Tag Archives: mental toughness

Winning in Tough Conditions

Learning how to play in unfavourable/imperfect conditions has been one of the most important lessons in my short career. Playing different types of tournaments in different types of clubs in different types of cities and countries provides invaluable experience in the art of adapting to your surroundings and making the best of the situation.  Very, very rarely have I felt perfectly prepared for a match. There are usually a few variables that I fail to or cannot control, even before matches I have been thinking about for months beforehand. There is always some sort of inconvenience or other circumstance that prevents ideal preparation. Part of being a good player though means doing your best to minimize the variables that you can control.

One of the most common experiences I’ve had is playing on unusual courts. Courts that were over 35°C, slippery as ice, had pieces missing, tins too high, etc. This has always bothered me, and instead of playing to the conditions, I’ve historically let these idiosyncrasies bother me. Lately though, I’ve been learning to accept the conditions and use them to my advantage. Ultimately, both players are on the same court. If the ball takes a weird bounce in the back left corner, keep hitting it there! Whining about the shadows or missing floorboard will only distract you and create excuses for a loss.

Another common scenario is not having the ideal equipment on hand (string, grip, shoes, etc).  For a variety of reasons- especially on extended tours- equipment fails or breaks and cannot be replaced before the next match. Again, this may make a minor difference to your play…but it will not be as detrimental as worrying that your grip or strings will make the difference between winning and losing. Forget about it, do your best with the tools you have, and sort out the situation afterwards. I always find it strange when people blame a loss squarely on their racquet- without considering the tinned reverse boast they tried ten times!

There are many other possible glitches that can come up before or during a match. Not eating properly, not giving yourself time to warm up, stress from work and the like. The list is indeed much longer for amateurs who don’t have all day to prepare for matches! But the moral of this story is to forget about what you can’t control (a bad grip, a bad ref, extreme temperatures), analyze the factors directly affecting the match (court conditions) and decide how to use them to your advantage. You’ll almost never play a match where everything falls into place, but you can still turn these perceived annoyances in your favour.

 

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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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