I had a chance to discuss racquet preparation with the pro at my squash club today and we went over some things that I knew but were definitely good to have reinforced. Early racquet preparation has some real benefits. It gives you more options as to what shot to hit. It also improves deception making it harder for your opponent to figure out what shot you are playing. Another benefit is it allows you to adjust quicker to a ball that takes an unexpected bounce.
Having learned the sport in a relatively “rural” squash area, and now living in the biggest hotbed for junior squash in Canada, the topic of junior development is very interesting to me. I often think about the best ways to groom young players into stars, and try to figure out what key elements make or break a junior’s development. Hopefully there are some juniors or parents of juniors reading this!
My favourite shot in squash is a high soft cross court lob that catches the side wall and then dies in the opponents back hand corner. I prefer this over a flat nick in the front court, over a clinging drop and over a dying hard straight length. I find it extremely satisfying to win a point this way. I also like this shot because as long as it is hit relatively well I get time to get back to the ‘T’ and get in position to attack my opponents next shot. It is said that golf is a sport of misses and you need to minimize the trouble you get yourself in to and I believe this is true of squash as well.
I recently read a book entitled “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin. Clearly this is an attention-grabbing headline, and flies in the face of many people’s beliefs about world-class performers in all fields. The notion of the book is that natural talent/gifts don’t necessarily exist. Rather, greatness is a product of many factors conspiring to provide an opportunity for someone who is willing to dedicate almost their whole life to this task. The book goes to great lengths to dispel the myth that greats such as Mozart and Tiger Woods were simply gifted in music and golf respectively. The author explains that to become world-class, a person needs to complete a minimum of 10 000 hours of deliberate practice at their chosen activity (more on this number later). Even “child prodigies” like the two mentioned above had put in far more than 10 000 hours of study and practice before the age of 16; they weren’t simply better than the rest by nature.
I have definitely talked about mental confidence before but wanted to discuss from a little different perspective this time. I am sure we have all played against someone that is young, new to the game and really fit and can seemingly chase down any ball. Even when they can’t quite get it they often exclaim how close they were to getting the ball. They run all over the court and have a smile on their face while doing it. They look like they are actually having fun chasing the ball around the court. Why do they look this way? The obvious answer is more often than not the right one. They are having fun!
Mental confidence is critical in a squash match. Confidence can be fickle. It can come and go if you let it. What do you do if you are losing confidence?
The most important thing I believe to start is to be aware of your loss of confidence and the negativity that is associated with it. There will be days that you are not hitting the ball as well as you expect. That can definitely lead to a loss of confidence. Be aware of it and take mental action once you start to feel negative about your squash game. What mental action should you take though? There are a number of options and some will work better for some than others.
Focusing on something positive is one method that can often work. Thinking of a match or even a good practice session where you were hitting the ball really purely can help regain confidence. Think about what you were doing right at that time and have that positive memory replace the negative one can help a great deal.
Another method that I have seen work for people is having something in particular to focus on. The two yellow dots on the squash ball can work. A logo on your racquet can work as well. It doesn’t even have to be something physical it can be just a thought. Between each point stop and focus for a few seconds on your object or thought. It can really help keep you calm focused and also help to get rid of negative thoughts.
One of my favourite ways to try and keep mental focus positive is to not focus on what has already transpired in the match it is to focus on what is coming next. Focus on making your next shot be the best it can possibly be. It doesn’t matter if you are in a defensive position or an offensive position focus on hitting the shot you are about to play and make it the best you can. Once you have hit it, that shot is done and you have to focus on preparing for next shot and make that one the best it can be.
What do you find works helping maintain a positive mental outlook during a match? We would love your comments!
Now into the tenth month of the year, squash season is once again upon us. Leagues are starting up again and ever-present weekend tournaments have begun to dot the calendar. In this post, I thought it would be relevant to discuss some training methods commonly used by pros but often avoided by club players (due to boredom, time constraints, or difficulty). I will cover some on court methods as well as some ideas for off court training to improve your physical side.
Many keen club players know that drills are just as important as match play with regards to maintaining and improving your level. However, many players immerse themselves in mindless one shot drills where there are no decisions or critical thinking required. The foremost example of this would be the dreaded boast-drive pattern. While it may be an alright exercise to warm up for a few minutes, it is full of unrealistic situations. Nearly everything that happens in boast drive will never happen in a game. Other examples of these drills are drop-drive and straight length hitting. They are good for working on your swing and targets, but won’t improve tactical savvy. Instead, try some condition games. Even with another player of the same level, limit yourself to only hitting length, only hitting straight, or only hitting above the service line. Play a game to 11, then switch roles with your partner and take the aggregate score. These games force you out of your comfort zone, put you under immense pressure, and require total concentration. Jonathon Power was known to play straight-only against other top players of the time…and win! In short, do drills that require fast thinking and keep away from “going through the motions”. Re-create game situations and put yourself in unfamiliar positions.
As for fitness, there are many methods and exercises that can get you “squash fit”. Lately, I have become a fan of the classic 400m run. Find any regulation track. Run a full lap. Rest. Repeat. The 400 is regarded as the ultimate squash workout; not quite a sprint, not quite long distance. After just one lap, your legs and lungs will be in some pain. I believe the average person would take somewhere between 110-130 seconds for one lap. Rest time should generally be equal to run time. Our training group has been doing 10-12 sets in about 80 seconds with 70 seconds rest. It is an extremely difficult workout but remarkably practical for squash. You will feel substantially fitter after three sessions, and be able to hang in longer with better players. Get out to your local track and give it a try before winter comes!
