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Change the Way We Measure, Change the Game
Kim Shanley, Publisher, TennisOne
How do we measure tennis players? Since 1979, when the USTA adopted it, all tennis players in the United States are measured using the National Tennis Rating Program (NTRP) ranking system. This system ranks a player from the 1.0 level in increments of a half-point up to 7.0. While a player may begin with a visual rating of their skill level by teaching pros, thereafter a player’s ranking is based on their results in USTA competition. The system was designed so that players could compete against players of similar ability–so that a 3.5 player should have a reasonable chance of beating another 3.5 player. We’ll look at this assumption more closely later.
So what’s wrong with this rating system? In my view, there are four major problems
Mentally weak players and more choking. Every mental toughness coach for the last 30 years (Lohr, Greenwald, Bhalla) has preached the same mantra: tennis players need focus on process, not results. A process-focus will increase enjoyment and lead to enhanced performance, even that mythical peak performance state known as the zone. In tennis, the zone is as close to God as one can get. Indeed, our mental toughness experts are like the old Testament prophets thundering at the faithless and feckless masses: “Focus on the false god of results and you’ll choke!” However much we pretend to follow their commandments on “process,” we really go about our business of worshipping the golden calf of results. In this world, the cliché goes, “you only get what you measure.” Well, if all we measure in tennis are competitive results, what will our players focus and obsess on, if not results? And if we only care about results, we will feel inordinate pressure. At best, it will prevent us from letting go and playing our best. At worst, we will choke.
Cheating. A system that places overwhelming importance on results–and a system in which players (except for top pro tournaments) must be their own linesmen and umpires–is architected to foster cheating. What would happen if we allowed baseball players to call their own balls/strikes, or let football players decide if opposing players were offsides when their opponents scored a touchdown? Yes, tennis players should follow a higher ethical standard of giving the opponent the benefit of the doubt. And by and large, my experience is that tennis players…try. However, like gravity, the pressure of rankings and results, presents a continuous force to weaken players’ fairness and objectivity. How many times after a close call in a friendly club doubles match have one of your opponents said, “That’s in, but if this were USTA, it would be out.” And then everyone laughs with a rueful knowingness. No rule change will alter human nature and totally eliminate cheating. However, isn’t it time to recognize we could do more to minimize the temptation to cheat?
Disincentive to improve and learn. According to the experts I’ve read (see below) and those on our staff, like TennisOne Editors Jim McLennan and Dave Smith, who have written most persuasively about this, learning requires the student to experiment, to go through a period of trial and error. Nearly all the teaching pros I’ve talked with agree that many club league players resist learning because they are afraid, quite rightly, they’ll suffer more losses and their USTA/NTRP rating will go down. When players stop learning and improving, they often become discouraged and eventually quit the game. Again, a rating system that focuses exclusively on results is the culprit.
Decline in tennis participation. For players who lose their enthusiasm for the competitive league system, what’s left? A tennis player at a club without a ranking is something of a non-person. A club member perhaps, but someone lacking true citizenship. Without standing, and without a goal or focus, many players gradually drop the game.
The Martial Arts Model
So how do we change all this? I think tennis should adopt the martial arts model of rating, which is based on skills and results. Martial arts students are evaluated on their mastery of hundreds of skills and movements (katas), as well as their performance (results) during fighting drills and contests. The different skill levels are carefully defined and proper execution and mastery are demanded of the student. But once mastered, the student is honored as having achieved something significant and is given a colored belt in recognition. Translated to a tennis context, a brown belt might be 4.0 rating. However, the martial arts recognize that a simple brown or black belt rating system doesn’t capture the different skill levels of its participants. Hence, there are often 10 levels of achievement within, say, the Black Belt category. Moving up a level takes years, and achieving the highest, 10th level, requires most of a lifetime. We say “tennis is a sport for a lifetime” but our system of measurement, based on competitive league play–and based on the overly broad half-point NTRP levels–serves to undermine that worthy objective.
Dual Rating System–Skills and Results
Vince Lombardi, “Only perfect practice
My modest proposal (God knows this will upset a lot of people), is that every tennis player should be given a skills rating and a competitive rating. The overall rating would be weighted 50/50 between skills and competitive results (if a player doesn’t choose to play competitively, they could still have a skills rating).
I believe the professional teaching organizations (USPTR and USPTA) should take the initiative in crafting a new rating system. From my point of view, we could keep the basic framework of the NTRP system. However, I believe the rating system should be in increments of a tenth rather than a half point. So rather than just having a 3.5 ranking, you could have a 3.5, 3.6, 3.7, 3.8 or 3.9 skills rating. This new skills rating system, like the martial arts system, would recognize that someone has made major progress in becoming a better tennis player if they can advance one or two tenths. This system would give players clear, objective goals to pursue.
