Athletes who overused smartphones during lockdown at a disadvantage

Athletes who overused smartphones during lockdown at a disadvantage

Visual skills and decision-making will separate the gods from the clods as sport resumes over the next few months. Dr Sherylle Calder, a leader in the visual skills field, believes that athletes who have kept their eyes and brains sharp during the lockdown period and have limited their exposure to smartphones will be better placed to excel.

Every athlete and team is looking for an edge over their opponents. Those who have returned to training and competition sooner than others will enjoy an advantage in any international contests, tournaments, and events staged later this year.

New Zealand’s top rugby players are currently preparing for a domestic tournament – Super Rugby Aotearoa – that will commence on 13 June. South Africa’s Super Rugby teams, however, will only begin their return to training protocols next week. A return-to-play date is still unclear. With both scenarios in mind, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the Kiwis to regain their form and fitness well ahead of their rivals and take some momentum into the international season, which could still happen in November.

The physical and mental challenges faced by athletes during the hard lockdown period, as well as the relevant return to play programmes needed to mitigate the resultant setbacks, have been analysed at length. How the lockdown, or more specifically how an extended period in a confined space, has impacted on visual awareness and ultimately decision-making has been largely unexplored. The excessive use of smartphones during this time may well have made a bad situation worse.

Calder is a sports scientist who has specialised in visual motor performance for nearly 30 years. During that time, she has worked with the All Blacks, the Australian Test cricket side, South African golf legend Ernie Els and many other elite teams and athletes. She was on the winner’s podium when England won the rugby World Cup in 2003 and as a proud South African when the Springboks triumphed in 2007. More recently, she worked with Eddie Jones’ England between 2017 and 2019.

Calder’s EyeGym programme aims to develop visual skills that enable individuals to make quick and informed decisions. At the same time, Calder is all too aware of the distractions in today’s society that can effectively undo much of her good work. In 2017, she made headlines when she instructed the England rugby players to limit their exposure to smartphones as research had shown that excessive use impacted on the ability to focus and process important information.

There’s been a surge in internet activity during the lockdown period and athletes, like most others trapped indoors, have spent more time than ever on their phones and devices. Calder told Daily Maverick that it will take time for those affected to regain what they have lost, just as it will take several weeks to regain physical fitness.

“So much depends on the individual and what they have done during lockdown,” Calder said. “Prior to this crisis, we had already noted the negative impact of smartphones on athletes. If you are spending 10 hours a day staring at a small screen, scrolling through social media and trying to multi-task instead of focusing or concentrating on a particular thing, you are abusing your eyes and your brain.

“If you are doing that day after day over a period of time, you are effectively ‘de-learning’ the skills you need to take in information and apply them under pressure. This affects everyone, whether they are a professional sportsperson or not. Spending an excessive amount of time on a smartphone will disrupt your focus and you will find it harder to concentrate on one task when you need to.

“Why did they start displaying a user’s screen time on a device a few years back? Is it because of the negative impact that excessive use can have on an individual? I still find it very interesting that Steve Jobs didn’t allow his own kids to use these devices excessively.”

Former Springbok fitness coach Aled Walter recently stated that there would be a period of “catch-up” for athletes when they returned to training after a lengthy and unexpected break. Those who stuck to their task in lockdown, the World Cup-winner argued, would be better placed to regain full fitness and avoid injuries upon returning to action.

Calder believes that there will be a similar period of transition in terms of regaining awareness and decision-making skills. How fast these athletes progress, however, will depend on how reliant they were on their phones during lockdown and indeed how they continue to expose themselves to these devices in future.

“People have been spending more time on phones than usual. Now that the lockdown is easing, perhaps they will spend less time on these devices and will regain their ability to focus and apply their skills to a specific task,” Calder said,

“We’ve been mindful of this challenge during lockdown and have pushed our athletes to limit their time on smartphones. We’ve told them that more time on a device means more time in the EyeGym as a means to counter the negative effects. We’ve pushed them to be accountable. We’re confident they will return to action ready to go, whereas it may take others who have not used the programme or have not limited their use of phones a couple of weeks longer to regain their form.

