The point of all this talk about focal strategies is that you have options when it comes to using your eyes in a fast-moving ball sport such as tennis. The old paradigm of focusing on the ball is slowly being replaced by the new paradigm of fixing your focus on your contact zone.
Renowned sports vision expert Dr. William Hines, Team Ophthalmologist for the Denver Broncos and Colorado Avalanche, calls this new visual paradigm “the most important discovery in sports performance in the last 50 years.”
That’s not some irrational statement from the great unwashed. We’re talking a highly-educated, well-respected and knowledgeable professional who understands the importance of the visual system to higher-order sports performance.
So why is it that we cling so tightly to the old paradigm of watching the ball? Especially when we know it is the least efficient and accurate of the visual options available to us as tennis players?
The answer to that question can get fairly complex, but it basically deals with growing up in a variable-focus state. Most of our activities during the course of the day are done in a variable-focus state. We are seldom conscious of how we use our eyes as we go about our daily activities. We just look from object to object as we move around amidst these objects at a relatively slow pace. Over the years we become very adept at functioning in this variable-focus state. It becomes, through constant use and practice, our focal state of choice.
And then we step between the lines of the tennis court and the pace of our lives suddenly becomes very rapid. Everything speeds up. Our time to react to the action taking place is shortened, and that little yellow ball starts moving back and forth pretty darn fast. The elapsed time between your opponent’s contact and the ball entering your contact zone can vary with the speed of the ball and the distance between your contact zones. It can take several seconds, or it can take a split-second.
Think of the number of times you have reacted late to the ball moving in your direction. You didn’t react late because you have bad reactions or because you are inherently slow or uncoordinated. You reacted late because your eyes didn’t refocus back to your contact zone as quickly as the ball got there. In other words, the ball got to your contact zone before your visual and mental focus did.
Guess what happens then? You’re late making contact – if you make contact at all.
Example: you’re at the net position when your doubles partner hits a lousy second serve that lands halfway in your opponent’s service court and you watch as your opponent winds up and takes a huge looping forehand swing at the ball. Suddenly the ball whizzes past you and all you see is a yellow blur that is already behind you by the time you can react. Ever had that happen to you?
Your partner gets mad because you didn’t do your job and put the volley away. You get mad because of your partner’s lousy second serve, and you go on to the next point blaming the other person for the loss of the point.
Here’s what really happened. You focused your eyes on your opponent’s big, looping forehand swing,which is what you have been told to do – watch your opponent so you’ll know where he is hitting the ball – and then follow the ball with your eyes all the way to your racquet.
Except you didn’t even move your racquet, you didn’t even move your feet, and you didn’t execute that biomechanically sound backhand volley you’ve been working on with your pro. You just stood there and watched as a yellow blur zoomed right past you for a winner.
Question: Why? Why did you just stand there and let the ball go by you without even reacting? Or if you did react, why was your reaction so late? Was it because you didn’t move your feet? Was it because you have bad reactions? Was it because you’re a klutz? Why didn’t you get to that volley that was only one step away?
Answer: because it took your brain approximately 300 milliseconds to reference your opponent’s contact event, and in that 1/3 second your eyes remained focused on your opponent as the ball shot off his racquet. In other words, you were still visually focused on your opponent’s contact point when the ball was already well into your contact zone.
The next thing that happened was that your visual focus jumped back (saccade) to find the ball so you could hit it, only by then it was too late. The ball was already deep inside your contact zone or even past you.
Your problem was not a problem of slow feet; it was a problem of slow eyes. Your eyes simply cannot refocus fast enough in some cases to keep up with the speed of the ball. In essence, you didn’t move your body because your brain didn’t have the visual information necessary to tell your body where to move. And the reason your brain didn’t have the visual information it needed to send out motor information to your body is because your eyes didn’t refocus fast enough to keep up with the ball.
You can have the best footwork in the world, but if your brain is stuck in one location while the ball is in another location, then all that wonderful footwork becomes moot. At best any good footwork you posses will be “late” good footwork.
For those of you who believe the solution to your reaction time lies in your feet, I would suggest to you a different perspective. The solution to your late reactions lies in your eyes not your feet. How you use your visual focus is directly related to how quickly you react to the movement of the ball.
Here’s a hint: you don’t have to be focused on the ball to react to its direction and speed. In fact, you will react to the direction and speed of the ball much faster if you fix your focus on your contact zone.
Proactive focus versus reactive focus. There are some very good reasons to give it a try. Quicker reaction time is only one of those reasons.