Deliberate Practice–The Path to Mastery
Several recent books have highlighted the path to mastery, even worldclass performance. This is the path of “deliberative practice.” This path is described in great detail in three recent widely acclaimed books: Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown, and Geoff Colvin in Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World Class Performance from Everybody Else.
John Wooden, “It's the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.”
According to Gladwell, Coyle, Colvin–and the dozens of performance researchers they cite–it takes 10,000 hours of deliberative practice to achieve worldclass performance in anything, whether it be piano-playing, chess, or tennis. The first few thousand of the 10,000 hours must be under the watchful eye of a master teacher who pushes the student to work harder and longer than student seeking proficiency (here good is the enemy of great). Moreover, according to The Talent Code author Daniel Coyle, the student must focus on the little things, learning through a non-stop, accelerated trial and error process. To do this, the student needs a very detailed curriculum, first imposed by the master teacher and then internalized by the students themselves. A detailed skills rating system would provide this sort of detailed curriculum of tennis mastery. This focus on detail and process is the hallmark of great coaches from Vince Lombardi to John Wooden.
Players would also have a competitive rating. I also believe this system should be measured in tenths rather than by half a point. This system would recognize that a player very close to a 4.0 level (in other words a 3.9 player) will almost always beat a player barely at the 3.5 level. It there is indeed that much difference, than a competitive ratings system should recognize the difference.
We’ll Only Change What We Can Measure
If we want to change the game, we have to change the way we measure. If we want to build mentally tough players, then we need to focus on process, not results. If we want to build champions–and that championship performance demands we take thousands of tiny steps of improvement over many years–than we need a system that documents these tiny steps and encourages players to master them. A rating system that gives equal weight to skills and results will provide this path towards excellence. With such a system in place, players could invest their time and take a risk to move up their skills level. Even if their competitive results suffer a bit, it won’t necessarily mean a drop in their overall rating (and their prestige).
Some may object to my proposal as impractical, as players would have to pay to have their skills assessed by a tennis pro each year (if they want to maintain an official rating). First, to be blunt for a moment, we have to put up or shut up. If we want to emphasize skills and a lifetime of learning, then we have to make those criteria count in how people really feel about themselves and the game. And, if we recognize the problems I’ve outlined in the game–and we want to change them–it will require some investment. Players pour hundreds of dollars into equipment and clothes–the sport can ask them to make this minor investment for the betterment of the game.
Secondly, that “investment” could be relatively trivial–$20 for a skills assessment by a certified teaching pro (perhaps a benefit bundled into the USTA membership?). Third, the official professional assessment might only be required every other year, with the players self-rating themselves the other year. Again, if we want to change the orientation of the game, a self-rating system focused on skills–and which carries real weight in their overall rating–would be a positive step.
The Apgar Score–and Getting What We Measure
I want to go seemingly far-afield for a moment to dramatize the point I'm making about getting what you measure. If you were born after 1953, it's highly likely that you were given your first rating within one minute of your birth. This is called the Apgar score, published and championed by Dr. Virginia Apgar in 1953. The Apgar system gives nurses an objective way to rate the condition of babies on a scale of zero to ten. A baby that is pink all over, for example, gets two points. Ten points indicates a baby in near perfect condition. A score of 4-5 means the baby needs special medical attention.
What in the world does this have to do with tennis ratings? The Apgar scoring system is a great example of getting what you measure. We wanted healthier babies, and this objective rating system revolutionized infant care. The Apgar score replaced an impressionistic, subjective evaluation system by nurses with an objective, number-based system. According to surgeon-author Atul Gawande in his book Better, before Apgar, one in 30 babies died at birth. Today, after the Apgar rating system was instituted and improved upon, only one in 500 babies die at birth. The Apgar rating system, according to Gawande, has saved the lives of 140,000 newborns since 1953 (no doubt some of you reading this). If we want better tennis players, then we must have a better rating system.
What’s Wrong With Just Having Fun?
Is this the face of a medieval martyr!
So what’s wrong with just having fun and forgetting about all these crazy rating systems? On a superficial level, there is nothing wrong with “just having fun.” However, as our Senior Editor Dave Smith has pointed out repeatedly, players truly have fun when they feel they’ve mastered a challenge and are playing without fear of losing. That’s more than “fun.” That’s joy! I also believe that we’re “purpose-built.” That we’re wired to look for and pursue purpose. Organizing a sport with an objective goal to pursue will motive more players and keep more players in the sport.
