December 9, 2011 10:08 pm

Hard to keep your head down

What seems to be lacking is a justified confidence in where we, collectively, are going, or a faith in fundamentals

One of the many remarkable things about Roger Federer – please don’t switch off, this is not, or is not just, another tennis column – is the way he keeps his head down over the ball after striking it.

Slow motion replays show that his head remains over the spot where the ball was struck long (well, more hundredths of a second than it has any right to) after the ball has been dispatched. As far as I can judge, this happens especially on the backhand, generally considered his weaker side. The results are often spectacular, as you could see in his spectacular demolition of Rafael Nadal a couple of weeks ago at London’s O2 Centre.

Keeping your head down like this is much more difficult than it sounds, not so much for physical as for psychological reasons. When I was learning to play golf, as a small boy on the links courses of East Lothian in Scotland, the first lesson I remember being drummed into me was “keep your head down”. Though I secretly thought this was pointless, I couldn’t deny that the advice was practically effective; if I kept my head down there was at least some chance that the ball would fly straight and true; if I raised my head prematurely, in the act of hitting the shot, the ball would veer into the rough 20 or 30 degrees to the right of where I was aiming.

Looking up too soon is a symptom of nervousness or impatience. It’s as if one doesn’t want to let the ball out of one’s sight, in case ... well, just as I used to ask what was the point of keeping one’s head down over a ball no longer there, you could ask why you nervously needed to keep track of a ball beyond your control. However long Federer remains with his head down over the ball, you can be sure he raises head and eyes in good time to see his opponent return it. In golf, of course, you can hold the head down position for as long you like – so long as you don’t think there is a ball-thief lurking in the bushes.

All this has relevance beyond sport. The story of Orpheus, the musician who could charm animals and stones, and Eurydice, his wife killed by a snake bite, whom he was given unique dispensation to bring back from the Underworld, hinges on his ability or inability to keep his head down. So long as he does not look nervously around, to make sure his wife is still following, all will be well. But, tragically, Orpheus loses confidence and in his nervous act of looking to make sure, loses his wife a second time.

For the rest of us, keeping our heads down does not ensure the wished-for outcome, though it makes it more likely. Some of those Federer backhands just miss the line or catch the top of the net but that does not make him change his approach or his technique.

I've been thinking that in the current panic that has spread from banks and financial markets to whole countries, there is a collective failure to keep heads down. When markets are nervous or spooked, they are constantly looking up and over their shoulders, seeing what others are doing. They seem more like lemmings, which I suppose do keep their heads down, but not in the spirit of justified confidence in where they are going, than human beings. As the eminently sane financial commentator Anthony Hilton puts it: “The problem is that financial markets have become obsessed with what might happen rather than what is happening or even what, in the balance of probabilities, is likely to happen ... they live not so much from day to day as from minute to minute and expect everyone else to do the same.”

What seems to be lacking is a justified confidence in where we, collectively, are going, or a faith in fundamentals – as shown so persuasively and courageously by Federer or by an investor such as Warren Buffett, who has always looked past short-term market turbulence to the long and navigable stretch.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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