Tuesday, December 30, 2014

How To Keep Your Resolutions

Although it isn't quite 2015 it's already time to be thinking about what you want to do different and better in the New Year. It's time to start thinking about our resolutions! We've all tried some New Year resolutions in the past and I don't know the statistics, but I know most of us don't keep up with them. Why is that? Are we setting unreasonable goals or do we end up losing focus and motivation?

I know many of you haven't even made up your resolutions for the New Year. So you better get on that. This post will not only give you some ideas, but will also give you some tips on keeping your resolutions.

The end of the holidays and the start of the New Year is a great time to make a change. We can start with a clean slate so to speak. Most of us ate poorly and too much, and also didn't get enough exercise over the holidays and are motivated to make a change. We can set outcome goals for the New Year just like we do in squash. For example, you want to lose a certain amount of weight, be able to do so many pushups. For squash we may want to move up a level or a spot on our league team. We may want to get up to a certain ranking position. Whatever our outcome goals are, we have to remember that it's our process goals that get us there.

Process and outcome goals are both important. If we have a bad day at the gym or on court we have to keep our focus on the long term goals and not get too upset about a poor performance. If you get down after missing a session or two or having a bad loss it's easy to think you can't do this and give up on your resolutions and goals altogether. It takes a lot of perseverance to stick to your resolutions through think and thin. This is the main reason why so many people inevitably don't stick with their New Year's resolutions.

On top of not having process goals and a mapped out plan to achieve your outcome goals, many people also don't set an ending to their goals. Yes, you want to get stronger, but how strong? And when do you want to be this strong by? I always like having a big tournament as my focus. Instead of just working away at your goals with no foreseeable end in sight, try and set a specific date for your resolution. This will keep you more focused and working hard up until that time.

When someone tries to set a resolution about changing their diet, what they eat or drink or to quit smoking these again often fail. How much joy do you get from withholding from this habit to engaging in it? This is a tough thing to deal with each day. One day you will likely be unhappy or having a bad day and then your resolution is gone. If you are trying to make a major life changing resolution you'll need to prepare for tough days. Put up some pictures or encouraging statements around your house and the office. Use a reward system for each day or week you stick with your resolution. As time goes by it should become easier. But this is slightly off the topic of today, so let's move on.

What I want to discuss today is how you can improve your chances of sticking with your resolutions. In particular squash and training resolutions. There are a number of ways to improve your odds of sticking with your new set of goals. Here's a few.

1) Set up a workout/squash partner with daily or weekly times. It i very challenging to keep up a routine on your own. If you find a workout partner you will be more accountable and will also have someone to push you when you're not as motivated that day.

2) Set up a weekly session with a personal trainer or squash coach. Again this will hold you accountable and they will ensure you are pushed. You don't want to waste their time or your money. A trainer and coach can also help you set up a plan to help you achieve the goals you have set. So share them and they will be a big help on your journey.

3) Join a weekly fitness class. This is another way to be more accountable. Many people think they can do everything their own. We are use to doing this as squash players. But it's much easier if you have a set time and day to do it and a group to do it with. Most of us work harder if we have the eye of an instructor on us and other people working hard all around us. There are many classes around these days so find one that you like.

4) Pick a finishing time for your goals. You don't need to do the same type of training all year round. Pick a tournament a few months away or a big occasion (like a wedding) that you want to achieve your goals by. As I mention above, this will help keep you focused, working hard and on track. You will be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel on those tough days.

5) Set reasonable and challenging goals. Some people try and do too much or set too many goals. If you pick 1 or 2 important goals and focus on them you will be more likely to achieve them. They must be challenging and you should believe that if you work hard you can achieve them.

6) Pace yourself. Rome wasn't built in a day! You need to have balance in life. The gyms and squash courts will be packed at the beginning or January. Everyone will be out in full force working extremely hard. Many will overdo it. They will get injured, sick or fatigued. You need to slowly build up how much and hard you train. This is why a coach or personal trainer are so helpful to achieving your goals. I like to think of lacing yourself in numbers. If you added just 1x1 hour solo hitting to your training program what would that really do? If you average hitting 1 ball per second, that's 3,600 in an hour. If you keep that up for a year it's 187,200. You can see how something that seems like a small change can have a major impact on your squash game over time. Start small and build up and you'll get results.

