The following article is written by Styrling Strother. Styrling is the Director of Player & Coaching Development at USATennisCoach. Check out Styrling's new book, 7 On Court Strategies to Experience Your Play State: How to Win Every Time You Play.
What if I could tell you the secret to successfully winning more points and being more in control of a match? Would you want to know? Of course you would! It’s not a secret but sometimes, we look past it, forget about it or take it for granted. You must know the road ahead, because if you know what’s coming next you have an incredible power called Anticipation. Anticipation is the ultimate advantage! The first step in increasing the power of anticipation is to realize and affirm the number one body part that you'll use to play tennis – your eyes. The skill of shifting the eyes from what you just did - striking the ball - to noticing the body position and the racquet position of your opponent, is a critical one. The main reason we lose points and get beat is we fail to anticipate what’s coming next. Players often become captivated by what kind of shot they hit and where it’s going to land (in or out), instead of focusing on what their shot is doing to their opponent.
Are You Reacting to Your Opponent or Are They Reacting to You?
I doubt that you're losing points, games, and matches because you're slower than the other player. You’re not less intelligent and their forehand isn't that much better than yours - that's if you're playing an opponent of similar skill. Players that lead in the score and win are anticipators. The reason you lose points is because you don’t know when and how the ball is coming back to you. So what do you do? You react. Reaction is always stressful and yet so much of the game is predictable. If we were to study and practice in a proactive way - with appropriate patterns - the game would become a lot simpler. Tennis can be predictable when we reflect on what has happened in past matches and remember the possibilities that arise from certain shots and the various court locations. When we play competitors, remembering their personal tendencies, what shots they like and dislike, our ability to anticipate and be more proactive is the competitive edge we need to win. Professional players know this about their competition and the difference between winning and losing depends on which player reacts and which one anticipates. If you put a strategy in place, shift your eyes at the correct time and predict with confidence the next move, you'll win more. As players, we must first take control of when and what we are focused on. And we must do that with our eyes.
The 'Ball-Player' Challenge
Many players have difficulty reading and reacting to the opponent’s shot, and they find themselves out of sync, out of position, and off balance. A major solution to all of these problems is to develop better ball-player recognition skills. One of my most fundamental and impactful player challenges is what I simply call ‘Ball-Player’. I created this challenge to help players solve a problem. Students come to me desiring to have a better forehand, backhand, or serve, in an effort to reach the next level of play.
In the beginning sessions with these players I noticed that regardless of the mastery of their technique, every player was having a difficult time reading and reacting to the next shot. There was a noticeable delay in response to the next ball coming at them. More often than not, developing players tend to read and react very slowly to the shot coming back to them. They lack the ability to take mental notes about what to expect when a certain shot goes to a certain place on the court, and against a certain player. As an example, it'd be great if they knew the fairly universal responses to a high lob over the backhand side, or a very deep crosscourt shot to the forehand. When players begin to understand the possibilities, and the highest percentage shots that come from those positions, along with the tendencies of their opponent, their reaction time immediately improves.
A great tool I use to guide a player through self discovery of this new skill of ball recognition is through a series of questions. After a number of similar answers, I jokingly ask myself “Is this some sort of conspiracy? Are they all in on it? Have all these players decided together to answer me the same exact way?” Joking aside, my first question to them is, “After you strike the ball and look up to the opponent’s side of the court, where are your eyes focused?” By far the most common answer is, “I focus on my shot or my ball.” The next thing I would say, in a humorous tone, “You were admiring your shot, weren’t you?”. While not all of them verbalize it, either in speech or in body language, they say, “Yes!” Their answer honestly makes perfect sense - our eyes tend to focus on what we think is most important, and the natural assumption is that we should watch the ball. Players are also fascinated by the outcome of their shot, and judging it - was it a good shot or a bad shot? The main problem with focusing on the ball after it leaves your racquet is your eyes are now stuck in the past. Once you look up after contacting the ball, your eyes will stay in the present moment by focusing on your opponent’s movement and reaction to your shot. As you focus on your opponent’s response to your shot, you'll be able to track the ball coming off your opponent’s racquet and remain grounded in the present moment. Staying in the present will increase your response time to the spin, direction, height, and speed of the oncoming ball.
