One of the most common sayings in sports is to “keep your eye on the ball.” As kids we were told again and again by our parents and coaches that not watching the ball will lead to missed hits, kicks and catches. As a basketball player, I knew that looking away just before catching a pass could lead to a broken nose so was happy to comply.
Watching the ball or keeping the head still?
When I started playing tennis a few years ago, I remember one of my live instructors showing me photos of Federer and discussing how his eyes are locked in on the ball right up until the contact point. I did my best to watch the ball, but remember an uncomfortable feeling from this – almost like I would go cross-eyed at the last moment before impact. I assumed that this was something I’d have to adjust to and kept at it.
One of the first video courses I bought was Jeff Salzenstein’s Total Backhand Solution, and one of the key points he made was to “keep your head at contact.” He explained that the purpose of keeping your head still is to prevent pulling your head – and consequently the rest of your body – up and forward during your stroke which throws off your balance.
Keeping your head at contact helps keep your head and body behind the ball and a nice tilt to your shoulders with your arms extending out in front of you (think baseball and golf swing). After learning this, I stopped worrying about “seeing the fuzz on the ball” (as I’d been told to do many times) and worked on just keeping my head still.
But I wanted to understand this concept further. How important is it to watch the ball? When we see the ball hit our strings is the ball in focus? And does the vision of the ball differ at the different levels of the game?
What do the Pros do?
I read an interesting article by Damien Lafont in which he studied images of tour players to look for how the players watched the ball up to and including the contact point.
The study showed that there was variability among top players’ ability to control their gaze. Very few players – most notably Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – appeared to consistently fix their gazes on the ball throughout it’s flight and during contact.
However other top players (Lafont cited Arnaud Clement and Lleyton Hewitt on his forehand side) would look at a point about a foot ahead of the ball. Lafont concluded that, “Among top players, only few high level performers follow a typical fixation on the contact zone,” but did suggest that their ability to watch the ball longer might have partially contributed to the superior consistency of Federer’s and Nadal’s shots.
However, Lafont went on to say that his study seems to support the hypothesis of Scott Ford that we should be focusing on the contact zone. I looked up Ford’s work and read one of his articles on “Parallel Processing.” Ford says that if you want to have the ball in focus at the contact point, you have 2 options:
You can either focus on the ball continuously from your opponent’s racquet right up to the point of contact (Ford calls this serial processing), or you can focus on the point at which you think the ball will hit your racquet so that this point is already in focus when the ball arrives there (parallel processing).
In serial processing you need to refocus from far-vision to near-vision as the ball moves, which is more difficult than parallel processing, in which the ball will enter your pre-focused zone and become more clear.
I would think that at some point you have to be watching the ball to determine where you think the contact point will be. Ford doesn’t address this in his article, but I’m assuming that he means we should focus on the ball (far-vision focus) up until a certain point and then shift our gaze to the contact zone once we know where the ball is going.
Another good article on this is at Feel Tennis, where the author, Tomaz Mencinger, says, “More experienced players PREDICT where the ball is going to come out of the bounce and look already in that area.” He also says that there needs to be a “snapshot” moment when the ball is in perfect focus, and echoes Jeff’s opinion that keeping the head still is very important.
So what does Federer actually do?
It certainly appears in videos and images that his eyes are trained on the ball throughout its flight. Does he continuously focus on the ball (serial processing), or does he just appear to be following the ball with his eyes when actually, once the ball is close to him, his head is just moving along the ball path to re-focus on the contact point milliseconds ahead of the ball arriving there?
And what about Djokovic?
Lafont’s and Ford’s articles on this were written prior to Djokovic arriving on the scene. Djokovic fairly consistently looks a foot or even more in front of the ball at contact and I don’t think many would say his strokes and consistency are inferior to Federer’s or Nadal’s.
