“Watch the ball!” is one of the most common phrases coaches say in tennis lessons. On one hand, it seems very easy to understand, but on the other hand, it’s not as obvious as it seems.
Seeing the ball well and not looking too early towards the other side of the court as we’re hitting the ball are not easy skills to master, so let’s take a look at what really goes on with our vision and our attention when we play tennis.
There are three key moments you need to focus on in order to really judge the ball well in the first place and eventually to be able to see it well before contact.
1. The beginning of the ball flight/trajectory
When your opponent hits the ball, you need to watch very closely the beginning trajectory of the ball. That will help you calculate where the ball will go and eventually end up.
In my experience, most lower level tennis players do not pay good attention to this part of the trajectory and simply wait to see the ball bounce before doing final adjustments.
More experienced players gather almost 90% of the information of the final position of the ball even before the ball crosses the net.
They can determine:
If you do not watch the first part of the trajectory (from contact until the bounce) with full attention, you will not be able to pick up these cues and therefore won’t judge the ball well.
That will result in rushed movements after the bounce, more tension in your body and very likely a poor shot.
2. The ball leaving the ground after the bounce
This part of the flight of the ball gives almost all information needed for a good hit. The last part follows below…
If you have ever played on clay or on an uneven surface, you know that if the ball has a bad bounce, it totally breaks down your timing and swing.
That tells us that almost all of our timing for the swing is done well before the ball bounces.
By paying really good attention to this second part after the bounce helps us really acquire that accurate timing and the ability to hit the ball in the sweet spot of the racquet.
3. The ball just before contact – usually between 2 meters to about 0.5 meters before contact
As the ball is approaching our point of contact, we need to see it very clearly at some point before we hit it.
We need to bring the ball into FOCUS and see it very clearly.
I call this the SNAPSHOT moment. It’s like taking a picture with a camera and being able to focus the ball despite it traveling fairly fast towards us.
It’s not so easy to see the ball very clearly during its full flight as it’s traveling fast and changing direction as it bounces.
But, once it comes closer, roughly between 2 meters to 0.5 meters before contact, we usually can bring it into focus and see it clearly for a split second.
That short moment of seeing clearly gives the brain the last bit of information it needs about the ball’s trajectory and it can therefore make a final adjustment to the timing of our stroke so that we can hit the ball in our ideal contact point and not be too early or too late.
It also helps the brain guide the arm and racquet hand very accurately towards the ball so that we can hit the sweet spot of the racquet.
What I am about to share with you is how I personally see the bounce and how most of the highly skilled players I talked to see the bounce.
I don’t look with full attention to the bounce, which I’d say is that flight of the ball perhaps 0.5 meters before the bounce and 0.5 meters after the bounce.
This is where the ball abruptly changes direction, and we can lose sight of it for a split second.
I do know that most beginners have problems tracking the ball well exactly because they try to see the ball all the time and hence “lose it” temporarily as it changes direction from going down to going up.
More experienced players PREDICT where the ball is going to come out of the bounce and look already in that area which is approximately 0.5 meters to 1 meter after the bounce.
From that area until contact, the ball is going in a fairly straight line and is slowing down all the time; therefore, it’s not difficult to TRACK.
So, the way to look at the bounce is to see it with “soft focus”.
The best way to describe “soft focus” is in how you observe cars in the lanes next to you as you’re driving on the highway.
You see them, but you don’t look at them. You don’t focus on the cars next to you as that would take your eyes off the road – yet you see them.
You also monitor the lines that define your lane in which you drive and which help you guide your car within your lane.
You don’t look at the lines directly, but you see them through “soft focus”, and that’s enough to give you information on where to guide your car.
So, in a similar way, you observe the bounce – you do see it, but you don’t focus on it or fixate on it.
The second critical part of watching the ball when playing tennis is keeping your head still while making contact.
This is one of the most difficult things to master in tennis, especially for recreational tennis players.
The reason this is so difficult is because it’s not very natural to us.
What’s natural to us is to look at the target we want to hit so that we can judge the distance and figure out at what trajectory (height, speed, etc.) we want to throw something so that we hit the target.
This instinct has to be overridden with very deliberate practice so that not looking at the target and simply KNOWING where it is becomes second nature.
The reason we want to keep the head still at the point of contact is because if we “pull” the head too quickly from contact as we’re swinging the racquet, we also unknowingly “pull” the racquet away from the ideal contact point and therefore mishit a lot or hit the ball off the center of the racquet, which results in a poor shot.
