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Alex Robertson
By Alex Robertson on November 25, 2023

Breaking Barriers: Tactics for Overcoming Defensive Players

It's very likely that you may have come across defensive players at some point in your squash career.

Defensive players can make it very difficult for you to execute your game plan and control the pace of play on your own terms.

It's also worth noting that, even if a player isn't completely 100% a defensive style player, the majority of squash players are able to deploy a line of defense in the middle of a match if they feel like they need some time to recuperate or break the pace up a little.

It is a common tactic and it can make it much harder for you to win points if they do it effectively.

So, with this in mind, I thought I'd focus this article on some of the best ways to dismantle your opponent's line of defense and carry on your attack!

So, before I dive into the tips, it would probably help if I define what I mean when I refer to a defensive player or a defensive strategy.

In squash, playing defensively generally means slowing the pace down, hitting deep and strategically controlled shots that are tight to the side wall, and generally prioritising playing as safely as possible.

The vital first step to overcoming a line of defense is to understand and recognise when your opponent is actually deploying a defensive strategy...

1. Understand Defensive Strategies

Being able to recognise your opponent's tactics is actually a very difficult thing to do in the heat of battle, but, if you can do it, it can give you a vital leg up.

Try to learn how to analyse your opponent's movements and make a mental note of the shots they play too.

If they seem to be slowing their shots down, playing more lobs (both straight and cross court), playing wider and softer cross courts, doing less volleying, playing less attacking shots (but perhaps still playing the odd soft drop here and there), or just generally playing safer, then this means they are probably on the defensive.

Context is also important when trying to figure out if your opponent is playing defensively and this is where the mental aspect of defense comes into play too.

If you've won a few big rallies in a row or have a good lead, your opponent might be on the back foot and looking to reset themself so they can begin to get back into a rhythm again. This is what you should be looking to prevent.

Your opponent may also begin to play defensively if they are starting to feel fatigued. This is also a good sign for you to start your offensive attack that I will be listing in the following tips.

Try to take note of their body language and how tense or tired they look.

Lastly, it's also important to remember that, just because your opponent has played a few lobs and slower shots, it does not mean that they are on the defensive. They may be trying to mix up the pace a bit and catch you off-guard when they speed it back up again.

So, have your wits about you.

Anyway, once you are aware of these tactics, you can start to unpack the vulnerabilities of defensive players too.

Defensive squash could be considered to be a more reactive style of play rather than proactive, this presents some pretty big vulnerabilities and weak points when it comes to tackling this style.

These next tips will delve into how to exploit those vulnerabilities...

2. Up That Pace And Pressure

When a player is trying to play defensively, one of the main things they are often trying to do is to get back into a rhythm.

If you can up the pace, apply some pressure, and make them start having to scramble for shots, it can be a seriously effective tactic.

Rapid exchanges can also make things more physically and mentally challenging for defensive players who are accustomed to that slower, controlled pace.

If you can take an extra half-step forward on the T and start taking balls a little more early, especially on the volley, this a great way to apply pressure.

Try to execute more powerful drives, lower and harder boasts, and, if you're taking it in short, do so with a little more purpose and cut to make the ball die quicker. Anything that takes time away from your opponent will restrict their ability to slow that pace down and play their controlled, defensive game plan.

Once you have shown that you're capable of speeding up the pace of play, your defensive opponent will now know that they have to cover this style of play, meaning that they will be unsettled and unable to get into a rhythm.

The next step is to begin to vary the pace between fast and slow, to disorient them even more. The unpredictability of this will hopefully mess with your opponent's timing and shot selection to the point where they can't play with the time and control they want to.

3. Shot Selection Is Key

This tip ties in well to the previous one.

It's vital to play decisively and to actively think about what shot you're going to play next.

For example, if you are playing predictable shots, even if they are good, if your opponent can anticipate them they will be able to get to the ball earlier and will have the time to play their controlled defensive shots.

Instead, try to incorporate some deceptive shots and sudden changes of direction into the rallies (just make sure to do it at the right time). Holds, last-minute flicks, the odd trickle boast, and a cross court drop here and there are all great options.

By creating this uncertainty in their minds, you can make it difficult for them to anticipate the trajectory and speed of your shots, further disrupting their rhythm.

Going back to my first tip, you can also use your knowledge of defensive-style players to optimise your shot selection.

Given that defensive players often tend to position themselves deeper in the back of the court, this makes them more susceptible to attacking shots into the front corners.

So try to play some drops and kills when you get the chance to make them cover some extra ground.

With that said, if you are playing someone who is very good at defending, you probably won't be getting many hugely easy opportunities to attack to the front, but, when your chance comes, it's very important to take it.

Especially if your opponent is behind you closer to the back of the court.

4. Positive Body Language, Positioning, And Movement

Your first focus against a defending player should be to get them off the T (and to get yourself on it), which can be very tricky.

With them keeping the pace slow and hitting accurately to restrict your ability to take the ball early, the defender generally gives themselves plenty of time to move back to the T after every shot.

This means that you need to take every chance you can get to volley or take the ball early, as I mentioned earlier.

Hitting cross courts with good width and taking the ball into the front corners is a good way to get your opponent off the T too.

