The debate over which to teach first – power or control – has gone on for ages, but that’s not what this post is about. This is about understanding the balance between consistency and quality – a lens through which we can look at practices, matches, and skills to gain a better understanding of our players and the type of work we should be doing in training.
Before we start, it’s important that we define the terms. We will define consistency as the rate at which someone can reproduce a specific skill. Note that the rate doesn’t have to be high, and we’re not necessarily talking about rallying or grinding. Consistency is simply how many times out of 10 a player can put a specific shot in the court. We’ll define quality as a measure of speed, spin, height, or direction that determines the effect a shot has on the opponent. The higher the quality, the more damage done.
With these two definitions in mind, let’s look at how the balance between consistency and quality affects the work we do in practice and the way we assess matches.
Let’s imagine I’m coaching a player who is only winning 51 percent of their attacking points. It’s clear that there is room for improvement, as top international players average between 60 and 70 percent, but where?
One possibility is that they are missing too many attacks. If they are only making 63 percent of their attacks, even if 90 percent do damage and they win another 90 percent of points when their attack is good (both very good numbers), they will win roughly 51 percent of points (0.63 x 0.9 x 0.9 = 0.51).
The other possibility is that they are making 90 percent of their attacks but only 63 percent are of the right quality (good enough to do damage). Even if they win 90 percent of the points when their attack is quality, this would still only lead to a win percentage of 51 percent.
The same can apply to every situation. First serves. Rally balls. Passing shots. This is important when we consider the implications. If I decide that the problem is my player is missing too many attacks, what will we focus on? Technically, there will probably be some talk of rhythm, balance, timing, and so on. Tactically, we’ll probably focus on playing the right shot or picking bigger targets. In other words, teaching points that support the goal: more consistency.
But what if I decide that quality is the area that needs improvement? Then we’ll probably focus on hitting it flatter, accelerating the racket more, using more legs and body speed, not to mention playing more aggressive, hitting harder, or aiming for the lines.
As you can see, in the exact same situation — a player winning a low percentage of attacking points — we can take completely different approaches depending on whether we want to address the consistency or the quality. And this isn’t a case where both are right. What if the problem is their consistency, but I improve their quality from 90 percent to 100? That only takes their win percentage up to 59. Same if we improve the consistency from 90 to 100. But if we take the 63 percent of attacks made up to 80 percent, which is the norm among top players, the win percentage skyrockets up to 65 percent.
That doesn’t mean we never work on strengths – it just means we look for the areas where we can make the biggest growth, and to do that, we have to understand the balance between consistency and quality.
In competition, the same principles apply, only slightly differently. Of course, a coach can and should be analyzing performance in certain key areas and breaking them down according to consistency and quality, but perhaps more interesting is the player’s ability to do something similar mid-match.
At any point in a match, a player should be assessing where they are losing points. There are, for the purposes of this perspective, two options: either they are missing too much (lacking consistency), or they are being dominated (lacking quality). A smart tennis player will have a feel for which is causing the majority of their lost points.
One of the best tools to develop an awareness of this is the Aggressive Margin, developed by Bill Jacobsen. Simply put, a player adds to their score if they hit a winner or forcing error, and subtracts from their score if they make an unforced error. The opponent does the same. The goal should be to stay above 0, and, ideally, have a higher score than the opponent.
This is basic, but it reveals a lot about how a match is being played. Players don’t need to be keeping score in their head, but they should have a sense of it. If their score is too far in the negatives, then they are missing too much. If they are in the positives but are losing, then they are being dominated by their opponent.
Having a sense of whether they are losing points due to consistency or quality is critical because once again, it dictates what actions they should take. If they’re being dominated, they should try to raise the quality. This could mean being more aggressive in the rally (changing directions more, hitting harder, aiming for the lines), or it could mean going for more on serves and returns (taking it earlier, hitting bigger, placing it better).
On the other hand, if they’re missing too much, they should try to raise the consistency. Once again, this can take any form – make more first serves, miss less in the rally, make some more approach shots – and can be achieved by either tactical or technical changes.
Ideally, a player will make these adjustments as the match progresses, raising the consistency in some areas and the quality in others. And if they’ve assessed correctly, they’ll win more points. Of course, a better opponent may simply adapt and continue to win, but that’s part of sport. At the end of the match, however, the player should feel like they have found a happy medium where they are right on the edge of too aggressive and too passive. Of course, where this edge is depends on the gamestyle of the player. But if they can walk that line consistently, they’ll have a higher chance of winning more matches.
The concepts of consistency and quality are not new, but for too long we have seen them as separate. The truth is, they come together to allow players to win points and matches. As coaches, we cannot make assumptions about what our players need – charting is essential to determining a course of action. In competition, walking the line between too much of one and not enough of the other is crucial to maximizing potential and winning tight matches. In short, consistency and quality is everything.