You may have heard your coach tell you to “keep your eye on the ball” time and time again. Although this is important, especially at the early stages of learning the game – I strongly believe that training your optical impulses, should progressively take precedence in your tennis training regime. When speaking of optical impulses, I am referring to the anticipation analysis and reaction of your eyes that quickly sends signals to your brain and triggers a specifically trained reaction of the body. I find the “keep your eye on the ball” theory to be a pattern of inattention to detail within the coaching world, to a certain extent. This is due to the fact that a lot of coaches harp on this basic procedure so much that they fail to extrapolate and graduate their students from simply just “watching the ball.” To be perfectly honest, there are no great tennis players out there who actively watch the ball throughout the entire retrieval process. This has been proven to be extremely stressful not only for your eyes, but also creates a significant mental strain. If you were to hit 1,000 shots in a match (which is more than average,) the ball will only spend about 4 seconds on your strings (4 milliseconds at a time.) During these milliseconds if the angle of your racket is even an inch off, the flight pattern of the ball will change drastically.
“The pioneering work of Gallwey (1974) suggested that during play a ball-focusing technique helped to reach concentration. However, due to physical limitations (speed of the ball and visual acuity) (Stein and Slatt, 1981), ball-focusing is not always the most relevant strategy.”
In other words, you should most certainly be tracking the ball, but that shouldn’t be your only focus – It is only one of the many, and for a miniscule amount of time. “To cope with these limitations, two significant studies (Braden and Bruns, 1977; Ford et al., 2002) suggested a shift of focus from the ball to the contact zone. According to them, concentration can be improved not only by watching the contact zone, but also by the fixation on this zone until the end of the follow-through. “
Well what about Roger Federer? He looks at the ball for a really long time.
The realistic answer to this question is that he is, but he really isn’t. By the time the ball has crossed the net, it can confidently be said that Federer has already gotten into position and started the reaction of his body. Additionally, if you look closely at the slow-motion video below you should be able to see that he takes his head off the ball and focuses in on the contact zone. He is no longer following the ball with his eyes. This is very common with the pros. Let it be clear that I am just using Federer as an example because of the blatantly emphasized focus he has before and after contact. He does not watch the ball leave because this is HUMANLY IMPOSSIBLE. No human can see the ball on contact during the 4 milliseconds it stays on the strings. It is for this very reason that you should not be watching the ball for too long. By shifting your focus to the contact zone, and how you will get your body in position and racket into the proper contact zone you will increase your concentration, control, and reduce stress and anxiety. These benefits happen naturally by allowing the body to focus on reacting instinctually to the task at hand, instead of stressing yourself to keep your eye on the ball. Just because you cannot see this, does not mean you cannot control it. It’s actually the opposite.
It’s not about focus
Hear me out when I say that it’s not about focus on the tennis court. It’s about the ability to refocus over and over again, for every shot during every point. Think about driving. It’s just another day in the neighborhood, there’s light traffic and out of nowhere a deer runs out onto the road. Some people might run the deer over, but most people will swerve out of the way without thinking to avoid the deer. Either way, some sort of instincts come into play. That takes a little bit of focus there, but afterwards you have to refocus right away. Did you hit the deer? Do you need to pull over? Is your car ok? Is everyone who was around me ok? Imagine all the stress and anxiety these thoughts are causing. Any normal person would probably freak out a little, which is understandable on many levels. However, instead of focusing on all the different potentialities the best thing to do here mentally is to take everything one at a time (just like every shot as its own) and re-focus yourself on finding a safe place to pull over and assess what actually happened. If you don’t re-focus, the risk of you getting in an accident, car being damaged more etc. will increase. By the same token, think about how stressful it would be to drive and be constantly looking everywhere for a deer to pop out.
Now in reference to the instincts at play here, a person who lives where there are a lot of deer will probably respond a little better/quicker than a person who’s never experienced a deer running in the road before. This is because they have “practiced” or trained their reactions both mentally and physically. Their eyes can tell a little sooner that a deer is running on the road, and it’s not just a really big pigeon. This same concept applies to training for tennis. That’s all I have for my deer analogy, I promise!
Conclusion: In retrospect, I would like you to associate my treasured deer analogy to what we tennis players call “great hands,” or “quick hands.” This is when a player gets a shot nailed right at him/her and they just react, putting their racket in the right place at the right time without consciously thinking about it. Everyone has experienced this at least once or twice playing tennis. Therefore proving just how important your optical impulses really are. If on one end you train the physical response aspect of technique, and the other end responding efficiently to various optical queues, your performance will sky rocket. Imagine expanding those “quick hand” moments to every stoke!
- Carlos Bermudez Tennis
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