Perhaps there is a “point of no return” in the swing at which it no longer matters if you focus on the ball or not – watching it intently up until that point and setting yourself up properly allow you to hit the ball without seeing the ball at all, or just seeing it in your peripheral. Does Djokovic take his “snapshot” earlier than Federer and Nadal? Maybe this allows him to keep his head slightly up to see what his opponent is doing and still hit the ball cleanly, which actually gives him an advantage over Federer and Nadal? Or maybe it refutes the concept of the “snapshot” altogether. I’m wondering how Mencinger, Lafont and Ford would interpret this.
Why I Prefer “Head at contact” to watching the ball
In my own experience, choosing to stop straining my eyes to focus on the ball throughout its entire path was liberating. I could just focus on keeping my head down at contact, and perhaps I was unconsciously adopting Ford’s parallel processing method at the same time. I don’t have any high-enough quality photos of myself to see where my eyes are at contact. I would be curious to know if I’m more of a Federer or a Djokovic (I’ll take either, thank you!).
Interestingly, I played today after writing most of this post. Because watching the ball was on my mind more than usual, I decided to really concentrate on focusing on the contact point to see if it felt different than what I normally do (which is, at least I thought, to keep my head at contact without worrying about what my eyes are doing). I didn’t try to zero in on the ball and see the fuzz or the racquet strings, but just kept my gaze relaxed. What I noticed was that I was able to hit more consistently when I did this. This was probably due to a combination of a few things:
- I was able to see the ball better, even if it wasn’t in crystal clear focus
- I was keeping my head down longer on every shot since I was focusing on doing this. It’s been awhile since I’ve really thought about keeping my head at contact and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d slipped out of the habit a bit
- This action might have helped me get into “the zone” as interpreted by Ford. I read another article by Ford in which he writes about how being totally focused on the task at hand is required for getting into the zone. He argues this happens when you are in parallel processing mode. I need to read more about this, but perhaps concentrating on keeping my head at the contact point had the added positive effect of getting me into the zone and avoiding distraction.
If watching the ball is something you’re struggling with, keep in mind that, like all things in tennis, it gets easier with practice.
Every time your opponent hits a ball at you your brain registers the ball flight, bounce and spin and stores this data. When you swing and mis-hit, your brain will remember this and tell your body to make an adjustment next time.
Instead of getting frustrated, think of literally every shot as an opportunity for your brain to store a data point in its quest to understand the ball path. As it gathers more and more information, you will be able to better predict the ball path and won’t need to focus with crystal clarity on the ball through it’s entire flight.
You can help the process by keeping your head still to optimize your ability to see the ball and to stay balanced, and work on focused concentration to help you get in the zone. Think of how many more tennis balls Djokovic has hit than you (except maybe you, Roger, if you’re reading this) and go easy on yourself.
Watching the Ball at High Speeds
Learning to predict the ball path is likely a key reason why it becomes easier over time to play against players who hit with more pace. Yes, we need to move faster and swing earlier when the ball is moving more quickly towards us, but our brains also have less time to gather the data on the ball flight and predict where the contact point will happen. Again, the more you play against players who hit with pace the better your brain will get at doing this.
And one more note on ball speed: This article claims that baseball players cannot see the baseball for the last few feet of a pitch since it is moving too quickly. They need to determine their swing paths and go for it while the ball is still a few feet away from them. This makes it much easier to hit fastballs, which travel straight and are more predictable, than curveballs or knuckleballs, which travel slower but move off the straight trajectory.
Tennis serves and sometimes groundstrokes are hit at over 100mph at the pro level (similar to baseball pitch speed), but they lose a lot of this speed in the air and on the bounce (especially compared to a denser, smooth baseball), so on returns and groundstrokes perhaps the ball is moving slowly enough for the player to be able to see it clearly at contact.
However, on some volleys I would imagine that the ball could still be moving pretty quickly since it hasn’t bounced and the distance between players is reduced. Federer still appears to be looking at the ball on his strings when he volleys. I think this would support the idea that just because he’s looking towards the ball doesn’t mean he’s necessarily seeing it well. It could be more about head position and getting the racquet in the right spot by having excellent ball trajectory perception than focusing on the ball.