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Where You Look Can Affect How You Look: Running Mechanics and Gaze Control

– Derek M. Hansen –

Back in the summer of 2008, I was teaching a sport biomechanics course to a group of coaches. I was presenting a model for teaching running technique and how to use the concept of vision to elicit a desired postural response. When teaching an athlete to accelerate from a static start, particularly a non-track athlete (i.e. football), it is very common for them to pop their head up immediately after their first step. Therefore, much of the initial acceleration instruction involves teaching them to keep their head down by focusing on a specific point on the ground in front of them. By making them look at a specific area (usually, three to five meters ahead of them on the ground), you can teach them to keep their head in the correct position – in line with their spine.

The same concept of identifying visual focal points applies to weightlifting movements such as the power clean or power snatch. Keeping your head up is very important, as your head position affects your ability to extend the hips. A common cue for athletes is to look at a high point in front of them (i.e. a mark on the gym wall). Athletes who keep their gaze in a downward direction will tend to rotate forward, with less extension at the hips and less optimal balance in the catch phase.

vickersperceptionhk.jpgI have also been given visual cues for learning how to operate a motorcycle. I once took and extensive motorcycle safety course and the instructors were constantly telling the students to keep their heads up looking toward the horizon. When making a turn, they would tell us to look well past the turn so that our bodies (and the motorcycle) would follow the direction of our head and vision. In many cases, you were looking 50-100 yards past where you were traveling at that moment. It was initially very difficult to look only past the front wheel. However, as you got the hang of it, you would look well beyond where you wanted to go and it worked much more smoothly.

Once I finished describing my examples of vision-directed instruction, one of the coaches informed me that there was a lot of good research on the concept of vision and sport performance. He mentioned the work of University of Calgary Kinesiology Professor, Joan Vickers, in the area of eye-tracking and performance. He also mentioned that she had a recent book on the subject titled, “Perception, Cognition and Decision Training: The Quiet Eye in Action.” Of course, the whole concept of vision and sport intrigued me and I had to find out more. So I bought the book.


Background on Eye-Tracking and Gaze Control

Once I delved into the science behind gaze control, it all made very good common sense. Elite athletes tend to have significantly different eye movements, attention and decision making than non-elite athletes. According to Professor Joan Vickers, expert performers:

– have superior recall and recognition of sport-specific patterns of play.
– are faster in detecting and recognizing objects, such as a ball within the visual field.
– are more efficient and use more appropriate visual-search behaviours.
– have an enhanced ability to effectively pick-up advance (pre-event) visual cues, particularly from an opponent’s postural orientation.
– have greater attunement to relative motion information when presented in the form of point-light displays.
– have more accurate expectations of likely events based on the refined use of situational probabilities. (Vickers, 2007)

Using special monitoring equipment, researchers can observe where an athlete’s eyes are fixated during sports performances. In some cases, athletes are performing the actual sport and, in other cases, they are watching others performing their sport. In both cases, experts have different eye-tracking patterns than non-experts. Examples of studies that have looked at eye-tracking over the years include:

– Ice hockey goaltending
– Basketball shooting
– Baseball hitting
– Pistol shooting
– Golf putting
– Speed skating

The speed skating example is useful for applying to other methods of locomotion. When negotiating a high speed turn, elite speed skaters will fixate on the tangent or reverse point. This point is often called the apex of the turn and represents the location where the body must be positioned over the skates to ensure the exit from the turn can be properly controlled. According to Vickers, elite speed skaters focus their gaze in this way to counter the forces of gravity that pull them off the track. This would be no different than the elite 200m sprinter focusing on the tangent point when running a curve at high speed. Their gaze would be directed well ahead of their position toward the inside of the track. Novices would tend to look straight ahead or track their vision in their own lane, thus experiencing more difficulty staying on the inside of their lane throughout the turn.


Running, Gaze and Visuomotor Control

In situations where sprinting athletes are accelerating from a static start, you are teaching them to keep their head in line with their spine. Depending on their acceleration power, you are having them focus on keeping their vision on a point on the track surface anywhere from three to ten meters ahead of their current position. I often tell athletes to imagine that we have strapped a laser pointer onto their forehead and a red dot should be visible on the track ahead of them. If their gaze and head position are too low, the laser dot will be right in front of their feet. If their vision and head come up too quickly, the laser dot will not even be visible on the track surface. As the athlete transitions up to top speed, between 30 and 60 meters, the laser dot will slowly move well ahead of their current position and off the track.

For long periods of time throughout the year, I will train sprint athletes in indoor environments to escape the cold and inclement weather. However, I find it is easier to get them to adopt proper posture in outdoor training situations. With indoor facilities, athletes will often see a wall in front of them when performing sprint repetitions. Even if they are not in danger of colliding with the wall, athletes will still change their posture and mechanics in anticipation of stopping prematurely. The body will tend to ‘rear-up’, impacting proper acceleration and/or maximum velocity mechanics. When training outdoors, I find that athletes do not feel the same confinement issues and tend to run more freely. I attribute this tendency to the power of vision and gaze. Almost innately, our bodies respond to not only ‘where’ we look, but also ‘what’ we see and take the necessary steps to change our posture and mechanics to anticipate a potential course of action. Some athletes are more sensitive to these environmental issues and coaches need to be aware of the impact of facilities on visuomotor control and athletic performances.

For runners who are performing over longer distances, I always emphasize the importance of training their gaze to track well ahead of their current position. In open areas, I would have them focus on the horizon. However, in more confined areas (i.e. track stadium, wooded trail), I would have them look as far as they could focusing on a point that sits roughly at the height of their head. Focusing your gaze on points that are in close proximity to your current position will result in greater stress and mental fatigue. Your running mechanics will also subtly suffer and you will find that you are less smooth with your running. When an athlete focuses on points in close proximity, their eye movements will tend to move quickly from one fixated location to another in numerous saccades. Vickers describes saccades as rapid eye movements that bring the point of maximal visual acuity onto the fovea so that it can be seen with clarity. When focusing or “fixating” on a point much further away, you will find that you will run more easily and freely, and feel as though you are being pulled toward that point. It is similar to the concept of not focusing too much on the finish line in a race. From a significant distance (i.e. greater than 50-100 meters), looking at the finish line may work. However, as you get closer to the finish line, it is better to focus beyond the finish line to elicit the best performance. Fixating your vision at the finish line may terminate your velocity prematurely.


Closing Remarks

The more I work with athletes, the more I have found that I focus on ‘where’ they look to improve ‘how’ they look. When instructing, I do not go into the science behind eye-tracking and visuomotor control. I simply tell them where I want them to look when executing technique. I also record video of their performance and often show them that their technique broke down due to where they were looking. Like any skill, getting an athlete to adopt appropriate gaze control takes an accumulation of quality repetitions. However, once they get the hang of it, they easily retain this new skill and it goes a long way to refining their technical ability when running. All I can say to athletes and coaches wanting to improve posture and technique is, “Look into this stuff!”


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