In 2007 the International Tennis Federation launched the Tennis Play and Stay campaign. The campaign included a four stage progression plan of task and equipment scaling. The first stage targeted young children playing tennis for the first time. In this stage, the balls are much softer, the court size is considerably smaller and the net height is lower. Each stage gradually progresses towards full-size playing conditions, which is the final stage.
Research consistently shows that scaled environments in sport lead to the emergence of more successful execution of skills. However many of these studies have focused on specific skills in isolation, as opposed to observing performance during an actual match.
Anna Fitzpatrick and colleagues aimed to rectify this issue by observing matchplay characteristics when children played during each stage of the Play and Stay pathway.
48 children participated in the study. Children were recruited based on the stage in which they were playing tennis. The exact numbers were:
- RED (most scaled) – 18 children, mean age = 7.4
- ORANGE – 16 children, mean age = 8.5
- GREEN – 8 children, mean age = 8
- YELLOW (adult conditions) – 6 participants, mean age = 13.7.
The rationale for recruiting a different number of participants per stage was to ensure that the number of points analysed across each age was similar. Approximately 250 points were analysed per stage. This equated to each participant playing slightly more than one match.
The most scaled condition (RED) resulted in longer rallies, and fewer errors for serves, groundstrokes and net play.
Conversely, the adult condition (YELLOW) resulted in a greater variety of shots. Specifically, there was a more even distribution of forehands and backhands compared to the scaled conditions.
To emphasise the benefits of scaling for children first playing tennis, the authors stated:
“Results demonstrated how task simplification, by rule adaptation, can afford children, early in tennis development, more opportunities to hit balls in a relevant performance environment.”
In response to the finding that adult conditions resulted in a greater variety of shots, the authors stressed:
“It is important for coaches to recognise that being over-reliant on 1 set of constraints can lead participants to become dependent on a specific technique or skill, which may result in other skills (i.e., backhand) not being developed sufficiently.”
Hence, if a child never advances from scaled to adult conditions, they may only ever learn to execute certain types of shots.