Defending Your Window: The Controllable Act of Playing Out of Your Mind
Do you see anything in common with these iconic players?
See their eyes? They are focusing on a specific area but not necessarily the ball. They all have a system of tracking the ball that is unlike most recreational players. For us, we see the ball come off the racquet of our opponent and keep our eyes glued on that ball as we try to hit it. The pros do not. This is just a quick introduction to the world of Scott Ford, renowned high performance coach who has developed as system of getting into the zone. I had the privilege of being on the court with him to not only talk about his methods but also experience them. The training he gave me is priceless. I hope the following information is as useful to you as it was for me! Regardless, you need to check out his books, Welcome To The Zone: Peak Performance Redefined as well as Integral Consciousness and Sport. I have started with some main principles that Scott emphasis that explains his "window" to focus on during your hitting session. This will hopefully build a case for why his method works at a scientific level. After all, being a science teacher there needs to be some research to back this up!
Tracking the Ball 101: Linear Vs. Triangular
The theme of Scott's methods starts with how we track the ball in tennis. The classic "follow the ball" with your eyes is a linear tracking that makes it difficult (and impossible at high speeds) to do. We will get into the nuts and bolts to this but for now, let's take a look at the way Scott has you track the ball. Instead of focusing on the ball, focus on where the ball will be at contact. By having your eyes adjust to that, the ball (first point of triangle) will come to view as you (second point of triangle) focus on the contact point (third point of triangle). This form of tracking is very useful and efficient in sports as our eyes cannot keep up with a moving object (more on this soon).
Dualistic Vs. Non Dualistic
Living in a dualistic environment has us programed to make getting into the zone in sports difficult. We place ourselves interacting with objects in the environment around us. Specifically in tennis, we place ourselves and the ball as the main objects on the court. This doesn't allow us to play well due to the very act of being in the environment. By detaching yourself from the ball, you are able to enter a state of mind that doesn't pass judgement as you are not in the picture anymore. This allows you to be "not attached to anything but aware of everything." As you will see later on, Scott gets you to focus on an open space rather than an object. This gets you into the zone at will.
What vs. Where Pathway
There are two pathways we can use for vision. The "what" pathway and the "where" pathway. The "what" pathway (ventral system) is object recognition. It is the act of calculating where the ball is going and how fast it is going as you track it in flight. The part of the brain that tracks objects like this is also used for emotions. This is part of the reason it is easy for someone to react with emotions after there is an outcome of hitting the ball. The "where" pathway (dorsal system) is about action relative to motion. To put it simply, you are trying to get to where the ball will be before the ball gets there so you can hit it. This "where" pathway uses a part of the brain that is not related to emotion. As you see from the chart below, if you practice using the "where" pathway (remember this is also called the dorsal system), you are at an advantage of seeing things happen at a much faster rate.
Point of Contact
Accommodation is "the process by which the vertebrate eye changes optical power to maintain a clear image or focus on an object as its distance varies." (Taken from Wikipedia) What this means is that our lens of our eyes need to change shape to focus on objects that vary in distance. When you track a ball from the opponents racquet to your racquet, your eyes are not going to adjust well to the varying depths it is traveling as it approaches you. At higher levels, this makes it impossible to do due to the speed of the ball. The pros know this so instead they focus their eyes on where they are planning on making contact before the contact is made. This allows their eyes to focus on a consistent depth for a period of time to have a clear vision of where the contact point is. So instead of tracking the ball to the contact point, focus on the contact point while the ball starts to come into focus as it approaches that point of contact. Scott did a demo to emphasis this. He had me put my index finger in front of me about 6 inches and had me focus on the finger as he took a ball and put it in my line of vision and started walking towards me as I was still focusing on the ball. As he got closer the ball became more clear and easy to read.
Past Present and Future
When we are focusing on the ball, it is looking at the past as the ball is moving faster than our eyes can adjust to. The classic advice "keep your eye on the ball" makes it difficult to think of the future as your brain is constantly in the past while tracking the ball. This makes it hard to figure out where to hit the ball (aka the future). So by the time the present comes along with the contact point, we are so off-kilter that the outcome is not very pleasant (aka you miss). Instead by focusing on defending your window, you are able to have all three moments (past, present and future) happen organically through a line of focus (the window...see more below) that connects them all into one. This simplifies what the brain needs to do which than allows an ability to make fast judgements as you play.
The Main Theme of Getting Into the Zone: Setting Up and Defending Your Window
The main theme of Scott's process has you set up your imaginary window which is placed in front of you where you are reaching out with your racquet, strings facing forward as the picture below shows (picture taken from Scott Ford's Book: Welcome To The Zone: Peak Performance Redefined.)
Once you set up the window, you are trying to keep the ball from shattering it. To do this you need to stop the ball from hitting through your window. Stopping the ball from moving at your window takes you to swing at the ball. While you are focusing on stopping the ball by swinging at it, you unintentionally make the ball start a new pathway which is opposite of where it came from. If you focus on swinging at the ball to stop it from shattering your window, a few things will happen:
You will hit balls out in front of you, allowing your technique to be as effective as it can be.
You won't be focusing on the outcome but rather the process, meaning your eyes will fixate on the contact point of where you need to stop the ball from moving further behind you.
This allows the "where" pathway to be used rather than the "what pathway" as described in a section above.
You will see yellow coming into your focus point (color of the ball) and yellow leaving your focus point when you are doing it right.
Your strokes will be much more effortless.
So What's Next?
This is not easy, but Scott suggests the following for you to try this:
Start with mini tennis. This gives you time and a close enough distance to have an opportunity to focus on your window while allows the ball to come into focus.
Give yourself immediate feedback. He encourages his players to say "yes" or "no" to different processes. This includes, "Did you stop the ball from hitting your window?" As well as "What contact point did you make on the ball?"
Vary distances. As you improve your focusing on the window, get further back and increase the pace as you increase your ability to stay focused on the window as you progress through this training.
Take your time. Everyone learns at different rates. When you are starting out on this it may be easy or hard but whatever the case, take your time and stay patient until you start to feel the "zone" that this gives you!
The Big Picture
Scott showed his progressive coaching in a visual (see below) during his interview with the Daily Evolver. As you see the first three sections on the bottom is what coaches have used for decades to teach players the intricacies of tennis. However Scott adds to this teaching through a shift in philosophy by focusing on playing to the best of your ability with the strokes you possess. This requires the player to work on their consciousness to be well attuned to their thoughts. Overall, we need to consider what true sports performance is all about and realize that the brain is in control of all the processes that are occurring.
Train the brain and get the most out of your game!
Want to know which eye is your dominant one? Check this video to do a quick test and also know what that means!
Upcoming Articles (in no particular order)
Singles strategies that work
Perceived vs. actual effort and why it matters
Interview with Adam Blicher: Soft Skills
Playing high altitude vs low altitude tennis (and which pro would do best at a mile high)