‘Keeping Your Eye on the Ball’ Turns out to Be Terrible Advice

by | Jul 19, 2017

Those of you who know me well will know that I’m a big Wimbledon fan. So, of course, a news item about tennis was bound to catch my eye…

“Tennis players are told to ‘keep their eye on the ball’, but it’s actually terrible advice.”

… went the story.

Hmm. I’ve been told that too when I’ve played ball sports over the years. I was curious to learn more so I read on…

 

Ball, What Ball?

 

This new research reported that the tennis ball, if hit at an average of 110 mph, moves at a speed that is too fast for our eye-brain connection to process.

The player loses sight of the ball when it’s around 15 feet (or 5 metres) away — meaning they stop being able to see it while it’s still on their opponent’s side of the net.

If we can’t see the ball, then how can we respond?

 

Act; Don’t Think

 

Tennis players, like many athletes, operate from instinct. They know where the ball is going to be and they move there on autopilot. Their subconscious is so well-trained they don’t need to think.

“I tell all my coaches this,” said Andy Murray. “I play better when I’m not trying to over-think what the ball’s going to do.”

I nodded along as I read; it seems obvious to me from my experience with clients who come to me for all manner of professional performance challenges and dreams. I may not use the word ‘over-thinking’ but it’s often present in the underlying sub-text of our conversations.

Turns out it’s as true for those Wimbledon champions (and wannabe champs) as it is for you and me: too much ‘thinking’ doesn’t help our performance.

But that’s not all…

 

We Sometimes Get in Our Own Way

 

What can happen, however, if we succumb to the thinking, is that we get in our own way.

The tennis player who thinks he or she knows best, and tries to ‘figure out’ where the ball’s going to be, is simply getting in the way of his or her carefully honed instinct. The brain gets confused, and the potential to hit a bad shot goes way up.

I know it’s counter-intuitive to all us smart people, but our conscious brain really isn’t our friend most of the time.

 

Second Guess; Second Place

 

In a tennis match, there are only two places: you win or you lose.

All that second-guessing about the ball is likely to put you in the latter.

But, what about in life? How do we get to the place of having a carefully honed instinct? And where do we look if we’re not looking at the ball?

The first question is easy. We do, we learn, we explore, we practice. (Keep your eye out for next week’s email because I’m going to talk more about this topic.)

The second question is easy too…

 

Keep Your Eye on the Ball!

 

“Uhhhh??? But, I thought you said don’t look at the ball??”

Nope, I didn’t exactly say that… I said that your conscious brain is giving you poor information, so don’t believe what it’s telling you. Trust your instinct, trust the practice, trust your body to know best…

…and still follow the ball.

The tennis study concluded by sharing that, even though players aren’t seeing the ball, the cameras that followed their eye movements showed that they still look at the ball.

This is partly training, all those years of coaching advice. It’s also partly about removing distraction and finding focus. If they were to look elsewhere, that could give their brain too much information to process; leading to confusion.

 

Look in the Direction You Want to Move

 

The tennis players look at the ball, not to see it, but because that’s where they want to move.

It’s the same for us. Look in the direction of what you want to create. Just know that you’re not looking to see, you’re looking to stay focused. You’re looking to build momentum, and to stay out of distraction.

Interesting stuff this tennis! There’s so much in sport that relates to life and business. (which gives me, as if I needed it, an excuse to watch more tennis.)

If you’re a fan, then enjoy the tennis, or otherwise enjoy your sport of choice. And remember, even when the players look as if they’re watching the ball, they’re really letting their intuition and instincts about what they already know take over.

That sounds like a recipe for success in tennis and in life!

With love,

Cathy

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