Tennis superstar Serena Wlliams has a knack for coming back from behind. Consider her July 2018 win against the Dutch player Arantxa Rus. “While there were passages of play when Williams…looked decidedly wooden, she overcame, as she invariably does,” the Guardian reports about the game. Williams secured her 87th win at Wimbledon, and the chance to keep battling in the second round.
How does Williams do it? When she’s losing, she doesn’t panic. Instead, as the BBC reports, she relaxes, slows down, and applies what neuroscientists refer to as the “quiet eye“—a science-backed tactic that’s also taught by Zen masters.
You likely sense on some level that time is elastic. When you’re doing something fun, it speeds by. When you’re bored, it slows. But you can also learn to control the flow of time in your mind’s eye to improve focus. 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.
“I’ve won most of my matches–probably all of my grand slams–because of what’s upstairs, not anything else,” Williams told Sports Illustrated in 2015. “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.”
Anyone who wants to cultivate focus can practice getting into that zone, says Joan Vickers, the kinesiologist who coined the term quiet eye. Vickers started studying the concept because, as a student athlete, she wanted to understand why she played basketball very well on some days and was just okay on others. She started studying golfers’ movements, and soon discovered a remarkable connection between the steadiness of exceptional golfers’ gazes and the success of their play.
By tracking their eye movements, she realized great players were looking at the ball longer than others. They didn’t shift focus as often as novices. And even the greats had better and worse days, also associated with how long they could maintain focus on one thing at a time. Vickers’ initial conclusions have since been borne out in studies (pdf) on basketball, football, and hockey players, as well as archers.
Indeed, in the classic 1953 work Zen and the Art of Archery, Eugene Herrigel describes archery much in the way Serena Williams talks about tennis. It not so much a sport, says Herrigel, as a personal battle of will and spirit, a process of struggle and finding peace with the self. For the Zen archer, like the tennis master, the physical aspect is secondary to a kind of mind game. “It is necessary for the archer to become, in spite of himself, an unmoved center,” Herrigel writes.
Likewise, philosopher Alan Watts, credited with making Zen thought popular in the west, also believed that the secret to success was slowing down and being fully present. He wrote about quieting the mind to master timing and rhythm. In the early 1950s, Watts wrote an essay, The Wisdom of Insecurity, which described the Zen approach to time and effort:
For the perfect accomplishment of any art, you must get this feeling of the eternal present into your bones—for it is the secret of proper timing. No rush. No dawdle. Just the sense of flowing with the course of events in the same way that you dance to music, neither trying to outpace it nor lagging behind. Hurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present.
Cultivating a quiet eye isn’t necessarily easy in a society where distractions abound. You’ve got notifications on your phone and computer, bright screens screaming for your attention constantly.
But mastering this slowed-down, focused mode can help you make the most of your time. Vickers’ work has shown that a steady mind and eye can improve the scores of basketball players by 22%, compared to a control group whose free throws only improved by 8% during the same period, for example. Quiet eye training is so effective with professional athletes that it’s been used to teach kids with developmental coordination disorders to “adopt the gaze strategy of expert performers” and improve their movements.
Watts argued that quieting the mind isn’t complicated; it’s just not something we’re used to doing. Still, a habit of dedicated observation can be cultivated. He writes, “It is simply being aware of this present experience, and realizing that you can neither define it nor divide yourself from it. There is no rule but ‘Look!’”