by Matthew Leitch, 17 February 2002
Misconception: When people take their eyes off the ball before hitting it they're likely to miss. You should keep looking at the ball so you can see where it is and, therefore, hit it.
How skill really works: The simple misconception at work here is to forget about reaction time. The fastest a person can react to something they see is about 0.25 seconds - sometimes nearer 0.2 seconds for very quick people. This is how long it takes to make the tiny movement needed to press a button, so a bigger movement, such as a parry in fencing, will take longer. Furthermore, the more alternative actions to choose from the longer it takes to choose one and start making it. In most sports you have to choose your action so you need more than 0.25 seconds to even begin to react.
Videos of top cricket batsmen facing fast bowling have shown that the batsman's shot is committed, and cannot even be adjusted, at around the time the ball is leaving the bowler's hand! Facing a fast tennis serve presents similar problems. In martial arts, at close range the person who moves first will strike.
(OK. You may be thinking "I know what you mean about reaction times, but I'm sure if I take my eyes off the ball I miss more often." This could be because you took your eye off the ball far more than 0.25 seconds before contact, or perhaps because the unusual movement of your head disrupted your swing.)
Designing skills with reaction times in mind. In sports where speed counts it is very useful to take reaction time into consideration when designing your skill. Firstly, consider your opponent's reaction time.
Example: Tennis. In the 1980s I saw a stunning demonstration of this in two matches of tennis. The competition was indoor, men's singles, from the USA. In one match, two players known at the time for their speed and power, Roscoe Tanner and Johann Kriek, entertained everyone with an unbelievable display of tennis. They ran, leapt, dived, smashed, and retrieved impossible balls at a speed that left the crowd breathless. They were supermen. The winner (I can't remember who is was because they were such similar players) went on to face John MacEnroe in the next round. How could MacEnroe stand up to such awesome play, I thought.
In fact MacEnroe won easily in straight sets. His opponent showed none of the athleticism of his previous match. Again and again he stood, flat footed, as MacEnroe's passing shots came past. He simply didn't know which way the ball was going until it was too late to react.
Brain crushed brawn. MacEnroe's deadly weapons included a bizarre service action where he turned his back on his opponent in order to hide his racket (I don't know if it worked, but it must have been hard for opponents to get used to), a serve into the wide corner that hardly bounced and curved away from the receiver, and a range of ground strokes and volleys that looked the same to the opponent regardless of where John was aiming to put the ball. Wicked.
When designing a skill for a fast sport with an opponent, try to polish your actions so that you don't telegraph your intentions. You could also try working out some movements that seem to telegraph one thing but actually end with another. This is harder to do but a feint can be very useful.
Try to present opponents with difficult choices they have to make at speed such as by hitting the ball straight at their body, or bowling a cricket ball in the "channel of uncertainty" where it is not clear if the ball can safely be left or not.
A less obvious point is to take account of your own reaction time by:
Example: Combat sports. Early warning signs might include the opponent's overall movement, shoulder shifts, and foot movements. The first part of a reactive movement might be to do with your own overall body movement (e.g. forward, back, down, sideways). Defensive and counter-attacking techniques will tend to be simpler, and less varied than attacks you initiate. Obviously, the natural "ready" position will allow short defensive movements (e.g. boxers keep their hands up near their heads with their elbows helping to protect their bodies, which also limits possible attacks). Bruce Lee advised that counter-attacks were normally best in response to attacks that had been induced by offering what appeared to be a weakness. In other words, Bruce wasn't reacting to an unexpected attack but to one he had triggered deliberately.© 2002 Matthew Leitch