Watch Serena Williams play at Wimbledon today and you'll no doubt be left in open-mouthed awe at the speed, strength, and precision of her play. But perhaps the most impressive thing about one of the best tennis players ever isn't her incredible physical prowess, it's her unshakeable concentration. The woman never cracks under pressure.
How does she shake off the incredible stress of a center-court match point? As David Robson recently reported for the BBC (hat tip Quartz), the answer is a powerful but little known technique called "the quiet eye."
Control your eyes, control your stress.
If the term sounds a bit like something a meditation teacher would say, that's no accident. The technique shares strong similarities with practices used by Zen masters, but the idea was brought to the world of sports by kinesiologist Joan Vickers. While studying exceptional sports performance for her PhD, Vickers hooked high-performing athletes up to a gizmo that tracked their eye movements.
She discovered that "the better the player... the longer and steadier their gaze on the ball just before, and then during, their strike. Novices, by contrast, tended to shift their focus between different areas of the scene, with each fixation lasting for shorter periods of time," the BBC reports.
The meaning of this finding goes deeper than that old chestnut to "keep your eye on the ball." It's not simply that great athletes like Williams focus intently (though they definitely do that), it's that in doing so they effectively slow down their perception of time, allowing them to "get in the zone" so they have more space to process and plan their actions.
"The quiet eye is an enhanced perception--an ability to take a keener, closer, longer look at the ball, or whatever else requires focus, that leads to better results. In moments of stress, great athletes ignore distractions and plan carefully, as if an internal mechanism enables them to change the pace of play. Quiet eye may even initiate 'flow state,' a highly prized sense of total absorption and immersion during which time and space become irrelevant," explains Quartz's Ephraim Livni.
You can train yourself to have a quiet eye.
That's a pretty handy ability to have when a serve is coming at you at 120 mph, but that flow state would be useful if you were giving a make-or-break business presentation too. And helpfully, you can use the "quiet eye" even in situations where there is no literal ball to focus on.
Thanks to Vickers' research, elite athletes in a variety of sports are now trained to control their eye movements, but studies show the technique works in contexts as diverse as helping children develop coordination or student surgeons handle pressure. In the future, VR technology might even make the high-end eye tracking training used by sports stars available much more widely.
But in the meantime, even those of us without high-tech equipment can benefit from an awareness that your eyes are one of the keys to getting "in the zone." By consciously holding your gaze steady and really taking in the present moment, you should be able to short-circuit stress and boost performance.
It works for Williams when she's facing even the most pressure-cooker points. "If you are behind in a game, it's so important to relax, and that's what I do -- when I'm behind in a game, that's when I become most relaxed. Just focus on one point at a time... just that sole point, and then the next one, and the next one," she has explained.
Next time you're facing the business equivalent of a match point, try to do the same.