You can get a PhD in sport psychology these days, but nothing is more fundamental to mental toughness than watching the ball into the strings, and you don’t need a degree to become an expert. Bad eye contact, which I treat probably more than any other issue in my lessons, falls under the mental part of the game because anxiety and rushing the stroke are what takes a player’s eyes off the ball. We can’t, as players, eliminate the anxiety, but we can, most certainly, learn to keep our strokes together in the face of it. And though it wouldn’t be advisable to drink a martini before a match, we can learn when and why we rush our strokes and try to relax and take our time.

What Is Bad Eye Contact?

Bad eye contact is literally a peek at the future. Right before the ball is struck, we want to glance away from the ball and look at the court to see if our shot goes in. The more anxious we are about that possibility, the more inclined we are to peek.

How Do You Know If You're a Peeker?

Oh, that clunky contact! On a groundstroke, the peeking glance is upward. Given the great good fortune that your head is connected to the rest of your body, as your eyes look up, you lift, including the racquet, and that makes for contact at the lower end of the frame (closest to the court). Even when holding the racquet with two hands on a backhand, the resultant twisting of the frame is nasty. It's not that you're not holding tight enough; it's that you're not keeping your eyes down long enough. Volleys, the same: contact will be at the lower part of the frame if you peek. On overheads and serves, the glance is downward, and the off-center hit is at the top of the frame. This also accounts for those overheads that we hit into the bottom of the net when we're five feet from it!

There are other signs of bad eye contact. If when you look up after contact you see the ball on your side of the net, you've looked up too soon. This will be most painfully evident when you see the ball hit your side the net! If you're rushing the net and lose downward control of your volleys, likely that's because you're running through your shots, and the culprit there is—you guessed it—bad eye contact.

(Note: contact at the throat of the racquet is a different issue. On groundstrokes, this means you're crowding the ball, a different problem. On overheads and serves, it means you're letting the ball drop too much, again, a different problem.)

What Causes Bad Eye Contact?

My student, Alice, said it best. "I look up when I'm not confident."

There are two main types of anxiety, defensive and offensive.

Defensive anxiety is the predominant. As the ball is coming to us, we sense if there's going to be trouble. It's too fast, too low, too far, too tight, too high—too something! And we get tense. The more compromised our position, the more tempted we are to peek to see if we get the ball back. Sometimes we can alleviate these predicaments with better preparation and footwork but, dastardly folks that our opponents are, their job is to make us uncomfortable. Good defensive players concentrate all the harder on tough shots; poor defensive players panic, and they peek.

Rushing the stroke is another form of defensive anxiety. In singles, for example, the return of serve is often rushed. Stuck in the corner of the court, all that naked expanse of baseline on the other side, returners want to hurry their swings and get moving to the other side. Result: their eyes come off the contact. My student, Roberta, an A level doubles player, has textbook strokes from the baseline and at net. But take a look at her when she's returning and volleying and those gorgeous strokes look a little blurred around the edges. She runs through her return, runs through her first volley. Result: her eyes come off the ball. Of course, Roberta isn't alone. Coming in to net, suffering those scary balls at our feet near the service line, it's easy to conclude that our predicament is due to a lack of effort, that if we run faster, it won't happen. Not a chance. Playing a ball a mid-court, with our feet exposed, is precisely the risk of rushing the net. Behind the best serves and returns it's simply going to happen. As my own coach said, "Coming in, be desperate for poise, not progress." Coach Joe had it right. My standard joke is that I can teach anyone to volley in two lessons; the next two years are spent teaching him or her to stop at mid-court.

Offensive anxiety comes from shot selections that are meant to be aggressive: putaway volleys, overheads, passing shots, big serves and returns. We choose these shots so the anxiety is self-imposed, but it's anxious, nevertheless. We want to peek to see the glory that's about to be ours! Good offensive players stay as calm as they can when hitting a winner; poor offensive players drool just a bit too much and, of course, peek.

What's The Solution?

Good eye contact involves a moment of blindness!

Nancy, an A-1 doubles player and a terrific athlete, peeked at her shots uncontrollably, especially when she was rushing the net. I kept reminding her to watch the ball. Finally, she put her hands on her hips, and with sass that only she can muster, she said, "That's the problem, Keith. I am watching the ball!" We both learned something in that moment. What Nancy meant was that she wanted to stay in constant eye-contact with the ball; specifically, she wanted to watch it off her strings. That's when the peek comes, and that's what you can't do. Players should see the ball into the strings but not off the strings. If you go blind to the ball long enough, you'll never see the ball off your racquet on your side of the net; you'll pick it up when it's landing on the other side.

