Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and the art of saccading

Saccading has an interesting side effect for great players. The more skilled the player, the sooner his eyes leave the ball’s initial path.

When Roger Federer glides to play a forehand, it appears as if he has oodles of time, and relatively speaking this is true.   -  Getty Images

 

At the highest level, sport is about getting to the right place in time. Ice hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky, the “Great One,” asked about his success put it simply: “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.” Pele and Maradona, Messi and Ronaldo might say the same thing — getting to where the ball is going to be, rather than chasing it is what sets them apart.

When Roger Federer serves, it gives his opponent less than half a second to react. There is little time for conscious decision-making from a range of options. Athletes have to react to the starter’s gun — Usain Bolt’s world record 100m of 9.58 came off a reaction time of 0.146 seconds. And he is by no means the fastest off the block!

The philosopher and sports fan David Papineau quotes scientific studies to show that sportsmen who hit moving balls do not keep their eyes on the ball throughout its flight. Instead they follow its path for about 100-200 milliseconds and then “saccade” their eyes (that is, shoot them forward, as he says) to an anticipated later point in the ball’s path. Where the ball is going to be. Our eyes saccade when we make short, jerky movements to enable us to get the whole picture, whether from atop a mountain or while picking out a friend in a crowd.

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Saccading has an interesting side effect for great players. The more skilled the player, the sooner his eyes leave the ball’s initial path. That seems obvious. What is not so obvious is what further research revealed: that for top sportsmen, their eyes saccade till the moment of impact. Both Federer and Nadal focus on the point of contact between the racquet and the ball. This helps them keep their head still, which is fundamental to striking a moving ball, whether in tennis, baseball or cricket.

When science confirms what sportsmen have been told since they were children – “keep your head still” – you wonder at the conclusions reached by coaches of the past who had no access to the sophisticated equipment and calculation methods available today.

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Great players also absorb information and process it faster than the journeymen. Which is one reason they don’t appear hurried. When Federer glides to play a forehand, it appears as if he has oodles of time, and relatively speaking this is true. He has worked it out that split second ahead of his opponent. Sport is about the split-second differences.

When a tall fast bowler with a slightly awkward action delivers, the batsman has even less time than a receiver in tennis. He has to judge the pace and bounce of the ball, its likely movement on pitching, its position relative to his feet and the bat, and make dozens of automatic calculations. He gets one sum wrong, and it’s all over.

Perhaps that is why the cricketing lexicon is so full of references to death!