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!
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!
I have been following Squashskills.com since its inception. I like their Facebook page, follow them on Twitter and am now a subscriber to their website. When they first started up I enjoyed watching their initial videos. I was very excited when Peter Nicol signed on. Where else on the web could you get tips from one of the top professional squash players of all time? I envisioned the site growing in to one of the top squash resource sites on the Internet. Now that they have launched their subscription based site I believe they have achieved that.
I thought about purchasing the subscription a bit before I actually paid for it. I created an account on the site so I could view the free videos. Some I had seen before some were new. The quality was certainly better than most squash videos on the Internet so that was definitely a positive. I went through the different sections of the site and liked what I saw. In particular I read “The Story of Squashskills” and am really impressed with their vision for the site. I also liked that at launch they were focusing on a particular topic for one week and progressing through the various aspects of the game. The video library is structured that way as well. You can randomly just browse the videos or you can select a particular area of interest whether that is videos from Peter Nicol or videos on the forehand. I really like that feature, being able to find videos on the topic that I want to watch easily by just clicking on the topic and being presented a set of videos that match.
I liked what I saw so I decided to go ahead and purchase. I have gone through the new videos on the forehand and backhand to start with. I am very impressed with them. The videos are very high quality. What I like the most about them though is listening to Jethro, Lee or Peter discuss the topic of the video and why they are teaching that particular shot or skill. The videos themselves are well laid out. The coach discussed the skill they are focusing on and particular aspects of it. They then demonstrate the skill and you typically get to see it from different angles and speeds. I find it particularly helpful to see the shot in slow motion with the coach describing what is happening throughout the swing.
I am excited about the V1 section of the site as well. I have not used it yet but having the option of creating a video using the V1 app for the iPad and sending that to Peter Nicol or Jethro Binns for analysis is pretty exciting. Technology is a wonderful thing and having it allow us access to world class coaches from afar is tremendous. The V1 software gives Jethro or Peter the ability to slow down your swing, see the good and bad parts of it and recommend improvements. This will be of real value to many players I am certain.
Squashskills.com has now officially launched and is live and I am happy that I have subscribed. I think it will prove to be valuable to all levels of players. Do yourself a favour and register for an account, review what the site has to offer and if you like what you see, like I did, subscribe for full access.
One of the more frustrating elements of training full time for me has been the slow rate of improvement. It would seem logical to think that doubling the amount of time you train (which is essentially what happens when you go from juniors to pro) will double your rate of improvement. Andre Agassi touched on this in his autobiography; his father had him hit one million balls a year, thinking that any 10 year-old who hits a million balls would be unbeatable. I think there is some merit to this theory, but overall increased volume does not equate to faster improvement. For a while I fell into this trap, thinking that I would naturally improve just by playing more squash. I quickly realized though that drilling and playing unconsciously does nothing to help you improve and can even be detrimental to your game. You have to be constantly aware of what is happening on court, what you are doing and why you are doing it. If you are trying to change something, be aware of it and make a conscious effort to improve it.
I have four or five bad habits (technical and tactical) that have stuck with me over the years. Too long and boring to explain, but they have stayed firmly in place even as I have improved all the other areas of my game. I am getting to the point where these deficiencies are the main things preventing me from getting to the next level. Many years of mindlessly hitting and practicing have firmly ingrained these habits and they are now very hard to break. All those drill sessions and practice matches where I was not entirely focused on improving have led to this negative side effect. No matter how fit I am, how tight my length is, etc., I will be limited by these habits until I start leaving my comfort zone often enough to develop new skills.
There are a few main points to take from this. Most importantly: quality over quantity. Hitting 30 straight drives with complete focus and awareness is better than hitting 300 with a wandering mind. Famed coach Mike Way often says “Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent.” The second point is to be aware of your weaknesses and make a conscious effort to improve them in your matches. It will be difficult and frustrating initially, but you have to do the right things poorly before you can do them well. If you feel like you have stagnated for a period of time, force yourself to strengthen a weak aspect of your game. Take an active role in your own improvement instead of hoping to get better at the same things; it’s much more rewarding.
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.
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.
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!
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!