How to use eye tracking data in sports performance

  • by Carl Alin
  • 6 min

Two ice hockey players and millions of data points

I spent a lot of my early life at the ice rink. In Sweden, when we talk about hockey, we don't mention the 'ice' part — that's a given. Back then, a lot of rinks were outdoors, and I learned to cope (not entirely willingly) with bitter winter temperatures at a young age. As I grew up, my evenings and weekends were consumed with on- and off-ice training, matches, and team-building exercises. There were times when I dreamt of becoming a professional player, but when the crunch moment came, I opted for a year in high school in the US. Hockey gave me a solid physical and mental foundation and kindled a love of data.

Given the boom in healthcare and wellbeing devices in the consumer segment over the past decade, I'm guessing I'm not alone in my love of data. Like so many of my friends and colleagues, I'm kind of addicted to the ability to compare my performance with what I achieved last week or even last year. I think it's because the data exposes the truth, providing me with a reliable barometer that tells me what works and doesn't.

And that's what I want to talk about in this post — how to use Tobii's eye tracking and attention data to measure sports performance. I've hand-picked a couple of studies and commercial solutions that demonstrate how attention computing and eye tracking can help uncover simple but precious insights about sports performance. If you want to dig deeper into any of them, check out the links at the end of this post.

What is quiet eye?

Table tennis

The concept of a prolonged focus before striking a ball, say in table tennis or golf, has been thought to be associated with accurate ball placement and winning shots. The concept is known as quiet eye, and Ph.D. candidate Andrada Vincze decided to test the validity of this phenomenon in dynamic sports situations. Using the data generated by our eye tracking glasses, she studied elite table tennis players in match scenarios concluding that successful strokes are indeed associated with longer quiet eye. Since I read about Vincze's research, I've tried out my version of quiet eye when playing golf, and while I haven't used our technology to prove the point, I certainly feel like I'm hitting the ball better — at least when I remember to focus.

Get inside somebody else's mind

Ice hockey goalie wearing eye tracking glasses

This case is understandably close to my heart. I would have loved to have the kind of insights that William Rahm — goalie coach for one of the Swedish men's elite ice-hockey teams (HV 71) — gathered with our technology. Rahm knows that the skills needed to be a proficient goalie include puck tracking and reading the game. He used our eye tracking glasses to overcome one of his specific issues — one that most coaches face, irrespective of sport — and that is watching the action from the sidelines. Our technology enabled Rahm to get inside the goalie's head while on the ice, providing the data to visualize the cognitive processes at play and translate subconscious actions into effective new training strategies.

Having seen the visualizations that our technology generates, I think it would be great to leverage this kind of insight for all positions. As a defender, I would find it helpful to know where an attacking player is looking.

Works for judges too

Karate referees

Subjectiveness is one of the most significant issues for sports that rely on manual observation and points awarded by judges. By nature, manual observation is subjective and unsystematic, so Imola Szebényi — a Hungarian-German karate professional — took it upon herself to try and understand the disparities in karate judging. Using katas (combinations of set moves) as the basis for her research, Szebényi used our eye tracking glasses to record what judges pay attention to. The data showed that experienced referees often anticipated where to look before the karateka took their next move — a skill that could be transferred.

Her study highlights one of the recurring themes we have noticed at Tobii with sports performance: the comparison of elite players and novices. In one study that investigated the focus patterns of female volleyball players when serving, the researchers discovered that when receiving a serve, elite players don't — as I would have expected — focus on the ball but on the leg movements of the player on the other side of the court.

So now I know where to look the next time I play volleyball, and maybe I will gain a bit of kudos with a good return. But this kind of insight can massively shortcut the learning curve for novices. Coaches can train upcoming players to emulate what the elite have had to learn through years of training

Research with VR


According to Dr. David Martin, chief scientist at Apeiron Life — a Silicon Valley startup that promotes a data-driven approach to health, wellbeing, and fitness — the high stakes in the world of international sports ensure that any new research, technology, or methodology that might make a difference to athletic performance is usually worth investigating. Together with REACT Neuro and their extended network in Boston, Martin has transformed a traditional, paper-based trail-making cognitive assessment test into a VR application that leverages attention computing to deliver the data that will help his team figure out if it is possible to slow cognitive decline through exercise and diet.

I wanted to highlight this story because it shows how you can use eye tracking and attention data to assess behavior in VR. I think it's a great example of how our technology does a better job than manual observation. In short, you can measure how erratic a person's eye movements are and how long they dwell on a particular point — data that cannot be gathered systematically through observation.

A commercial VR solution

Every year, an estimated 3.5 million people in the US sustain a traumatic brain injury (TBI), resulting in about 50,000 deaths. Today, some 5.3 million people in the US live with a permanent TBI-related disability. Besides the cost and strain on healthcare systems, cognitive impairments resulting from a fall or head collision profoundly affect the ability of a professional sportsperson to work and participate in daily activities.

Neurosync (formerly SyncThink) was born out of research aiming to improve the understanding of TBI with enhanced detection and judicious treatment capabilities. Their patented EYE-SYNC solution uses VR with Tobii's attention computing to assess TBI directly on the sidelines. PRO-SYNC is a VR-based screening solution for visual perception deficits.

What I like most about this story is that the founders of Neurosync spent years trying to find a way to access the data they needed — even building their own VR headsets at one point. But eventually, technologies matured to the point where commercially available headsets enabled with eye tracking were able to deliver the necessary attention data.

Understanding the data

The correlation between eye movement and performance is a well-researched subject, and our solutions are popular among researchers because they generate robust, repeatable data. In all the above cases, our analytic solutions help researchers to understand what the data means.

If you are interested in digging deeper into how to do scientific research with eye tracking, I suggest you take a look at the scientific research page on our website. And as promised, here are the links to all the stories in this post.


Written by

  • Carl Alin — digital marketing manager

    Carl Alin

    Marketing manager

    I am a marketing manager at Tobii and head a team of marketers, which means that we are responsible for executing our marketing strategy, creating demand for eye tracking and attention computing, capturing that demand, and turn it into opportunities for growth. I work with all our segments, which means that I interact with every aspect of our business, from scientific research to consumer packaging effectiveness, and implementation of our technology in commercial devices. I like the breadth of Tobii's technology because while it makes for challenging marketing, it makes for a stimulating workplace.

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