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Alex Robertson
By Alex Robertson on April 26, 2024

Drive Decisions: Choosing The Right Length

When I was a junior, one of my coaches believed that drives should generally be hit hard, regardless of your (and your opponent's) positioning. I guess there is some merit to this, especially if you can hit accurate, hard drives again and again.

However, this was over 10 years ago, and, that coach has definitely changed his viewpoint since then, but, it was an interesting approach.

I did a training session just a couple of nights ago that was heavily focused on straight lengths, and, since I'm trying to get better at hitting straight balls harder (and with more accuracy) at the moment, I found myself thinking about pace, depth, and positioning a lot more than usual during the session.

However, just because I want to get better at hitting hard and accurately, it doesn't necessarily mean hitting the ball hard all the time. It's all about timing, and generally, there's a right time for every type of drive. This is something that's pretty dependent on those factors I was thinking about.

So, as the session progressed, I began pondering more broadly into timing, shot selection, and when to hit my lengths at certain paces based on mine and my opponent's positioning.

Then, after the session, I decided that this would be a great topic for a blog post too! So, without further ado, let's dive into the different types of lengths and when to play them...

Just before I delve into the different types of length and when to play them, I wanted to talk in general about the length game first.

In squash, the straight drive is the most commonly played shot in the game.

In almost every squash match you see or play, players will tend to rally down one side of the court, hitting straight length after straight length in a battle to gain control of the T, move their opponent into the back corner, force their opponent to play a weak shot, and give themself the opportunity to go for a winner.

For that reason, the straight drive should be practiced and practiced, regardless of how good you think you are at it.

However, it's not just about hitting the same target again and again.

Even within a drive battle, there are different times to hit different types of length depending on how much pressure you're under and how much pressure your opponent is under.

It's not as simple as just hitting it tight and so it bounces deep in the back.

I think one of the best ways for amateur players to step up their game to the next level is to begin thinking in more depth about where they want their drives to land, how hard they want to hit them, and why they're doing it.

It's this purposeful play that allows you to construct rallies better and give yourself more opportunities to get in a good position and hit winners.

When To Lift It

I want to start with the most defensive option for lengths and that's the straight lob.

During a length rally, there are a number of different situations in which it might be appropriate to play a straight lob.

The first is to neutralise the pace from the back of the court if you're under a lot of pressure.

If your opponent is positioned firmly on the T while you're stuck in the back and they're volleying, taking balls early, hitting hard, and just not giving you any time to reset, the lob is a great way to give yourself the chance to get back in the length rally and eventually get back in control too.

What's great about the straight lift is that, if you get enough height on the ball, it doesn't actually have to be that tight to the side wall.

If you're a regular player, you'll know just how much harder it is to volley a shot that's high above your head as opposed to one that's around head height or lower.

More often than not, if you lift the ball with enough height, it's safer for your opponent to leave it and go into the back corner to retrieve it rather than going for the volley.

This gets them off the T and gives you the chance to get onto it instead.

Plus, another benefit of the lob (especially in the latter stages of a match) is that it gives you some time to recover physically as well. Since the ball is in the air for so long, you can take a moment to compose your breathing, your mind, and your position.

Of course, there are downsides to the lob as well.

The first is that, since it gives you a lot of time to recover, it also gives your opponent a lot of time to do the same.

When it's your opponent's turn to take their shot, if your lob isn't particularly tight or accurate, they have all the time in the world to crack another hard, low, attacking length back at you, get you off the T, and take that time back away.

However, it's worth noting that it's very hard to take a lob early because of how long it takes to reach the front wall, bounce off, and come back into the court again.

So, something that isn't often mentioned about the straight lift is that it doesn't really matter if your opponent reads that you're going to play this shot or not.

It's not supposed to be deceptive and it's not like they can move further forwards to intercept it early because (assuming you get the right height) it'll go right over the top of them!

One other option you have if your first lob doesn't work is to lift it again and do so repeatedly until you hit one accurately enough to actually keep your opponent pinned in the back corner, giving yourself the chance to get on the front foot.

However, one thing that should be noted about the straight lift is that, if you're trying to hit it tight, which is a good thing to do, you need to be wary of the ball going out of court.

You might hit a beautifully tight straight lift, however, if it's very tight and just that bit too high, it's got a good chance of skidding against the side wall while it's above the red line, or, clipping the red line on its way down.

This is probably the most frustrating way to concede a point because it's like you're being punished for a nice tight shot, but, it's just part of the game!

Just one to be wary of.

Anyway, when it comes to your target for the lift, you do still want it tight to the side wall if possible, however, don't go too tight or for too much of an angle to reduce the risk of making a mistake.