When you move back to the T yourself, make sure to do it as promptly as possible and get into a positive position to prepare yourself to take the next shot early, should the opportunity present itself.

By positive position, I mean half a step or so behind the T line.

There is a mental aspect to this too. If you're repeatedly using your body language to demonstrate to your opponent that you're willing to put in the work, they may start to become discouraged and have doubts about whether their strategy is working.

Keep your shoulders back and your head up high especially between rallies, and, during rallies, stay on your toes and in a ready position when you're on the T to show you mean business.

You'll be surprised at the effect this can have on your opponent's motivation.

When you move to the ball, do so fast and positively. The same when you move back to the T. Make everything about your game positive if possible.

Again, this is easier said than done as it can be very difficult not to go flat footed and move more lazily when your opponent is slowing it down so much, but, then you are just falling into their trap.

Try to focus on your own game plan, rather than reacting to theirs, this will help you stay positive and control the pace of play on your own terms.


Photo credit: Steve Cubbins

5. Dealing With Defensive Pressure

Surprisingly, dealing with a very defensive player can be very exhausting since it can become very tedious to break down their tactics and stay patient in the inevitably long rallies.

If you're playing someone who is very patient and mentally strong, they may be able to be on the defensive for longer lengths of time, and you need to be prepared for this.

During rallies, yes it is important to up the pace and be positive and proactive, but, if you are starting to struggle mentally, it doesn't hurt to start using the time between points to reset your mind, relax a little, and focus on your own game plan again.

Take a second to wipe your hand on the wall and take a few deep breaths to forget the previous rally and focus on the next.

It's vital not to lose your head, because that's when the mistakes start to creep into your game and you start losing points.

I know I also said to attack frequently and take balls into the front corners, but I want to stress how important it is to do this at the right time.

Another pitfall when playing against a defensive player is to become impatient and go for winners when the time isn't right.

This hugely increases your risk of unforced errors, which is exactly what your opponent wants to do. This is exactly what the defensive style does.

When you think of the word defensive, it's easy to think that you will have the upper hand, but this is not always the case.

This style of play can put a lot of mental and physical pressure on you, so you want to nip it in the bud as early as you can using these tactics.

6. Keep Them Off The T

Since the defensive player will not want to engage in fast-paced attacking rallies, they will be less likely to be trying to volley everything.

Although I mentioned that they will often get back to the T quite easily after their own shots (if they are playing soft lobs, for example) because they give themselves so much time.

The fact that they are less likely to volley means that you will also get good opportunities to take the T for yourself too.

The problem is keeping it!

It's vital to move onto the T fast and proactively right from the start of the rally, whether you're serving or receiving, make it your first goal to get onto the T.

To keep control of the T as the rally goes on, mix things up such as height and pace of your shots.

While deep hard lengths may push your opponent back, incorporating those attacking drop shots and boasts can disrupt their positioning and movement patterns.

This helps to prevent them from comfortably holding the T for longer than a few moments.

Be as proactive as possible in taking the ball early too, when they take the ball in short, strive to pounce on it and counter decisively, with the aim of making them have to scramble to retrieve your counter.

Lastly, try to pressure your opponent with shots that force weak returns, rather than accurate defensive shots.

Focus on tightness and hitting hard when you can, then your opponent will struggle to play their controlled, slower shots, then you can carry on your attack and it will restrict their ability to move back to the T.

7. Off The Court

Last but not least, it can be very beneficial to incorporate practicing the tips above into your off-court improvement strategies.

As I mentioned in the intro, almost every squash player is capable of deploying a line of defense, so, this is an obstacle you will definitely have to encounter in match situations.

The more ready you are the better!

My advice for this is always to look to the pros. Try to analyse when one player is playing defensively, then take note of what their opponent does to counter this playing style.

Ali Farag is a genius at defending, he seems to be able to get himself out of trouble very well using high lifts, and wide widths.

Whereas Mohamed ElShorbagy is a master of dismantling these defensive-style players using incredibly fast-paced attacks and proactively taking the ball as early as possible.

Of course, you don't need to watch any specific players for this, almost every squash match has displays of defense and counter attack, having the ability to spot when this is occurring is a little more difficult.

Another option off the court is to record your own game and go through specific rallies where defense and attack are on show, then analyse whether or not you think you played the right shots at the right time.

You can also analyse what strategies seemed to work best in disrupting your opponent's defense.

Finally, I know this is back on-court, but, one of my favourite conditioned games is also a great drill for practicing attacking vs defensive style of play.

The rules are pretty simple, you and your partner play a full court match, but, after the serve, one player is only allowed to hit the ball above the service line (the defender), and the other player is only allowed to hit the ball below the service line (the attacker).

If you're playing as an attacker, it really encourages you to deploy that attacking, fast-paced style that we covered in this week's newsletter.

Anyway, I hope this has been helpful, best of luck in overcoming your opponent's line of defense!

This article was taken from our On The 'T' Newsletter, if you're interested in receiving more content like this, please feel free to sign up using the subscribe section located at the bottom left of this page (or underneath the article if you're on mobile), thanks!

Published by Alex Robertson November 25, 2023
Alex Robertson