Athletic Insight - The Online Journal of Sport Psychology

Case Study:
An Individualized Feedback System For Tennis Players

Gordon Henry, Ph.D.
Indiana University Southeast

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One goal of most amateur tennis players is to improve their National Tennis Rating Program (NTRP) rating. Performance feedback may be one intervention helpful in assisting these players to reach that goal. However, the types of feedback that may be employed are as varied as the settings in which it is used. The current case study examines whether feedback based solely on performance outcome measures may be effective in helping one player improve his NTRP rating. The subject was chosen because his rating is in the middle of the NTRP rating scale, indicating that he is approximately halfway through the learning curve for many tennis-related skills. It may be seen, then, whether such outcome-based feedback is effective in improving the performance of athletes at similar levels of skill acquisition. The participatory and individualized nature of the feedback used and the effects of the feedback on the player's intrinsic motivation to practice tennis are also discussed.


      Interventions involving feedback have been successful in improving the performance of an impressive array of individuals in an equally wide variety of work and non-work settings (Prue & Fairbank, 1981; Balcazar, Hopkins, & Suarez, 1986). So, it is logical to assume that performance feedback may also be successful in assisting amateur tennis players in acquiring those skills that will improve their performance. However, feedback can take many forms, and the type of feedback that would be most successful in this setting is still very open to question.

      Ford (1980) suggested a system of classifying feedback interventions along such dimensions as individual-group, private-public, personal-mechanical, and immediate-delayed. Duncan & Bruwelheide (1986) noted that feedback could vary as to its source; the mode of transmission; and various aspects of the feedback message itself including positiveness, accuracy, specificity, amount, and temporal relationship to the relevant performance. Questions of which types of feedback are most effective in improving performance in which types of settings have only begun to be answered.

      With regard to the specificity of feedback, Gilbert (1979) argued that accomplishments, in terms of performance outcomes, are the critical measures of performance about which feedback should be provided. Gilbert did acknowledge, however, that successful outcomes result from the accomplishment of specific tasks, and so, when desired outcomes do not occur, feedback regarding those tasks in addition to outcome-based feedback is recommended. He went on to assert that when both tasks and outcomes are occurring at the desired level, then feedback about the more specific tasks is probably no longer necessary. Thus, the specificity of the feedback to be provided may depend on the current skill level of the subject.

      In tennis then, it may be that different types of feedback are more appropriate and effective for players having different skill levels. In general, Gilbert would argue that beginning players, who are still acquiring basic skills, would benefit more from task specific feedback while those with extensive playing experience would benefit more from outcome-based feedback. However, the point in her development at which a player would start to benefit more from outcome-based feedback as opposed to task feedback is unexplored. The current case study attempts to identify whether a player in the approximate middle of the tennis learning curve, as indicated by ratings developed by the United States Tennis Association (USTA), would benefit from outcome-based feedback.

      The National Tennis Rating Program (NTRP) is a system of rating amateur tennis players developed by the USTA in 1979 (Schwartz & Dazet, 1998). The ratings range from 1.0 to 7.0, with ratings occurring at each point. Condensed versions of the skills corresponding to each rating are contained in Table 1 below.


Just starting to play tennis.


Has limited experience and is still working primarily on getting the ball into play.


Needs on-court experience. Has obvious stroke weaknesses but is familiar with basic positions for singles and doubles play.


Learning to judge where the ball is going although court coverage is weak. Can sustain a short rally of slow pace with other players of the same ability.


Fairly consistent when hitting medium-paced shots, but is not comfortable with all strokes and lacks execution when trying for directional control, depth or power. Most common doubles formation is one-up and one-back.


Has achieved improved stroke dependability with directional control on moderate shots, but still lacks depth and variety. Starting to exhibit more aggressive net play, has improved court coverage and is developing teamwork in doubles.


Has dependable strokes, including directional control and depth on both forehand and backhand sides on moderate shots, plus the ability to use lobs, overheads, approach shots and volleys with some success. Occasionally forces errors when serving and teamwork in doubles is evident. Rallies may be lost due to impatience.


Starting to master the use of power and spins and beginning to handle pace, has sound footwork, can control depth of shots and is beginning to vary game plan according to opponents. Can hit first serves with power and accuracy and place the second serve. Tends to overhit on difficult shots. Aggressive net play is common in doubles.


Has good shot anticipation and frequently has an outstanding shot or exceptional consistency around which a game may be structured. Can regularly hit winners or force errors off of short balls and can put away volleys, can successfully execute lobs, drop shots, half volleys and overhead smashes and has good depth and spin on most second serves.


Has developed power and/or consistency as a major weapon. Can vary strategies and styles of play in a competitive situation and hit dependable shots in a stress situation.


Generally do not need NTRP ratings. Rankings or past rankings will speak for themselves. The 6.0 player has obtained a sectional and /or national ranking. The 6.5 player has extensive satellite tournament experience. The 7.0 player makes his living from tournament prize money.

Table 1. NTRP rating descriptions (Schwartz & Dazet, 1998)


      The subject in the case study is a male amateur tennis player having a 3.0 NTRP rating as determined by his club professional. He has been playing for approximately two years and has received several individual lessons from his pro during that time. He competes on his club USTA team against other clubs from the metropolitan area. His competitive matches are approximately evenly split between singles and doubles play.

      The primary dependent variable in the case study is the subject's NTRP rating. The goal is to be judged a 3.5 player, determined again by the club professional, by the end of the USTA season, which occurs near the end of June. Secondary dependent variables include performance on a number of outcome measures observed by the researcher during match play. Figure 1 is the evaluation form used to record these measures during singles play. The form was modified slightly for doubles play, primarily to account for the increased time the subject spent at the net rather than in the back of the court.





