Great situational awareness is a must when operating in tactical environments. Situational awareness dictates shooters must have very fast reaction times along with quick and precise acquisition of targets in order to be effective. Reaction time is preceded by having quick and accurate interpretation by the brain of the visual streams provided to it by the eyes. The more accurate the visual information is, the faster it can be interpreted, thus allowing for quicker reaction times.
Gaze stabilization is a requirement for the eyes to give the brain accurate visual information. If you’ve ever shot video using a camera that does not have built-in stabilization, then you’ve most likely seen how difficult it can be to make sense of what is going on when everything is shaking. Gaze stabilization is simply the process of keeping your eyeball stable while focusing on a target. This skill is autonomous, meaning it happens without you having to consciously think about it. Luckily, by focusing on improving the outcome (in this case, focusing on a specific target more clearly), we can train our gaze stabilization.
Neurologists and optometrists often invest tens of thousands of dollars in equipment used to test and measure gaze stabilization, however, there are simple and straightforward ways for you to do it yourself. An image that is not stable will be perceived as unclear or fuzzy. Focus on a spot and hold your focus for up to 30 seconds. If you find that your eye comes off target (you need to return your gaze to the target) or if the target goes blurry, then there is room for you to improve your gaze stabilization.
Screening your gaze stabilization
Here is a breakdown of how you can screen yourself:
- Find a distant target you can clearly focus on (up to 20 feet is good).
- Test the following eye positions: neutral (eye level), above neutral (superior), below neutral (inferior), lateral in both directions (left and right of neutral). You will need to acquire new targets that are in these specific positions.
- Test using your left eye only, right eye only, and using both eyes (a cupped hand covering the eye not being used usually works best. Keep both eyes open during all tests).
- Set a countdown timer for 30 seconds. (Clear Timer for IOS is a great app that allows you to set a countdown timer for any amount of time.)
- Hold your gaze on the target for the full amount of time. Blinking is OK, but keep it to the minimum needed.
- Record any specific eyes or eye positions for which you lose focus or have to reacquire the target.
Tip: You can set up a camera with a tripod to record your eyes during each position tested to double-check for accuracy and errant eye movements you did not perceive (this is where the expensive equipment I mentioned earlier comes into play). You will know when you’ve found an eye and eye position combo that needs to be developed when any of the following occurs:
- You are unable to maintain focus and the image gets fuzzy/less clear.
- You lose fixation on the target and have to move your eye to reacquire it.
- A position feels more difficult to do compared to the others.
- You fatigue prior to the 30-second mark and one of the above faults occurs.
Training gaze stabilization
When you find a combination of eye and eye positions that have room for improvement, you can begin training with static holds, then progress to dynamic gaze holds.
Static gaze stabilization training
Static gaze stabilization training should be performed in the same manner as described in the screening portion above. It is best to start by training gaze holds at a short enough distance to make it possible to hold focus for as long as you can, up to 30 seconds, and then begin increasing the distance of the target out to 20 feet.
Download a free Snellen chart (eye test)—it provides targets that are quantifiable, as you can change distance or font size. Click here to download (PDF).
Once you’ve developed your static gaze holds to a full 30 seconds in a seated position, then progress to standing and to shooting-specific positions (including use of your dry and safe firearm in prone, seated, and standing positions).
The next progression is to add movement into the mix. There are a number of ways to do this, however, the most manageable is using head movements.
Dynamic gaze stabilization training
Perform static gaze stabilization as previously described; once you are holding gaze on a target, add head movement to the drill. The specific head movements to add are vertical (yes/yes–up and down) and horizontal (no/no–left and right).
Start with the easiest—seated—and progress through each eye position (neutral, superior, inferior, and lateral) along with the use of specific eyes (left, right, and both). Your goal is to maintain gaze stabilization (focus and clarity) through the entire range of motion. Once you’ve mastered all eye movements in the seated position, progress to standing and shooting-specific positions.
Note: When performing with a target at distance or with a firearm, your head movements will need to be much more abbreviated and precise. One way to gauge the correct distance of each head movement is to perform the movement with one eye closed. If your nose blocks your view of the target, you are moving your head too far.
Tips for success in developing gaze stabilization:
- Above all, prioritize clear focus.
- If you lose focus on the target or have to reacquire it, try reducing the distance of the target, range or speed of the head movement (for dynamic stabilization).
- It is common to have a “weaker eye.” Do more reps/sets using that eye.
- Do more work in the positions that test “weak”.
- Prior to shooting, as a neural warm up, perform a set of static stabilizations on your weak eye positions and then follow up with a set of dynamic stabilizations in all positions.
Sets and reps
With eye training, less is often more. There is really no need to do multiple sets in a row unless you are keeping the time down to a level that you consider easy. You may find you make progress faster by doing one set of exercises every few hours. Your goal is to be 100 percent fresh for the next evolution because you are training quality.
If you notice eye strain and fatigue, that is a good sign to discontinue training and come back to it after your eyes have had a break.
Seeking help from a professional
If your gaze stabilization is lacking and does not improve with training, you may need to seek help from a professional. There are medical causes, such as nystagmus, that can make gaze stabilization impossible for you no matter how much you train it. This may or may not show in your daily life as a noticeable symptom, however it will likely be experienced in your shooting as a feeling of fatigue or strain, or worse, an inaccuracy that you cannot seem to improve.
The types of professionals you should look for to help with gaze stabilization are: functional neurologists, aka chiropractic neurologists, and functional optometrists and trainers certified through Z-Health Performance Solutions, specifically certified in their 9S Structure course.
Training yourself to improve gaze stabilization is simple, however it takes discipline to “put in the work.” Consider creating feedback loops into your training by assessing specific skills such as shooting proficiency or reaction time prior to and after vision training to inform you of any progress made. Leave a comment below to let me know how gaze stabilization training impacts your performance.