Playing with seeing aids

[BETA POST to get the content out there, will build out if there's interest]

Some of the questions addressed below

* What happens to my tennis game if seeing / vision improves?
* Reversely, if I don't see well, what happens to my game?
* Should I play tennis with glasses or contact lenses?
* What happens when I start playing tennis with glasses?
* How does the magnifying effect affect my game?
* How do I go about finding the right seeing aid?

Seeing & tennis

For most of my tennis life, I have felt that 1) I had more of a "global perception" (is that an infinite extension of triple vision?), and 2) never really looked at (picked up?) the ball. After a bunch of thinking and research on that topic, I'm still not really sure if those are skills or deficits - or maybe a bit of both? But, when I recently found out that I'm farsighted (i.e. I can use some help seeing near), I thought I should try playing with seeing aids and see what would happen.

Up to this point, I've adjusted with "accommodation" - basically using eye muscle power to bend the lens. That's quite exhausting over time, and tends to get harder as you get older. Also, on court you probably want to keep your eyes relaxed and put that energy elsewhere...

To improve as a player, I'm constantly trying to assess elements of my game and benchmark it against others. In more recent years, I've been trying harder to demystify skills and find out why people have become good at something. For example, here are some things I've been wondering about that might relate to eyesight:

  • How do some other players put away balls with much more assurance, even though I have the determination, technique and practice to do so?
  • Why do some seem much more balanced?
  • Why do some appear much calmer, and why does the timing seem so much better?
  • Why do they seem more consistent in general, day in, day out?
  • Why do they seem to handle misbounces much better?
  • How do others pick up what the opponent is doing, e.g. for poaching?
  • Why do I seem to have a more of that "global perception" on court, and subjectively 0 focus on the ball?
Trying out seeing aids seemed like a good way to get some answers. I though I'd give both of the usual suspects a try, glasses and contact lenses.

Playing with glasses

Being far-sighted, the biggest change playing with glasses was the magnifying effect. Everything was suddenly nice and sharp, but also huge! For my values of roundabout +3 dioptrics, everything seemed 20-30% bigger. On court, that was the biggest adjustment to make, probably because brain & body were trained for decades to measure & react to distance of oncoming objects without that magnifying effect.

After a few practice sessions I did feel it would be net positive to play matches with glasses, rather than without a seeing aid. In the matches, I found that I was handling normal-pace balls pretty well, but often when I had to react quickly I'd make contact too early. The magnifying effect made my brain think that the ball was already there. There were a few frustrating and outcome-affecting situations, such as putting sitters on top of the net straight to the bottom. Returning fast first serves was tricky too. What helped me was triangulating the distance to the ball with other objects in my field of vision - such as my other hand, my neon-colored string, and maybe even the tip of my cap's visor. And of course a lot of repetition, especially where reflexes where needed (e.g. volley-volley).

Things people warn about in regards to playing with glasses are limited field of vision, the frame obstructing that field, and the glasses fogging up. The first two I didn't have problems with - probably because my head does keep turning towards the ball until its trajectory is locked in, and when the ball gets very close you can't really see it anyways. For months I never had a problem with fog, until of course I played the National Championships on indoor HarTru. That surface needs a lot of water, so humidity was pretty high. Every 10 seconds or so the glasses would fog up, and I could not see much at all - not fun. To counter, people seem to recommend anti-fog spray or keeping a layer of liquid soap on the glasses, which I haven't tried yet.

A positive experience of playing with glasses was being able to see really well what the other player was doing, even from one baseline to the other. So that meant earlier prep, improved anticipation, and with that better movement, timing, and balance. I felt how most of the microadjustments I had made over the years started to go away. I probably got looser overall too.

Bottom line, the brain does adjust over time and it's been nice feeling more stable and hitting the ball very cleanly. I find that magnifying effect bothersome though, and also would not like to get into another situation where the glasses fog up during an important match.

Outside of tennis, the magnifying effect bothered me too. For example, I did not like that the car gauges, a basketball, or even people's faces suddenly looked so huge. For working on the computer or watching TV it was pretty nice though, since everything was sharp, and in a sense you get a screen size upgrade.

Playing with contact lenses

Out of the gate, most people would recommend contacts for sports. I wanted to experience both though - out of curiosity, and to see what works better for me.

At first, I had trouble putting the contacts in, probably because our natural and often reinforced instinct is to protect our eye from foreign objects. In addition, the first couple of lenses I tried were not that comfortable.

The biggest problem though was that my local optometrist, part of a major chain, gave me weaker lenses compared to my glasses. After talking to a few others and doing research, you're supposed to do that for nearsighted folks. So those contacts helped a little bit, but neither felt effective nor natural. If you're far-sighted (again, you can see well into the distance and need help closer up), you'll at least need the same dioptrics numbers as you do for glasses.

A different optometrist gave me a demo pack of Bausch & Lomb's PureVision 2 in the right strength - in my case same as the glasses. I immediately saw great, and after a few seconds did not even notice wearing them anymore.

If optometrist and/or eye doctor agree, you can leave those 30 lenses in for 30 days straight, day and night. Looks like experts recommend taking them out for activities like sauna, swimming, or anything else that could affect hygiene, oxygen exchange, tear fluid etc. I'm surely not an expert here, just pointing out a few things to be cautious about.

Being on court felt pretty natural again, will have to play some more and see what happens. Jumping into a match right after playing with glasses for a few months was a bit tricky though. I expect the readjustment to take some time, however less than adjusting to playing with glasses :)

Takeaways, for now

In hindsight, I should have gone straight to (the right) contact lenses. Maybe go to 3 optometrists, see what they recommend, compare, and try things out. Demo packs seem pretty common too, so it probably won't hurt to pick up a few different contacts and see which ones work best.

Before playing with a seeing aid, it looks like I had taken on a bit of a Dare Devil challenge. Since vision was handicapped, I had to amplify my other senses. For example, I think I triangulated ball position and point of contact by picking up that oncoming trail of yellow, by sound and rhythm, and by building up a lot of experience over the years. Maybe that's also one of the main reasons why I can tell if a racquet 1 mm or 1 gram off, if the grip is 1 mm too thick, or if the string job did not turn out perfectly.

Tennis (and the rest of life) is definitely a lot more fun when you can see well. My hypothesis is that most players on top of their respective game have great vision - as seems to be the case with Roger Federer or Timo Boll.

Overall, playing without and with different seeing aids were valuable experiences. In theory those should have added some differentiated learning for brain & body, and will hopefully pay dividends in the long run. I'm curious and cautiously excited about feeling more comfortable on court, especially in matches. Will provide updates here once I learn more...

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