Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Best of the Best

Last night I had the opportunity to play an exhibition match at the Barrie Athletic Club, as a crowd warmer for the main event which was Karim Darwish vs Thierry Lincou. This was part of the Cambridge Cup, which is an invitational tournament held around Toronto featuring many of the world’s top 8 players. As I watched these two former world #1’s, I was once again reminded how amazing the very best players in the world are. Darwish is one of the truly elite players and Lincou is now in the tier just below the very top guys.

There is a distinct difference between the top 16 and the 10-20 players below them. The upper echelon have a certain presence on court that exudes confidence and experience. They are very assertive in the warmup, do everything with a purpose and do not get fazed by unfavourable conditions. Their basic length and width is already in place from the first rally, and they never put themselves in a bad position or make a bad tactical decision. Their ball striking is severe and aggressive; if a ball is floated back down the wall, it is with the purpose of regaining the ‘T’. Any ball that isn’t within inches of the wall is volleyed and probably sent to the front of the court. Between rallies, they are always entirely composed and don’t give off any indications of fatigue or frustration.

I believe the real difference between the best and the rest is really exposed as a match wears on though. The very best guys have a certain creativity and speed of thought that the slightly lower ranked players lack. They don’t fall into a comfort zone of playing predictable patterns, and know exactly when to break up the rhythm of play with a boast or crosscourt flick. This innate sense of the game affords them the ability to hit outright winners. At that level, it is impossible to hit a clean winner if your opponent has a read on where it is going. The ability to counter attack from compromised positions is also an important asset. If these guys were to play defense every time they were put under pressure, they would never get control of a rally. Countering an aggressive attack with an even more aggressive shot can quickly shift the balance of a rally.

All of these differences are very, very subtle and could easily go unnoticed. In fact, it is easy to miss them when two top boys are playing each other, because both of them do everything so well it appears standard! But watching someone from the top 16 play someone ranked 20 or lower will highlight these differences. The guys ranked in the 20s and 30s are still incredible players who have achieved something most people couldn’t dream of, but they are often dispatched in the minimum 3 games by the very best.  So next time you are in the mood to watch a match video, fire up an early round contest from the latest tournament, and see the true class of the best squash players on earth.

 

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James Willstrop – North American Open Champion and World #1

James Willstrop NAO2012 ChampionJames Willstrop has won the North American Open and regained the #1 ranking on the PSA Tour.

James performance against Ramy Ashour in the final was incredible.  Actually it was inspiring.  Having watched the match on PSASquashtv.com I was so impressed not only with James play but with his strategy.  He came in with a plan to contain Ramy, stuck with it, played beautifully and did what most thought he would not – win.

James’ use of height was what really won him the match.  If he was under any duress at all he got the ball high and in to the back corner and really limited Ramy’s ability to attack.  Tied together with James use of height was his use of the straight ball.  High, soft and straight balls that Ramy had to let pass.  When Ramy tried to pick up the tempo James was able to deal with it when needed and would slow it back down with the lob.  His accuracy on the lob was terrific.  He managed to get it over Ramy and forced him to let it drop and did not over hit them either having them come off the back wall.

How effective was James in executing his game plan?  How many nicks did Ramy hit? First report was none but there was one in the second game that was in back court.  Even that was not a roll out nick.  It took a funny bounce when it hit the nick and James could not get it back.  Not actually hitting the nick though could just be Ramy being off.  What really tells the tale of how effective James was how many front court nick attempts did Ramy even attempt?  I have not gone through and counted them but there were very few attempts. Why?  Simply put James hardly ever gave him the ball where Ramy could attempt it.

Congratulation to James Willstrop on winning the North American Open and on regaining the #1 ranking on the PSA Tour.  The North American Open was the first time in months where all of the top players in the world were in the draw.  James came through brilliantly and truly showed the quality of player he is.

James Willstrop is a Prince sponsored played and plays with the Prince EXO3 Rebel Squash Racquet.

