Good vision is critical for nearly every sport. To determine the effect of visual acuity on sports performance, British optometrist Geraint Griffiths and others in 2003 tested the performance of Wimbledon tennis players and UK national clay pigeon shooting champions when their vision was blurred with special goggles. Overall, the tennis players and marksmen showed a 25% worsening of performance when their visual acuity was only slightly blurred by the goggles.
In addition to providing sharp vision, sports eyewear offers a number of additional benefits to help athletes and sports enthusiasts of all ages perform at their highest level:
Protection from impact-related injuries
No one can perform at their best during sports if they are worrying about an injury. Compared to regular eyewear, sports eyewear offers a primary benefit of superior impact resistance and eye protection.
According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, more than 40,000 sports-related eye injuries occur annually in the United States, and approximately one-third of those affected are children.
Experts agree that many if not most of these injuries can be prevented with protective eyewear, such as safety goggles with polycarbonate lenses. Polycarbonate lenses are up to 10 times more impact-resistant than regular eyeglass lenses and can withstand impact from a ball or other projectile traveling at up to 90 miles per hour.
Contact lenses alone offer no protection from sports-related eye injuries, and regular eyeglasses designed for everyday wear are not strong enough nor are they designed to offer adequate eye protection during sports.
While safety eyewear should be considered for every activity that has the potential for eye injury, it is essential for the following sports: baseball, softball, basketball, hockey, football, handball, racquetball, squash, field hockey, lacrosse, soccer, swimming and pool sports, fishing, tennis and volleyball. Paintball “war games” are another activity for which safety eyewear is a must.
Protection from UV
Another danger during outdoor sports, even in winter, is ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. Excessive exposure to UV rays has been associated with eye diseases such as cataracts and ocular tumors. You can also get a "sunburn" on your eye – called photokeratitis – which is very painful and can cause long-term damage to the cornea (the clear front surface of the eye).
Skiers should always wear tinted goggles or sports sunglasses that block 100% of the sun’s UV rays, since these harmful rays are stronger at higher altitudes. UV also bounces off snow (even on cloudy days) to increase one’s exposure. Anyone participating in outdoor water sports also needs UV protection, since UV rays reflect off bodies of water.
Some contact lenses offer UV protection. However, since contacts cover only the center part of your eye and can't do anything for uncovered areas, you should still wear UV-blocking sunglasses, preferably with a close-fitting, wraparound style. Wide-brimmed hats are also helpful to reduce exposure of your eyes and face to UV rays.
In some lighting conditions, “keeping your eye on the ball” is not as easy as it sounds. Sports eyewear with special tints can help. Amber-colored “shooting glasses” are popular with hunters because they increase the contrast of birds, clay pigeons, etc. against an overcast sky. In recent years, several eyeglass lens manufacturers have created special tints for sport sunglasses that increase contrast and improve visibility in a wide variety of indoor and outdoor lighting conditions. Your eye doctor or professional optician can show you samples of these lenses and help you decide which tints are best suited for your needs.
Polarized sports sunglasses reduce glare from reflective surfaces, making them extremely beneficial for fishing and other water sports. They can also reduce glare from sunlight reflecting off a sandy beach or light-colored pavement, such as an outdoor basketball court.
Anti-reflective (AR) coating is another glare reducer. AR-coated sports glasses reduce lens reflections at night if you're playing under bright lights. AR coating is also a good idea for the back surface of sport sunglasses. It reduces glare from “bounce-back” reflections that occur when sunlight hits the back of your lenses.
Photochromic lenses are another way to control light for optimum visibility and performance. These lenses darken automatically outdoors in response to UV rays from the sun. They reduce the intensity of light reaching your eyes to a more comfortable level, and provide 100% UV protection at the same time.
Convenience and comfort
Many people choose to wear contact lenses for sports, even if they prefer eyeglasses at work and for other daily activities. Contact lenses offer unobstructed peripheral vision and more natural-appearing vision, with no unwanted changes in image sizes that eyeglasses can sometimes produce.