Since it's a lob, you want to add some cut (to help it stay tight) and take as much pace off of the ball as possible, meaning that it still stands a chance of dying in the back corner.

Ideally, you don't want your straight lift bouncing off of the back wall before the floor, is it gives your opponent a much better opportunity to move back in front of you.

Instead, make sure it bounces floor first and then off of the back wall.

Of course, every court is different. If you're playing on a hot court, you don't want your lob to bounce too deep because the hot ball will bounce much further out of the back, and, if you're on a colder court (where lobs are often even more effective), you'll want to hit a little deeper.

As a rule of thumb, I would say that your lob should land first bounce between one and around two racquet lengths from the back line of the service box.

This is just to give you a visual target to aim for, so, when it comes to practicing your lobs you can use your racquet to measure out a location to put your target and aim for it!

I find that the lob is quite an under-utilised shot during length rallies.

Instead, many players tend to try to whack their way out of trouble by hitting the ball as hard as they can, however, when you're under this kind of pressure, accuracy is the most important thing you can focus your shots on to recover.

And, the slow swing speed of a lob allows you to take your time when executing it to make sure it goes exactly where you want it.

There is one other time in which I think the straight lob can be useful, and, this one could be slightly controversial...

I have a friend who plays a heck of a lot of straight lobs, and, one of the most effective ways in which is uses them is when he's actually already in control and on the T.

He's not particularly great when rallies speed up, so, to play to his own strengths and stay on the T, he often plays straight volley lobs from the T that are quite difficult to dig out of the back corners.

He's also a tall player, so it's very hard to do the same back to him because he's so great at volleying. He's so confident in his ability to hit them accurately and he's very aware that he's not as good when the pace speeds up, so, he often avoids hitting his volleys low and hard unless he's going for a winner or kill.

However, this is just an observation I've made about an effective aspect of his game. Generally speaking, the purpose of volleying is to take time away from your opponent and speed up the pace on your own terms, so pace is usually the more effective option.

But, if you're the type of player who likes to use accuracy, this could be another good way for you to use the straight lift.

So, to sum up, the straight lob is an ideal way to buy time, get your opponent off of the T, and reset the rally, especially if you're being pinned deep in the back corners of the court again and again.

Remember, you don't have to play just one lob to recover, you can play it again and again, just make sure not to make an unforced error, and make sure it has enough height that your opponent can't volley it.

When To Play It Steady

This is where you play the long game.

By playing it steady, I generally mean hitting medium to softer-paced lengths around service line height or slightly higher on the front wall.

In terms of bounce target, this type of length should land around a racquet's length behind the service line (while staying nice and tight), and, similar to the lob, it's a great way to reset mentally and keep yourself in the rallies.

Playing the ball steady at a medium pace and height is a strategic choice that can help you maintain control of the rally while conserving energy.

This approach give you the time you need to focus and control your shots, keeping the ball tight to the side wall, meaning that you can apply consistent pressure on your opponent without taking unnecessary risks.

When I refer to it as keeping it steady as playing the long game, you should think about your lengths almost as an investment.

Each one chips away a little more at your opponent's fitness, and, when you finally hit a perfect one, it pays off with your opponent returning a particularly loose or weak shot that you can step forward and go for a winner.

Now, depending on your opponent and game plan (and depending on your own focus, composure, and fitness), you may want to play this steady style of chipping away for an entire match.

This can be especially effective if you want to damage your opponent mentally as well. It shows them that you can do this all day and you're not going to let up.

The player in the image below, Paul Coll (from New Zealand) is an absolute expert at these types of lengths.

As one of the fittest players on the PSA World Tour, he can hit these lengths again and again without tiring, and, he hits his targets every single time.

He doesn't give his opponent's a single chance to attack or play their own game, instead, he bides his time until he gets that perfect opportunity to play a drop or volley drop.


Photo credit: Steve Cubbins

Another situation where playing it steady is effective is when you're looking to maintain a neutral position on the court and control the tempo of the rally on your own terms.

By hitting the ball with moderate pace and height, you can keep your opponent pinned behind you while you assess your options and wait for an opportunity to attack.

This means that you can choose to speed up the pace of play or throw in a sudden angle at a moment's notice to catch your opponent off-guard and make them scramble.

If your lengths are consistent enough and your deception is good enough, you can also use this approach to lul your opposition into a false sense of security.

Allow them to settle into a rhythm, then throw in a hard low cross court and just see what happens!

It can be a great way of controlling a game, however, to do this effectively, you need to be reasonably consistent with your length game, and keeping it tight is essential.

If your opponent is the type of player who will pounce on any opportunity they get, you can't afford to hit a medium to slow-paced length that comes out loose, as this is literally the perfect chance for them to attack.

