The biggest challenge of playing tennis in the zone is learning how to control your visual and mental focus.
Tennis players are accustomed to letting their visual and mental focus be controlled by their opponent, their target, or the ball when they are playing, and when you are focused on your opponent, your target, or the ball, youare not in control of your own focus.
Instead, your focus is being controlled by either your opponent, your target, or the ball. Or possibly all three. In other words, your focus is being controlled by the action on the court rather than you being in control of your own focus.
If you are habituated to letting the action on the court control your focus, then the challenge of playing tennis in the zone is the challenge of changing your focusing habits.
According to psychologists, changing any habit takes a minimum of 21-30 days, so don’t expect this process of change to take place immediately because it won’t. Changing the way you use your eyes on the tennis court takes time and practice. That’s the challenge!
Learning to control your focus is challenging because there are so many different things happening all at once on the court. First, your opponent is making a shot, and you have always been told that you must focus on your opponent in order to anticipate their shot.
This is simply not true.
In fact, you don’t have to focus on your opponent to anticipate their shot. You just have to have your opponent in your visual field and you will see everything that’s happening.
The supposition that you have to focus on your opponent to anticipate their shot is one of the biggest misconceptions in tennis.
Focusing on your opponent is certainly the traditional way to see what your opponent is doing, but it is certainly not the only way to see what your opponent is doing. You can also see what your opponent is doing, as well as everything else that’s happening in your visual field, by fixing your focus on your contact zone.
When you fix your focus on your contact zone you see everything that is happening in your visual field simultaneously.
Instead of seeing the individual parts of the action separately and sequentially, you see all of the action on the court simultaneously. You focus on the whole, but you see all the parts. It takes a little getting used to, but the benefits soon become apparent.
FOCUSING ON THE BALL
Perhaps the biggest misconception of all in tennis is that you have to keep the ball in focus as it flies back and forth across the net.
Again, this is not true.
Current sports vision theory suggests that you do not need to keep the ball in focus in order to play tennis, or any other fast moving ball sport. You can try, but focusing on the ball is just one of the choices you have. And it is not the best of the available choices. It just happens to be the way you focus your eyes through habit.
The habitual way you use your eyes in tennis is to focus on the people, places, and things in your visual field. You’ve been using your eyes this way since you were a baby, so by the time you get around to playing tennis, it’s a habit.
A habit, yes, but not the only choice you have for seeing the action in your visual field. It is just the most common.
VARIABLE-DEPTH OF FOCUS INPUT (VDF)
VDF is the input pattern you use when you focus sequentially on the people, places and things in your visual field. VDF is also your habitual visual input pattern; the visual pattern you use most often in your everyday life.
It’s only natural that you use this habitual visual pattern when you play tennis, which means you most likely use your eyes to focus on the ball as it moves back and forth across the net. It’s logical to think that in order to hit the ball, you must watch the ball; in order to hit the ball, you must concentrate on the ball; in order to hit the ball, you must focus on the ball.
You might have been told to “be the ball.” That the only thing that matters is the ball. The ball, the ball, the ball.
FIXED-DEPTH OF FOCUS INPUT (FDF)
Yes, the ball matters, but what matters more than the ball, what matters most in tennis is contact.
Contact is the causal event in the game; the primary event from which everything else flows. So, you don’t have to believe it when you are told that you have to focus on the ball to play tennis. There is, in fact, a completely different visual input pattern available to you. A visual input pattern wherein you do not try to keep the ball in focus as it moves back and forth across the net, but, instead, you keep your contact zone in focus and let the ball come into focus as it moves toward your contact zone and go out of focus as it moves away from your contact zone.
Learning this input pattern is the challenge.
It’s called a Fixed-Depth of Focus Input Pattern (FDF), and it is the visual input pattern you use to play tennis in the zone.
So, yes, the ball matters, but contact matters more. And to be focused on contact, you do not need to be focused on the ball. You just need to see the ball, and all you need to do to see the ball, or to see your opponent and everything else on the court in front of you, is to open your eyes in that direction.
You will see everything in your visual field, but it’s important to understand that what you focus on with your eyes is also what you focus on with your mind.
With FDF, you remain visually and mentally focused on your contact zone as the ball moves into and out of your predefined focal field. Shifting from your habitual VDF input pattern to this new and different FDF input pattern is the biggest challenge of the zone.(To learn more about VDF and FDF see Step 4).
SERIAL VS PARALLEL
When you focus your eyes on your opponent, or the ball, or the court, you are using VDF input, and you are trying to see what’s going on by refocusing your eyes sequentially or seriallyfrom one piece of the action to the next.
This is serial input.
But when you focus your eyes and your mind on your contact zone (FDF), you see all of the pieces of the action on the court simultaneously as a unified whole.
This is parallel input.
The immediate challenge of FDF is that there is nothing in your contact zone on which to focus your eyes, and that causes major disagreements between the traditional visual paradigm of focusing on the ball and this emerging visual paradigm of focusing on your contact zone.
But in the end, there is no denying the fact that the parallel input approach of FDF is far more efficient and accurate than the serial input approach of VDF.
KNOWING VS DOING
Knowing that playing tennis in the zone requires you to focus on your contact zone is one thing, but to actually do it is quite another. And you have to do it to truly know what it’s like to fix your focus on your contact zone and look for the contact point. In other words, you have to totally focus to know what it feels like to be in the zone.
In Step 1, I start players off with a concentrative task that does not involve hitting the ball over the net. Instead, Step 1 involves visualizing a big, imaginary window spanning the court in front of you at a comfortable arm’s length. And instead of using your strokes to hit the ball over the net, your task is to use your strokes to prevent the ball from getting past your big, imaginary window.
That’s it. That’s all you are trying to do in Step 1. Just use your strokes any way you want to defend your imaginary window. Say “yes” if you are successful. Say “no” if you are not. (See Step 1)
Visualizing a big window in front of you and defending it with your strokes is so easy a child can do it. But it is a task that requires total focus on your contact zone instead of the ball, and that’s a challenge.
This concentrative task, however, does not feel normal. It feels very different from the way you normally feel when you play tennis. But by keeping your mind on the task of defending your window, the change from VDF (focusing on the ball) to FDF (focusing on your contact zone) will take place naturally. And by giving yourself immediate “yes/no” feedback on your success or failure at completing your task, you will also become more aware contact occurring at your window.
The more you consciously practice defending your window, the better you will get at maintaining a fixed focus throughout the course of a point, a game, a set, and a match. And the better you get at locating the contact point along the surface of your imaginary window, the more aware of contact you will become.
I emphasize consciously practicing FDF, because if you are not consciouslyaware of focusing on your contact zone, you will unconsciously return to focusing on the people, places and objects in your visual field. You will unconsciously go back to VDF and serial input.
LESS IS MORE
Most recreational players focus on too many things when they play tennis. They focus on their opponent, the ball, their target, their groundstrokes, their footwork; they focus on who’s watching them from the next court, the outcome of their shots. In short, most players focus on way too much. We’ve all been there.
But as you improve, you find yourself focusing on fewer things, and the fewer the number of “things” on which you focus, the fewer the number of distractions you have in your game.
Tennis is a game where focusing on less is more, and if you focus only on your contact zone, you will be getting the most out of your visual and mental focus. Less is more!
Remember, you still see everything in your visual field even when you are focused on your contact zone. Think of it as focusing on nothing, but seeing everything.
So that’s the challenge of the zone: shifting from VDF to FDF. Give it a month – a conscious month – and see what happens.