7) Set short term goals building up to your long term goals. Have a set goal for the end of each week or month. These small improvements add up over time. It's a gradual process. Don't be discouraged by a small gain. With perseverance great strides can be made possible.

8) Start a daily workout journal and monitor your progress. This can be a hand written one or an online one. The new iPhones have step counters on them and you can keep track of your running and cycling mileage. Keep track of your progress with an exercise log so you can see how much you've improved over time.

9) Make time for yourself. The biggest excuse for not getting enough exercise if the lack of time. There is always time. It may mean having to give up a half hour of your Netflix watching each night. You may have to get up early and do something before work. When you get into a routine it becomes manageable. If you can find a friend to do training with this will improve adherence. A lack of time is never a valid excuse.

10) Proper nutrition. This gives you the fuel to be more active on a daily basis. Try eating less sugar and snacks and you will feel better when you workout.

I feel many people don't keep their resolutions because they don't enjoy eating healthy food or being active. Maybe you just haven't found the right type of healthy food or exercise that you enjoy. Who didn't like playing sports as a kid? Cross training doesn't have to be boring. There are spin classes, boot camps, trx, pilates, and yoga classes, running clinics, pick up basketball and hockey games. Find something that you enjoy and if you can find someone to go with even better. Obviously if you're reading this you're likely already a squash player, but I believe that every squash player would benefit from some cross training. Maybe you're the type of person that likes change and trying a new class each week will suit you best. Whatever it is, once you get into your routine you will eventually start feeling better and have more energy. You will get to a point where you will not enjoy inactive days.

I'd love to hear what your resolutions are. I've heard that if you share your goals with people you are more likely to stick to them. So let's hear them!




Thursday, December 25, 2014

Does a Slow or Bouncy Ball Suit Your Game?

Today I'm going to talk about how the ball changes the game. I discuss this a little in a previous post about controlling the weight of shot http://www.serioussquash.com/2015/01/controlling-weight-of-shot.html. Clearly the ball makes a big difference with this. A new ball is normally much bouncier. Does a hot and bouncy ball suit your game or does a cold ball? This probably also depends on who you're playing. Let's take a look at it in more detail.

I remember one time in college playing Colin West who hit the ball so hard it was bouncing like a racquet ball. This was the first time I noticed how much this could change the game. Of course, Colin always hits the ball this hard and was used to controlling the ball flying around super fast. I on the other hand had trouble just finding any type of length or even getting my racquet prepared on time. I noticed that if I got used to practicing with such a bouncy ball it would eliminate most of my competition. I started solo hitting a lot more and strengthened up my forearm and started getting comfortable controlling and cutting in drops shots with a very hot ball. This wasn't always easy to do as the courts I practiced on in London, Ontario were frigid in the winter months. Basically if the ball got to the back wall the player was lucky to dig it out straight. For this reason I also started practicing with blue dot balls on occasion. 

You can see from the above description that the ball temperature and what you're accustomed to makes a huge impact on your performance. If you're used to playing with a super hot and bouncy ball, or say at altitude and then you went and played at my freezing courts in London surely you would also have trouble adapting. So how can you prepare for this? Practicing with a bouncier ball is a good example, but it's difficult to go the other way. If you play at altitude or at a high level normally the ball will move quicker and you will be hitting the ball higher off the floor. How can you prepare for those frigid conditions? I have a couple of ideas you could try. 

First, you could play a match with 2 squash balls. You alternate after every rally and keep the other in your pocket. The balls will both stay warm, but not as bouncy as normal. Secondly, you can try playing some high games, so no pace is allowed. The issue with this idea is that yes the ball may not be as bouncy, but your also not hitting the ball like you would have to on a cold court. Of course you can also try and use some old squash balls, maybe even ones that have tiny breaks in the seam starting. You can also try playing or doing drills with someone that hits without any pace. This may be one of the older people at your club that play the old lob drop game. Finally, you could string your racquet tighter so you get more touch and less power. Other that that it's just helpful getting experience on playing in different climates and with different types of temperature or bounce of squash balls. 