A new rating system, based on the martial arts model of assessing skills and results, would create a new focus and sense of identity. A martial arts model would send a message that tennis truly is a sport that takes a lifetime to master. For teaching pros, it would provide a lifetime path of accomplishment and prestige. Why shouldn’t someone be recognized for achieving the equivalent of a 10th degree black belt in tennis? Okay, maybe we don’t bow to our local 10th degree black belt tennis pro or call him sensei, but perhaps we should all nod in true appreciation.
The Marines Model
Given what we know about the 10,000 hour rule to achieve worldclass performance, isn’t it past time to retire the insipid marketing message that “tennis is fun” and that learning can be quick and easy? Read the recent books of Pete Sampras (A Champion’s Mind) and Andre Agassi (Open), or even look at Andre’s photo on the cover (the face of a medieval martyr!). The truths come through very clearly. Not fun. Not easy. Not quick. Not even close! But here's one of the keys to building a champion from Pete Sampras. His coaches purposely had him ignore the rating system and the results-now mentality that obsessed his junior rivals and inhibited their development. As a consequence, Pete says, he did indeed built a champion's game. Moreover, Pete says, he was never afraid of losing.
Pete built his game on the Aussie spirit--and Roy Emerson, former all-time Grand Slam Champion said, "There's always more to learn in this game, no matter how long you've been playing." A new rating system can build that spirt into the game.
That's the kind of developmental system and mental toughness we need to architect from the ground up with a new rating system. And speaking of big changes, tennis needs to learn from the Marines. The Marine Corps exceeds its recruitment goals each year by stressing its elite status, that becoming a Marine is something noble, something difficult, something risky. That’s a message that will resonate with kids who are now flocking to the martial arts and extreme sports. Want to build the next generation of great tennis players? Don’t tell kids tennis will be easy and fun! Kids don’t want easy. They want heroes. Tell them the path to becoming a tennis champion is so daunting that only a few of you, a proud few of you, will have the courage to try. And watch them try.
As always, we would love to hear from you! Questions, comments, personal experiences all create helpful dialogue for everyone! Please click here to send us your email.
The Body, the Hands, and the Feel
Doug King talks about the approach to learning the game. Coaches tend to present the stroke as a very simple back and forth continuous motion and we like to think of it as such. However, when we start to play the game and become more experienced, we learn that it is a lot more complicated than that, more like engaging the gears of a bicycle. Listen to what Doug has to say about the role of the body, the hands, and the feel.
Backhand – One Hand or Two?
Today there is a tendency to teach a two-handed backhand when coaching youngsters. A quick observation shows that most of the young players we see at important competitions are, in fact, two-handers. And on the pro tours, most of the players in the top 20 are also two-handers. So, are two hands better than one, not necessarily. See what Oscar Wegner has to say on the subject.
Why is Tennis so Tough
In tennis, we serve as the umpires; we are the ones who call our opponent's shots in or out. It's all up to us! That is a staggering responsibility. In most other sports, the players are not expected to be honest. Imagine you "trap" a ball in baseball but the umpire says you caught it. What do you think most players, teams, and coaches would expect you to do? Tell the umpire the truth!? No way! This is just one of the reasons tennis is so tough, Jorge Capestany and Luke Jensen have a lot more.
ProStrokes 2.0 – Elena Dementieva's Backhand
Elena Dementieva turned pro in 1998, and has amassed impressive career statistics with 14 Sony Ericsson WTA tour singles titles: she's presently ranked 5th on the WTA tour rankings. Elena has improved her serve dramatically, it used to be a tricky sidespin serve which sometimes got her in trouble, though the skidding, low bouncing serve wide into the deuce court gave the girls fits. A solid baseliner with excellent hitting and moving skills, Elena is a perennial top tenner, though she has yet to capture her first Grand Slam title – Perhaps 2010 may be her year. New this issue, Dementieva's backhand.
The Etcheberry Experience DVD
For more than twenty years Pat Etcheberry has been providing athletes from around the world with the winning edge. We call this the Etcheberry Experience, and players with an Etcheberry experience have hoisted Championship Trophies at over one hundred major championships, including 28 Australian Opens, 18 Wimbledons, 22 UP Opens, 22 French Opens and 15 Olympic medals.
And now it's your turn! This is your chance to experience the same drills, exercises and words of tennis wisdom that Pat gave to Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jennifer Capriati, Martina Hingis, Jim Courier, Justine Henin-Hardenne, and others, that helped launch them on their incredible careers. For the first time, Pat Etcheberry shares his training secrets in a series of DVDs for players of all ages, their coaches, and trainers.
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