Keep your eye on the ball, is one
of the first pieces of sporting advice we are all given. Which seems pretty sensible, when facing an
object potentially moving at 100 mph plus. But is it even possible? The average male tennis pro has a serve of
around 125mph. Baseball pitchers are throwing on average
a 100mph fastball. With cricket fast bowlers
coming in at a pedestrian 85mph. But when considering reaction times,
speed isn’t the only factor, we have to take in to account
the distance too. If we take tennis, and consider the server’s
height and position on the court, the ball has about 75 feet to travel towards the receiver.
Wind resistance, air friction and the impact of hitting the surface will slow the ball
by roughly half, by the time it reaches the receiver. Meaning the overall journey of the
ball takes an estimated 700 milliseconds. For context, blink twice.
That was 700 milliseconds. But consider now that it takes around 500 milliseconds
for the brain to process information received from the eyes, and 25 milliseconds for the
motor cortex to send a message to the arms and legs.
It will take a further 150 milliseconds to swing the racquet, meaning the receiver has
about 25 milliseconds to gauge the flight of the ball, and act accordingly. Decent odds if you’re a fly,
less so for a mere human. Now add to all this
that it is extremely unlikely for the ball to be visible to the human eye
until the point it crosses the net, which means the receiver really has only around
400 milliseconds to react. The maths just doesn’t add up.
If you watch the ball by the time you’ve swung the ball will be past you.
For big servers like John Isner or present world record-holder Sam Groth the journey
time from the net is reduced to about 300 milliseconds, less than half the time
needed to judge and execute the shot. So watching Groth’s delivery to get to it,
is impossible “You cannot be serious man” And in order to return it, you’ll need to
predict where the ball is going. “You cannot be serious!” Fortunately, your brain is able to do exactly
that. With a little practice. While we’ve all heard that, practice makes
perfect, well this is especially true for elite athletes.
Where practice isn’t just about technique but about cutting down on thinking time.
Eight-time Grand Slam winner Andre Agassi says that his game was at its best when he
was able to, stop thinking and start feeling. Stop thinking.
Let things happen. Practice isn’t just about improving your
own game. It also helps you to understand and exploit your opponent’s. The brain contains a catchily-named
action observation network of linked regions, including the
cerebellum, which governs motor control and the superior parietal cortex, that
assists hand-eye coordination. The AON helps us recognise familiar patterns
and anticipate future action. Like Ronaldo here, scoring in the dark.
The more an athlete prepares and practices, the more effective the AON becomes.
For example, in a football penalty shootout, even if the striker isn’t known at all to
the goalkeeper, they can still look for familiar gestures and body-shapes in the run-up to
help with their prediction. Elite athletes show enormous capacity for
making such predictions, with the best tennis players able to regularly anticipate the trajectory
of their opponent’s shot even before they make contact with the ball. So how does this even work?
The eyes help to determine the trajectory of the ball through tiny, rapid
movements known as saccades. When we look at a picture, our eyes establish
multiple fixation points for us to focus on, to help us make sense of what we are seeing.
When a tennis ball is struck, the brain is able to draw a line from point of impact,
to where it thinks the ball is likely to be in future, creating, an imaginary fixation
point. The eyes are able to track the ball along
this path, and suddenly saccade away to this imaginary point, allowing the player to prepare
for the shot before the ball has arrived. So with the right amount of training
and mental preparation, returning a 125mph serve is a piece of cake. In theory.