So do you like playing with a hot ball? I do, because I'm used to it. I also find that it allows me to get most balls back, get to the ball early and is easier to delay and flick the ball. If you are a retriever, fit, or are deceptive you may prefer a hotter ball. With a colder ball or on a cover court, the ball bounces lower, the court plays bigger and you generally have less time to play your shot. This type of game is more about volleying and hitting dying length. A slow ball or court suits the lob and drop player and less so the fast and super fit one. If you have great control you will do well on colder courts, but on the flipped of this will not be able to cover the court as well as if the ball was warmer. When I see older or less mobile people play on colder courts or with a slow ball they often attack short on the return of serve and guess a lot. Of course with short rallies like this the ball stays freezing and it suits their games even more. But if these same people played with a bouncier ball they may enjoy the longer rallies and improved cardiovascular workout. 

So what suits your game? A bouncy or cold ball or court? Or is it likely somewhere in between? If you get on court with a really bouncy ball can you adjust the height and plane of your swing? How do you tactics change? If you play with a colder ball can you move your T position up as the court will play longer and with a hotter ball do you settle a little deeper into the T? If you've played a lot of squash you likely do some of these things instinctively. 

With the racquet and string technology, there almost needs to be an even slower ball then the double yellow dot. The low tin doesn't seem to be enough for top open level players on traditional courts. Even on the glass courts at the TOC last week some of the top players couldn't make it through a single game at the Motor City Open. This isn't good for squash or for the athletes. On a standard squash court with two hard hitting open level players the rallies are still often won or lost on mistakes. If you've ever seen pros play on a traditional panel or plaster court you'll know exactly what I mean. I'm sure this will be a change at some point in the professional and maybe even the top junior game. While at the amateur level many would be better off playing with a single yellow or blue dot. This is part of the reason it takes so long to hit a drive off of the back wall as someone progresses in squash; they just can't get the ball warm enough.

In closing, at the beginning of any match I focus on finding my weight of shot. This may take time if you're playing against a hard hitter, a lob and dropper or on a different court. it gets really tricky with a super hot ball as most lengths tend to be well overhit; cause if they're not you don't have time to get to the T. If you find yourself in this situation I recommend taking a bit of pace off of your drives to find the weight. Taking that little bit of pace off the ball will make you slightly more accurate and give you a fraction of a second more time to get back to the T. Maybe because I'm shorter than some men I've played (I'm 5 foot 7) that I can't play the super hard low drives with them. That may suit some peoples game, but not mine. What type of bounce, pace and weight of drives suit your game and stature? 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Last Minute Gifts Ideas For Squash Players

Today is going to be short but sweet. If you still need to buy something for the squash player in your household what should you get? Squash players are easy to buy for. There are a few do's and don'ts. Most squash players are very particular about their racquet and shoes. As a kid I loved getting a new racquet for Christmas, but when you know what you like you don't want to switch frames. You can always buy someone shoes if you know the size and the type of shoe they like. But this isn't going to help any last minute shoppers, so what can you still pick up?

If you planned ahead you could order a squash book, but finding one of these last minute will be tough. So stick to something on the following list.
- a squash or gym membership!
- gift card to a racquet/sport store
- gift certificate for some lessons
- squash balls
- grips (Karakal!)
- string (preferably Ashway or Technifibre!)
- socks and underwear for sports! squash players always need more of these
- shorts/skirts and sport shirts
- track suit/warm up jacket or pants
- eyeguards
- nutriontal supplements, bars and gels
- skipping rope,  ladder, agilitychin-up bar, pushup handles, exercise mat
- voltaren and advil! for those nagging injuries
- foot odour destroyer powder/balls
- squash bag. the sizes vary a lot so make sure to get the right size (tournament or everyday bag)
- SquashTV membership (psasquashtv.com)
- a Gopro
- a hear rate monitor or a sports bracelet
- a gift certificate from SquashGear.com
- sessions with a personal trainer
- a float if you live in Victoria or Vancouver (floathousevictoria.com)
- tickets to an upcoming professional tournament
- and of course an online subscription to SeriousSquash.com!

You can also purchase physical tests like VO2max texting from certain sport science centres. If you purchase something like this you should always buy at least 2 so they can do a baseline measurement and a retest later in the season.

As I mentioned it would be difficult to find a squash specific book, but there are plenty of other books that are interesting reads for a squash player. The books I find most interesting are sport biographies, sport psychology, nutrition and sports training.

