Tennis: anticipating your opponent’s next shot

Anticipating where your opponent’s shot is going to land is vital for success at games like tennis. There are visual clues from the way your opponent strikes the ball, and it obviously helps to carefully watch the ball’s flight. But another way, investigated by Lionel Crognier and Yves-Andre Fery, is to impose your tactics on the rally, influencing your opponent’s shot so that you can predict where she will play the ball.

To demonstrate this, Crognier and Fery invited 17 experienced tennis players to try and anticipate a passing-shot delivered by an ‘opponent’. Crucially, the participants had to anticipate his shot ‘blind’ because they were wearing liquid-crystal goggles that were made temporarily opaque just as the opponent was performing his back-swing. This prevented them from using anticipatory cues from his stroke or from the flight of the ball. The participants were protected from the ball by rapidly-erected netting that also recorded the ball’s location and where they made their volley.

The participants made the anticipatory volley in three conditions in which they had varying tactical dominance. When the opponent bounced the ball first and then made the passing-shot (low dominance), or when the participants first hit the ball to their opponent as in a warm up (medium dominance) before he played the passing shot, the participants’ anticipation was no better than chance. In contrast, when they rallied before performing an attacking shot at the opponent (high tactical dominance), they anticipated the direction of his subsequent passing-shot with 78 per cent accuracy.

“Expert players can accurately predict the direction of shots provided that they have controlled the rallies”, the researchers said. The advice “read the play” should be added to the traditional instructions “keep your eye on the ball” and “read the opponent’s movements”, they advised. Tennis players may also be interested to note that down-the-line passing shots were anticipated more easily than cross-court shots.

Crognier, L. & Fery, Y-A. (2005). Effect of tactical initiative on predicting passing shots in tennis. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 19, 637-649.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.