One-day disposable soft contact lenses are an excellent option for sports, because they don't require cleaning. You wear them just once, and then throw them away. This makes them especially attractive to someone who normally wears eyeglasses.
And because they are made of a soft, oxygen-permeable material, one-day soft lenses require little or no adaptation. So even if you haven’t worn contact lenses for a week or longer, you can usually wear a pair of one-day disposable lenses comfortably for a full day of sports or other activities.
Remember, though contacts offer visual and other advantages over glasses for sports (you don’t have to worry about them fogging up or falling off when you’re perspiring, for example), you still need to wear protective eyewear over contact lenses to protect your eyes from injuries and/or UV damage.
Today, sports eyewear can be spotted on almost anyone who picks up a ball, bat, racquet or stick — whether they play in the major leagues or the Little League. Fortunately, coaches, parents and players now realize that wearing protective eyewear for sports pays off in several ways. The risk of eye damage is reduced or eliminated, and the player's performance is enhanced by the fact that they see well. In fact, many clubs today do not permit their members to participate without wearing proper eye gear.
Initially, there was some resistance by children to "looking funny" when they wore protective eyewear. Today, sports goggles are an accepted part of everyday life, much the way bike helmets have become the norm. In addition, both children and adults like the image that wearing protective eyewear gives them: it shows they mean business on the playing field.
If you're not wearing protective eyewear, consider this...
Prevent Blindness America reports that hospital emergency rooms treat 40,000 eye injuries every year that are sports-related. Sports such as racquetball, tennis and badminton may seem relatively harmless, but they involve objects moving at 60 miles per hour or faster. During a typical game, a racquetball can travel between 60 and 200 miles per hour. Another potential danger is that the racquets themselves move at high speed in a confined space and often make contact with one another.
Flying objects aren't the only hazard. Many eye injuries come from pokes and jabs by fingers and elbows, particularly in games where players are in close contact with each other. Basketball, for example, has an extremely high rate of eye injury.
These are great reasons to wear protective eyewear. Another aspect has to do with performance. It used to be common for people with mild to moderate prescriptions to simply participate in sports without wearing their glasses or contacts. But sharp vision is a vital ingredient to performing well in nearly every sport, and participating in sports when you have less than 20/20 vision is counterproductive.
Features to look for
Prescription glasses, sunglasses and even on-the-job industrial safety glasses don’t provide adequate protection for sports use. Sports goggles are made in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some are even designed to fit in helmets used for football, hockey and baseball. Sports goggles should allow the use of helmets when the sport calls for it.
Lenses in sports eyewear are usually made of polycarbonate. Since polycarbonate is such an impact-resistant lens material, it works well to protect eyes from fast-moving objects. Polycarbonate lenses also have built-in ultraviolet (UV) protection and are coated to be scratch resistant — valuable properties for outdoor sports.
Polycarbonate is the material of choice for sports lenses, but the eyewear frame plays just as important a role. Different sports require different types of frames, which has led to development of sport-specific frames. Sport frames are constructed of highly impact-resistant plastic or polycarbonate, and most come with rubber padding to cushion the frame where it comes in contact with your head and the bridge of your nose.
Some sports styles are contoured, wrapping slightly around the face. This type of goggle works well for biking, hang-gliding, and sailing. Contact lens wearers especially benefit from the wraparound style, which shields your eyes from wind and dust.
A note about handball goggles
At one time, handball goggles for those with no need for vision correction were simply goggles with small openings in place of lenses. It was eventually recognized that the high speed of handballs compressed the ball enough to protrude through the opening and cause serious eye damage. All goggles worn for handball and racquetball should include impact-resistant polycarbonate lenses for adequate protection during these sports.
Important fitting considerations
Sport goggles must be properly fit to the individual wearer. This is particularly important with children, because there is a temptation to purchase a larger goggle than what is needed today so the youngster has "room to grow." Some growing room is acceptable, since sports goggles are made to be somewhat flexible in their width adjustment. If the frames are oversize, however, they will not protect the way they were designed, leaving a potential for damage when there is impact to the head or the face. It's a risk not worth taking.