Another concept recently brought to my attention is playing other sports to benefit your squash. It has been proven that playing multiple sports as a child makes you more athletically skilled as an adult, and I believe the different skills and muscle groups used in other sports like badminton or basketball can only improve your game on the old 32×21 foot box.
The National Squash Academy Open was held last week and it would be my first tournament in nearly two months. I had put in a good, consistent summer of training and was very anxious to finally get on court and see what improvements had been made. It was a nice change to be feeling 100% physically and take some rest days before the match, as summer training is very high volume and taxing on the body; you’re never quite fully recovered from your last session before you start a new one.
I was drawn against Tyler Hamilton, a fellow Canadian and opponent I’ve trained/played with often. I had never beaten him in a competitive match and had been thinking about the impending showdown every day since the draw came out a month before the event. I wanted to perform well at my home club, but more importantly wanted to prove to myself that I am indeed improving. I was extremely nervous the entire 24 hours before the match, which is a rare feeling for me. A poor performance would mean another first-round loss and a (seemingly) wasted summer of training. I tried to cope by visualizing well-played rallies and key points. Thankfully, I was able to positively translate this nervous energy. I forced a very high pace and got to a few more balls than I might normally reach. Tyler was off his game on the day, and these factors combined to a 3-0 win in under 25 minutes. I had a massive sense of relief and validation at achieving my goal.
In the quarterfinals I played Colin West, who ultimately finished second in the event. I continued in the same vein as the previous match, trying to keep the ball relatively tight and playing defense as needed. I was able to steal the first game, but Colin maintained a standard of play I could not match for long. Eventually I lost 3-1 in an hour, but again was pleased with my efforts.
As I thought about the tournament afterwards, I concluded that one of the keys to my win over Tyler was desperation; I brought a life-or-death attitude to the match, because I would not have been able to deal with the consequences of losing in my own mind. Leaving myself with no other options, I was able to perform at my best almost out of necessity. This desperation has been a common theme in many of my good performances in PSA matches, and I am going to try and reach that high level of intensity before all matches from now on.
This post will be a two-themed piece; I will briefly touch on the Olympics, and then get into a squash specific discussion.
The Olympic Games are currently in full swing in London and as always, squash is conspicuously absent. The pinnacle of world sport is happening while the world’s best squashers are toiling away on the back courts of the world in the midst of summer training. The absence of our game from the Olympics is still an elephant in the room whenever the topic of pro squash comes up in discussions with the average sports fan. Everyone knows it is a serious injustice to the sport; no need to reiterate the usual arguments. Furthermore, this Olympics has seen several controversies with regards to athletes giving their full effort and over-involved referees. This would never happen in squash.
Now onto some actual squash talk. Every player has come across a frustrating opponent who is not far better in overall level, but seems impossible to beat or even put under pressure. It feels like this play can read and control play, never get tired and win rallies at will. They seem invincible, only to be convincingly beaten in the next round by a higher class player. Suddenly your foil seems mediocre and has no answers. What is the cause of this distinct difference in standard? The answer is usually “basic game”. Slightly better length, fewer errors, more consistency and smoother movement. The player who is better in those four areas will feel comfortable with the pace and have confidence to win big points near the end of games. This should be encouraging, because it means that you probably don’t have to reinvent your game or hit shots like Ramy to take down your nemesis! If you watch any pro match, one player will usually look slightly more efficient and comfortable from the outset. Even if their opponent hits some explosive winners or has a few hot streaks, the calmer player will almost always win the match.
In summary, you can never spend too much time working on basics. The final 5% on each shot makes the difference between perfect width and clipping the sidewall, for example. Something that simple can make the difference between being in control and getting run ragged around the court.
I have been in the unfortunate situation of dealing with some physical limitations recently that have caused me not to be able to play as often as I like and when I do play it has been at a much slower pace. I have a swollen foot which some days is worse than others. When it is bad I can barely play, most days I can tolerate the pain enough to play although I am not as mobile as I would normally be.
When this first started I found it very disheartening. I was not able to play the game I normally play and was finding myself not being competitive against people that I should be and was very frustrated by that. I came to a few conclusions from this though. The first being that I would have to accept that my movement was compromised and not worry about the results so much. The second was that I was going to have to finish points faster than I normally would. The third was that I needed more time to recover back to the ‘T’ than I normally would.
The first conclusion was a tough one to swallow. I am a competitive person and not being able to play at my normal level was really frustrating. When I am playing my best squash I am pretty quick on court and am on the ball quickly giving myself options. I am getting balls back that my opponent does not think I will and forcing them to try and hit better and better shots often causing them to increase their error count. I very simply had to accept that while I could force myself to do this sometimes and deal with the pain it caused I could not do it all the time.
The second conclusion took some revision to get right. I am not a shooter by nature in squash and I went overboard on this approach of trying to end points early. I was not working the point at all I was immediately trying to hit winners and take the ball short. This worked a little bit against weaker players but definitely not against better players. They were reading my shots and I had not worked them out of position before attacking short. I adjusted and tried to establish a good length game and tried to wait for better opportunities to take the ball short. This has proven to be more effective.
The third conclusion was for me to slow the game down. I was finding movement after the shot the hardest. I was not recovering back to the ‘T’ quickly and was often out of position. In particular I was very susceptible to being taken short. Using more height and a slower pace to my shots in to the back court has definitely helped. It gives me more time to recover to the ‘T’ and get in position to cover the whole court.
While nobody enjoys being injured I am now working on staying positive about this. While my movement is not nearly what I would like it to be currently it will improve. What I will take from this is a better attacking game as I have been working very hard at trying to work my opponent out of position and then taking the ball short. I have also definitely improved my high and soft ball to the back of the court. While my squash game is not what I would really like now it will be better in the future.