Eyes on the prize--and the ball.
This may not be the worst thing. You're not just watching the ball, even when you're watching the ball. On a basic level you also are preparing to hit or respond to someone else's action. In doing so, other information is available visually and through other senses.
The task is to gather key data with enough time to integrate it so you maximize your chance to be prepared in the right place at the right time on an ongoing basis. This usually is achieved by facing and focusing on the ball.
Yet in certain circumstances, you might try to do just that and lose the ball. Whether the difficulty stems from pace, obstacles, distractions or a player's limitations, trying to continuously keep your eye on the ball doesn't always work best.
Some players can pick up on information other than the ball, which will allow them to move quickly and precisely to the right spot. For instance, hop can be predicted based on elbow movement (up for reverse, down for natural) and shooting direction based on stance. Also, to "hit it where they ain't," it helps to know where they are. As such, getting good position in doubles reduces chances for hinders and can be more consistently achieved by being aware of the position and movements of players and the ball.
Individuals have differences in their capability of not only watching but also processing what is watched and reacting to what has been processed. Factors include age, range of motion, fatigue, emotion, injuries, experience and skill level.
Court situations are important. Background such as glass walls and having to turn one's head and body increase the difficulty in picking up the ball and staying focused on it. Added to that we have pace, ongoing changes of directions of the ball, oneself and other players, partial screens and near-hinders.
A principle of perception that lets us understand this is that our eyes will focus much more clearly on a central image. On the periphery of our field of vision we can distinguish movement better than form. If you put your hands on both sides of your head so you can just begin to see both at the same time, you will be measuring your field of vision - and you may notice that the form of your hands is not nearly as detailed as when they are put a foot or two in front of your nose. Thus, we need to:
* Face the ball to best anticipate its trajectory but also take into account peripheral data to define our court position and the position and direction of others on the court.
* Be interactive, considering the key game and player variables that can be touched on to maximize outcome. So if turning one's head to watch the ball results in losing it by the time it hits the front wall, one may be tempted to stare straight ahead.
* Recognize that splitting the difference may work. That is picking and choosing spots when information, for instance, from the back court can be gathered productively. When a player never turns his head or always stays back, there's a strong chance that he can gain significant improvement by picking a few spots where he can counter these tendencies.
You have to wonder whether the fellows who focus on the front wall use their rearview mirrors when driving. Maybe some of those slow drivers who stay in the left lane have difficulty looking back and maintaining equilibrium. Similarly, players who watch the front wall may lose focus going from back to front.
A skill that can enhance keeping your eye on the ball is knowing when to take your eye off the ball and when and how to refocus. In baseball, when the ball is hit way over an outfielder's head, he may anticipate the spot he needs to get to, put his head down, take off and look up shortly before he gets there. In football, a defensive back may watch the receiver until he sees him anticipating the catch and then look for the ball.
If a handball player is near the side wall and a pass shot is whizzing past him, he may get it by anticipating where it will hit the side wall, reaching back and swinging through that spot. But if he turns to focus on that spot, the ball will be past him.
Magicians make a living knowing that "the hand is quicker than the eye." This concept can be applied to handball. Most of us will not always see the ball no matter how hard we try.
A partly false concept about visual perception is that the eye is like a camera. In fact, if one's eye were fixed on an image, in a short time the image would dissolve. The eye muscles move more than any in the body, and through the active process of focusing and refocusing, our brain puts together the data that we experience as a unified field. So in a matter of speaking, we are filling in gaps all the time. An application of this concept is:
* Noticing your own perceptual capabilities and the capabilities of those with whom you share the court. One way to increase awareness of blind spots is to note when and where shots are missed. To improve on a weakness will typically take both seeing the ball better and changing position and shot selection accordingly.
* Conversely, when your percentage of mishits increases, it's a good time to consider how well you're watching the ball.
So a good game plan always includes continuous awareness of where the ball is and in getting set up to do something about it. The challenges are to maintain and improve that focus and, when necessary, split the difference, fill in the gaps and refocus.