HOW TO WATCH THE TENNIS BALL - FOR BEGINNERS
Intuition tells us that watching a tennis ball in flight is fairly simple. Well it is, and it isn’t. The four steps are simple and anyone with normal attention focus can do them. Two crucial results of not watching the ball are 1) mishitting the ball, i.e. hitting the ball on the racket frame, and 2) missing the ball altogether.
Caution: IF YOU CANNOT FOCUS ON THE BALL, TENNIS MAY BE UNNECESSARILY CHALLENGING FOR BEGINNERS AND OTHER LEARNERS.
Watching the Ball Is a rather complex task. Distraction is enemy # 1 when you are trying to learn how to watch the ball. Your mind may be unfocused, that is, you may be attending to the wrong things.
The key problem is that while your eyes are tracking the ball, your mind is busy telling your body what to do based on your interpretation of what you see. These five items are:
Ball direction – Is the ball going to the right, or left, or straight at you?
Speed of the oncoming ball – How fast is the ball approaching you?
Spin on the ball – Does the ball have topspin, underspin, or no spin?
Arc of the ball – Where is the ball going to land relative to its arc?
Depth of the opponent’s shot – Where is the ball going to land relative to its trajectory?
THE FOUR STAGES OF WATCHING THE BALL
Opponent’s Hit. The process of watching the ball starts when your opponent hits the ball toward you. You should be watching the opponent’s racket so that you can focus on the ball as soon as it comes off of the opponent’s strings.
This is not difficult and most beginners do not have trouble judging the direction of the ball.
Approaching Ball. Your concentration level should be highest as the ball approaches you. You should track the ball in its entire flight.
This provides the beginner with significant challenge because most beginners do not naturally watch the ball’s entire flight.
As you ball approaches you, it will either have topspin, backspin, side spin, or almost no spin. Many beginners and early learners fail to detect spin. Spin on the ball tells you how to anticipate how the ball will bounce, as follows:
No spin causes the ball to bounce in an uncomplicated manner.
Topspin cause the ball to bounce higher than no spin.
Underspin (slice) causes the ball to bounce lower than no spin.
Side spin causes the ball to bounce either to your right or to your left.
A tip is to watch the seams on the ball. This is easy with two-tone balls.
Ball Bounce. If you in fact just “see” where the ball actually bounces on the court as it approaches you each time, your game will improve. The actual bounce point is easily verifiable by your coach if he interrupts and asks the receiver where the ball bounced. This is not too difficult for beginners, but it is often overlooked.
Racket Contact with the Ball. Try to watch the ball actually hit your strings. The idea is to watch the point of impact. When you do this your head is turned away from the opponent for a split second. Do NOT turn or lift your head until the ball has left your racket. In other words, lock your head in position for part of a second.
Tip – Looking up too early is the curse of the ball watching process. Our mind wants to know immediately where our shot is going. Momentarily keeping your head still is key to making a better shot. (Look at any of the photos on the Internet of Roger Federer hitting groundies if you need testimony of the wisdom of watching the ball at contact. He is one of the best tennis players ever to play on the planet.)
Watching the ball is not extremely difficult, although it takes focus and practice to incorporate the skill into your game. If you leave out any of the four key elements highlighted above, you are not watching the ball as good as you should.
One tried and true method for watching the ball (Tim Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis) is the "bounce-hit" method. In a nutshell, as the oncoming ball bounces on your side of the court you say in your head, "bounce," then as you hit the ball say "hit." For many beginners/early learners this improves their ability to watch the ball. [The logic: It increases your concentration and your timing.]
A dead giveaway. If your eyes are not directed to the point of contact, you are not closely watching the ball. You are guestimating where the ball is. Many beginners look at where they think the ball is going to go instead of actually looking at the point-of-contact space. A trained instructor can tell if you are not watching the ball by looking closely at your eyes and at the tilt of your head.
A final challenge to you when you are preparing to stroke the ball is that you also need to briefly note the positions of your doubles opponents in order to avoid hitting too close to them. This skill will develop as you gain playing experience.
Reading this instructional is simply not sufficient. Memorize the four landmarks of watching the ball, then go out on the court and practice it. As Nike says in its byline: Just Do It.”
Now, what are the four stages (by memory) you should be watching the ball?
[4A-How to Watch the Tennis Ball For Beginners] [Rev 6-11-11]