I know, I know. The way Federer watches the ball is beautiful. It’s elegant, it’s graceful, and it looks really, really good in slow motion.
But it is not the way every player should watch the ball.
Every athlete and coach can quickly recite the meme that “every athlete’s body is different,” and yet few of us actually apply that idea to our own athletics. This causes certain techniques – like Roger’s visual technique – to be misunderstood as universal, even though they aren’t.
“Watch the ball” often isn’t specific enough to fix a player’s visual issues. Of course your student is trying to watch the ball – they’ve been told to “watch the ball” a hundred times. They’re probably also trying to keep their head still at contact. They’ve seen countless images of Federer like the one above, so they know what it’s supposed to look like.
But is it really always supposed to look like that?
No, and for certain athletes, imitating Federer will never help, because their own tracking issues are related to one of the biggest differences between their own body and Roger Federer’s.
Their Eye Dominance.
What is eye dominance?
A person’s eye dominance is their tendency to prefer visual input from one eye. Almost every human being has a dominant eye and a non-dominant eye. Roughly speaking, your dominant eye is the eye that you “see through” when both of your eyes are open.
The easiest way to observe your own eye dominance is through a visual task called “sighting” – focusing on a distant object. To test yourself, find an object in the distance, make a circle with your fingers, and then look at your distant object through that circle you’ve made. Close one eye, then close the other. Do this a few times, and observe what happens.
When you close one of your eyes, the image you’re seeing will barely change. In this case, you’ve closed your non-dominant eye. When both of your eyes are open, your consciousness prioritizes the image from your dominant eye, and more or less ignores the image from your non-dominant eye, so when you close your non-dominant eye, nothing really changes.
When you close your dominant eye, on the other hand, that distant object will move in relation to the finger circle you’re viewing it through. With your dominant eye closed, your consciousness is now forced to view the world through your non-dominant eye.
About 60-70% of people are same-side dominant (known as “pure dextral”) – right-eye dominant righties and left-eye dominant lefties. The other 30-40% are cross-eye dominant (or “cross dextral”).
Eye dominance matters in tennis?
Your dominant eye is almost definitely better at… well at seeing.
Subjects are more accurate using their dominant eye; images appear clearer and larger; and stabilized retinal images fade slower when viewed by the dominant eye The diplopia threshold (i.e. the extent to which the eye overcomes prismatic stress before binocular single vision is disrupted) is greater for the dominant eye. Imaging studies with monocular stimulation found more, i.e. larger area, bilateral activation when the dominant eye was stimulated. Recently, [researchers] found that the dominant eye is functionally activated prior to the non-dominant eye following a horizontal saccade during reading. Taken together, these phenomena suggest that inputs from the dominant eye may be more sensitive, responsive or numerous, and/or may capture attention more readily, leading to a more salient percept.Eye dominance effects in feature search. Shneor, Hochstein. 2006.
In an ideal world, we track every ball with both eyes, at all times. In that world, eye dominance barely matters, because whichever you dominant eye is, that eye always has a clear sight-line to the ball.
But we don’t live in that world, and, even worse, some players aren’t even aware that they should be attempting to track every ball with both eyes. As a result, eye dominance significantly effects tennis performance.
Often, a player’s preparation causes their non-dominant eye to have a much clearer, more direct view of the oncoming ball than the player’s dominant eye has. This puts the brain in an awkward spot. Should it pay attention to the image with the better angle, but coming from the inferior eye, or the image with the worse angle, coming from the superior eye? The result, either way, is degraded visual performance.
Even worse, though, a player’s head can sometimes get so far turned that their nose completely blocks an eye’s view of the ball. In these cases, the player is literally playing the shot with one eye. In no situation is this ideal, and when the blocked eye is the dominant eye, its a recipe for disaster.
Same-Side Dominant Players (Pure Dextral)
The most common kind of player – a right-handed, right-eye dominant player – runs into an interesting problem on the forehand.
Every player wants to prepare for the forehand by turning their body away from the ball, such that they can explosively turn back towards it during the forward swing. For a right-eye dominant player, turning away from the ball turns our right eye, our dominant eye, away from the ball as well.
This is why you’ll often find right-eye dominant, right-handed pros making heavy use of the open stance – it allows the player to turn slightly less, giving the right eye a clearer sight line to the ball.
Fixating Before Contact
When looking closely at elite right-eye dominant forehands, you might notice something even more surprising than their heavy use of the open stance. Often, at contact, they aren’t even looking at the ball. They are looking past the ball.
This means that their final fixation is just in front of their contact, rather than at contact itself. This is totally acceptable. It is a damaging myth that you have to literally “see the ball hit the strings,” or that you have to hold your head completely still while striking the ball.
The reality is quite different. What’s required is:
- A final fixation at or just piror to your contact point, at which you pick up the ball, crystal clearly, in focus, before you initiate your swing.
- You hold your gaze still during stroke production.
It’s almost impossible to actually see the ball for the last few milliseconds before contact, and, furthermore, at this point, you’ve already committed to your swing. That’s why a final fixation just before contact works equally well to a final fixation at contact – you aren’t actually losing any optionality.
For a right-eye dominant player, fixating in front of contact can help orient the head forward, giving the dominant right-eye better sight of the ball throughout the tracking process.
Many right-eye dominant players have elite forehands, but they tend to be known for their backhands. Novak Djokovic, Alexander Zverev, Andre Aggasi, Richard Gasquet – while each one certainly possesses a great forehand, it’s their backhand that really shines.
You can adjust to your right eye dominance in order to develop an elite forehand, but it’s still not what we’d want, in a perfect world. Ultimately, you’d like for your dominant eye to naturally end up in front of you, towards the ball – it gives you more flexibility with preparation and execution, and for a right-eye dominant player, this will only happen on the backhand.
Accept it; master what you’ve got, and take advantage of the ease with which you can track the ball on your backhand side.
Things to Remember
If you’re a right-eye dominant player, there’s a good chance you’ve had mishit issues on your forehand and never understood why. I have many students like this, and with a few tweaks, they’re able to drastically improve their contact consistency.
- Keep your head forward
- Utilize the open stance
- Fixate just before contact
These three tips will help offset the the natural disadvantage of having your dominant eye in the back on your forehand side.
Cross Dominant Players
Sometimes, I wonder if “natural talent” and left-eye dominance are synonymous. Left-eye dominant righties are over represented at the top of tennis, despite the fact that it clearly isn’t that much of an advantage.
Players like Novak Djokovic and Alexander Zverev are the best in the world, and they’re right-eye dominant. Right-eye dominance isn’t a pure disadvantage, either; it’s actually a significant advantage on the backhand return, one of the most important shots in the game.
I think the primary reason that left-eye dominant players have an advantage during development is that their optimal way to track and prepare for a forehand is intuitive. It makes sense to turn sideways, it makes sense to let your head turn with your body, and it makes sense to fixate at contact.
It is counter-intuitive to do the opposite. To only turn your upper body, to keep your head forward as you do, and to fixate just before contact, instead of at it.
If you’re cross-eye dominant, feel free to watch the ball like Roger Federer. In fact, you should. Allow your head to turn, hold it still, and fixate on contact. Apply the advice in this article on your backhand – utilize more open stance, a more forward head posture, and a farther forward fixation.
Whatever your eye dominance, try to allow both eyes to see the ball at every fixation as you track it in. Understand that, when your dominant eye is forward, you can get away with a little more turn, but if you try that while it’s back, you’re probably in for a crazy shank.