1st Serves



2nd Serves






Up 2 pts.



Down 2 pts.



Break Against









W Against



F Winners

B Winners

A Winners

At Net

V Winners


U. Errors



Up 2 Games



Up 1>3-3






Dn 2 Games



Dn 1>3-3





Figure 1. Tennis Performance Evaluation Form (singles play)

      The evaluation form contains two types of numerical data. For certain measures, the subject was interested in the absolute number of outcomes produced during the match. Such measures include service winners (abbreviated as "Winners" in the Service section of the form), return winners and service winners against (both in the Return section), forehand winners (F Winners), backhand winners (B winners), approach shot winners (A Winners), and unforced errors (U Errors). These latter four measures are all contained in the Rally section of the form.

      In other cases, the subject was interested in percentage measures of certain outcomes. In the Service section, first and second serve percentages were recorded. The percentage of games lost when ahead by two points and percentage of games won when behind by two points are also included in this section. When returning serve, the percentage of games won by the subject (breaking serve) was recorded. During rallies, the percentage of winning volleys (V Winners) when the subject was at the net was noted. In the Match section of the evaluation form, the percentage of times the subject lost a set when ahead by two games or ahead by one game after three games all was recorded. Similarly, the percentage of sets won when behind by two games or behind by one game after three-all was also noted. Note that all the measures on the evaluation form, whether in absolute number or percentage format, are outcome-based. That is, no comments on process variables, such as the topography of particular strokes, are provided.

      The primary independent variable in this case study consists of providing the information contained on the evaluation form to the subject. This information is presented to the subject in two ways. First, immediately upon the conclusion of a match, the subject glances at the raw data that consists of numbers of check marks in appropriate cells on the form. Typically, this particular subject notes his serve percentages, but may also note those areas that seem to differ significantly from previous matches.

      The second method of presenting the performance feedback is slightly more delayed. Within 24 hours of the completion of each match, the entire completed form containing both absolute numerical data and calculated percentages is forwarded to the subject via email. This provides the subject with a permanent record of his performance that may be used to guide his practice.

      One interesting note regarding this feedback, and another possible independent variable in the case study, is that it was developed in a highly individualized, participatory manner. That is, during an interview the researcher and the subject together decided upon which measures of performance to track based on the information that was deemed most valuable by the subject.


      To date, results are mixed. While many of the outcome measures, such as errors and winners, are virtually unchanged since the introduction of the feedback, others have improved. The subject's first and second serve percentages have increased dramatically since the introduction of feedback as have the number of volley winners. In doubles, the subject has also improved in the area of hitting service returns crosscourt, which is an excellent strategy in that situation. In addition, the subject's winning percentage has improved slightly. Prior to feedback, the subject won 0.0% (no wins in five matches) of his matches. Subsequent to the introduction of feedback, the subject's winning percentage is 33.3% (two of six matches).


      Unfortunately, the magnitude of these improvements have not yet been large enough to affect the primary dependent variable, that of increasing the subject's NTRP rating. The club professional has indicated that more improvement is needed on more outcomes to warrant an increase in rating. In addition, the ability to win at least half your matches against opponents of comparable skill (as indicated by their ratings) is typically required before moving up the rating scale. The subject's winning percentage of 33.3% subsequent to the implementation of feedback falls short of this mark.

      The professional would also like to see improvements in several process-oriented tasks. Better court positioning, use of better strategy/teamwork in doubles, and more consistency of strokes would all result in the subject moving up the rating scale more quickly. So, it seems that purely outcome-based feedback is only partially appropriate (and effective) for a player possessing skills placing him in the approximate middle of the USTA's tennis rating system. This result is quite consistent with what Gilbert (1979) would have predicted. Further research is suggested to more accurately pinpoint the level of skill acquisition at which a tennis player may begin to accrue maximum benefit from outcome-based performance feedback.

      A final note regarding the subject's apparent enjoyment of tennis is warranted here. Some (e.g. Deci & Ryan, 1985) have argued that interventions such as the one described above, which make use of externally-provided information, will necessarily decrease one's intrinsic motivation to perform previously enjoyable tasks. These authors assert that such an intervention will result in participation in the activity becoming more like work, which will be avoided.

      A decrease in intrinsic motivation to play tennis has not been observed in the present study. In fact, quite the opposite effect seems to be occurring. Prior to receiving feedback, the subject averaged 6.0 hours of practice per week, while he has averaged 13.1 hours of voluntary practice each week since feedback was introduced. It is strongly suggested that future research examining the effects of externally-provided information, or other consequences, on athletic performance include an analysis of the effects of that intervention on some measure of enjoyment of, or intrinsic motivation to perform, the activity.


       Balcazar, F., Hopkins, B., & Suarez, Y. (1986). A critical, objective review of performance feedback. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 7, 65-89.

       Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.

       Duncan, P. K. & Bruwelheide, L. R. (1986). Feedback: Use and possible functions. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 7, 91-114.

       Ford, J. E. (1980). A classification system for feedback procedures. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 2, 183-191.

       Gilbert, T. F. (1979). Human competence. New York: McGraw Hill.

       Prue, D. M., & Fairbank, J. A. (1981). Performance feedback in organizational behavior management. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 3, 1-16.

       Schwartz, B., & Dazet, C. (1998). Competitive tennis: Climbing the NTRP ladder. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers.

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