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Keeping Your Eye on The Ball

Is this actually good advice?

by Greg Letts - an Australian state coach, an International Umpire and one of the top ranked players in his country.

Watch the ball! How many times have you heard that said? Many times I'm sure. But is this actually good advice? Today I'm going to look at the subject of keeping your eye on the ball in more detail, and I'm hoping to give you some food for thought before you utter those 3 magic words again.

Watch the ball - what does this mean?

To start with, when we tell ourselves or someone else to watch the ball, what do we actually mean? I would suggest that when most of us say this, we are talking about watching the ball closely from the time our opponent hits the ball until it hits our own bat. I'll start with this definition and talk a bit more about other aspects of watching the ball later.

Is it good advice?

So is this the right thing to do? Until recently, I myself was of the opinion that it really wasn't necessary for a player to watch the ball right onto his bat. My reasons were as follows:

  • Provided you have watched the ball up until it is a couple of feet away from you, the ball shouldn't be changing in its direction or flight enough to matter.
  • It is more important to be watching the opponent and what he is doing, in order to plan where you are going to hit the ball.
  • Your peripheral vision is good enough to keep track of where the ball is, and allow you to make contact.

Of late, however, I have changed my mind. What started me thinking was when I was searching for photographs on the ITTF website to use for my articles, and I noticed photo after photo of the professionals looking closely at the ball just before and during contact. I've included some of these photos down the left hand side for you to see for yourself. Note how carefully the pros are watching the ball in each case.

Seeing what the pros do got me thinking more about whether my reasons were as good as I thought. With further analysis, I came up with the following counter-arguments to my old way of thinking.

  • A table tennis ball is a light object, and it's flight is easily affected by gusts of air or the spin on the ball. Watching the ball onto the bat is the best way to make sure your bat goes to exactly where the ball is, not to where you think it should be!
  • The sweetspot on a table tennis bat isn't all that big - you need to be watching the ball closely in order to make sure you hit the ball in the sweetspot and not the edges of your bat.
  • Professional table tennis players do it, so if they need to, we probably need to as well!
  • Your peripheral vision may not be all that good for watching a fast moving table tennis ball onto a relatively small racket head.

And this is why I now tell my juniors (and myself) to watch the ball right onto the bat.

Other points to look at (if you'll pardon the pun!)

Don't focus exclusively on the ball

You must watch the ball closely, but don't ignore everything else. You need to be aware of what your opponent is doing, or else you are likely to hit a great shot right to where he is waiting for it.

Peripheral vision is still important

You should still be using your peripheral vision when hitting the ball. Just make sure that you are using it to get an idea of where your opponent is moving to and where he may be vulnerable. Your peripheral vision should be much better at locating a far away slow moving large opponent in relation to a static table tennis table, than it is at tracking a close up fast moving table tennis ball in relation to yourself, who will probably also be moving.


For those of you yet unconvinced, or trying in vain to convince your students, try this little demonstration exercise. Stand at one end of the table and watch the net closely. Then have another person stand to your forehand side and randomly (but reasonably slowly) move their hand up and down. See how easy it is to tap their hand while still watching the net. Then try it while watching their hand and see the difference.

Stop watching the ball!

Just thought I would throw that in to see if you are still paying attention. Although I do mean it, in all seriousness. Once you have hit the ball yourself, there is not much point in watching the ball closely to see where you have hit it - it should hopefully be going pretty much exactly where you want it to go. You would be much better off switching your attention to your opponent and what he is doing, so you have an idea of what shot he is going to play next and where he is going to hit it.

Overview (Sorry - I can't help myself!)

So in fact, I would recommend that your focus should change as follows. Once you hit the ball, you should be watching the opponent closely up until the time he makes contact with the ball. Then you should be watching the ball closely up until the time you hit it. Once you have hit the ball, you should go back to watching the opponent again, until he makes contact with the ball, and so on.


As you can see, there's more to this watching the ball issue than just looking at the ball like a seagull eyeing a chip. So the next time you take your eye off the ball and miss it completely, don't just yell at yourself to watch the ball - but keep in mind just when to watch it closely, and when to focus on your opposition. After all, when's the last time you heard someone yell - "Watch the opponent"?

© 2005-2020 Greg Letts

You may also read Greg's blog and purchase Australian TT videos from Greg's own website

Read what others have to say:

  • watching the ball
    by Jonathan Roberts

watching the ball

Posted by Jonathan Roberts on 10/18/2005 5:50:00 AM

G'day Greg,

Just thought you'd like to know that scientifically, the peripheral vision is good at distinguishing shapes and movement, but not detail.

Therefore, IMHO, you should certainly watch the ball all the way onto the bat, but try and concentrate on what the opposition is doing in your peripheral vision (this is hard to do, I do a similar thing when I'm out spotlighting). You won't be able to make out detail, such as what rubber is played with (that involves differences in colour, and means looking straight at the bat).

1) It's pointless knowing precisely where the opposition is, when you mess up the shot.
2) If you watch the ball closely, it maximises the chances of you hitting a clean stroke. Getting the ball back is better than not getting it back.

This is all explained by how a mammalian eye works. There are two types of cells on the retina (the back of the eye). These cells are commonly known as rods and cones. At the focal point of the eye, one dominates over the other significantly (can't remember which), this gives you detail in your vision.
The further away from the focal point, the more of the other type dominate. These allow you to determine shapes and movement easier.

A good demonstration of this is to try and read a book using your peripheral vision. You can't do it, as you can't get enough detail to make out the individual characters.

p.s. Something tells me I've made the same comment already, if I have, just delete this and move on to your next em.

Jonathan 8)

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