STEP 4 AND YOUR EYES
Step 4 introduces you to the best way to use your eyes in tennis.
And the best way to use your eyes in tennis is NOT, repeat, NOT to “watch the ball.”
Instead, the best way to use your eyes in tennis is to look for the contact point along the surface of your imaginary window.
VISUAL FOCUS AND IMAGINARY WINDOWS
The first thing I ask you to do in learning how to play tennis in the zone is to visualize a large window spanning the court in front of you at a comfortable arm’s distance.
While you are visualizing this imaginary window in front of you, your only objective is to use your strokes to prevent every oncoming ball from getting past your imaginary window. That’s it. You are not using your strokes to hit the ball over the net. Rather, you are using your strokes to “defend your window.”
If you are successful at defending your window, say “yes.” If the ball gets past your window, say “no.”
This first step of using your strokes to keep the ball from getting past your imaginary window has a twofold purpose.
First, it gives you a predefined depth of contact upon which to base the timing of your contact.
Second, the act of visualizing an imaginary window in front of you takes your visual focus off the ball and fixes it firmly on your contact zone.
Let me repeat that: Focusing on an imaginary window takes your visual focus off the ball and fixes it on your contact zone.
When you visualize a window in front of you, you immediately stop focusing on the ball and start focusing on your contact zone.
And when you start focusing on your contact zone, you are no longer “watching the ball” in the traditional manner we all learned – which is to keep the ball in focus from your opponent’s racquet to your racquet.
FIXED-FOCUS VS. VARIABLE-FOCUS
The first instruction we were all given when we started playing tennis was to watch the ball.
We were told that we have to concentrate on the ball.
Above all, we were told that we that we must always focus on the ball.
To suggest focusing on something other than the ball sounds crazy, especially when you are being told to focus on the empty, open space of your contact zone. It just doesn’t seem logical.
Step 4 will explain the reasons why it is neither crazy nor illogical to stop focusing on the ball and start focusing on your contact zone.
In fact, you will learn that while focusing on the ball is certainly not wrong, it is the least efficient and least accurate way to use your visual focus when you play tennis.
For starters, focusing on the ball locks you into a Variable-Focus State,which is the focal state underlying your normal performance state.
In other words, watching the ball keeps you playing tennis in the norm.
If you want to play tennis in the zone; if you want to get into your peak performance state, then you need to learn a different way of using your eyes; a way of using your eyes that puts you in a Fixed-Focus State.
The reason is simple: a Fixed-Focus State is the focal state of the zone.
In other words, not only does focusing on your imaginary window allow you to use your visual system more efficiently and more accurately than focusing on the ball, but the Fixed-Focus State you create when you lock your focus on your contact zone is also the focal state required to get into, maintain, and compete “in the zone.”
WHAT TO EXPECT IN STEP 4
As you go through Step 4 you will be doing something very different with your eyes, so expect to feel different. Expect everything to look and feel out of the ordinary.
If everything looks and feels the same to you as you go through the Step 4 drills, then you are not doing the Step 4 drills correctly.
Fixing your visual focus on your contact zone when you play tennis will not feel normal. You will not feel the same as you normally feel when you play the game.
Do not mistake something that feels different for something that is wrong.
With that in mind, here is the difference in what you are doing with your eyes in Step 4.
TWO VISUAL STRATEGIES
“Watching the ball” is a visual strategy that requires you to continuously refocus your eyes while you try to keep the ball in focus as it moves back and forth across the net.
This is called a Variable-Depth of Focus Input Pattern or VDF for short. VDF is the traditional way tennis players use their eyes.
VDF is a tried-and-true visual strategy. Actually, it’s tried but not necessarily true. Watching the ball just seems like the most logical way to use your eyes when you play tennis.
The logic of VDF input goes like this:
If you follow the ball closely with your eyes, then your brain will receive accurate visual information about the speed and direction of the ball’s movement.
Your brain then takes that accurate input information and sends accurate output information to your body telling it how fast and in what direction it must move to intercept the ball with your racquet.
End result: the Movement of the ball and your Countermovement to intercept the ball come together at a common point in space and time.
In other words, your eyes, your brain, and your body just did a highly complex input, processing, and output dance that resulted in you contacting the ball with your racquet.
Logically, if the information your brain receives from your eyes accurately mirrors the speed and direction of the ball’s movement, then your brain will output an accurate motor countermovement whose relative speed and direction will make accurate contact with the ball.
If, however, the information your brain receives from your eyes is inaccurate or does not exactly mirror the ball’s speed and direction, then your brain sends out inaccurate information to your body, and what you end up with is a stroke that is inaccurately timed.
In other word, what you end up with is bad timing due to bad information about the speed and direction of the ball’s movement.
Think of it as garbage in/garbage out.
Only when it comes to the human operating system it looks like this:
This is Dr. William Hines, Team Ophthalmologist of the Colorado Avalanche and one of the world’s leading authorities in sports vision, discussing the problems you run into when your eyes can’t keep up with the ball.
One of the biggest misconceptions in tennis is that all you have to do with your eyes is keep them focused on the ball as it moves back and forth across the net.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
But there is much more to watching the ball than you might think. First of all, watching the ball (VDF) is a two-part visual strategy.
Part One involves focusing on the ball as your opponent makes contact.
That’s the easy part.
Part Two involves keeping the ball in focus until you make contact.
That’s the hard part.
As simple and straightforward as watching the ball sounds, it’s not as easy as you think, especially when the ball is moving at the speeds we see in modern tennis.
The first part of this two-part visual strategy is the easy part. All you have to do is focus on your opponent’s contact.
