Scoring Systems and External Motivation in Tennis

Much has been written by academics and sports psychologists about internal versus external sources of motivation and the roles they play in athlete engagement and performance. Additionally, in the last decade or so, the notion of “gamification” – that is, the practice of designing a learning environment similar to those of video games – has grown in popularity within the world of coaching. I won’t pretend to be an expert in either area, but I’d like to spend a couple of minutes discussing one element of our practice environment which can have an impact on the success of our “gamification” attempts and our athletes’ levels of motivation: scoring.


Most coaches, when they are first learning the ropes, are told that it is a good idea to add a scoring element to their drills (eg. first team to make 5 in a row, or first person to score 10 points). This is largely true – although there are some exceptions – but I believe that more attention should be spent on how this is done. The type of scoring and the difficulty level created by it are critical, and I’ll explain why. But first: why have a scoring system in the first place?


The Benefits of a Scoring System


Firstly, a scoring system can increase motivation by giving players an external goal – something to work towards. At the end of the day, not everyone is motivated by the simple pleasure of hitting a tennis ball – some do it for the wins, the successes, the titles – and that’s OK! Adding a point system or some way of measuring success can keep these players engaged and allow them to see that they are progressing.


The second reason is that scoring systems can make practices competitive. This, in itself, has two benefits: first, it builds energy and engagement amongst kids who enjoy competing, and second, it more accurately simulates the mental pressures of competition – handling adversity, pressure, emotions, and so on.


Scoring systems can also add variety to a practice. In a situation where you are working on rallying crosscourt, for example, you could very easily do the same drill every day (hitting crosscourt), but make each day feel different thanks to a change in the scoring system.


Lastly, a scoring system can also allow the coach to easily measure progress, by comparing scores from one day, week, or month to the next.


Of course, there are arguments against using scoring systems. For one, they can take focus away from the process and shift it towards the outcome. That’s why they’re best used when teaching skills that are at least in the “conscious competent” stage – that is to say, not brand new. At that stage, a slight shift in focus towards the outcome usually won’t negatively affect learning, so long as a coach is there to continue to give feedback on the process.


Another potential downside is that players who fail to achieve the task may become discouraged. When a player’s main motivation is changed from internal to external, and they continually fail, they may not be able to fall back on the internal motivation they previously used. This is why it’s so important for a coach to choose goals carefully.


Creating the Proper Challenge Level


How important is the number you pick? In short: very. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say we’re working on rally consistency, and the players can make 10 balls in a row. Where do I set the target? If the goal is too easy (eg. 6 in a row) players lose motivation – where’s the fun in pushing myself when I already know I can do it? If the goal is too hard (eg. 20 in a row) players also lose motivation – this time because they start to doubt if it’s even possible. This notion is often represented by the following curve bell curve:



If we are to listen to Vygotsky and his Zone of Proximal Development, our target number should be just out of reach of the players’ comfort zone – just tough enough that they can’t do it by themselves, but just easy enough that they can do it with expert guidance. In this case, probably something like 12 in a row.


This may sound obvious or simplistic. But what if you’re working on something more ambiguous, like the precision of a player’s first serve? Do you know exactly how small an area they can get it in? Or how often they can get it in a larger area? In other words, do you know their exact level? If you don’t, you may find it difficult to set a goal that is appropriately challenging. As coaches, we have to know our athlete’s level to be able to challenge them correctly and ensure that they develop as quickly as possible. Thankfully, there are a couple of tools we can use to get to the right challenge level.


Different Types of Scoring Systems


I like to think of the different types of scoring systems as residing on a spectrum. On one end, we have a skill that is completely new to a player – they cannot execute it with much success. On the other, we have the opposite – a skill that the player has mastered.


When a player is on that first end of the spectrum – the early stages of learning – it may be best to use a “total” scoring system. In other words, the drill continues until they reach a certain number of successful attempts (eg. until they hit 10 total serves in the target, or 50 balls past the service line). This allows them to measure success without being punished for any failures. To make it more competitive, it can become a timed challenge: see how quickly you can hit 10 serves in the target, or how many you can get in 5 minutes.



However, we know that in tennis, you are punished for your mistakes. With players who are in the middle of the spectrum – who haven’t quite mastered the skill, but who also aren’t brand new to it – we can use a “percentage” system. In this case, they have to make a certain number of successes within a certain number of attempts. For example: see if you can make 8 out of 10 attacks into that zone.


The most challenging system will be a “consecutive” system – one where a player must succeed multiple times in a row. This is, I would argue, what’s most commonly used by coaches, and while logic would suggest it’s a good choice with advanced players, we have to be careful about the context in which we use it and whether or not it’s realistic. For example, challenging a player to make 10 quality rally balls in a row is perfectly reasonable and realistic, but challenging them to make 6 first serves in a row isn’t. (Of course it’s possible, but is it relevant to the game?)


Lastly, we can also use a “plus/minus” system, where a player gets one or more points for doing something correctly, and loses one or more points for a mistake. This can be a good way to ensure players don't lose sight of a larger objective – for example, encouraging them to play aggressive (+1 every time they hit into the target area) while making sure they don't miss too much (-1 for every mistake).


Conclusion


Let's be clear: in the grand scheme of successful coaching, scoring systems play but a small role. However, small details matter – especially when those details can affect motivation and mood. Using scoring systems can make practices competitive and encourage players to give their best, and there are a number of ways to do that. But remember: setting a goal that is realistic and appropriately challenging is critical – be deliberate about the targets you pick and make sure you know your athlete's true level before you decide.