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Swing Like a Pro

The swing is one of the most important and scrutinized aspects of every player’s overall game. Good technique allows a few important things to develop in your game: consistency in ball striking, ability to hit the ball from compromised positions, and deception.  It is something that cannot be swept under the carpet; you will struggle to pass a ‘C’ level of play if you have major technical deficiencies. Most errors ultimately come from some sort of technical miscue.

One of the best ways to improve your technique is by watching top players and analyzing theirs. Be wary of trying to copy the aesthetics of your favourite pro’s swing though. Ramy Ashour, for example, has a swing that no one would ever teach a beginner. He has superhuman wrist strength and racquet head speed, and takes almost no backswing. Nick Matthew is another example of someone with a slightly unorthodox swing. However, there are some key points you can take from almost any top player. I think anyone can incorporate the following five tips into their swing while maintaining some individual flair:

1)      Keep your space from the ball. Most people get far too close to the ball. This not only decreases your potential power (the arm is strongest when fully extended), but also brings your body further from the ‘T’ and deeper into the corners. Spread yourself out as much as possible, let the ball come to you, hit quickly and take a short lunge back to the ‘T’.

2)      Hit the ball with a flat racquet face. Of course, everyone is taught to hit the ball with an open face to ensure consistency. But hitting the ball flat (or even slightly topspin) will increase the heaviness of your shot, and keep the ball lower as it travels through the court. Particularly useful when hitting from a position of advantage. Jonathon Power was a master of this.

3)      Use less arm when digging out a tight ball. When the ball is buried in the back corner or glued to the wall, taking a full swing will often lead to an error (and broken racquet). You can subtly control your racquet using only wrist and hand. You might have to hit a defensive shot, but it’s better than the other option. The tighter the ball is, the shorter the swing should be.

4)      Take a longer follow through. Following through will noticeably improve your power, but it will also help keep the ball straighter. If you can limit your backswing and instead rely on your follow through for power, you will minimize the inconsistencies that cause errors.

5)      Get in position to hit early. This is also a movement tip, but even when your opponent has played a soft drive or weak boast, get your feet and racquet set early. You will feel like you have tons of time to the hit the ball, and it affords you the chance to incorporate some deception. Without any crazy fakes or flicks, simply standing with your racquet up will freeze your opponent or lead them to guess.

Try to make use of one of these tips every time you practice. A match isn’t a great opportunity to bring in a new technical element for the first time. Good luck!

 

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Overcoming Mental Hurdles

As I’ve mentioned in my previous blogs, the mental side of squash is an important and intriguing part of the game that separates great players from good players at many levels. One of the most difficult parts of the mental game to master is believing in yourself to beat slightly better/higher ranked players in important matches. This is something you must come to grips with if you desire to climb the rankings; be it worldwide, nationally or even locally. Improvements made through practice are only tangible when translated into a competitive setting.

I have spent unhealthy lengths of time trying to teach myself to believe I can win, so most of this advice comes from personal experience. There is a big difference between thinking you can win, knowing you can win, and truly believing you will win. When playing someone I usually beat, I have an internal calmness that is not shaken by lucky bounces, bad calls or even lost games. I am fully confident that I will ultimately take control and win the match. 95% of the time this is exactly what happens, and this total belief plays a big role in navigating my way through tricky scenarios. However, when I play someone who I desperately want to beat but haven’t, the exact opposite happens. Every tin and bad shot is heartbreaking. My body is tense, my movement is awkward, and I can’t find a rhythm. I feel the need to play perfect squash, but the result of my desperation is usually far from that. I firmly believe that this inability to find a comfort zone is due to a lack of confidence in my abilities. I do not think that playing within my own means will be enough to beat a superior opponent, so any small mistake is magnified tenfold in my mind. I think this a fairly common theme among competitive players.

The above notwithstanding, a more fundamental question perhaps holds the real key to taking down stronger opposition. Why do we have these ideas about being better than some opponents and worse than others? Where does this mental pecking order come from? Indeed, merit does need to be given to previous results and rankings. But these classifications do not matter when a match begins. Regardless of what happened the previous hundred times, you still need to get on court and play squash if you want to win. Reputations alone don’t win matches. You have go on court and use your skills and knowledge to win. There is no sense worrying about what tournaments someone has won or who they have beaten.  These are all external to the actual task of winning the match. As with many things, the less you think about it the simpler it becomes. Don’t talk yourself out of winning a match. Play the way you know how and get it done.

