Watch the Ball
Any competitive player knows the importance of keeping their eyes on the ball … so much so that the phrase “they took their eyes off the ball” is now in common usage as a way of describing any situation where someone loses focus. However, we also know from W. Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis (1974) that telling yourself to watch the ball often doesn’t result in success. His Self #1 (the teller) and his Self #2 (the doer) fail to connect. In his section on Watching the Ball, Gallwey suggests looking at the seams of the ball as it is spinning. This focus on the seams, he suggests, will help a player to complete ball watching until contact. (Important note: I just reread The Inner Game. For any of you who haven’t touched base with this path-breaking book … it’s a MUST!)
Deconstructing Tennis has an alternative way of describing the ball watching experience on the groundstrokes: A player should focus on the ball until he sees the blur made by the racquet as it passes through contact. What is watching the blur supposed to accomplish?
First, as Gallwey noted in The Inner Game of Tennis, players tell themselves to watch the ball quite frequently … and then don’t do it! Rather than a command, watching the blur gives you something concrete to focus on. Self #1 turns from a teller into a witness.
Secondly, by watching the ball completely into the strings, a player’s eyes give the best information possible to your hand as you go for your intended target. Imagine a rocket shot to the moon. At takeoff, the missile is 2 degrees off line … the rocket will miss the moon by millions of miles! Similarly, if a player does not look the ball into the strings, his hand is “guessing” at the proper angle to get the ball to his target. Guesses, as you know, can be either good or bad. Seeing the blur takes guesswork out of the game and connects a player to his FEEL.
To quote Deconstructing Tennis:
FEEL is the process through which top players deliver the ball to their intended targets. To the extent that club players of all levels can imitate the top pros in their approach to the game, they will also begin to hit their targets more consistently.
To illustrate the observing contact component of FEEL, a valuable aid is the instruction to “keep your head still.” Strictly speaking, the human eye is not quick enough actually to see the ball hit the strings, but you should play each and every shot as if you could. What you can see is the “blur” of the racquet as it passes through the contact zone. If there is any doubt about this, the Youtube videos of Roger Federer’s forehand in slow motion should provide convincing evidence.
A longtime friend and tennis colleague, Chris Busa, uses an alternative phrase, “after image”, to describe what I mean by seeing the blur. In some ways, this is a more accurate concept because not all shots have sufficient racquet speed to make a blur. For example, the “after image” of a volley is a racquet frozen at contact while simultaneously witnessing the blur streak of the ball leaving the strings.
Thirdly, and this is the hardest thing to explain, when the body has its correct tension and the mind is on the blur, the ball almost never is OUT because of forcing the swing. This is a sort of Zen experience. Seeing the blur reinforces the relaxed mental state which accompanies nearly all well-executed strokes.
So, it works like this: see the blur, lineup the racquet face and reinforce your calmness, hit your targets more consistently … and ultimately, have more fun!
P.S. A player at the club who’s just started reading DC Tennis told me the other day: “I tried out the “see the blur” thing in my mixed doubles match the other day. I counted and I did it 30 times … but I missed one shot.” He’s a 3.0 … as they say at the end of a math proof: QED!