The good. The bad. The ugly. And the solution.
If you’ve ever gotten in a car accident, most of the time you know the cause. If the accident was your fault, you took your eye off the road. It’s that simple. In tennis, taking your eye off the ball has less serious consequences, but causes shanks, flubs, and mishits, all heard on nearby courts as players call out “Darn it!” when the errant ball seems to have a mind of its own.
Lack of proper visual focus and head shifting at the point of contact is overwhelmingly the most common cause of mistakes in tennis. Therefore, justifiably, the single most common (and good) instruction on courts around the world has always been “Watch the ball!” Although often misunderstood, lesson-takers pay millions of dollars to hear their instructor shout across the net this same instruction. Yes, somewhere in the world, in one language or another, this instruction is taking place right now!
Unfortunately, the vast majority of the time, this instruction doesn’t work. One of the reasons is that students commonly tune it out since it is repeated over and over again. So, is it the students’ fault or the coach’s responsibility to present the instruction in a more effective way?
The consequence of not watching or tracking the ball well, part of which is caused by shifting the head, is off-center hits. How rampant is this problem? Finally, through modern technology, we now know that approximately 80% of shots hit by recreational players are off center (whether it be a little or a lot). If you dispute this, consider that Nadal had 51% off-center hits tracked by his new racquet technology at a recent tournament.
How do players acquire this Federer-like skill?
First, let’s analyze what the instruction “Watch the ball!” actually means. Thanks to high speed video and slow-motion replay, we know that the ball dwells on the strings for just 3-4 milliseconds, too quick for the human eye to see. Therefore, for the tennis technique analyst, let’s clarify that the instruction to “Watch the ball hit the strings” is misleading. I prefer using the term “gaze control” which describes using your eyes to track the ball off your opponent’s racquet and then zooming in that visual focus to cover the final three feet up to and including contact. Science tells us this is what the most accomplished athletes in various ball sports including tennis are doing.
Once we accept the problem, finding a solution becomes more compelling, assuming we want to improve our tennis. Yes, we need to practice, but mostly we need to practice in a controlled environment to get our body, mind, and eyes used to focusing on that relatively small space leading up to and including contact. And, since tennis is a rhythm-based sport, if we can also practice with a repeating rhythm, it helps even more. How do we do this?
The concept is profound. The device is simple.
Joe Dinoffer is a Master Professional in both the USPTA and PTR, has been recognized with numerous national awards including the 2019 City of Dallas Humanitarian Award for contributions to inner city tennis, and has conducted clinics and exhibitions in over 50 countries. Joe is the author and editor of 9 books and more than 20 DVDs, has more than 300 published articles in various tennis and pickleball magazines, and has aired many instructional tips on the Tennis Channel. Plus, Joe’s YouTube channel has more than 2 million views and growing! His latest book “Words, Wisdom, and Whimsy” is the second volume of an illustrated series called “Poems from the Heart.” In 1994, Joe founded OnCourt OffCourt, Ltd., a company dedicated to serving the tennis, pickleball, fitness, yoga, and physical education industries with innovative training aids and educational tools. Today, he has designed and manufactured more than 150 creative products being distributed and used in 100 countries worldwide.