The Power of Peripheral Vision

A few years ago, I walked to the top of a nearby hill with my youngest daughter (she was around five years old at the time). It was nighttime and the stars were out. I was hoping we’d see a shooting star. But I also wanted her to see a satellite. I told her that a satellite looks like a little star moving across the sky.

She held my hand, looked up, and within 5 seconds (no exaggeration), she screamed, “I see one!”

I have to admit, I didn’t believe her at first.

She was looking straight ahead (12 o’clock). But her finger was pointing to the left (around 10 o’clock). I lined up my gaze with her finger and, sure enough, there was a satellite streaking across the sky.

I asked her why she wasn’t looking directly at it. She said, “It’s harder to see.”

Her peripheral vision picked up the satellite almost immediately.

I thought this was fascinating. I had a basic understanding of how the eye worked but I wanted to learn more.

In a nutshell, the retina (the inner, back lining of the eyeball) is packed with two types of cells — rod cells and cone cells. Cone cells are responsible for color vision but they’re less sensitive to movement and contrast. Rod cells, on the other hand, aren’t able to detect color but they’re great at picking up contrast and movement. Peripheral vision primarily uses rod cells.

This explains why my daughter was able to notice the satellite without looking directly at it. The night sky is full of white dots on a black background (extreme contrast). In other words, it’s a peripheral vision playground.

Here’s where I’m going with this…

Once you understand how peripheral vision works, you can put it to good use.

Let me give you an example.

I’ve played volleyball my whole life. Hand-eye coordination is really important. If you can’t translate what you’re seeing into the proper motor response (i.e. hands, arms, torso, and feet in the right place), you’re in trouble.

Volleyball, like many sports, uses a ball. The ball, like a satellite, moves across a net, field, or some other background. The movement creates contrast. And peripheral vision loves contrast and movement.

After the experience with my daughter, I decided to experiment with my peripheral vision. Instead of looking directly at the volleyball when I was passing, setting, hitting, etc. I started looking just off-center (above, below, left, or to the right of the ball). Not only did the quality of my contacts improve, but I was able to see where the ball was going much sooner (we’re talking about fractions of a second, but in a game where fractions of a second matter, it makes a difference).

Focusing off-center forced me to rely more on my peripheral vision which ultimately improved my reaction time. Peripheral vision also allows you to see the movements of people that are not right in front of you (teammates, opponents, etc.).

When I was in junior high, I remember one of my friends saying that Wayne Gretzky (the famous ice hockey player) was able to see things in slow motion. Over the years, I’ve heard other people toss that theory around. While I highly doubt he was actually seeing things in slow motion, I think it’s very possible his peripheral vision was highly tuned and he was able to perceive movement quicker than the average person which gave the illusion that he could see things in slow motion.

If you’ve ever been “in the zone” as an athlete, you know what it’s like to have everything both in and out of focus at the same time (I realize that doesn’t make any sense but if you’ve been “in the zone” you probably know what I mean). By not focusing on anything, in particular, the blurry tapestry of movement turns into a heightened state of general awareness. It almost feels like you have a temporary superpower.

Everyone has peripheral vision, but very few people CONSCIOUSLY use it to their advantage.

Using your peripheral vision can help you take your game to the next level. Give it a shot.

If you liked this article, share it with your friends! Also, please considering joining my free “Live Unstuck” Facebook group.




Tanner Peak Performance is committed to helping people gain clarity, achieve balance, and be more present in their lives.

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Russ Tanner

Russ Tanner

Owner, Tanner Peak Performance Coaching

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