The second part, however – keeping the ball in focus along its flight path until you hit it – is virtually impossible at higher speeds.
And because your eyes cannot keep the ball in focus at higher speeds, what you end up with is inaccurate visual input.
Which translates to: GARBAGE-IN.
In short, because the focus of your eyes cannot keep up with the speed of the ball as it comes toward you, your stroke will form an inaccurate relationship with the ball in time.
In other words: NEGATIVE TIMING.
End result: GARBAGE-OUT.
Here’s Dr. Hines again talking about your eyes and how bad visual input affects your reaction time.
So if you are looking to fix your timing problems by fixing something that went wrong in your stroking technique, then you are looking in the wrong place.
Think of it this way: Motor output is the last link in the Visual->Cognitive-> Motor chain.
So if the first link, the visual input link, is inaccurate, then the last link, the motor output link, will also be inaccurate.
In the real world of tennis, those IPO inaccuracies manifest themselves as BAD TIMING
In short, your stroke will be off because your eyes were off.
And if you want to get to the source of your timing errors, if you want to fix your bad timing, then you have to go to the source of the problem.
You have to fix what you are doing wrong with your eyes.
That’s what Step 4 is all about!
FIXED-DEPTH OF FOCUS INPUT (FDF)
Fixing your visual problems can be done in two different ways.
The traditional fix is to train your eyes to refocus faster in order to keep up with the speed of the ball. Unfortunately, your eyes are limited in their refocusing capabilities.
Step 4 introduces a non-traditional fix; a fix that does not involve refocusing your eyes faster. Instead Step 4 involves focusing your eyes on your contact zone instead of the ball.
Here’s why in a nutshell: The visual input pattern of the zone is a Fixed-Depth of Focus input pattern.
FDF for short.
REFOCUS VS. PREFOCUS
The Refocus Fix
You can correct your visual input errors by training your eyes to refocus faster or to refocus only on specific “fixation points” along the ball’s flight line.
Fixation points such as your opponent’s hit, the bounce of the ball on your side of the court, and your hit.
The Hit/Bounce/Hit visual strategy introduced by Timothy Gallwey in the mid-70’s is the traditional fix, and it’s a good one.
But any visual strategy that involves keeping the ball in focus or focusing on specific fixation pointsis still a visual strategy that requires you to refocus your eyes.
And it is the inherent inefficiency of this “refocusing variable” that causes your eyes to input bad information to your brain about the speed and direction of the ball’s movement, especially on balls moving at higher speeds.
End result: bad timing…again.
And here’s the kicker: your bad timing had nothing to do with your strokes and everything to do with your eyes.
The Prefocus Fix
There is, however, another fix; the Step 4 fix. A visual strategy that takes the refocusing variable out of the equation altogether by simply prefocusing your eyes on your contact zone.
Then, after you fix your focus on your contact zone, you simply look for the point the ball enters your predefined focal depth.
Think of it this way: when you visualize an imaginary window spanning the court in front of you, you are literally prefocusing your eyes on your contact zone.
And when you look for the contact point along the surface of your imaginary window, you are literally locating the point the ball first enters this predefined focal depth.
That point is the Primary Contact Point – the point at which the ball first enters your contact zone.
This is a Fixed-Depth of Focus input pattern, and as a visual strategy, FDF is a much more efficient way to use your eyes than watching the ball or VDF.
But remember, FDF is not about watching the ball. It’s about using your eyes to locate the Primary Contact Point along the predefined focal plane of your contact zone.
And FDF is more efficient than VDF for one very simple reason: the act of prefocusing your eyes on your contact zone eliminates the necessity of refocusing your eyes as you try to keep the ball in focus as it moves back and forth across the net.
Prefocusing eliminates refocusing.
And when you eliminate the refocusing variable from your visual input strategy, you also eliminate the primary cause of bad timing.
So what you get with FDF is a visual strategy with fewer variables, which makes it much more efficient than VDF at higher speeds. And the more accurate your visual input, the more accurate your motor output.
Rather, FDF is the most efficient and accurate way to “locate the Primary Contact Point with your eyes.”
HOW FDF WORKS
Like VDF, FDF input is also a two-part visual strategy.
Part One: fix the focus of your eyes on your contact zone by visualizing an imaginary window spanning the court in front of you.
This is what you practiced in Step 1.The whole time you were using your strokes to keep the ball from getting past your imaginary window, you were also fixing the focus of your eyes on your contact zone.
Part Two: locate the point the ball contacts the surface of your window.
When you locate the point the ball contacts the surface of your imaginary window, you are successfully locating the exact point the ball first enters your contact zone.
This is your Primary Contact Point.
Make contact at your Primary Contact Point and you know one thing for certain: your timing was perfect.
Here’s a quick video explanation of Step 4 and FDF:
And here’s a video of what FDF looks like as you are learning it:
STEP 4 REVIEW
Step 4 is difficult at first. Learning how to use your eyes in a different way takes practice – lots of practice. And because FDF is so radically different from VDF as a visual strategy, expect things to look very different as you move through Step 4.
Focusing on your contact zone is NOT the normal way you use your eyes. But, like anything new and different, the more you practice it, the easier it gets.
And the more you practice FDF, the more you will be practicing the visual input pattern of “The Zone.”
Step 4 and FDF: The Short Version
1. Visualize an imaginary window spanning the court in front of you.
2. Locate the exact point the ball contacts your window.
3. Say “Yes” if you’re successful in locating the contact point.
4. Say “No” if you’re not.
Immediate Yes/No feedback.
That’s Step 4!