Coach's Corner: Dave Fish on Quality over Quantity
Dave Fish, UTR's Head of Development and former Harvard Men's Tennis Coach, knows what it takes to help talented tennis players achieve their fullest potential both on and off the court. Fish was recently a guest on the Hit The Court tennis podcast, where he shared his thoughts on the importance of quality over over quantity, playing up and down from your level, and why chasing points is usually not the best strategy for developing players. Read below for some of the highlights. Josh Tchan, Host, Hit the Court Podcast: So I was talking to a couple of coaches and they used to tell their kids, if you want to raise your ranking, you go out and you play a many tournaments as possible, and it wasn't so much about the quality, it was more about the quantity. So now with the UTR System though, how do you think coaches should be advising their students on how to thrive under the system?Dave Fish: The difference between rankings based on points per round and ratings is profound. Rankings can be especially discouraging for young players. Here’s why: rankings tell you only whether you are above or below another person, not how close or far apart you are from those players competitively, and this is more important to understand for your development.
Rankings can be especially discouraging for young players. Here’s why: rankings tell you only whether you are above or below another person, not how close or far apart you are from those players competitively, and this is more important to understand for your development.
If you rank 6 players, it appears that the #6 is close to the #5, that #5 is close to #4, and so on. But when you find out that #1 is Rafa, #2 Novak, #3 Roger, and #4 Del Potro, and that you and I might be #5 and #6, we see that rankings don’t give us a realistic picture of how competitive we are with the players above us, or below us. So when you were a junior player, Josh, when you had a great ranking, it was motivating for you to be that high, but when you tell a young player that he is ranked 10,282 in his state, it can be pretty discouraging. This is often why kids drop out…And worse, when this ranking is based on points per round rankings, it encourages me (or my parents or coaches), it encourages me to hunt for the easiest points for the least amount of risk. This happens on the ITF Junior Tours, on the men’s and women’s pro tours, and in most federation-sanctioned events, including the USTA’s. Players have an incentive to chase “easier” points. Any system like this will always favor those with the deepest pockets.Asking players to chase points simply does not encourage healthy behavior, especially in younger players, who often develop overuse injuries as a result of playing too many events. Moreover, experts in youth sports development have confirmed that rankings, for all but the best, discourage participation and risk-taking.UTR Ratings, on the other hand, tell us where we stand relative to the players around us, based on our actual performance against real players. It’s more motivating. Tell a young player, “Look, you are doing great. You’ve already made it up to Level 7 and based on your recent results, your rating is moving toward a Level 8. Here are three things you could improve on to move up to a Level 8.” (Ed Note - Check out University of Pennsylvania Men's Tennis Head Coach Dave Geatz's article on “How to Improve Your UTR”). It’s a huge motivator when you can help a young player understand that by improving say, his conditioning, or her backhand down the line, it means they are improving, and passing not just the kid ahead of them, but many other players around that level. How much more motivating is it to think about your development from this perspective? UTR’s goal is to help you find more matches within 1.0 of your rating, to help you optimize your development. What is so cool about UTR is that the odds of playing a competitive match go up 200% or 300% when you are playing someone within 1.0 of you, up or down. Sadly, most tournaments seeded according to points per round rankings often result in a much lower percentage of competitive matches for everyone.UTR’s algorithm is set up so that players can improve their rating by playing both up and down. Sadly, there seems to be a misconception among a small group of players that their rating can only go down when they play someone with a lower UTR, which results in some withdrawals that hurt not only the opponent, but the player himself in ways he, or his parents, or coaches, may not realize. Getting a higher grade at the expense of learning is not a great strategy for improvement!As any college coach knows, allowing a player to avoid “down” matches will make that player a less resilient competitor. Playing “up” requires one set of emotional “muscles” while playing down requires another (less pressure overall). While you have to manage that nervousness: “What if I lose?” Playing up helps you learn to manage that “heart in your throat” response, the “do I belong here” feeling. But there’s also less at risk for you. If that’s all you experience, you’ll never learn how to “seal the deal.” Playing up only develops one set of muscles, but doesn’t make a complete competitor. There is an entirely different kind of pressure when you play down. How do you bring your best when the other person is not asking for your best? It’s a different kind of emotional challenge. Imagine going to the weight room and saying well, I just want to develop my right leg (playing up), but not my left leg (playing down). You can’t move unless both legs have been developed fully.
Playing up only develops one set of muscles, but doesn’t make a complete competitor.
And, tennis is based on respect for the game and for one’s opponent. Leaving someone high and dry in a tournament is not sportsmanlike, and will kill good competition over time. You can see that zero matches would be played in a system in which players insisted always on playing up. Ivan Lendl years ago proposed an approach he called the 33% approach. A third of your matches should be up, a third against players you’re quite even even with, where you don’t know who is going to win, and a third should be down.UTR has refined Lendl’s principles to encourage more level-based play. So when you play up, don’t shy away from matches beyond 1.0 down or up from your level, but do your best when possible to opponents within 1.0 of you to optimize your development. It’s good to have a chance to stretch sometimes, but It doesn't do you as much good to play a player out of your range play and and get beaten 1 and 1, as much as struggling to go 3 and 4 with a player who is better than you, but within 1.0. This is a much more sensible way to challenge yourself realistically. And further, when you are completely overmatched, it’s pretty much a waste of time for your opponent too.Same for you if are playing someone too far below you. It’s a “snoozer”. It’s predictable. You know you are not going to lose, so you don’t put forth your best effort. You’ll probably be a bit careless, so lose a couple of games you probably shouldn’t have based on ability. To reflect this, and to reduce the concern that better players have for playing down, we’ve now refined UTR’s algorithm so it doesn’t give the lower rated player too much credit for winning a few more games than predicted against a much higher rated player, nor does it penalize the better player for a bit of sloppiness. UTR’s goal is to help you find play to optimize your schedule, as well as your investment of time and money. The prevailing system of age group play based on points per round groups people less accurately than UTR ratings do because seedings reward players for rounds reached rather than the quality of their opponents, which really detracts from a competitor’s experience. For example, I was in Finland a couple of years ago where they hosted the World Senior Championships. A player who was ranked number 24 in Finland in his age group was ranked #7 in the world (!) because he had the resources to travel to all the ITF Senior Events. He picked up points by playing three or four times as many events as others better than him did. And further, because most Americans don’t play ITF senior events, but are often very good, their seeding task was made even more difficult. Everyone recognized how much better it would have been had they used UTR!The beauty of UTR is it takes your results from any sanctioned organization, including the ATP tour, the WTA tour, the ITF juniors and ITF World Tour (once called Futures), Tennis Europe, Tennis Australia, COSAT (South American regional results), the Asian Tennis Federation, U.S. College tennis, and now domestic results from an ever growing number of national federations as well. UTR takes your results from all of these “verticals” and and says, “This is your body of work, this is who you are as a player.” And so as a result it's a much more accurate indication not of your potential, but of where you are right now, which helps you optimize your development. Level-based play is the future!You can listen to Dave and Josh’s full conversation on the Hit The Court Podcast.