The dynamics of the human VCM operating system suggest that beneath the accepted fundamentals of the game, i.e. good footwork, sound biomechanics, court strategy, etc. there is a deeper layer of fundamentals that deals directly with how your operating system connects to and interfaces with the different elements and dimensions of the tennis environment. This deeper layer of fundamentals is taken for granted, but it lies at the heart of your performance on the court.
Beneath your footwork and beneath your stroke mechanics is your VCM operating system, and the way your operating system connects to and interfaces with the dimensions of the tennis environment determines how well your countermovements relate to the movement of the ball.
The biomechanical soundness of your countermovements is not what determines the relationship of those countermovements to the movement of the ball. That relationship is the responsibility of your VCM operating system, and it is made through the physical connection to and IPO interface with the elements and dimensions of the tennis environment – including, but not limited to, the movement of the ball.
I’ve written a lot over the years about the differences between a serial mode of operation and a parallel mode of operation and how these different operating modes are causal to the different performance states we experience when we play. Serial mode is causal to your normal performance state. Parallel mode is causal to your peak performance state. The system dynamics of these two operating modes are so different that the same player using a parallel mode of operation with its parallel interface will perform at a much higher level than if he/she uses a serial mode of operation with its less efficient serial interface.
All that means is that there are very logical reasons why you perform better when you are in your peak performance state than when you are in your normal performance state.
But to the traditional teaching community, teaching players how to get into the zone means failing to teach them the fundamentals of the game. Obviously, I disagree with what is primary when it comes to the fundamentals of the game. Are proper footwork and sound biomechanics primary to your system dynamics or are your system dynamics primary to your footwork and the performance of your strokes?
For me there is no question as to the order of primacy. System dynamics are primary to the way you move your feet and to the performance of your strokes – both of which are the result of how your operating system interfaces with the elements of the tennis environment.
Sound biomechanics and proper footwork are important – don’t get me wrong. But they are not the primary fundamentals of the game. The primary fundamentals lie much deeper than the traditional fundamentals we tennis pros spend so much time drilling into our students.
That being said, I am a big fan of sound technique and proper footwork. After all, I’ve been certified by the USPTA, which means I had to pass a test that proved I could teach proper footwork and sound biomechanics according to the USPTA’s definition of the game’s fundamentals. And I do believe that improving your techniques will improve your performance. I do not, however, believe that improving your techniques will cause you to play tennis in the zone. I do not believe that sound biomechanics and proper footwork are the underpinnings of your peak performance state. If they were, then only those players with biomechanically sound strokes and proper footwork could experience the zone.
The zone, however, is not bound to sound biomechanics, not caused by proper technique or fancy footwork. In fact, you can have crummy technique and terrible footwork and still play tennis in the zone. The zone is not about how your operating system looks on the court; it’s about how your operating system interfaces on the court. It’s about the VCM connection to and interface with the action on the court.
Teaching players how to connect more efficiently and more accurately to the action on the court does not start by teaching them how to better use their feet. It starts by teaching them to better use their eyes. And that is where I part company with the traditional tennis teaching establishment that has been hog-tied to the same visual dogma since day one.
What is that visual dogma?
Simple: watch the ball. Focus on the ball.
But you are told to do more with your eyes than simply input visual information to your brain about the movement of the ball along its flight path. You are also told to watch your opponent to anticipate what he/she is going to do, which means you are also supposed to input visual information to your brain about your opponent’s countermovements.
So the traditional visual dogma includes watching not only the ball but also your opponent as he/she hits the ball. Your normal visual strategy goes something like this:
Watch your opponent hit the ball. Hit the ball.
Watch the ball as it goes back over the net.
Watch your opponent as he moves to hit the ball in order to anticipate his shot.
Watch your opponent hit the ball.
And so it goes, the same visual pattern continuously repeating itself as the ball moves back and forth across the net, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, sometimes with lots of spin, sometimes with only a little. And your visual task is to use your eyes to send vital visual information to your brain about the action occurring in your visual field; information about your opponent, information about the movement of the ball, and even information about your target. According to traditional visual dogma, you accomplish this by focusing on your opponent and then the ball.
More advanced versions of this focusing strategy say to focus only on the ball and see everything else peripherally; a much less complicated visual strategy, but still centered on focusing on the ball. More advanced versions of this ball-centered visual strategy suggest that you still focus on the ball, but only at specific points along its flight path, i.e. your opponent’s contact point, the point at which the ball bounces in your court, and your contact pint. This version of watching the ball is known as the “hit-bounce-hit” strategy and was introduced formally by Timothy Gallwey in the mid-70’s as a means to center your visual and mental focus on the ball. Concentrated on the ball, focus on the ball, be the ball, as it were.
All of these traditional visual input strategies, no matter how advanced they might be, have one thing in common. They are all based on the movement of the ball. In other words, the ball is the object of focus, and because the ball moves back and forth along its flight line from your far field of vision to your near field of vision and back, you are forced to refocus your eyes back and forth from far vision to near vision in order to keep the ball “in focus.”
Simply put, when you watch the ball in any of the traditional strategies, you must refocus your eyes from far vision to near vision in a Variable-Depth of Focus input pattern (VDF). That’s how you visually connect to the game and how your operating system interfaces with the game. It’s all about interfacing with the movement of the ball.
This is a serial mode of operation and a serial interface with the action on the court. The primary action to which you are connecting and with which your operating system is interfacing is the movement of the ball, and this connection to and interface with the action on the court begins with and is maintained by how you use your eyes.
You connect to and interface with the ball by visually focusing on the ball and then continuously refocusing on it as it moves back and forth across the net. Simple system dynamics at the core interfacial connection.
Question: What if there was a different way to connect your operating system to the action on the court? What if there was a more efficient way to connect to the action? What if there was a more accurate way to interface with that action?
Would you be willing to try a different mode of connecting to the action on the court? Especially if that mode of connecting worked much better than your normal mode of connecting? Most people say yes – absolutely. I’ll try anything if it makes me a better player.
Now the big question: would you try a different connecting mode if it included a visual strategy in which you do not focus on either your opponent or the ball? In fact, the visual strategy of this new mode of connecting to the action on the court suggests that you do not focus on any of the material elements in your visual field. It suggests that you defocus from all of the material action on the court and fix your focus instead on the non-material dimension of your contact zone.
If it made you play significantly better, would you be willing to try a connecting mode where instead of focusing your eyes on everything, you focused your eyes on nothing?
If you knew for a fact that you would be a better player if you used this different mode of connecting to the tennis environment, would you be willing to focus on your contact zone instead of focusing on the ball?
The system dynamics of a serial mode of operation require you to focus on the ball – something. The system dynamics of a parallel mode of operation require you to fix your focus on your contact zone – nothing.
Would you be willing to focus on nothing if it meant you would play tennis in the zone?