From my personal experience as a coach, this is not so difficult to master when working with competitive tennis juniors who train almost daily for years.
If, in this period, we constantly remind them to keep their head still at contact, they will eventually master it.
But, most recreational tennis players do not play that much, nor are they constantly reminded to keep their head still, so this “technique” of keeping the head still does not become second nature.
As recreational tennis players also like to compete a lot, we play under a lot of pressure which often makes us look up even more because we are so anxious to see what happened with our shot and what our opponent is about to do.
That’s why keeping your head still while you’re hitting the ball is a much more MENTAL process than simply a mechanical one.
And that’s why it’s so difficult to improve and master.
My personal experience as a player is that I spent around 3-4 months practicing keeping my head still while hitting the ball before I actually experienced any real progress.
I played almost every day – and on most days, I actually played twice a day.
My usual playing time in the summers was between 3-5 hours a day, and whenever I could, I was trying to keep my head still and overcome an old habit.
I eventually improved a lot, but I still cannot keep my head still like Roger Federer on every shot. 😉
It takes a lot of concentration to work on your “watching the ball skill”, which includes seeing the ball clearly coming towards you, taking a “snapshot”, and keeping your head still.
You may be able to practice that only for 5 minutes at a time before losing your focus.
My longest time of continually doing it without breaks was around 20 minutes while hitting freely with my friend, and after that time I was mentally completely exhausted.
So, if you are deciding to improve your “watching the ball” skills in tennis, you need to practice this skill very deliberately while hitting freely with a partner and sticking with it for quite some time.
The benefits of being able to do it properly are massive, though.
You will have many more clean hits of the ball which will give you much more power and ball control.
You will eliminate most mishits and hits off your sweet spot which result in a very deep ball with very little effort.
Keep in mind this fact: if you hit just 5 cm off your sweet spot (with a typical tennis racquet), you lose 40% of the power – and that, of course, results in a ball landing short or even not crossing the net.
The following drills and ideas worked for me and my students well as I was experimenting with them and trying all sorts of things to help them see the ball well.
This is what worked best…
1. Bring the ball into focus
a) Just drop the ball and as it comes to the top of the bounce, bring it into focus. See it clearly with all the little details.
This is the snapshot moment that will happen just before you make contact with the ball.
b) Do the same while playing mini tennis.
c) Do the same while rallying from the baseline. Practice for 5-20 minutes, as long as you can manage.
2. Read the initial part of the trajectory
Focus for a while on the initial part of the ball flight after your partner hits it and until the ball reaches the net.
Ask yourself: where will the ball go? Can you figure out where will the ball end up (at what distance and height from you) just based on this information?
You should do this for a couple of minutes every time you start your baseline warmup so that you are warming up not only your strokes but also the “trajectory judging computer” in your brain.
Keeping your head still as you’re swinging through the ball is not difficult if you start in very easy conditions.
That helps you at first experience how it actually feels not to look over.
1. Drop feed the ball to yourself
As you drop and hit the ball after the bounce, delay your look after it.
You can do it if you decide to do it.
Experience how that feels. You may feel anxious for a moment even though there is no one to “attack” your shot on the other side.
You need to calm down yourself here first before trying to replicate this process while in a live ball rally.
I suggest hitting one basket of balls like this for each stroke. So, around 50 shots for the forehand and 50 shots for the backhand (per session).
2. See the “blur” of the racquet
A good way to tell if you’re keeping your head still at the moment of contact is to be able to see the blur of your racquet passing through your field of vision.
Once you see the blur, you can look up and see what happened with your shot.
3. See the ball disappear
As you focus on the ball at your contact point and if you don’t move your head, the ball will “disappear” from that space you’re focusing on.
So, the next thing you see is the ground behind your contact point. If you “see” the ball disappear from your contact point, you’re very likely keeping your head still.
In summary, “watch the ball” and “keep your head still” are still very common mantras on tennis courts and hopefully now you understand why they won’t go away.
The coaches are well aware of the benefits of doing it properly, and it takes a lot of time to master – hence you hear this so often.
I hope this article shed some light on what in my experience goes “behind the scenes” in our eyes and our minds as we’re watching a tennis ball fly towards us and how we need to focus on it so that we get as many clean hits of the ball as possible.