If there is one thing that all tennis professionals agree on it must be “look at the ball.” We all try to get our students to understand that from the very first lesson. However, most students truly do not understand the depth of the concept of “looking at the ball.” Along came Roger Federer and it was obvious that he had perfected the skill. Hundreds of photographs and stop-action videos show how his head is still down looking at the spot where the ball met the racquet, even though the ball has already left the strings of his racquet.
Years ago, I concluded that all good players have four things in common on their strokes, and from that information I formulated what I thought and still think are the four basic concepts of a good stroke. Notice that I do not mention grips, topspin, slice, etc.
1. Look at the ball with such intensity that your eye muscles are actually a little sore at the end of play.
2. Turn your shoulders.
3. Hit the ball as far in front of you as possible (almost never does someone hit the ball too early).
4. Make sure that the ball, the racquet and the body weight go in the same direction.
Looking at the ball (number one) is the catalyst that produces the chain reaction of the stroke (numbers two, three and four).
At this point, you are probably wondering about the title of this article and what does all this have to do with people with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). For the past five years, I have been conducting MS clinics in conjunction with the Long Island Chapter of the National MS Society. I am always amazed that when the students first come, they have very noticeable ambulatory problems, but within 30-40 min., they appear to be moving much better. Several of the students who originally needed walkers began not to use them and some who spent all their time in wheelchairs on the court actually started to stand and hit balls.
Assuming that I do not have any miraculous powers (a very safe assumption) … what would account for this very noticeable improvement in mobility in such a short period of time? The answer … “looking at the ball” with intensity beyond belief and looking straight ahead when moving, rather than looking down which is what most MS patients normally do. The reason behind it is very interesting. Normally, MS patients are getting false messages from their brain, which in turn, affects their balance and they are constantly overreacting, trying to put their body parts in sync with the false messages. Nerves are normally surrounded by fatty sheaths called the myelin sheath which are basically fatty sheaths that act as insulators, similar to the rubber coating on electrical wires. In MS patients the “insulation” is not complete, so the transmission of impulses gets distorted at the very least. When playing tennis with a full comprehension of what it means to “look at the ball,” the brain is so focused on that one particular task that it ignores the false messages and the body goes on automatic pilot. I have spoken with many doctors and they confirm that although my explanation is a little over simplified, it is accurate.
Now, just imagine if you are fortunate enough not to be afflicted with MS, how much better your game would be if you truly not only looked at but saw the ball with every available brain cell. If you would like to see how important this really is, try the following.
1. Bounce and catch a tennis ball five times. I am sure you will catch it every time.
2. Repeat number one, but this time, do it with your eyes closed. If you are successful two times, you are way above average.
3. Hold a ball in your dominant hand and put your arm out to your side, but keep your head and eyes pointing straight ahead. Bounce and catch it if you can. Don’t cheat! Keep your eyes straight ahead so you cannot see your hand bouncing the ball. Again, two successful tries would be above average.