By the same token, permitting a youngster to continue wearing goggles that he or she has outgrown can be just as dangerous. First, the frames will be uncomfortable, tempting the child to take them off. Secondly, the frames may obstruct peripheral vision, leading to poor performance with a potential for impact from unseen sources to one side or another. Review the fit of your youngsters' sports eyewear each year to ensure that they are still providing proper protection and are fitting comfortably. Make sure the padding inside the sides of the goggle rests flush with the face and the eyes are centered in the lens area.
When they’re in the water, swimmers and scuba divers who wear eyeglasses or contact lenses could benefit from prescription swim goggles.
These special types of sports eyewear require a prescription that is different from a regular eyeglasses prescription because of the unique characteristics of an underwater environment. Water itself acts as a magnifier, which is why fish in a tank or other underwater objects sometimes appear larger than they actually are. Since light travels and bends differently through water than it does through air, your eye care professional will need to modify your eyeglasses prescription so your underwater sports eyewear gives you the same clear vision your glasses provide on dry land.
Also, depending on the style of diving mask or swim goggles you choose, an adjustment to your prescription may be necessary because the corrective lenses may be positioned closer or farther from your eyes than the normal position of your eyeglass lenses.
Scuba diving masks
Prescription lenses for scuba diving masks are available in one of two forms: either the entire front of the mask is a prescription lens, or corrective lenses are inserted separately between the mask and your eyes. If the dive mask comes with prescription lenses, they may be either custom-made for your vision correction needs, or they can come pre-made in a prescription for nearsightedness or farsightedness that is the same for both eyes.
Most people who require corrective lenses have a similar prescription for both eyes, so a dive mask with pre-made lenses will usually provide adequate vision for reading gauges and maneuvering around underwater. Even though pre-made prescription lenses don’t correct astigmatism, most people who have astigmatism can function quite well with a spherical (meaning "without astigmatism") correction in the water.
Dive masks made with lenses designed specifically to your measurements and prescription are generally more expensive than their pre-made counterparts.
Some diving masks are designed to allow customized prescription lens inserts to be attached to the inside of the front of the mask. This option provides a more accurate vision correction. But, depending on the depth, temperature and type of water that you’re in, fogging may be a bit more problematic with lens inserts.
If you’re a contact lens wearer, however, you might benefit from a diving mask that allows prescription lens inserts because they provide the option of wearing or not wearing contacts. If you have the contact lenses in for a dive, there’s no need for the prescription insert. If you go diving without your contacts on, you can put the prescription lens inserts in the mask for a clear underwater experience.
Because of the potential risk of contamination of contact lenses underwater, it’s generally a better idea to dive and swim without them. Another option is to wear one-day disposable soft contacts, and discard them as soon as you’re back on dry land.
Swimming goggles are much smaller and fit closer to your eyes than a diving mask. They are designed to protect your eyes from the water and be sleek and unobtrusive at the same time, so as not to interfere with your speed and motion. A rubber or silicone seal surrounds the lenses to keep water away from your eyes.
As with dive masks, swim goggles are available with pre-made prescription lenses that are the same power for both eyes. Because swim goggles generally are used in a pool setting, these pre-made prescription lenses will usually provide adequate vision. However, custom-made prescription swimming goggles are also an option.
Hunters and gun enthusiasts require eye protection, whether at a shooting range or in the woods. All firearms have a certain amount of recoil, and many shooting activities take place outdoors, where wind, sun, dust, tree branches and brush all can cause eye injuries.
Pre-made nonprescription sports goggles are usually acceptable if you don't require vision correction or if you wear contact lenses. Most of these goggles have a wraparound style to shield the eyes from wind and dust. However, lens quality can vary in pre-made goggles. Make sure the lenses are made of polycarbonate, which is the most impact-resistant material available.
