Dr. Damien Lafont earned his PhD in Atmospheric Physics from the Blaise Pascal University in France in 2005. He is currently postdoctoral researcher at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA-CalTech) in Pasadena, CA. His research focus is on climate and greenhouse gases measurements from satellites.
Dr. Lafont is also a tennis professional coach (from the French Tennis Federation – FFT) and graduated in Sport Sciences and Training (2008). In sport sciences, his research interests are gaze control, vision, sport psychology, cognition and movement. He has written several articles on gaze control and tennis for the International Tennis Federation Coaching and Sport Science Review and the International Journal of Performance Analysis in Sport. He is also writing articles in this area for Sport et Vie, an European magazine on science and sports.
In France, as a tennis player, Damien and his team reached the quarter final of the French University Championships four times, and, individually, Damien has won 30 titles in Men’s Open tournaments.
As a tennis player, I have been “in the zone” on several occasions. My first and greatest experience was in 1992, at 17, while playing and won a match totally in the zone against an elite junior player. This match was so deeply anchored in my memory that during the following years, going to the court was a continuous quest to experience this incredible flow state again. How to reproduce it? How to feel the same levels of confidence, concentration, control and well-being? What did I do during this match that put me in the zone so deeply? It was frustrating because I’ve found it occasionally – but more by accident than really by will. However, despite my failure to find on the court the secret of the zone, I was always thinking this experience could be reproduced through self-will – But how?
A few years ago, while working on tennis and mental, something got my attention, then brought me back to my quest: The very best tennis players direct their gaze differently than less skilled players. Careful analysis of top tennis players and their lesser counterparts shows that the best players keep their gaze where the racquet made contact with the ball after the ball was hit. Less skilled tennis players tend to follow the ball with their eyes. This observation suggested that planning to maintain fixation may confer the advantage of focusing attention more fully on hitting the ball in just the right way.
After these observations, I felt that peak performance, and what I did on that day in 1992 had certainly something to do with vision and visual focus. I decided to write some articles about that and then, I decided to travel the world – England, Greece, Switzerland, Belgium, USA, France – in order to present my work at different conferences and to try to understand what was behind. I met the best specialists of the world of vision, tennis, sport psychology, brain, cognition and movement, asking them if this special visual focus was one of the keys of tennis champions? Is it the key to access the zone? Unfortunately, few people, coaches or researchers seemed to know about the zone, and the only advice was trying to bring together the key conditions associated with “flow” and just “hoping” for the zone to occur. The zone remained imperceptible…
Parallel Mode Process
… until I read the book by Scott Ford – <b.Design B: How to Play Tennis in the Zone (1984). Indeed, there are plenty of books about tennis and mental but none of them is bringing a simple way to play in the zone. Linking vision and movement, Scott simply shown how to do it. That was what I searched! Immediately making the parallel between my observations and Scott’s approach, the visual input as a key to enter in the zone was evident.</b.
The pioneer work of Scott Ford shows the necessary change of visual referential for better performance. He suggested that watching the ball is a visual strategy that requires the player to continuously refocus his eyes while trying to keep the ball in focus as it moves back and forth across the net. This Variable-Depth of Focus input pattern (VDF) is the traditional input pattern employed by tennis players as their default visual strategy. He proposed a fixed-focus on the contact zone – the Fixed Depth of Focus (FDF) visual strategy which eliminates the continuous refocusing on the ball. This FDF adopted by elite players would avoid the brain to constantly receive inaccurate visual information about the true location of the ball which leads to inaccurate motor output which in turn manifests itself as bad timing and contact error.
The core hypothesis is that FDF enhances mental skills such as concentration, control or self-confidence. In particular, FDF allows the players to place less value on the outcome of their shots, therefore allowing staying on the process. This total focus on the task at hand is accompanied by a feeling of ‘being in the present’ creating an ideal state for concentration which favors the flow state. Hence, since visual focus and mental focus work together closely in tennis, if the players want to improve their performance, a good way to start could be by changing their visual focus! Because this referential switch from the ball to the contact zone changes the entire perspective on the game, the findings as a whole have implications for teaching and training philosophy in tennis. This new way to play tennis, clearly presented both in the video Welcome to the Zone (2003) and the E-Book (2007), shows athletes how to switch from their default operating mode to their most efficient and accurate operating mode (Parallel Mode Process).
Then, in 2008, I met Scott in Denver and joined him on the tennis court. Experiencing the Parallel Mode Process on the court confirmed that adopting a different visual focus during play lead to a higher level of performance. I put together all the different pieces: my experience, my reading, top players observations, my feelings on the court and realized that this new approach was the key to reach and stay in the zone.
Now, it is therefore very exciting to participate in the Arete Sports research team with experts in tennis, neuroscience, sport psychology and sport vision, and their unique approach to studying the peak performance state. We are combining our knowledge to develop the Parallel Mode Process both on and off the court. On the court because what people really need to perform consistently in a peak performance state and to improve their enjoyment of tennis is a simple and practical method. That’s what they can find in Scott’s approach. Moreover, as playing any sport in the zone is the ultimate goal, we can also hope to utilize Scott’s technique in other sports.
Off the court, because the PMP also brings with it the higher-order state of consciousness and awakening known as “flow”, therefore opening very promising scientific developments beyond sport, especially related to excellence – “Arete” in Greek, i.e. living up to one’s full potential, and more broadly related to consciousness.
For more information on Dr. Damien Lafont, please visit his website at:www.damienlafont.com