Playing it steady can be especially beneficial when facing a defensive opponent who retrieves well and waits for you to make a mistake.

By keeping the ball tight and controlled, you can frustrate the other player and force them to try to go for shots at the wrong time just to change things up a bit.

I know this to be a fact because I often struggle with getting bored easily during longer rallies and being tempted to go for a silly shot at the wrong time (this is something I'm working on)!

I also mentioned that hitting steady, medium-paced lengths is a great way of conserving energy to play the long game, however, if the game has already been long and tough so far, then it's also an excellent approach for keeping yourself in those hard games and points towards the latter stages of matches.

Rather than going for more shots and letting your accuracy slip, now is likely the time you should double up on a steady length game!

It might sound tough, but, if you can find your rhythm and keep it smooth and slow, these movements and motions have minimal impact on you physically.

When you're feeling fatigued or under pressure from your opponent's aggressive play is a perfect time for this approach. Instead of attempting risky shots that may result in errors, opting for steady lengths allows you to regain your composure and regain control of the rally.

When To Go Low And Hard

Now for my favourite option, and this is when you turn on the offense...

A low, hard length is certainly an attacking shot, however, if you watch professional squash, a lot of players (particularly Egyptians) play almost every single drive in this way.

If you want to emulate this style of play and hit lots and lots of hard low lengths, then practice is absolutely essential as it's a very difficult style to play with, however, if you want to be a little more like me and use these hard low lengths more sparingly, then this section should be of help!

Knowing when to go low and hit the ball hard is crucial for putting your opponent under pressure, gaining control of the rally, and even winning points. 

So, these lengths should ideally hit below the service line on the front wall, and, the idea is to aim to get the ball to either bounce twice before it reaches the back wall, or, for it to die in the nick at the back after the first bounce (otherwise known as a dying length).

The reason for that target area is because, since you will be playing your attacking length at the right time (which I'll cover in a moment), your opponent will have to take the ball behind themselves in order to hit it before it bounces twice or dies.

This forces them to move fast and will perhaps render them out of position.

It's important to note that overhitting your lengths is especially easy when you add pace. When you do this, the ball is almost definitely going to bounce out of the back or even hit the back wall first, which actually gives your opponent an advantage!

So, remember, don't just swing wildly at the ball and focus very firmly on your targets. It's a lot hard to hit hard shots with accuracy in comparison to softer shots, so you need to make sure you hit your low hard length at the right time.

If your opponent's shot is tight, difficult to dig out of the back corner, or coming out at a strange angle, then perhaps this is the time to chip a medium paced length instead.

However, if your opponent's shot is overhit and pops out the back or hits the side wall and comes out the middle, then this is the perfect time to take advantage of their weaker position with a low powerful length.

Just think, if they've hit this weak shot from the back of the court and you get on it early enough, they will still be scrambling to move around you and get to position on the T, but, once you hit your low hard length, they'll have to scramble again into the back corner and flick it from behind themselves or even play a boast!

This gives you an awesome opportunity to carry on your attack.

Of course, this is related to the most obvious benefit of adding pace to your lengths, and that's putting pressure on the other player.

By hitting the ball with pace and accuracy, you can keep your opponent pinned behind you and carry on dictating the pace of play on your own terms, making them work physically and mentally to retrieve your shots.

Another thing I will add is that these hard lengths can also be a good way of getting the ball past your opponent if they're still on the T.

If you play squash, you'll know how hard it is to play a controlled volley when the ball is coming at you very fast, so, if you're struggling to get the other player off the T and your lobs aren't really working, then this can be a good alternative to try out.

Going low and hitting it hard is useful when you're aiming to keep your opponent guessing and disrupt their rhythm. This is where you can actually begin to incorporate all three types of length that we've chatted about this week.

By varying the pace and trajectory of your shots, you can keep your opponent out of rhythm, scrambling, and off balance, creating openings for winners.

Keep hammering them with that medium-paced length again and again with accuracy, throwing in the odd high lift to throw their timing off a little bit, then, that's when you suddenly crack a low hard dying length to really catch them off-guard.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is how you construct a length battle!

I think the key ingredient to improving your squash is to be able to put these three length types together, playing them at the right time, to the right ratio, again and again (with accuracy).

This is how you begin to beat those better players and up your game.

Personally, I have also found that really focusing my mind and thinking about which drive is the right decision has been a game changer (especially during training sessions).

If I hit the wrong type of drive and give my opponent the advantage, I try to acknowledge it and take note for next time.

If I play the right type of drive and pin them in a back corner or force a weak shot, I also try to take a mental note.

I'd highly recommend you do the same if you're looking to improve your alley game!

This article was taken from our 'Control the Kitchen' 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 April 26, 2024
Alex Robertson