Frame features to look for
If you need prescription lenses in order to focus well, or if you simply want to use the best shooting eyewear available, shooting glasses in styles similar to aviator sunglasses are always popular.
Eyewear designed specifically for shooters, however, has a few more features than the traditional aviator-shaped frame for everyday (or “dress”) wear. Most importantly, the frame should be a safety-rated model, with a strong rim to hold the lenses in place. Some styles have a "sweat bar" that runs the width of the frame above the lenses to add more stability to the frame and keep it steady on the face. Others have special padding on the frame around the eyes to cushion the frame against your face in case the gun recoils too far. It also helps to shield your eyes from wind and dust.
The temples of shooting glasses are often designed with spring hinges that allow the frame to flex without breaking when recoil occurs. Also popular are temples that wrap around the ear in the "cable" style to help keep the frame in place.
Adjustable nose pads are a good idea so the frame can be fit in the optimum position, and softer silicone pad materials provide additional comfort.
The frames of shooting glasses are constructed of any number of ophthalmic materials, including titanium and other metals, regular plastic and tough polycarbonate.
Choose the right lenses
Polycarbonate lenses with a scratch-resistant hard coat and built-in ultraviolet protection have been the lenses of choice for shooting glasses for many years. This lens material is highly impact-resistant to provide you with maximum "blow-back" and "bounce-back" protection. Recently, new lens materials have been developed that are also very impact-resistant.
Many nonprescription shooting glasses come with several pairs of interchangeable lenses for use under different lighting conditions. Prescription lenses can be made to order in whatever color you deem most appropriate.
Many shooters are comfortable in lenses that are yellow or orange. Lenses in these hues block haze and blue light and enhance the orange color of the target. The brighter yellow the lens color is, the better it is for use in foggy or low-light conditions.
Alternatively, a light purple color, which is actually a combination of a neutral gray and vermilion, is good for enhancing the orange of the target against a background of tall trees. Vermilion itself is useful to highlight conditions where there is poor background, such as trees, and to enhance the target against the background. Gray is a neutral, or "true," color that lets you see all colors as they are. Gray shooting lenses do not enhance the target, but they are good in bright sunlight.
Polarized shooting lenses can be made in almost any color. Polarized lenses reduce glare from light bouncing off highly reflective surfaces, making them an excellent choice when hunting near bodies of water.
Seeing “20/20” isn't the only measure of good vision. Visual acuity (20/20, etc.) is certainly important. But good vision involves a set of several skills, including depth perception, peripheral visual field awareness, eye-hand coordination and more.
All these vision skills are extremely important in sports, whether you play golf, soccer, baseball, basketball or racquet sports.
If you want to perform your best in sports, you may benefit from seeing an eyecare practitioner who specializes in sports vision — even if you already have 20/20 vision. This is because a typical eye exam usually doesn’t include tests of visual skills important to sports performance.
Sports vision testing is more extensive, and can be tailored to the specific sport you are interested in. During a sports vision exam, it’s not unusual for the examiner to include tests to evaluate how well you see while you are moving around outdoors and interacting with other objects or players.
Many professional athletes work on their sports vision, but so do high school and college athletes, recreational golfers, tennis players and even billiards players. Some non-sports professionals also benefit from the same vision training, including law enforcement personnel and pilots.
When you visit a sports vision specialist, he or she will probably give you a complete eye exam and will ask you questions about your activities. More testing will determine your sports-related needs. These tests may include the use of three-dimensional, holographic images so you can react to them as in real life, and computerized tests that measure your reaction time and eye-hand coordination.
Depending on your particular sport, actual on-field measuring of your reactions to various sports situations may be included. Many sports vision specialists will attend your games or matches to help them evaluate your vision performance. They may also study videos of your games.
You may need only one visit to a specialist to set you on your way to better visual skills for sports. However, in many cases, a comprehensive sports vision training program is a better option to help you develop your sports vision skills so they become second nature.
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