Shooting and eye dominance

Rupert Godfrey gets in touch with award-winning sports optometrist Ed Lyons to discuss eye dominance.

I was very interested in Ed Lyons' article in the Autumn issue 2013, so I decided to contact him with the view to possibly taking his piece on the importance of vision in shooting a stage further. Using my own experience of having a cataract operation during the summer, and the aftermath, I emailed him to ask for his professional opinion on the following:

I am 60 and have worn glasses since I was 20. My left eye has always been the weaker of the two and, during a routine eye test several years ago, the beginnings of a cataract were seen in the left eye.

I had this operated on in mid-June 2013, with wonderful results: my long range vision in the left eye was fantastic, and it made me realise how poor my right eye actually was.

I have always been right-eye dominant, and this was not changed by the operation. Rather naively, I expected that my shooting would be improved by the operation: if I could see the target better/more quickly, surely this would give me an advantage...

I was, therefore, very disappointed when my shooting was not better, but appeared (statistically) to be worse. I shoot a lot of pigeons, and I was shooting the more difficult, long-range birds, but missing far too many close in.

Two things then happened. First, I noticed that my depth perception was not accurate. Birds I was killing, were dropping 10 yards further away than I thought they were, which was weird. The following day was a very slow one, and I was reading the paper in my pigeon hide, without my glasses on. An occasional pigeon flew past, and I killed 10 with 11 shots, then realised that I hadn't got my glasses on.

For the next few days, I shot without glasses (i.e. with a much reduced vision in my right (master) eye), and started returning to my old form. I have now moved back to wearing glasses and the improvement has continued.

As many shooters are of my advancing years, and cataract ops are more common, is there any advice you could give as to what to expect? Is my experience normal and explicable? I may have to have the right eye done soon, too, so it would be useful to be prepared for what may happen after this. 

On a more general topic, I was interested to see your comments on 20/20 vision, which I had always assumed was the best one could ever achieve. The best Shots I know appear to have phenomenal eyesight, which must help when picking up the line of a clay or a bird against a dark background – like a grouse against the heather, which I still have enormous difficulty in focusing on, as it's just a blur. 

Is my experience atypical?

Ed Lyons' response:

Throughout my experience of assessing some of the UK's top Shots, I have found that they have a ‘visual skillset' which is more advanced than the average shooter.

By that, I mean not only is their corrected visual acuity often far better than 20/20, sometimes as good as 20/10 or beyond, but they also have excellent depth perception, great eye muscle control and the capacity to acquire and track moving objects very accurately.

It is important to note that perfect eyesight does not make the perfect performer, but it is certainly an advantage!

Daniel Coyle's book, The Talent Code, is another extremely interesting read. He hypothesises that our ‘skill level' is directly proportional to the amount of practice we do in order to myelinate our neural circuits – i.e. fire that circuit enough times until it becomes an innate, instinctive ability. Ten thousand hours appears to be the ball park figure to achieve excellence (I've got a bit more to do by the looks of it!).

It makes sense then that if we fire those circuits based on good visual information, then the practice becomes meaningful. If our eyes begin to do unusual things and feed back unstable, changing information, then the visual cortex cannot make the correct associations, and practice does not make perfect. Similar to the old computer adage: rubbish in, rubbish out.

Our visual system is an incredibly complex thing, with the brain's processor, the visual cortex, interpreting the information that our eyes collect.

From the minute we wake up, we use our eyes for everything we do. The way in which they focus gives us subconscious feedback as to where we and everything we are surrounded by fit into our personal space.

If this changes – through ill health, an eye injury or disease process – then the information that the affected eye collects and the manner in which the visual system responds to this will also change. This is also the case when we have a cataract operation.

The old, cloudy human lens in the affected eye is then replaced with a clear, crisp synthetic implant (assuming all is well post surgery).

For all of the years and months leading up to the cataract forming, we have essentially ‘calibrated' ourselves and our motor skills using this information.

Suddenly having a bright, clear image where once was a blurry one can be a bit confusing and often causes a dominance shift that we are unaware of.

If we approach this in the right way, and let our subconscious brain do the work, rather than trying to consciously measure lead, we are more likely to succeed, as you ably demonstrated.

It is of course best to have both eyes balanced and in tune with one another, so it will be fascinating to see how you get on after the second operation!

Eye dominance

Eye dominance is a whole new topic that could have an article all of its own, but is important to bring up here. To me, eye dominance is an often misunderstood concept. It can be a hornet's nest if we worry about it too much. But if we break it down to its simplest form, our dominant eye is simply the eye that the brain is taking its lead or main information from at a given time. And it changes. It changes with age, with stress, tiredness and dehydration. It changes if we cut our eyes in a particular direction, and it can change as soon as we put the gun to the face.

I don't ever like to say that eye dominance is a ‘problem to be corrected', as it isn't a disease or an illness. It is more an ‘issue to be managed', and if we as scientists, coaches and students can accept this, we are halfway there to managing it.

A colleague of mine from the States who is a visual science professor works with Major League Baseball players. “The hill that you have to climb is that the issue of dominance in sport is very much like religion,” he says. “You either believe it or you don't. We do this in baseball all the time, but they'll say a guy has to be left-eye dominant if he's right-handed or he can't hit. Well, you can give them all the evidence in the world that that's not the case and they either believe it or they don't.”

If cross dominance was a real issue, then folk would be falling down the stairs, crashing on the motorway and pouring their tea in their lap unless they patched or closed an eye – or stuck a fluorescent bead on the teapot.

We need to remember it's a dynamic game, not rifle shooting. The fact that you could read the paper and instinctively kill birds without your specs on is testament to this and harkens back to our hunter-gatherer days. We had to be able to react quickly and accurately to the flash in the periphery of our vision as it may be lunch or someone from another tribe who wanted to stove our head in.

What happened to those who couldn't see so well back then I wonder?


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