Of course, this is all easy to say from ‘behind the glass’. The current world #2, James Willstrop, has lost about 20 consecutive times to #1 Nick Matthew. Matthew had no business winning some of those encounters, but his total belief coupled with James’ possible self-doubts have allowed him to snatch a few of those victories from the jaws of defeat.

Anyone who knows me well will find these preachings ironic to say the least. But when put into practice, they are very effective. Next time you are playing that dreaded opponent, try to block out absolutely every notion of how the match is supposed to unfold. If you can, the result may be pleasantly surprising.

 

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Squash – The cost of a bagel

Thursday night is league night for me in our regional league.  I play B level and myself had a pretty straight forward match.  Our #1 though was in very tough playing the top player in our league, one of the top under 19 players in Canada. The junior used to play at our club until he went to University so these two have played countless time before.  The match ended with the expected player winning but not without some interesting twists and turns along the way.

The pace of play for the outset was really fast and hard.  Both players are extremely fit and their movement is astounding.  The ability to retrieve balls that look like they are not returnable is quite amazing.  The first game was tight the whole way through with rarely more than a couple of points between them.  Our #1 was able to close it out in extra points though I believe 15-13.

Games 2 and 3 went to the junior but were tightly contested.

Game 4 is where it got really interesting.  The junior got off to a quick lead and kept adding points and our #1 was having no success getting on the board. At around 5-0 there were murmurs in the crowd of a possible bagel.  The junior was digging in and our #1 looked like he could not figure how to win a rally.  Even when he was really extending the junior the ball kept coming back.  This is where the really interesting turn came.  The lead eventually got to 7-0 and there was a clear focus from the kid on getting the bagel.  He definitely knew it was possible and wanted it.  Our #1 knew it too but for the last few points had worked the kid all over the court and even though he had lost the rallies it was clear who was doing way more work.  At 7-0 a very hard and low unexpected boast ended the run and the hopes of the bagel to bring the score to 7-1.  That 1 point was huge of course but the work that our #1 made the kid do was even more important.  The game completely turned around and the score kept getting closer.  The change in the match was not only physical it was also mental.  There seemed to be a definite focus on getting the bagel and when that was lost there was a mental let down as well. The game eventually got to 10-9 for the junior.  Remarkably close considering the score had been 7-1. The kid did manage to close the game out and thus the match but it definitely looked in question.

It was a very entertaining match to watch.  The 4th game was definitely an incredible affair with a couple of lessons to be learned.  If you are the player that is struggling to win even a point against a tough opponent don’t give up hope.  Mental toughness is imperative.  If you are in the rallies and really making him work focus on that.  Don’t let the negative aspect of the score deter you.  See the positive in how you are extending your opponent and realize the work you are making him do will pay dividends later.  Look for a let down in focus. If you are the player way out in front remember the goal is to win the match not bagel your opponent.  Certainly you do not want to give up any cheap points but keep focused on the match and its outcome not on winning a personal battle, getting the bagel, and in the process risk losing the war.

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The Fascinating Game of Squash

Few activities (healthy ones, at least) are as captivating as squash. People who have never seen it played in their lives suddenly become fascinated by the sport and play every day. It has endless new challenges and skills to master, and there is always someone better than you. In this post, I am going to detail some of the reasons I personally find squash such an amazing game. Ultimately, I think these observations can help simplify the game and make you a better player.

Perhaps the coolest thing about squash is its approximate, indefinite nature. Even the best players in the world rarely play perfect shots or points. This is why there are so many different successful styles and approaches. There is no single way to win at squash. Unlike “closed skill” sports such as swimming and running, where the same task is executed ad nauseum, there are literally thousands of decisions and actions being made every second that determine the outcome of a point. Closed skill sports tend to follow a simple equation: talent + hard work = success. However, “open skill” games like squash have no guaranteed formula for success. There are infinite combinations of movements and angles that can’t all be mastered. We all know someone who is annoyingly talented and hits the ball straight and clean despite playing once a week. Likewise, there are players who train excessively hard for minimal gains. Talented players seem to have an innate understanding of the angles and how to put the ball in the most difficult place. Without athleticism and coordination superior to their opponent, they manage to make people run laps just to stay in the rally! Jonathon Power is a classic example of a player who understands the game. I think this is why he can still challenge the best in the world despite being retired for six years and not training.

