Today I'm going to discuss the 'quiet eye.' The quiet eye is a term coined by Joan Vickers. Vickers found that expert compared to recreational performers had a still or 'quiet' eye while performing. This means that the expert knew precisely where to look and focused on that area for a longer period of time. The amateur or novice athlete is not sure what visual cues they should be looking for and have a sporadic gaze. In squash you can see how this is crucial for anticipation. This is why it is difficult to deceive a novice squash player; they aren't picking up any visual cues unless you make it very obvious for them. To monitor the quiet eye scientists use eye tracking devices to view where athletes gaze during sport. When I first read about the quiet eye I started to notice it in my coaching and while watching people compete.
When I'm coaching I notice when people are not watching me hit the ball. I can tell that they are just reacting and waiting until I've hit the ball to move. Whereas when I'm on the T and watching my opponent hit I am picking up all sorts of visual cues to anticipate which shot is coming up before they've hit the ball. This is such an important part of learning squash. This is why as a coach I prefer doing drills where I have options and having the athlete watch me closely and learn to anticipate what shot I am going to hit.
I've done some research on anticipation in racquet sports based on postural cues. Most research is based on tennis and there is very little on squash. A study by Shim, Miller and Lutz (2005) used occlusion of various body parts of a tennis player hitting a ball. The occlusions used in the study were the opponent's head, racquet and forearm, trunk, lower body, and full body (ya, I know that last one is unusual!). They found to no surprise that when the racquet and forearm were taken taken away from the image of the tennis player hitting the ball the observer was least accurate in predicting the shot direction. I've looked at other studies that reveal similar findings. When coaching someone I want them not to just track the ball onto their opponent's racquet, but to watch their opponent's arm and racquet. It becomes pretty easy to tell if they are going to hit it hard versus soft and if you know what other visual cues to look for you can normally tell which direction they are gong to hit too.
This area has always interested me as I enjoy deception. There is research that shows that as the number of possible outcomes increase the reaction time goes up (Abernethy, 1995). Which means if you can disguise your shot and couple the setup to 2, 3, or 4 different shots your opponent will be unable to anticipate your shot, forcing them to wait and react to your shot. But expert squash players have seen a lot of squash balls being hit, so as you compete against stronger opponents your disguise and deception also need to improve.
When I'm teaching people to hit straight or crosscourt drives from the front I want them to couple these two shots so they appear similar. On the flip side of this situation is to assist someone at anticipating their opponent at the front, I ask them to watch where the ball is when I start my swing. If the ball is well ahead of me the ball will likely go crosscourt. If the ball is already around my lead foot by the time I start my downswing there is little chance of a crosscourt happening anymore. The relative ball position to the athlete is something that reveals a lot about their intention and is something I use to anticipate my opponents next shot. Of course you can go one step further and by knowing this you can try and flick the ball crosscourt last second or swing early with the ball well in front of you and attempt to hit a straight drive. These are difficult to execute well on a constant basis and are something that needs a lot of attention. I ask my students to think about this even when they are hitting straight drives in a boast and drive drill. Even though they don't have an option, they can think about the timing of their swing and if they could hit crosscourt if they had the option.
If you are interested in this type of stuff let me know. I did my masters project on decision-making. The project title is 'Advanced Decision-Making Training From the Amber Zone of the Squash Court.' I know it's a mouthful. I had to make it specific to a target audience and to a certain area of the court. I refer to the amber zone as the front third of the squash court because it's like a stoplight, it's important to know when to go through (and attack) and knowing when to stop/proceed with caution (and play defensive). When we're at the front of the court it can be tough to know where our opponent is and for this reason this this is when it's most vital to disguise our intention (unless our opponent is well out of position or we can hit a certain shot so accurately it doesn't matter if they know it's coming!). If we do not disguise out shot our opponent may anticipate it and be on the next ball early, before we had an opportunity to get back to the T.
I always send my opponent to the front with a few attacking boasts early in the match to see if they disguise their shorts and if I can easily read them (the quiet eye!). If I can I get to open the court up, create some room to attack, tire them out, and win some easy points. If they don't make any adjustments I'll keep doing it. It's a simple and quick way to win points versus waiting patiently for an opening while hitting rotating backhand drives.
A lot of my research for my masters project was on simple and choice reaction times, anticipation, deception and of course decision-making. I looked at strategical methods of anticipation along with the postural cues that I've discuses above (the tells of the person hitting a tennis ball). I'd have to check with the school first, but maybe I can post a link to my project in a future post. I spent a LOT of hours just editing it, but it's not doing any good just sitting in a folder on my desktop!
In conclusion, I'd like to leave you with a link to a video demonstrating the quiet eye. This is a a soccer video with Cristiano Ronaldo playing keep away with an amateur soccer player. They use eye tracking to monitor where each player is gazing. You will see that Cristiano's gaze is 'quieter' while the amateur's is much larger. Have a look and let me know what you think https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2NcUkvIX6no (how cool would it be to see them do this to Ramy!). Well when he's healthy again:-)