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JAK'S ESSAY SERIES: Local & Beyond

Serving and Returning Better with a Quiet Eye

By Jak Beardsworth

Joan Vickers, a kinesiology professor at the University of Calgary did some pioneering eye-tracking research in the mid-1990s that she coined the "quiet eye," a visual technique which has held up to be beneficial, and then some, over time in multiple sports.

Baseball and softball pitchers practice it. So do basketball free throw shooters, golfers, dart players, bowlers, quarterbacks, free kickers in soccer, and more. In an explosive, fast moving game like tennis, its players need it too.

Since the human brain and eyes work in concert – okay, you already know that - it turns out that they are very adept at processing both visual input and spatial information simultaneously, especially if given about one second to compute the task at hand. Did you know that?

When serving or returning serve one has the pre-shot luxury of that one second to visually focus their shot's intention by sighting an appropriate, imaginary smallish "window" directly above the net (think reference point) to pass the ball through in order to hit their intended spot in the service box, and challenge, let's say, an opponent's weaker backhand return. Or, conversely, a varying relevant window to also target in advance, and hit through to produce a deep cross court return of serve – the door opening shot especially applicable in doubles - to also gain an immediate advantage and get on top of the point.

Basically, if you will, connecting the dots to achieve the desired end.

Neuroscientists maintain that by activating those regions of the brain that control visual/spatial goals with Vicker's quiet eye, other potentially undermining parts of the brain – especially the ones that trigger the fear of double faulting or getting poached – are naturally suppressed.

Pretty good news!

Then, once a point is ongoing – described by the late renowned writer and tennis enthusiast David Foster Wallace as "chess on the run" – another variation on this visualization theme must occur, then, exclusively in your mind's eye since you're now visually fixated on that flying yellow sphere that's going back and forth, unlike the pre-shot dynamic described previously when preparing to serve or return.

Make no mistake, there is most definitely an actual can-do link between what you "see" for your shots, and your existing ball striking skills to deliver it. The human brain not only does this well, but lightning fast as well, in a micro second. Unmeasurable.

The great Roger Federer, ball striker supreme and never boastful, once described what he thought was his greatest skill in a Q and A on his website like this: I think I see my shot (recognizing an opponent's shot and then picturing his own response) faster than anyone else. He did not, somewhat surprisingly, note his forehand weapon, his flashy backhand, or his pinpoint serve as one might expect.

On serve he chooses to engage a quiet eye one time only, a brief look just prior to his toss. Nick Kyrios, an unbelievable talent despite his occasional shenanigans (especially the latest disgusting one which he was fined $17,500 for in a Wimby lead-up – see video online), quiet eyes his target multiple times before launching his serve.

No "right," no "wrong."

On the return this practice is difficult to detect on TV since the camera focus is typically on the server. But, when watching good players live – including club pros - the pre-shot focus is absolutely evident then too as they ready themselves with more than that one second available.

Unfortunately, too many club players, particularly the inconsistent ones, are focusing on nothing in particular when serving or returning – the hope I get it in syndrome (THIGIS) - and depend on a crap shoot of random mechanical success that's always less than their real potential. I've had many frustrated servers step up to line to serve and never once look to orient themselves to their target. And on the return it's not unusual for them to admit they had "no idea" when asked what their return goal was on a particularly bad error conceding they were "just trying to get it back."

The amazing human brain and its below the neck connections require, no want, more than a hope and a prayer.

If you want greater consistency to become a main component of your current all-around game, then start serving and returning with a pre-shot quiet eye. Then, once you're in the point and committed to staying laser focused on the ball, picture your intended shot in an instant like Fed. That's right-hemisphere brain thinking-in-pictures, not paralyzing left-brain analytical do-this-do-that mechanical check lists that produce crash and burn results.

This practice does not, and will not, interfere with ball watching the way over thinking always does. Not only will it tap into your hard earned technical skills, but will eliminate that unproductive deer in the headlights look – glazed over, focusing focusing on nothing, literally unable to track the ball, thinking "What's wrong with my forehand?"

Visualize…realize, with a quiet eye and when on the run. Start today.

Copyright 2018 by Jak Beardsworth Tennis. All rights reserved.

COMMENTS WELCOME: JB1tennis@comcast.net

Past Essays

  • October 2018- Older Dogs and New Tricks: Still Improving at Any Age [read more]
  • September 2018- The All-Important Dynamic of Gripping [read more]
  • August 2018- The Cinemascope Syndrome: Undermining Your Ball Watching [read more]
  • June 2018 - Serving and Returning Better with a Quiet Eye [read more]
  • May 2018 - The Man Who Breathed for Two [read more]
  • January 2018 - Rituals Anyone? [read more]
  • December 2017 - Why Serving is so Difficult in Clubland [read more]
  • October 2017 - Managing your body and mind in tennis space [read more]
  • August 2017 - Why Bother Breathing to Improve Your Game [read more]
  • May 2017 - The "Maintaining" One's Game as One Ages Fallacy [read more]
  • February 2017 - Punta Gorda Tennis Clubs: Setting the Bar [read more]
  • January 2017 - State of the Club Game: The Growing Death of Sportsmanship [read more]

Check back often for more essays.