“I understand that it’s not easy. Some athletes spend between five and 15 hours a day on their phones. What they need to realise is that they have to limit their exposure if they want to be the best at what they do.”

Loss of focus through screen time

Calder said that people are distracted by their smartphones up to 150 times a day. Teenagers spend an average of nine hours a day on their phones, and 50% admit to being addicted. The result of this exposure, as far as sportspeople are concerned, is a loss of focus and ultimately the ability to make quick and informed decisions.

During the lockdown, many athletes have accessed Calder’s EyeGym programme online. Calder said that this programme is ideally suited to bigger screens and that she encourages the user to focus and engage.

‘The result of this exposure, as far as sportspeople are concerned, is a loss of focus and ultimately the ability to make quick and informed decisions’

“Simply put, we feel that bigger screens are better. We want athletes training on their PCs and laptops and not on their phones. We’ve created a programme that ‘wakes up’ or stimulates the eyes and engages the brain. Fine motor skills are engaged and over time developed. It’s the opposite of staring at a small screen and taking information in passively.

“Athletes can train remotely, and we can monitor and assess their progress. The aim has always been to make players better in terms of their awareness and reaction time. I truly believe that those who have stuck to the programme during lockdown will be ready to go once sport resumes.

“You have to keep at it to reap the benefits. It places you under more pressure than you would experience in a game or contest and forces you to focus on the execution of a particular skill. I remember how Springbok wing Bryan Habana flourished while on the programme in 2007. His performance dipped when he didn’t use it in later years. In 2012, he got back on the programme and regained his previous form.”

Calder was disappointed with the manner in which England ended their 2019 World Cup campaign. The Springboks were a class apart in the final and went on to claim a deserved 32-12 victory and ultimately the world title.

That said, England was responsible for one of the finest performances of the 2019 tournament. Despite every pre-match prediction, they showed exceptional skill and focus to outwit and outplay New Zealand in the semi-final, winning 19-7.

“That’s one of the best games I’ve ever seen, and probably one of the best examples of what can be achieved on the back of specific training,” said Calder. “When I watched England play the All Blacks in Yokohama, it reminded me of the Springboks competing against the likes of Argentina and England during the latter stages of the 2007 World Cup. They were just so on point. England’s level of execution was outstanding, and it had to be given they were playing against a side as good as the All Blacks.”

Calder is currently working with Sam Ward, the Great Britain hockey player whose career was in the balance after he was hit in the eye during a game last November. Ward made his comeback to the club game in February, and has now set his sights on representing Great Britain at the Tokyo Olympics.

‘A time to say a big thank you to @eyegym_science who are probably a big reason I have returned to hockey,” Ward tweeted recently. “Their personalised programs and support to help me and retraining my other eye to work and make decisions has been incredible.”

A top-ranked international squash player has also reaped the benefits after working with the South African visionary.

“Squash is one of the fastest sports,” said Calder. “You have to take in the information very quickly and make the necessary adjustments. We aim to train the athlete at a higher level than what they would experience in an actual contest.

“Saurav Ghosal, a top Indian player, made contact with us recently as he wanted to improve his reaction time and ultimately his game. We assessed him and found that his reaction time was indeed slower than it should be. We’ve worked with him to improve that, as he needs those skills to pre-empt the flight of the ball and get into good positions.”

The ambitious owners of English second division side Forest Green Rovers have also recruited Calder. “They’ve ultimately set the goal of qualifying for the Championship, and have brought us in to help the players improve their skills. The players have spent hours and hours training during the lockdown period and we’ve noted some improvements in their awareness and timing. In football, timing is so important, whether it’s the timing of a run onto a pass or getting up to complete a header. We’re actually looking forward to how this all translates onto the field when they return to play.”

All athletes will take time to adjust when they are eventually given the green light to return to competition. The very best, as Calder suggests, will have used this break as an opportunity to gain an advantage and manage bad habits. DM

Jon Cardinelli is a Cape Town-based sports writer.


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