The most powerful way to improve your response time as a player is being able to shift the focus of your eyes from ball to player and back again.
Why You Need to Focus on More than JUST the Ball
As a tennis coach I’m on court striking tennis balls every day either through direct feeding or playing points. My eyes are mostly focused on the player, their movement, racquet swing path, balance, etc. My eyes stay in the present moment when this occurs because I’m looking to what the player is doing or going to do instead of what the ball is doing on its flight path. I’m not even looking at the ball as it strikes my racquet in coach-mode feeding because that’s not what I want to see, it’s not where my focus is. As a coach, I want to see what the player is doing, in order to offer instruction for improvement. As a player, however, your focused eyes are the portal to your thinking and analysis of how to play the game. Vision enables your anticipation to understand the tendencies of how an opponent plays different shots.
The human mind is fascinated by motion, and when we watch a tennis match from outside the fence or even on TV, the ball going back and forth holds our interest. We watch the ball going back and forth over the net instead of watching either player in isolation. Some of the visual skills that go into coaching have to do with seeing what is most helpful from an ideal perspective. When I'm coaching my players in a live ball situation, I stand behind them so that I can look through the court to the other side. I do that so that I can:
1. Track the relationship between the ball and the player.
2. Focus on player movement, swing path, or any other aspect of play in order to give better feedback and coaching.
My eyes stay in the present moment simply from adjusting my position of where I coach, which is behind the player on one side of the court, and keeping the action directly in front of me.
Progressions of Ball-Player
When a player’s mind is in the future or the past, they are less likely to play at the tope of their game. ‘Ball-Player’ is a strong on-court intervention to help keep players minds in the present moment. How does it work? The first stage in the progression is that I ask the player to say out loud to themselves the word “player” as soon as they look up from striking the ball. They then say, “ball” as soon as they see the impact of the ball coming back from their opponent’s strings. This audibly triggers their minds to refocus on the right object in the present moment, directing their eyes easily, without saying ‘watch the ball’. Triggering the eyes to attend to what is important also helps the player stay in the present moment, not the past or future, increasing the amount of time played in a flow state.
Depending on how well you as a player can master this task, and generally within three to five minutes, the next stage in the progression would be to whisper the words to yourself. What tends to happen is you’ll begin to internalize the words “Ball-Player” inside your head at the right moment. Things can break down at this stage. Sometimes you may forget to ‘say’ the words in your mind. If the voice inside your head isn’t loud enough or it's delayed, return to the first progression of saying the words out loud. When you see a clear improvement in performance from saying it out loud compared to in your head, that's clear evidence that something broke down during the internalizing of the skill.
This is a good time to stop and think about why this is happening? Sometimes, the player reports that they were thinking about something else entirely - like how to hit the shot - or are distracted by giving attention to something unrelated to the task at hand. This audible projection increases the awareness of the ball and the situation on court for the player. By saying the words out loud, I can hear them both as the coach and as the player. We can then reconcile together whether they are recognizing the ball or player soon enough in the present moment to increase the anticipatory skill. Once the player is hearing their inner voice loudly, their eyes will then begin to be automatically be attracted to the right object at the right time. Over time the player is trained so deeply in the habits of pattern recognition that there will be no need to say anything. Ultimately, this progression is about you practicing new instincts to see what’s happening on the court rather than to give attention to other events that have no bearing on performance. As a result, you'll begin to increase the amount of ‘flow time’ and ‘zone time’ when you play.
**To watch the video below, enter the password - '7'.
More videos and drills like this in Styrling's new book - check it out on Amazon.com.
Why are We So Fascinated by a Tennis Ball?
