I think nearly every squash player knows just how important the mental aspect of the game is.
We've all had close matches and tough losses that have tried and tested our patience, focus, and confidence, however, some players are a lot better at dealing with these mental aspects in comparison to others.
The mental side of the game can (and very often does) mean the difference between winning and losing points, games, and matches too.
How often do you see someone's head drop after losing a tough rally or getting a bad decision, and then they lose the next few points?
It's very common!
With these things in mind, surely we should all be doing more to improve our mental toughness as part of our squash training, however, it seems to usually only be the pros who actually work on this side of their game.
So, in this article, I'm going to go through five things you can do to start to improve your own mental toughness. One of the main reasons I'm focusing on this topic is that I too am guilty of not working on the mental side of my game, so, writing this might encourage me to make a start...
Now, these five tips aren't necessarily just all training exercises or tactical suggestions, in fact, not all of them involve being on court at all.
The aim of this is to give you the chance to work on your mental toughness off the court too in your spare time.
After all, the mental side of a squash match begins long before you step on court!
However, it's also important to put your mental improvements into practice on the squash court too, so I've tried to feature an even mix of on and off court tips...
1. Play Players Better Than You Whenever You Get The Chance
Whether it's a friendly or a tournament, any opportunity to play someone better than you is an opportunity to improve your squash.
Of course, if they are a better player than you, it is more likely that you will lose the match, which is a good thing in and of itself.
If you are able to see your losses and setbacks as a learning opportunity rather than an example of your own shortcomings, it can be a superpower.
I know it's cliche, but that's just because it's repeated so often due to the truth of the statement. I'm not saying that it's easy either, losing isn't fun for anybody, but, there will be a reason that you lost which uncovers shortcomings and weaknesses in your own game.
If you can improve and work on that particular element of your game for next time, you increase your likelihood of a win.
While it might be tempting to stick to matches where you feel evenly matched or even dominant, it's when you step outside your comfort zone that you grow as a player.
Of course, playing someone worse than yourself is good for working on more technical elements of your game such as new techniques, shots, or target practice, but, it won't do much for your mental toughness, which is what we're focusing on now!
Anyway, it takes a strong mind to put your best performance into a match that you may be likely to lose. If your opponent has a far lead in points, it can be easy to drop your head and just let them run away with it.
But, someone who is more mentally tough wouldn't give up this easily and would also want to get everything they can out of that match.
Unless you're playing a pro, chances are, you won't lose 11-0, 11-0, 11-0, so, whenever you win a point, try to think about how you won that point and try to replicate it next time.
Playing against superior opponents also helps you develop adaptability and strategic thinking. From 0-0, you need to be using your brain as much as you can.
You'll need to adjust your game plan, anticipate their strategies, and find creative solutions as you go. These skills not only improve your gameplay but also strengthen your mental fortitude.
2. Set Achievable Goals
Goal setting is a fundamental aspect of improving your mental toughness on the squash court. Achievable goals provide direction, motivation, and a clear sense of purpose in your training and matches.
However, the key word here is 'achievable'.
Setting achievable goals is vital in preventing frustration and negativity, and, maintaining mental resilience and building positivity.
When setting squash goals, it's essential to strike a balance between challenge and attainability.
If your goal is too difficult, you will of course struggle to achieve it a lot more which could actually negatively impact your mindset in the long run and discourage you.
However, if it's too easy, you won't get that sense of achievement we all get from accomplishing something different.
It's important that your goal (or goals) are specific so you can be certain that you have achieved them.
There are some obvious goals, for example, beating a player who you've never beaten before, which is a great option!
However, that doesn't necessarily suit everyone, so I thought I'd include a few other less obvious examples of goals that could give you some inspiration (and help you enhance your mental toughness while improving your game).
Reduce unforced errors - This goal can be measured during a competitive match, a friendly match, or even in training, essentially just by counting how many errors you make.
Of course, this is a little harder during competitive matches as you will need to concentrate on the match at hand, so, perhaps in training or friendly matches, just try to take a mental tally of the number of unforced errors that you make.
Based on that, you can set targets with the aim of reducing the number of unforced errors that you make (this number will also be specific to you).
Hitting your targets - This is one for training sessions (or friendly matches too). Put some targets down on the court depending on the area of your game that you want to improve and then aim for them.
If you want to improve your length game, for example, stick your targets down and then, if you're training solo, hit lengths back to yourself and count how many times you hit your target during a certain time period or within a certain number of shots.
If you're playing friendly matches, put those targets down and just see how many times you hit them during the match.
