More than Watching the Ball

While watching the ball in game-sports is a simple concept it’s a task that is carried out with varying degrees of efficacy.

In my previous blog I wrote about watching your opponent hitting the squash ball and mentioned that this topic was addressed at a Pan American elite squash coaches’ conference I attended in 2006. The aim of the session was to design exercises and drills around this theme.

I was surprised when the overwhelming consensus at the conference was that players must watch the ball in isolation. I disagree.

Watching the ball alone does not give sufficient detail. While you learn to understand the nature of the ball and how it behaves, it does not necessarily help in accurately judging your opponent’s response.

© Courtesy of Squashsite

A ball must travel between two points before a player can attempt to calculate its perceived trajectory. In fast ball sports, there is no time to watch the ball move through the air before reacting.

Top players move before or as the ball is struck and manage to arrive in the correct position. This suggests they must use other cues.

There are different notions as to which cues are relevant. Some coaches advocate striking stance, position of the feet, shoulders and head, or racket preparation.

Theoretically these are fine. But in the live arena we must remember that talented top players often defy science, using fake cues as a means of deception.

In sporting terms this is the line where science and art become blurred.

A player might surge forward thinking he has a drop shot covered, only to see the ball sail over his head and die in the back. Even a taxi won’t help at that stage!

Did he commit too soon or take his eye off the ball at the crucial moment?

Physiology apart, we all have access to the same visual field. So while beginners may track the ball through the air, elite players use vital racket cues for early detection of the ball’s direction and destination.

Experience and memory help cut down processing time. Talented players have superior processing capabilities and are selective in what they hone-in on, which in turn helps them process information with greater accuracy.

Accurate evaluation is essential for optimal response and in some situations there are direct and involuntary cues.

Forget feet, shoulders, head, racket and wrist. Tennis fans will be aware of Andre Agassi’s revelation about Boris Becker’s serving cue.

After three successive defeats and reels of video analysis, Agassi noticed Becker moved his tongue to the left as he tossed the ball in the air for a wide serve. After that, Agassi was successful in all but one of their 11 subsequent clashes.