Keep Your Eye on the Ball

The Power of Focus. The critical inner skill that drives acceleratated learning, sustainable high performance and full engagement.


Keep Your Eye on the Ball

The power of focus to transform learning and performance

How does tennis pro Roger Federer know exactly where to position his racket to meet a ball served 130 mph by Novak Djokovic and return it for a winner down the line? How does Boston Red Sox Shane Victorino know precisely how fast and far to run to catch a drive to deep right centerfield? What calculations does Tiger Woods need to make to get the golf ball within eight inches of the hole on a 40-yard chip from the rough?

The human mind/body is capable of amazing feats of calculations and subtle distinctions that the human eye can barely detect. In fact, the beauty of watching professional athletes perform is seeing not only their grace and style, but also the incredible technical precision required for mastery of their respective sport.

Sport science studies tell us, for instance, that if a tennis player’s racket face angle is off by a mere quarter of an inch it can translate into the ball landing four to six feet out in a baseline to baseline exchange. The same is true for the golfer. The club head need be off only a degree or two for his drive to be errant thirty yards or more.

From the professional ranks to the club player, the most agonizing aspect of most athletes’ experience is clearly their inconsistency. Their performances vary widely from one day to the next. So what is the secret to consistent performance? How does one achieve such precision and skill? And how can a coach best facilitate this kind of learning and performance?

The Coach’s Hippocratic Oath: Do No Harm!

I think it fair to say that today’s culture of coaching over-emphasizes technical instruction to the exclusion of other more effective methods. But telling our bodies how to do something is not always the best way to improve performance. Our muscles don’t understand English and our conscious thinking minds can’t comprehend what’s required for precise eye-hand coordination. Can you imagine giving a tennis player an instruction to close the face of his racket a quarter of an inch?

Most leaders, managers and coaches don’t realize that telling someone what to do creates a judgmental environment, undermines the student’s trust in their own capabilities or that there is a better way.

It can be helpful to empathize with your students and imagine what is going on inside their minds while they are trying to hit the ball. You will find that, in their efforts to improve, most people will try hard to make their bodies conform to the internal and external instructions of their last lesson and therefore think too much about what they are doing.

This, of course, actually inhibits free movement of their bodies and interferes with coordination rather than assisting it. The quality of my coaching improved and my student’s learning and performance took a major step forward the day I realized the disrupting effects of my over-instruction. What next emerged was the paradox that faces all coaches: the need to correct the student’s practice of self-correction! It was then I was able to discover other more effective ways to coach.

The Power of Focus to Transform Learning and Performance

The secret to gaining more control over our bodies lies in gaining some measure of mastery and control over our minds. And the first and most important mental skill to learn is how to focus.

In his seminal classic, The Inner Game of Tennis, Timothy Gallwey wrote, “relaxed concentration is the key to excellence in all things.” Seven-time NBA champion coach, Phil Jackson, says “awareness is everything”. When my student’s minds are free from the clutter of verbal instructions—both internal and external—and their focus is directed instead to what really matters—the trajectory of the ball, the feel of their racket, the movement and positioning of their bodies, where they want to hit the ball — their learning, performance and enjoyment greatly improves. Improvement is a natural consequence when the quality and quantity of the sensory information critical to success is increased. Here are three examples to illustrate:

  • The best-known focus exercise in tennis is called “bounce-hit”. In this simple (but not easy!) exercise, a player says the word “bounce” when the ball bounces on the ground and the word “hit” when he feels the ball hit his racket. Focusing more intently on the ball quiets the mind and provides more information about the spin, speed, and direction of the ball to the computer brain, which is then able to better calculate the movement and position of the body and the resultant swing. “Bounce-Hit” was called the single best exercise ever created for tennis by Jack Groppel, Chairmain of the USTA Sport Science committee, yet few coaches and players use it.
  • In a demonstration at a New York Yankees’ workshop for minor league coaches, I helped a pitcher overcome a seven-week problem with his technique through the application of a simple focus exercise. I asked the pitcher not to worry about his technique, but instead tell me as precisely as possible how far his pitches landed from the catcher’s mitt. As he slowly took his mind off trying to do it the “right way” he was able to notice and discern with greater clarity the distance his pitches landed from his intended target. Not only did he become increasingly more consistent he stopped judging himself as well. Within only ten minutes he threw 13 out of 15 pitches within six inches of his objective. This rather spontaneous change held up over time and the player had discovered a lifelong learning tool.
  • Per, the sales leader for the Nordic Region for GE Finance, had suffered 2 years of 22% decline in sales. He told me that he was overwhelmed and stressed with all the firefighting and focusing on urgent, but unimportant things. In our coaching sessions, Per identified the 3 most important, concrete activities that he knew would generate more revenue, but had been unable to find time to do before. Within 3 months he had generated an increase of 12% and was surprised to find that most of his problems had gone away. By focusing on the important things, mistakes often tend to decrease.

A Better Way to Coach

There are many things that a person can attend to in any given moment. This is why it is so easy to get distracted! Learning how to direct and sustain focus on what really matters is one of the keys to achieving and sustaining high levels of performance. Most coaches and players know this to be true but few practice it for its own sake.

In the beginning of the Yankee’s workshop, a coach asked, “What can you as a tennis pro teach us about baseball?” Instead of answering him directly, I asked him and the rest of the group a question. “What is the single most important skill needed for being an extraordinary hitter?” They were animated in their discussion, bringing up stories of Hank Aaron, Rod Carew, and their own Reggie Jackson. It was unanimous: focusing on the ball and identifying the pitch as early as possible. “Great”, I said. “How often do you have your hitters practice “reading” the pitch?” Their mouths fell open in shock. They never had their players practice what they all knew to be the most important thing.

Over the next several months, the Yankee coaching staff made shifts in the way they coached and communicated with their players. The senior vice president of operations told me that they “stopped micro-managing the players with volumes of instructions. Instead we simply had them focus on what was really important to be successful in hitting and pitching and let nature take its course. We trusted in their own ability to learn. Using some of the focus exercises that you demonstrated, we saw improvement happen quickly. By the end of the season our players were at the top of every category measured in hitting and near the top of every category in pitching, coming from the middle of the pack the year before.”

Raising the standards of coaching has been deemed a crucial factor in growing the game and developing elite players. To accomplish this we must all have the courage and willingness to step out of our boxes and learn about new ideas, new theories, and new practices about coaching. Only by re-visioning coaching can we hope to see through its surface to the hidden treasures below. Through this re-visioning process we can both deepen the roots of coaching and elevate it to new heights.

Sean Brawley is a learning and performance specialist who was formerly ranked in the top 150 on the ATP Tour. His sports clients include the NY Yankees, Seattle Mariners, USC athletic teams and NFL Jr. Player Development Program. You may reach him at