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.