If you can do this regularly, you can track your progress and set your attainable targets!
Against specific players:
Measure points (or games) - Points and games are incredibly easy to measure which makes them great for setting targets.
If you're playing someone better than you, give yourself a target for perhaps getting one game off them, or, if they're quite a lot better than you, try to get 6 points per game, for example.
This gives you something clear and visible to aim for and can help you stay mentally invested in the match even if you're losing. If you're down 10-5, you're still only one point off your target, so you should still be putting maximum effort into that point.
If you're playing someone who is perhaps not as good as you (but it's still close), you could try to not let them get a certain amount of points, or, set yourself a goal of winning by a certain margin, or, not let them get a game.
Of course, if you're playing someone who is nowhere near your level, then you shouldn't try to beat them 11-0, 11-0, 11-0, because that's just mean.
This goal works best with players you're a little better than, but, a win isn't completely guaranteed.
Measure court time - One of my favourite targets for setting against players better than yourself is based on court time.
If you can keep someone better than you on court for a longer period of time, it shows that you are able to compete with them.
Generally, amateur squash matches last between 30 and 50 minutes, however, if you're playing someone a lot better than you, it could be more like 20 minutes.
Maybe make some notes of your match times so you can figure out your targets, then, if you're playing someone you usually lose to, try to keep them on court for 30 minutes or more.
This is goal is great for improving your mindset as well as you're game. It encourages you to be more patient and consistent, plus, if you reach the goal, it comes you the confidence to feel like you can compete with players the next level up.
Court sprints - I remember when I was a junior, my old coach would make players in our group do court sprints if he saw us get very angry or hit our racquets against the floor or wall in frustration during matches.
We would have to do either 20 or 22 court sprints in one minute (I can't quite remember which. It was tough, but, perhaps it was a fitting punishment and it meant that players rarely took their frustration out on their racquets.
Anyway, court sprints are a great way to measure your fitness. Different people define court sprints in different ways, but, I usually say that you start with your hand on the back wall then you run to touch the front wall (which counts as one court sprint), then you run back to the back wall (which is two), then repeat.
If you're looking to work on speed, you could aim to do as many as you can in one minute.
If you're looking to measure your endurance, you could do as many one-minute sets of 20 court sprints as you can with one minute rest in between.
Ghosting - Ghosting helps you work on your movement, efficiency, and speed, so, if these are areas you want to improve, why not set some ghosting targets?
Ghosting is essentially repeating the movements you make in a squash match without using a ball.
Again, if you want to work on speed, you could see how many ghosts you can do in one minute. If you can get a training partner to point to different areas of the court for you, that will help make sure you don't just move into the easy corners over and over!
If you're working on efficiency, fluidity, and consistency, it's not necessarily as easy to measure and set targets, but video analysis is always a good option, you can take things slow and get other players to analyse for you.
They will help you figure out if you're improving or not.
Photo credit: Steve Cubbins
3. Try To Stay As Mentally Present As Possible (In Training And In Matches)
Being mentally present means being fully engaged and focused on the task at hand, whether it's a practice session or a competitive match.
When you're mentally present, you're not dwelling on past mistakes or worrying about future outcomes. You're entirely focused on the current moment.
This mental state allows you to make better decisions, react quicker, and adapt to your opponent's game.
In a fast-paced squash match, it's very easy to get caught up on previous points where you may have made a silly mistake or received a decision you don't agree with. You may also be nervous about losing the match or the next point.
Thinking about all of this increases anxiety and clouds decision making.
If you can focus all of your thoughts on the present moment, you're not preoccupied with what might happen, instead, you're immersed in what's happening now.
It's all well and good just saying that you should 'stay present', but, like most things, it's nowhere near as easy as it sounds.
I find my mind wandering constantly (on and off the squash court), and it can be very difficult to steer my thoughts back to the present.
After a bit of research into this (as well as trying some stuff out for myself), it seems like there are a few good ways to practice being present.
When off court, practicing mindfulness, meditation, and breathing exercises can be a great way to train your mind to be immersed in the current moment (however, this is actually my next point, so I won't go into detail for now).
When on court, my personal favourite approach to forgetting the previous point and regaining my focus on the match at hand was to develop a pre-point routine between each rally.
It could be a specific number of times that you bounce the ball before serving, it could be a wipe of the hand on the back wall if you're about to return. It could be to bounce on your toes a little. Whatever works for you really!
But, consistently following your routine can definitely help to anchor you into the present.
You could also make sure to take a moment to think about your goal, your game plan, or what you're going to do in the next point.
Although this is thinking a bit about the future, it's doing so in a positive way (rather than in an anxious way).
