Memory Gaphic"Keep your eyes on the ball"

by Matthew Leitch, 17 February 2002

Misconception: What your eyes track and focus on (e.g. the ball, the opponent's eyes) is also what your attention should focus on.

How skill really works: What your eyes focus on and track isn't necessarily where you'll find all - or even most - of the information you need to perform skillfully. What you focus on becomes the stationary centre point of your vision (even though our brains create the impression of its movement to match the reality).

In tennis, for example, the image of the ball once fixed on the centre of the eye and held there by the tracking of the eyes, provides only some weak information about spin and approach speed. The spin information is only available if the spin is slow enough for the lines to be seen. The rate of growth of the image of the ball on your retina is proportional to the time before the ball reaches you (approximately) but is hard to pick out for such a small object.

The information you really need most is about how the ball is moving through space relative to you and the court and that is in the movement of "background" images across the rest of your visual field. This movement is sometimes called "visual flux".

To get that information properly you need to attend to it. Fortunately, it's easy to direct your awareness to things other than the place your eyes are pointing, and to attune yourself to movements in the periphery of your vision.

Here are some examples:

Example: Driving. If you fix your eyes on a point far ahead on the road, and tune into the visual flux around it you will soon feel the strong flow of the roadside and be aware of how your steering moves that flux of the roadside.

Example: Balancing. If you have to balance in your sport (e.g. skateboarding, ice skating, gymnastics in particular) you'll find that you can balance better when you are tuned into the visual flux, and if your eye movements are controlled (e.g. by fixing your gaze on one point) so that the flux is easier for your brain to interpret.

Example: Golf. One problem in golf is that you can't see the target and the ball clearly at the same time - except perhaps for the shortest putts. But as your eyes move backwards and forwards between target and ball the resulting flux during the movements is full of data your brain needs. Furthermore, the fact that your target may be in your peripheral vision is also important as it allows you to put your attention on it, even as you look down at the ball.

I am not suggesting that you should try to develop a greater awareness of peripheral vision per se. The point is to learn to pick out the specific information you need, not just more. Trying to get a generally greater awareness of peripheral vision is not likely to make much difference although it may be helpful.

A better belief: It's important to learn where to look and, separately, what to attend to. Very often the visual flux around your point of focus is more useful in a sport skill.

© 2002 Matthew Leitch