This amounts to a fraction of a second, a second at most. Taking this eternity will not in any way undermine your ability to be ready for your opponent's shot or to make progress in the court. And it will go a long way towards letting you play another shot. As Coach Joe used to say, "Look up too soon and the only thing you're going to see is a disaster, anyway."

Good Eye Contact Exercises

Here are some things you can do to practice good eye contact.

  1. Play catch. Have someone gently toss you a ball. You'll feel your eyes turn toward your hand to see the moment you catch it. That's hand-to-eye coordination, the basis of our sport. Put a racquet it your hand. Have someone gently toss the ball to you and try to gently bump it back. If you're normal, you peek, following the ball off your strings. Try again. The face of the racquet should act like the palm of your hand. Watch the ball into the strings, not off.
  2. Backward volleys. Turn your back to the net. Toss a ball behind you (toward the net) over your backhand shoulder. Hit the ball with a backhand volley over the net. You'll see the ball struck, but because you're facing away from the net, you won't be able to follow it (though I had one student nearly twist his head off trying!).

    Volleys offer a unique measure of good eye contact in any circumstance. Because proper form has the racquet stop at contact, what you should be looking at after you strike the ball is the racquet head—not the ball.
  3. Drop and hit, for groundstrokes and serves. Drop a ball and hit it over the net with your forehand. Don't look to see where the ball goes. You'll feel everything move except your head. When the shot is finished, you'll still be looking down over your shoulder at the spot where you hit the ball. (Note: this drill sometimes finds students staying sideways through their stroke. Your hips and shoulders should rotate toward the net even though your head is staying still.)

    Do the same drill with a serve. Hit one and don't look down to see if it's in. Your eyes should be up, on the contact point, even after the serve is finished.

    As my coach used to say, "Peer at the past; don't peek at the future!"

How Long, Coach, How Long?

Exactly how long do we keep our eyes on the contact point? Ah, that's the question, especially in the frantic exchange of the ball during a rally.

Find a physical cue. For example, on my forehand, (I'm right-handed) I look up to see my shot after my right shoulder touches my chin, not before. This helps me lift my finish correctly, and it gives me a concrete sense of when the swing is done and I can look up. If you have a two-handed backhand, your signal would be the left shoulder touching your chin. If you have a one-handed backhand, you'll feel a pull right where your pectoral muscle anchors into your shoulder. Don't look up before that pull.

Find a verbal cue. My student, Marlene, says, "Freeze," to herself sub vocally after contact. That one syllable measures the time her eyes stay on the contact point. And, she says it reminds her to stay set. Other students like saying, "Ball" sub vocally. One student used the length of his exhalation during the swing to measure the interval.

Find any kind of cue. My student, Prentice, though quite genteel and possessed of excellent manners, likes me to remind her of her butt if she's not watching the ball! When her eyes come off contact too soon, she lifts (like all of us). It's easier for her to address this symptom rather than the cause, and she tries to keep her butt low to the court. I suggested we might use the word knees as a substitute, as in, "Keep your knees bent," but Prentice said no.

Find a pace that you trust. Chances are, if you're not watching the ball long enough, it's because you're going for too much pace. What's too much? Pace is a fickle thing. On Tuesday, we can go out and launch rockets. The next day, we can't control half that pace. Even the PhD's can't explain it. But on any given day, there is going to be a pace where you say to yourself, "Okay, at this speed, I know I can't get the ball in." It's what I call your basement pace. It may not be your best pace or the pace that you'd like to possess, but when it comes to cutting down unforced errors from not watching the ball, that hardly matters. Our most basic anxiety is that if we swing we'll miss. Address this anxiety first thing in your warm-up. Find a pace where you feel comfortable, measured in part by your ability to keep your eyes on the ball. During the match, once you get into the flow of it, you might choose to increase your pace, as long as it doesn't cause you anxiety and make you peek. If it does, lower the pace. And if at any juncture, you start to get tense, you can always return to your basement pace to get you through tough times in your match.

Note: The names of my students have been changed to protect their privacy, but they know who's who.

Keith Shein

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