Vision might be the single most underrated tool in every tennis player’s toolbox. Sure, every coach tells their students to “watch the ball,” but what does that really mean? And why is it that proper visual tracking is the single most important key that unlocks fluid match play? Let’s dive in.
A mental resource squeeze takes place during matches. During matches, you have far more to think about than during practice. In practice, when you have less to think about, you typically have ample mental resources to spend on the routine things that make your game effective (like focused visual tracking). All of the sudden, in matches, you suddenly find that you no longer have enough attention for everything, and the result is that certain, critical aspects of your game get too little focus to function.
Vision is often one of those things.
A few weeks ago, we discussed 5 common things that tend to get squeezed out, but today we’re going to dedicate a full article to vision, because it’s probably the single most important.
Incorrectly Watching Your Target
If you played baseball or softball growing up, you know that it’s essential to watch your target as you throw. This keeps your head stable and orients your entire throw chain in the proper direction.
In tennis, it’s the opposite. If you watch your target, you’re going to miss. Instead, you need to track the tennis ball attentively for its entire flight, then, right before the ball reaches you, you fixate on it one final time, and then keep your gaze there until your stroke is complete.
For kids who grew up playing a throwing sport, this is very counter-intuitive, especially on an aggressive shot. Many players are great at watching the ball when they’re hitting neutral balls, but once they have a clear target – something like a passing shot – they immediately pick their head up to look at their target, instead of watching their contact.
How Do I Aim Precisely, Without Watching My Target?
Tennis isn’t a game of precision, contrary to what mainstream analysis would have you believe. Tennis is a game of probabilities and outcome distributions. In tennis, the best players aim to targets that are big enough that their shots still succeed even when they miss by a small amount.
It is not the precision of your aim that matters, but rather the precision of your contact. At Fault Tolerant Tennis, we teach you to create strokes which are fault tolerant. Fault tolerant strokes will work if you’re a little early, or a little late. They’ll work if you’re a little too close to the ball, or a little too far from it.
But no stroke in tennis will work if you hit the frame instead of the strings (not 100% true actually, fault tolerant strokes often go in when you hit the bottom of the frame). Therefore, it is not left-right aiming or back-front aiming that demands your attention during matches, but rather clean contact.
That’s why visual tracking is so important – clean eyes create clean contact.
Catching the Ball On-Time
Vision allows you to time the ball properly. As explained in The Fault Tolerant Forehand, the final phase of preparation for any stroke is a waiting period before swing initiation. This period may be long on a slow ball, or zero on a fast ball, but there is a waiting period.
Vision determines when this waiting period is over. You track the ball over the net, and as it flies towards you, you watch it all the way into swing initiation, and then from there all the way until just before contact. It is a visual cue that triggers your initiation of the forward swing. You’ll have to get used to your own swing speed and contact point, until you know exactly what it looks like when the ball has reached the point where you have to swing.
The Fundamental Theorem of Tennis is the key that unlocks effective improvisation.
With vision, it’s almost impossible to violate this theorem, and therefore it’s almost impossible to miss. If you’re tracking the ball over it’s entire flight path, by the time it gets to you, your brain has ample information about it’s trajectory, both position and velocity, to construct an effective swing.
This visual information is especially necessary to improvise shots out of novel situations. Recall the two rules of the fundamental theorem of tennis:
- The racket and the forearm make a 90-135o angle
- The racket contacts the ball in front of the body
Mastering #1 requires becoming familiar with how to manipulate your racket in space without straightening out your forearm-racket angle. Once you’ve developed a solid intuition for how to do that, all that’s left is to master #2, and you’ll be able to improvise with the best of them.
Mastering early contact is almost identical to mastering visual focus. In order to always catch the ball on time, you have to see the ball into your contact zone, and initiate the swing once the ball gets to a certain location. No matter where you are on court, no matter whether your feet are set or not, no matter where the ball is in relation to your body, once you see that the ball has arrived at the point, relative to your body, that demands you swing, you swing. If you swing any later, you’ll be late, so just swing, and let your striking practice take over to produce the correct contact with the ball.
You might have to lean your torso. You might have to push your arm weirdly. You might have to finish over your head. Whatever strange manipulations you need to make the shot work, do them, because doing them, and taking a full swing out in front of you, is infinitely better than catching the ball late and jamming yourself.
What Should You Watch, Specifically?
Let’s break it into a sequence:
1. Your Opponent’s Body
Before your opponent has struck the ball, you’ll usually be able to glean more information from your opponent’s body than from the ball itself. If you’re more comfortable watching the ball, just pay attention to your opponent out of your peripheral vision.
As your opponent hits the ball, the angle of their racket-face tells you where it’s going. Often, you won’t clearly see the exact moment of impact, but tracking the ball into and out of their contact point will vastly improve your early flight tracking while receiving. You want to feel your head naturally, and accurately, following the ball out of their strike.
3. The Ball (for a long time)
From your opponent’s racket, over the net, as it bounces, and then up to your racket, you should be tracking the ball. If you’re feeling very comfortable with your game, you can try to peek at how your opponent is defending, but this should be done using peripheral vision – if you move your actual fixation to your opponent, your miss rate will go way up.
Depending on how fast the ball is moving, you might not be able to track the ball smoothly. On a serve return, for example, a good strategy is to use a two jump saccade method:
- Track the ball off your opponent’s racket until you know where it’s going to bounce.
- Jump your gaze to the predicted bounce, and hold it there until you know your contact point.
- Jump your gaze to your contact point and hold it there until your stroke is complete.
This will take some getting used to, but holding your eyes still while a fast moving object crosses your field of vision helps your brain out a lot. When your brain is trying to calculate an object’s velocity, it must factor out any eye movement in order to get an accurate result. If your eyes are still, this extra complexity is removed.
4. Your Final Fixation, Until Your Stroke is Complete
Why hold your final fixation as the ball comes off your strings, too? Simple: it guarantees that you won’t accidentally look away too early. By keeping your eyes in place longer than necessary on every shot, it ensures that even if you get a little antsy and look up earlier than usual, that early look won’t cause you to mishit the ball. Routinely keeping your eyes in place longer than necessary makes your vision fault tolerant.
This idea has been dubbed “The Quiet Eye” by vision researcher Joan Vickers, and there appears to be more to it than just fault tolerance. The body is better able to coordinate a movement pattern when the gaze is still. If your eyes are darting up at contact, not only are you likely to lose sight of the ball, but also that eye movement will interfere with your brain’s ability to actually produce the shot.
Vision = Being in the Zone
Roger Federer is famous for keeping his eyes on his contact point well after the ball is gone. He’s also famous for being the player with the most fluid strokes, the most aesthetically pleasing game, and the best improvisation in tennis history.
Is this a coincidence? I don’t think so.
Being in the zone is equivalent to being hyper-focused on your vision. The two are one and the same. If you have a stroke that’s not working, or an injury weighing you down, or some other thing of the sort, that ailment will break you out of the zone by distracting you from your visual tracking.
If you’re craving the famous “flow” feeling when you play matches, and just can’t seem to find it, there’s a good chance vision is your answer. If you’ve found the feeling in practice, it’s probably because, in practice, you were naturally focusing on your visual tracking without too much effort. In matches, that focus was squeezed out by other things.
Restore your visual focus, and you’ll restore your flow.