This helps you completely forget about the previous point or any points before that and forces you to think about the task at hand.
The more you practice staying present during matches, the better you will get at it.
After a while, it will start to become engrained into your squash habits and you will be developing that strong mindset!
Photo credit: Steve Cubbins
4. Try Some Meditation And Breathing Exercises
As I mentioned above, improving mental presence takes practice, both on and off the court.
Meditation and breathing exercises in your daily life can be a great place to start, then you can gradually apply them to your squash training and matches.
According to many professionals (in other sports, not just squash), practicing meditation and breathing is a game-changer when it comes to enhancing your mental toughness on the squash court.
They help you develop a calm, focused mind that's better equipped to handle pressure, stay resilient during matches, and become more mentally tough.
I always used to think meditation took years and years of practice and it was complicated, so, I've never really given it a chance before.
However, after speaking to a lot of people who do it (and after a bit of research), it doesn't have to be as intimidating as I had made out in my head.
A good friend of mine who is a great runner sent me this when I asked about a simple way to get into meditation:
1. Find a quiet space where you won't be disturbed.
2. Sit or lie down in a comfortable position.
3. Close your eyes and focus on your breath. Inhale and exhale naturally.
4. When your mind starts to wander (which is normal), gently bring your focus back to your breath.
5. Start with just a few minutes a day and gradually extend your meditation time.
He also said 'just doing something is better than doing nothing'. Which is also very true. I will definitely be trying it out over the next few days.
He also sent me some more specific techniques to improve your breathing which are beneficial to your mental toughness as well as your fitness and recovery in between points...
Box Breathing: Inhale for a count of four, hold your breath for four, exhale for four, and hold for four before inhaling again. Repeat this process for a few cycles. Box breathing can quickly reduce anxiety.
Deep Belly Breathing: Place your hand on your abdomen. Inhale deeply, allowing your belly to rise, and exhale slowly, feeling your belly fall. Deep belly breathing promotes relaxation and focus.
4-7-8 Breathing: Inhale for a count of four, hold for seven, and exhale for eight. This technique helps reset your nervous system and lower stress levels.
These breathing exercises could be part of your pre-match routine, even during the warm-up or when you feel tension building. It will help you stay mentally strong, grounded, composed, and relaxed.
5. Get A Coach
Having a coach can be a great asset when it comes to improving your mental toughness on the squash court.
They can provide personalised guidance, feedback, and strategies tailored to your game. However, it's important to acknowledge that not everyone has access to in-person coaching, and it may not always be affordable.
But, if you do have the opportunity to work with a coach, even periodically, it can make a massive difference. Coaches can help you identify areas where mental toughness can be enhanced, offer practical advice, and create tailored training routines that focus on building resilience under pressure.
For those who may not have access to a coach, there are absolutely tons of resources (either free or very cheap) for squash players seeking to improve their mental game.
Here are a few suggestions and recommendations:
Video Analysis: Watch professional squash matches and analyse how top players handle pressure situations. Note their body language, decision-making, and composure during crucial points.
Then, you can do a video analysis of your own match and take note of the same things to figure out what to work on.
The PSA World Tour YouTube channel has endless professional squash content for you to watch.
Online Forums: Engage in squash communities and forums where players discuss mental aspects of the game. Share your experiences and learn from others.
Checkout Reddit and Facebook for this, just search for squash groups and you'll find plenty!
Blogs, Websites, YouTube Videos, and Online Courses: Look for blogs, online courses, coaching resources, YouTube videos, or webinars that focus specifically on mental toughness in sports. This content often includes practical exercises and techniques.
YouTube is an absolute goldmine for this squash-specific mental toughness content.
Off the top of my head, SquashMind, Squashletic, and SquashSkills are all excellent online resources to help you up your game.
Meditation and Visualisation Apps: There are various smartphone apps designed to help athletes improve their mental game. These apps offer guided meditations and stress reduction techniques.
I haven't used any myself, so I can't recommend any personally, however, I would suggest just going with the top rated options in the app store. Take a look at the app's description and reviews to make sure it's the right option for you.
I also have a (pretty old) Apple Watch that notifies me a few times a day to do one minute of deep breathing which I do every now and again. I do always feel a bit better afterward, so perhaps I should do it a bit more often!
While in-person coaching has the advantage of immediate feedback, online resources can still offer valuable guidance and strategies to enhance your mental toughness.
The key is to explore these options, experiment with different techniques, and find what works best for you. Regardless of your access to coaching, improving your mental game is within reach with the right mindset and resources.
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