What is it about a tennis ball that makes us want to watch it? Part of the reason, as stated before - our minds are attracted to objects in motion. Many people tend to be so outcome oriented that they want to see the flight of their shot so they can immediately evaluate it, good shot or bad shot, so they can try harder to do or not do that again. In training, sometimes it's a great thing when players realize the product of their stroke in terms of height, speed, spin, and placement. In competition, it’s much more important to focus on how that shot has affected the opponent. By focusing this way, a player begins to play shots based on how their opponent reacts to these shot-making variables perfected in practice.
Why is Keeping Your Eyes Focused on the Right Objects So Important?
We as human beings love to succeed, and love to see the results of our efforts. On the tennis court, it gives us great pleasure when we strike a fantastic shot and see it happen in real time. That is such an awesome feeling! The major issue with watching or admiring a shot is that it immediately puts the player in the past mentally. When someone strikes a tennis ball and it’s moving away from them, their eyes have a difficult time of keeping up with the speed of the ball as it moves away from them. By the time you register in your mind a ball that was fifteen feet away, it will then be much further away, so the image you have in your mind is one from the past.
To understand this, we must understand our eye movements. There are two types of eye movements that are used to track moving objects - and as players, we want to use the best visual strategy for ball tracking. The two types of eye movements are smooth pursuit and saccadic movement. Bear with me as we get into more of a scientific discussion of how the eyes work. A saccade movement is a quick, simultaneous movement of both eyes between two or more phases of fixation in the same direction. Smooth pursuit movements are slow eye movements that stabilize the projection of the moving target onto the fovea (the small, central pit composed of closely packed cones in the eye).
The upper limit of velocity or highest speed that these slow eye movements (smooth pursuit) can track is about 80-100 degrees per second or 17.5 mph. After impact, the ball exceeds this highest speed and the eyes will switch to use saccadic movement which can shift the eye at upwards of 900 degrees per second. Saccadic movement is more akin to when the eyes are “scanning”. Of course, we don’t know too many people who have eyes that can do a 360 degree turn, but this is to show exactly how fast the eye can shift. For saccadic vision, the eye could be tracking an object at 78.525 meters/second or about 175 miles per hour. The partial function of this is to allow us to move through areas during flight or fight situations so that we're not able to see every small obstacle which might stop us from escaping a wild animal or another very dangerous situation. Since the level of danger on a tennis court is relatively small, our use of saccadic vision is many times more a hindrance than a help. Saccadic movements lead to a graying out of the ball during its flight path.
To actually follow the ball with your eye, smooth pursuit would likely be required but because the maximum speed of eye tracking ability is only about 17.5 mph (and the ball moves much faster than that after impact), trying to track the ball moving away from you is not beneficial. As the ball is moving away from you towards your opponent, your response time to the next shot is negatively affected. Your opponent, however, isn't moving faster than 17.5 mph and you can effectively track their movement, balanced or unbalanced, stretched or loaded, with smooth pursuit vision. By tracking the other player, you are able to steady your eyes in the present moment to read and react to what's coming next - and improve anticipation abilities.
The Ball – Player Strategy is a solution to the visual problems presented by the tendency in players to use saccadic vision and rely more on using smooth pursuit vision. Ball-player redirects the mind to train the technique to better anticipate your opponent’s tendencies.
In conclusion: the benefits of the Ball-Player Challenge
1. Improved anticipation of the opponent’s tendencies based on their position in the court and type of shot they are returning.
2. Faster reaction time because focusing on a player’s court position allows you to see how, when, and where they are limited to the types of shots they play back to you.
3. You will be better able to read and respond to whether the opponent is attacking, neutralizing, or defending a shot. Resetting to a more ideal position to cover the opponent’s next shot can improve dramatically.
4. Your decision or split step as well as first step quickness will improve as a result of the Ball-Player strategy. Improved anticipative movements as a product of proper eye shifting can lead to being at the right place at the right time to increase your chances of winning more points.
5. Players play more efficiently mainly because of proactive instead of reactive responses. Being more proactive is beneficial mentally, physically and emotionally. When a player is more proactive on court, they are less likely to be subject to responding to their opponent’s shots with overreactions. Players who are proactive find themselves on balance, on time, and in position during their match.