been optimised and improved, which may then improve his abilities. He'll definitely feel more confident, which obviously will lead to better performance. Put it this way, I can guarantee you that he’s not going to play worse because of me, and I am pretty confident that we will see him elevate his already superior play on the pitch!
The most important thing is to address your vision and have your eyes checked

Have you got any tips on how the non pro-athletes of the world can improve their visual performance?

Certainly seeing a local sports and performance vision specialist is critical. Unfortunately, there are not many of us who specialise in this area. Short of seeing a specialist, one could train with apps similar to those that Trent used online, such as the GlassesOff app, the BrainHQ app and the Homecourt app. Remember, it's not just a matter of performance on a football pitch, it's a matter of driving, how you cross the street, how you go into a grocery store, how efficiently you can find what you want on the shelf, how well you play sport. All those things are going to involve the vision pyramid that we mentioned. You’ll be surprised at how many people have deficiencies in the bottom of the pyramid that aren't addressed, because that loss happens very slowly over time.
So the most important thing is to address your vision and have your eyes checked. Make sure the vision that you have is the vision that you need to perform what you want. For example, if you're a librarian and you're a little bit nearsighted and you don't have glasses, you’re constantly putting your eyes under strain. But if you're a taxi driver in the streets of London – and there's some classic studies about taxi drivers in the streets of London – you're going to want to have the best vision possible so that you can navigate, avoid pedestrians and so on. If there's a mismatch of your vision and your vocation, then you're not optimised. And if you're not optimised, you're not going to perform at your best. And that's something that everybody, regardless of what they do – elite football player or not – should think about.
Want to train like Trent? Put your vision to the test by taking our Trent's Vision challenge.
What can you learn from Trent Alexander-Arnold?