Movement and stroke production can only get you so far. To really excel in tennis, on each shot, you have to know exactly:
- Where the ball is
- How it’s moving
I have students that fall on every part of the visual ability spectrum.
Some of my students (about 5%, in my experience) are vision naturals. They see the ball exceptionally well, during all parts of its flight, with no instruction required. These students react quickly, fly around the court, and rarely mishit the ball.
Others are the complete opposite – they react slowly, move extremely late to the ball, shank anything with any sort of novel spin, and even when, by some miracle, they’re in the right spot post bounce, they pull their gaze off their final fixation too early and mishit the ball anyway.
Many people think the latter group of students are terrible at tennis, and maybe that’s partially fair; right now, they really are terrible, because they’re really, really bad at one of the three most important skill classes that make up the game.
These problems are completely fixable.
Diagnosing Your Vision
That’s why we’re here. To help demystify this critical skill class, so you can smash through your own vision plateau.
When you miss shots, replay the visual tape back after the point. When did you lose the ball?
- Did you see it clearly as your opponent struck it?
- Were you able to follow it off their racket and see it mid-air?
- How well did you see it come off the ground?
- Do you have a clear freeze frame of it right before contact, when you fully committed to your swing?
The first question to which you answered “no” is where you start. You don’t necessarily need to consciously see all of these on every shot, but if you’re not seeing at least every other one clearly, you are certainly missing critical visual information at some point in the flight.
Some Start at Square Zero
If you’re thinking:
Coach, there is no visual tape to play back…
I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is that you’re probably in the bottom 20th percentile of tennis visual ability. The good news: as you start to practice your vision, you’re going to get much better at tennis, very quickly.
Start at the very beginning – see your opponent strike the ball. Being “ready” is about more than just an athletic stance, it requires attentive, focused eyes.
Individual Fixation Competency
Players who aren’t starting at square zero are likely to have both visual strengths and visual weaknesses; they see the ball great during some parts of the flight, and poorly during others.
It’s very possible you don’t even know what it feels like to see the ball at a certain fixation – you think you’re seeing it, but the first time you really see it, you’re going to be amazed at how much clearer it is.
If you have great mental snapshots of certain fixations, and don’t have mental snapshots of others, then spend time practicing seeing the ones you can’t remember. Chances are, your brain is missing out on critical flight information that’s revealed at those locations.
As an example, let’s pretend you just shanked an easy floater volley. You replay the tape in your mind:
You have a great snapshot of the ball on your opponent’s racket; you saw the ball, you saw the racket angle, you knew exactly where it was going. Then you continue the tape and… there’s nothing left. All you remember after seeing your opponent’s strike is the sound of the ball ignobly clanking into your frame.
There’s your answer. See the ball mid-air. Follow it out of the racket with your head and ensure you pick it up at least one more time before you have to strike it.
Types of Misses
The nature of your misses will tell you which visual information you’re missing out on.
A player who frequently misses for “no reason” is almost certainly failing to track the bounce. To the outside observer, it looks like their shot will succeed. The player is in position, is on balance, and has completed their preparation on time, all because they have a good idea of the ball’s position and velocity as it’s crossing the net, before the bounce.
Then, just before and during the bounce, they lose the ball. They likely perform a catch-up saccade to the ball some time after it leaves the ground, missing the most important visual information of all – the moments before, during, and after the bounce itself.
The other common class of mistakes describes a player who, while hitting, is always falling away from the ball, finishing over their head, lunging forward, etc.
I actually prefer this kind of miss to the first one, because the fact that the player is performing these body contortions indicates a high level of vision just before contact: The player knows they’re supposed to lunge forward, because they see that the ball is too far away. They know to finish over their head, or to fall backwards, because they see that the ball is too close.
The question is, why are they out of position in the first place? Lack of attentiveness to opponent contact. Our first and second fixations reveal the information we need to get the body in the right spot, relative to the ball, to perform a comfortable swing. See the ball better off your opponent’s racket, and you’ll need to adjust less to catch it cleanly on yours.
You can cue any fixation by trying to say a word right as the relevant event happens (not a moment sooner or later). Our goal is to perform predictive saccades to these locations which finish by the time the relevant information is revealed – if you can do that, you’ll be able to observe the exact moment the event occurs (like your opponent’s strike or the bounce).
Say “hit” right as your opponent strikes the ball.
If you can, your saccade to their contact is accurate, and your eyes are fixated there, focused, as they strike it. If you can’t – especially if you’re late – you need to track the ball into your opponent’s contact point better, and fixate on it earlier.
Say “ball” the moment the ball comes back into focus after it leaves their racket.
Hopefully it’s mid-air, still on their side of the court. You should be taking your explosive first step right as you say “ball.” If you’re not moving, you’re saying ball before your brain has actually recognized where the ball is going.
Say “bounce” the instant it bounces.
This is especially useful on a serve return – specifically against a heavy spin user, or a lefty, because the ball is going to bounce in a novel way.
Say “hit” again right as your racket contacts the ball.
Hold your final fixation until your stroke is complete. A moving gaze during stroke production is a great way to miss.
You cannot practice everything at once.
It takes nearly 100% of your brain’s mental resources to accurately track a fast moving ball. As such, your mind must be almost completely clear when you play tennis. Typically, you get one, maybe two, rational thoughts while you play, and that’s it. Any more than that, and it’ll distract you from tracking and swinging.
This means you should only work on one, maybe two, of these fixations at a time. For example:
“I’m going to see the ball clearly as my opponent strikes it.”
Every time your opponent strikes it, say “hit”, and take an explosive first step towards where you want to be. Once you’re feeling good with that, maybe try “ball,” to further work on your first step.
Once that’s mastered, move your intentional focus to own side of the net, and say “bounce, hit,” as the ball bounces, and as you strike it (as recommended by Tim Gallwey in The Inner Game of Tennis).
Critically, though, don’t try to do too much at once. If you attempt to apply intentional focus, or verbalization, to more than two of these fixations at a time, your rational, thinking, logical brain will squeeze out your visual-motor control brain, preventing you from seeing or swinging well.
Pick the fixation you think will have the biggest impact, and master that fixation first. Knock them off one by one, and eventually, you’ll be creating crystal clean contact on every shot you attempt.