What’s On Your Mind?

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The title of this post isn’t an open invitation to vent your frustrations of the day, rather an important question about your thought process on court. This is an exercise in metacognition; thinking about your thinking.

I’ve discussed the concepts of deliberate practice and “10000 hours” in earlier posts, and those themes tie in well here. To review, several sports science/psychology studies have shown that it takes a minimum of 10000 hours of deliberate practice to truly master a sport (for reference, I am at about 8000 hours…and nowhere near a master). This means focused, tedious, often unenjoyable repetitions for years on end. The result of all these repetitions however, is a knowledge of the game so intimate that every possible situation and angle has been accounted for and indexed by your brain and body, such that execution becomes thoughtless. For an analogy most people relate to, consider driving a car. After a few years of driving, we know when and how hard to press the gas and brake, when and how to turn the steering wheel, etc. We aren’t thinking about these tasks while we change lanes and navigate gridlock.

Now let’s apply these ideas to squash. The simplest concept that almost all squash players of a decent standard have memorized is getting back to the T after every shot. This quickly becomes an unconscious reaction because it has to be executed every single time you hit the ball. As we progress through the levels, we must have more and more skills committed to memory; wrist up, racquet up, moving onto and away from the ball, spacing in the corners, etc. These skills become more complex and dynamic, requiring more practice to master. There are thousands to master, and most good pros never even achieve a complete skill set. (As an aside, this makes the total mastery achieved by those few legends of squash all the more incredible.)

Unfortunately, for those people not afforded the luxury of a lifetime of practice, there is a ceiling on how many of these skills can be mastered. Everyone should absolutely work on improving skills in practice, but playing time is at a premium. This is where it becomes important to evaluate what you are thinking about while playing competitive matches. In my opinion, matches are a time to execute the skills you have, not try new ones. Matches are also a bad time to be thinking about changing your swing or movement patterns. This only serves to use up precious brain capacity, and because you don’t have these new skills mastered, there is a much higher chance for error. Instead, I suggest focusing on the following during a match:

  • Tactics– you should always be adjusting your tactics based on your opponent, court conditions, and the stage of the match
  • Positive thinking– always think about the present and immediate future of a match. Do not dwell on what has already happened (good or bad) and don’t get let your mind wander to the finish line (whether winning or losing).
  • Playing to your strengths– rely on your most trusted skills and shots. If a specific shot has been working, keep using it. Considering using cue words to remind yourself of your strengths.
  • Body language– present a stoic face to your opponent. Always stand tall, breathe deeply and move immediately the service box after each point. Don’t give your opponent any hints that you may be struggling mentally or physically.

These four tips are in contrast to things players frequently think about during matches. Trying to change your backhand, or forcing yourself to hit a drop from an uncomfortable position will only hinder your performance, even if it is the “right” thing to do. A 40-minute match is too short and too stressful an environment to actually improve skills. You should be focusing on things you can trust yourself to do consistently and feel comfortable with. We are all trying to improve, but the main purpose of match play is to win. We can work on our shortcomings the next day in practice.

In summary, I believe that when you step on court for a match, you should accept the skills you have and the skills you don’t have, and make the most of your skills. Even with several weaknesses, you can get the most out of your current skillset by implementing the four tips listed above. Happy squashing!

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5 thoughts on “What’s On Your Mind?

  1. I totally agree. Unfortunately this post came too late for me, I did not capitalise on my opponent’s lack of mobility and lost in the semis. Looking back at the video, I had mobility on my side and he had better strokes. Instead of focusing on my strengths, I gave him too much respect and started doing really stupid things. All the basics started disappearing from my game and it just fell apart from the second game. Needless to say, I lost in three very quick games. This is truly a great post.

    • Henry,

      I have had that happen to me as well in a match and looking back at the match I was pretty frustrated with my approach. Mike really is dead on with this post. It makes so much sense to play to your strengths in a match.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Jeff

  2. I have been there, done that, and got the game/match losses to prove it, so I can appreciate both Jeff and Henry’s posts. Sounds silly, but before each match I write two elements of the game I want to be mindful of on my wrist, and generally, they are two elements that I know I have a tendency to let slip if I don’t remain vigilant. For example, in my match today I wrote “watch” and “stroke”. These serve as reminders to myself that as the game progresses, these are two (of many) issues I have to stay on top of, that is, “watch” the ball as my opponent prepares for his/her return and “stroke”, so as not to lose all form and technique as I strike the ball. I believe it helps, but doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll win, but at least I’m not being defeated for lack of thinking about them.

    I only focus on two items, not four, but that may be due more to old age and a feeble brain than anything else!

    Cheers ………….. Keith

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