Another cool facet of the game is the psychology of winning. Mental toughness and determination are big reasons why less talented people often end up beating the naturals mentioned above. I can’t count the number of times I have seen a seemingly inferior player frustrate their opponent by running down every ball and forcing error upon error. Eventually, the talented player runs out of ideas and folds.

Both of these approaches are completely valid strategies for winning at squash. As the saying goes, people ask “How Many, not How”. How you win matches isn’t what counts when the dust has settled…how many matches you won does. So don’t obsess yourself with learning a certain style or playing perfect squash. In fact, the term perfect squash is really an oxymoron. Find a style you are comfortable with, and play each match on your own terms. Having a clear plan and sticking to your strengths is one thing I always do when I am playing well. Part of the beauty of the game is the ability to express yourself through your playing style. It is always surprising how much easier it all seems when you rid yourself of preconceived ideas about how it should be played, and do what feels natural.

 

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How the Pros Train

Some of the most frequent questions people ask about life as a squash player (other than “How much money do you make?”) have to do with day-to-day training routines. After all, the main reason top pros are so good is the years of dedicated, methodical training they have done.  Most squash fans know that the average pro is doing two or three sessions a day five days a week, so without discussing the obvious I will try to give some insight into what myself and my training partners do in a given week.

Since the National Squash Academy opened last year, training for players based in Toronto has become centralized. Obviously this is a big step forward for Canadian squash. Any day of the week, you can find 6-10 of the best players in Canada and the odd international guest on court at the NSA. There are two sessions per day most days. One of them is either match play (three times a week) or drills involving lots of movement and options. The other one is usually a “closed” session, with the purpose of improving technique, accuracy and consistency. The more intense sessions are a great time to implement new skills being perfected in the closed sessions. Total time on court each day is usually around four hours, and there is always work to be done in the gym afterwards. Due to each player having different tournament schedules, it is rare to have everyone on the exact same program for a day. The core values of each session remain the same, and it is up to the players to tailor their training around tournaments as they see fit. This is a whole science of its own and often takes years to master.

Training full-time is a huge mental battle and there are ups and downs within each month, week and day. On the one hand, you have to put 100% effort mentally and physically into every session in order to see results. On the other, showing up to the courts every morning with weary legs and doing boast-drive for the thousandth time can leave anyone struggling for motivation. In my few months of being dedicate full-time I have started to understand two major points: 1) you absolutely cannot get caught-up in micro-frustrations. On a given day you might be a bit tired, a bit slow, or a bit inaccurate. This obviously happens to everyone, but letting bad days undermine your confidence and limit your enjoyment will only turn squash into a chore rather than a passion. 2) you can’t train with an insane intensity every day without burning out at some point. It can be tempting to exhaust yourself to satisfaction on a Monday or Tuesday, but the rest of the week will be compromised. Five days at 85% are better than one day all out. I’m always looking to derive new lessons from my training experiences. Hopefully they will pay off some day!

 

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Control the ‘T’ Sports is pleased to introduce Mike McCue

We are very excited to announce that Mike McCue, an up and coming PSA Tour player will be blogging for Control the ‘T’ Sports.  Mike has been playing squash since the age of 10 and is currently 18-years old.  He finished his junior career as the #2 ranked player in Canada.  His current ranking on the PSA Tour is #234.  Mike trains under Jamie Hickox and Jamie Nichols at the National Squash Academy in Toronto.

Mike’s posts will focus on squash from the perspective of someone that is turning professional and trying to make it on the PSA Tour.  You can expect posts from Mike focusing on his training, training tips for other players, life as an up and comer on the PSA Tour, coverage of tournaments he plays in and other topics related to squash.  We hope you enjoy his posts!

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