What a professional athlete sees

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Written by Jesse Muijsenberg

A time ago we came across this video of Cristiano Ronaldo, put on youtube by “Ergoneers”. It might not be the most recent video anymore. But with a.o. the use of this video, we would like to evaluate the differences in eye movement between professional and amateur athletes.

Video by Ergoneers: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC9YJVAG2t_Wr76Gp70HhV7Q

So what did you just see? The researchers in this video are measuring the spatial awareness of Cristiano Ronaldo using eye-movement trackers in a 1 v 1 situation. We would think that soccer players mainly focus on the ball, and as shown in the video they do focus a lot on the ball. However, the researchers in this video also noticed that a fair amount of time Ronaldo his eyes were focused on the field behind the defender and the defenders’ feet. Some other very interesting focussing points were the hips and knees of the defender. By watching the hips and knees of the defender, Ronaldo is predicting what the defender his next move will going to be. This way Ronaldo can be one step ahead of the defender. When they analyze the movements of the amateur soccer player, it is shown that the amateur soccer player only focuses on the ball. He doesn’t have the ability to predict Ronaldo his movements by looking at his joints. Besides he couldn’t even follow the ball easily because Ronaldo made 13 moves in 8 seconds!

What has been said above applies to a 1 v 1 situation, in a laboratory setting. But how is this visual fixation in an 11 v 11 elite soccer match play? A team of researchers in Norway used eye-tracking with elite players in a real-world 11 v 11 soccer game. They also found that when the ball is near a player, there are more fixation points on the opponent than on the ball. This is especially the case when a player is defending compared to attacking. The figure below shows the percentage of viewing time in (A) defense and (B) attack for the different areas of interest which respectively are: 0 (open space), 1 (teammate), 2 (opponent), and 3 (ball).

Percentage of viewing time in defense (A) and attack (B) as a function of areas of interest and distance from the research by Aksum et al.

Another interesting result they found is that the more areas of interest respectively the teammate, opponent, or ball are in their foveal vision, the longer the fixation duration was.

Overall it is shown that professional athletes are more effective in their visual focus. Professional athletes focus on more relevant areas compared to amateur athletes. This is not only the case in soccer, as we have shown above. But this also applies to other sports such as tennis, handball, and volleyball. The differences in fixation points and spatial awareness also leads to the fact that professional athletes are better at anticipating the next moves of an opponent. Another article analyzed the differences in visual strategy in professional and amateur handball goalkeepers. Goalkeeping demands a high level of anticipation, as we also saw in the previous article about reaction time. With high anticipation levels, the goalkeepers can predict what will occur. The researchers in this article found that, during the phase prior to the throw from 7 meters towards to handball goalkeeper, professional goalkeepers have a lot more fixation points than amateur goalkeepers. This means that professional goalkeepers have a bigger perceptive capacity than amateur goalkeepers. Besides they found that the professional goalkeepers focus more on the arm and ball of the thrower and the amateur goalkeepers focus more on the face of the thrower.

All of these articles and findings are very interesting and show us how important cognitive abilities are to athletes and that these cognitive abilities do not stop at reaction time and working memory, but should also include visual and spatial awareness. With our software tool, we want to give everyone the opportunity to perform at their best by improving these cognitive abilities.


  • Youtube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YsCokWHGLXc
  • Aksum, K.M., Magnaguagno, L., Bjorndal, C.T., Jordet, G. (2020). What Do Football Players Look at? An Eye-Tracking Analysis of the Visual Fixations of Players in 11 v 11 Elite Football Match play.
  • Rivilla-Garcia, J., Munoz, A., Grande, I., Almenara, M.S., Sampedro, J. (2013). A comparative analysis of visual strategy in elite and amateur handball goalkeepers.

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