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.
In the last post we talked about deception. In particular using a hold to add deception to your shot selection. Another very important method to keep your opponent guessing and off balance is varying your pace of play. Varying your pace of play can be an effective method to keep or change momentum in a match when needed. Changing the pace of your shots is also effective at keeping your opponent guessing. Squash is a very physical game as any squash player can attest to but it is also very mental. Varying your pace of play is a good strategical method to help control a match.
When should we play at a fast pace or at a slow pace? One of the best times to vary the pace of play is when you need to change momentum in a game. If your opponent is pressing hard and has gained the momentum trying to slow down the pace of play can often help. You can do this playing slower paced length shots using height to get the ball past your opponent. Lobs will work very well in this situation too.
In squash as your level increases and you are playing better players it becomes more and more difficult to hit outright winners. Points need to be constructed to be won. You very often have to hit a series of shots to get your opponent out of position before you can hit a winner.
As it is so difficult to hit winners you definitely need to take advantage of the opportunities that your opponent gives you. When your opponent has hit a ball that you can attack in the mid or front court giving yourself options is key. Not showing your opponent the shot you are going to hit is even more important. Holding your shot is a very effective way of doing this.
What is holding yout shot? It is being in position to hit the ball early but waiting to play your shot. Why do we hold our shot? To force our opponent to wait and hopefully catch them flat-footed or better yet get them to guess. If we catch them flat-footed and have hit a quality shot they will most likely be late to the ball and will hopefully give us something that we can attack again and keep them on the defensive and working hard. If they guess and pick a direction before we have played our shot we get to hit the ball the opposite way they are going and have a real opportunity to win the point outright. At the very least they are going to have work very hard to get to the ball.
Deception in squash is key and one of the best ways to fool your opponent is make all your shots look as similar as possible. Learning to really hold your shot will definitely add to your deception and make it harder for your opponents to read the shot you intend to play.
One of the biggest differences between low to mid level players and higher level players is how fast they recover to the ‘T’ after playing their shot. One the most noticeable areas I see this on court is at the front corners.
It is extremely common to see a player rush up to get a boast or drop that their opponent has played to one of the front corners, hit a drop and then get stuck in the front corner. If their opponent gets to the ball earlier enough they can often end the point with a cross court drive as they have not been able to get back to ‘T’ to take that shot away.
This is just a quick tip that I received while taking a lesson a few years ago. I was working with a much more advanced player than myself and was having problems getting drives on the backhand side past him and found myself stuck in a losing pattern. The objective of the drill was simple, hit a good enough shot to get the ball past him so that I could take the ‘T’ position away from him and then try to keep him behind me by taking the ball on the volley. I was trying to play a hard drive down the wall all of the time and I was not able to keep it tight enough to force him to let it pass. I found myself stuck in the back court and not succeeding at all with the drill. He stopped the drill and asked me what I was trying to do. I said that I was trying to drive the ball hard down the wall past him. His reponse was simple. It is not working. You need to try something different. You are not getting the ball past me with pace so why not use height to get the ball past me. Hit it high enough that I can’t volley it and will have to let it pass me.
While the example above is about trying to pass your opponent on a rail shot on the backhand side it applies to all parts of the game. If you find yourself stuck in a pattern that is not working you need to change it!
I am watching a replay of the PSA World Open 2010 final between James Willstrop and Nick Matthew on PSA Squash TV and impressed with Nick Matthew’s position on the ‘T’. He is playing such a high ‘T’ position and putting so much pressure on James. Willstrop won the first game with some absolutely astounding accurancy but had to work so hard to do it. The second game was close to about 5 but after that Nick opened up a huge lead mostly because of the work James has had to do to that point.
The high ‘T’ position really allows Nick to attack short when he chooses, especially on his forehand side. The width that James has to get on a crosscourt drive to prevent Nick from volleying it is unbelievable. He is having to nearly catch the side wall at the centre of the court to get it behind Nick. Even when he does attain that width Nick only has to take a couple of steps back because of the angle and still play it without really having to give up too much ground.
Nick is also using a great hold on his drives while being so high on the ‘T’. This is forcing James to have to recover so quickly to the centre of the court, because he has to respect the drop before being sent to the backcourt to retrieve Nick’s drive.
Nick’s use of the high ‘T’ position really put so much time presure on James Willstrop that it really broke him down by mid match. James did have a much harder time getting through to the final than Nick did which definitely contributed to the fatigue but Nick’s play truly exposed it. A brilliant display of good tactical squash. Definitely shows that value of recovery to the ‘T’ quickly to dictate play.
Today I would like to discuss the hurry up drop shot. It is an extremely effective shot as it puts your opponent under time pressure. It is best used when your opponent has been forced to boast out of the back corner and has invited you to the front. Take the boast as early as you can and play a nice safe soft drop shot. The focus of this shot is to hit it very early, soft and to keep it tight to the side wall when it bounces. Do not worry about it being very low and tight to the tin focus more on hitting and early and keeping it tight to the wall. We are not trying to win with this shot we are making our opponent work really hard to get to the ball. Hopefully they will be late and hit something weak cross court so we can send back to the back corner and get them running the diagonal. The hurry up drop shot like many other shots is designed to put mileage on our opponent. Use it to make them run and watch the court open up later in the match when their legs are not as fresh as they were at the beginning of the match.
What are the strengths in your squash game? It is very important to know what you do well. Playing to your strength is a very good place to start when you are playing a player you are not familiar with. It is also important to know what patterns and type of shots work well for you on the court. In addition it is to good fall back to your strengths if you are struggling in a game.
When you start a match against someone you have played many times you can go in with a strategy to attack that players weakness. What do you do if you have never played your opponent? Play to your strength. It makes sense to know what you do well to start off with. As the game develops you will see if you are able to force your opponent to play in to your strength and if he has the game to deal with it. If he can’t then stick to it. If he is handling it well you need to try and establish what in his game is his weakness and try to exploit it. To start though it makes sense to play to your strengths.
What works well for you on the court. Are you good at getting your opponent on the diagonal? Getting them buried in the back, forcing a weak boast out and the playing a hurry up drop to the front? Are you good at getting an opponent trapped behind you playing length on the backhand side and then busting them short when they get too lazy to get back to the ‘T’? What ever types of shots and patterns you are good at you should look for opportunities to play them and dictate play.
If you are struggling in a match playing to your strength is a good way to try and get out of a negative situation. It gives you something to focus on. When you are not playing well and struggling mentally trying to refocus your game on your strengths is a good way to break that negativity.
Overall it is very important to know what you do well on the squash court. It gives you a place to start when playing an unknown opponent, patterns to look for on the court and way out of negative situations. Enjoy your squash and know your strengths!
Squash is a game played in close quarters. You are constantly jockeying for position with your opponent. It is important to remember that you have the right to play the ball where you want. There are two reasons that this is beneficial. The first that you get properly set for your shot and the second that we can force our opponent out of position.
In September of 2009 I changed squash clubs due to a move and since then I have made some serious changes to my game too. I had a chance to play one of my friends at my old club the other day and there was a startling difference in both of our styles of play. We both had pretty predictable styles of play before, very different in that I almost always played long and he always tried to go short.