Hope this list helps. There are lots of cool squash gifts you can buy. Maybe you'll be really lucky and get a squash camp or flights and entry to an international squash tournament!

I hope you all have a great Christmas and a happy holidays! Thanks for reading and I'm looking forward to a great 2015 here on Serious Squash.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Don't Think, Do!

The title today may be a bit misleading. 'Don't think, do' can imply the subconscious mindset you need to play your best squash. This is the zone that we all want to play squash in. You don't want to overthink things and think about technique while you're playing a match. But today I'm going to talk about how after playing squash for a number of years you don't want to think about you think about technique at all. Most people never get to a stage where their technique is efficient enough that they don't need any technical work.

Practice after practice, for many years I always thought about how I was hitting the ball. Especially in  drills or when I was solo hitting I always worked on my swing. Even when I had playing at a men's open level for a number of years I was still working on my technique. I would film myself and tinker with it continuously. A few years ago after talking with another coach he told me that after how many balls I've hit and how long I've play that I shouldn't be thinking about my technique at all. I don't know if that was what I was waiting to hear, but since I was told that I really haven't thought about my technique at all. Sure, if I wanted to learn a new shot I would need to learn how to play it and this would involve some technical attention, but besides this I just hit the ball. This may not have seen like a bit thing, but this short discussion really changed my mindset for when I play.

Now when I play squash I focus more on feel. I also focus more on if the shot was on or not. I like to play pretty aggressive so if I tend to force a few shots now and again. But it really does free your mind not thinking about your swing. If I do a drill it's more just timing and refining a shot to become more and more consistent.

So how do you know if you get to this stage of development? Some people may never get here while other amateurs have a wild swing and don't think about their technique at all. If you're an elite player or on your way to being one, you will eventually have a moment like the one I did. Where your swing is what it is and you shouldn't tinker with it anymore. Although Nick Matthew was a top junior, he spent 2 years reworking his backhand swing. He knew it would limit him down the road and he probably wouldn't have had the success he did if he didn't spend the time refining it. So even a very elite player can benefit from some technical work.

So still the question remains, how do you know if you should continue working on your technique? Does your swing break down under a bit of pressure? Is your swing compact and consistent? Are you confident in all your shots? A swing doesn't always have to look pretty to get the job done. Even on the pro tour there are a number of variations of swings. Because there isn't 1 ideal swing, many people will have different ideas about what their swing should look like. We'll get feedback from different people, our friends or coaches about what we should work on. But at some point you're swing is set and you shouldn't focus on it anymore.

Getting some encouragement from a coach like I did can be really helpful. How else do you know your swing isn't the problem and you can begin to trust it completely? I don't have any real answers for you today. I just found that this instance really changed my game and made me a better player. We are so set on our technique for so many years that it's tough to change that mindset completely. When it happens to you you'll know and you'll understand how vital this is to playing at a high level. When this does happen squash becomes more psychological and tactical. Like I've already said, the shots I hit now are all about feel and shot selection. You'll be able to play unconsciously; you'll be able to just play and keep your head out of the way.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Extreme Squash Parenting

Today I'm going to talk about the ethical issues with a kid training to play at an elite level. At the Canadian Junior Open there was a young girl that was very good, but was pushed extremely hard by her father. I had many parents and kids talk about this and say how bad they felt for this girl. I can only imagine how many more of these cases there are in more lucrative sports. Anyways it got me thinking; what is the line? How much is too much? There is a reason they created the LTAD, but anyone that has been a top professional squash player training hard from a young age and normally began winning at a very young age.

As for this individual case, it's not up to anyone else to tell this person how to be a parent. I'm sure he's heard some remarks before. He's an intense person and eventually his daughter will grow up and either be equally as driven to succeed or driven away from her father and squash. He was right in her face, strict and to the point with his coaching. We all criticize his aggressive coaching techniques and parenting skills at this moment, but if she goes on to become a world champion he will only hear praises for his dedication and work ethic. Clearly I could never coach kids this way. It isn't my personality and I think kids would quit the sport. Yes, you may have some impressive results, but for those few that stick through it, how many would really love squash and training?

When one parent complained to me about this father's behaviour I felt impartial. Yes, I disagreed with his coaching method. But for other sports like gymnastics, kids are being coaching and trained like this because it's an early peak sport. The best gymnasts in the world are mid-teenagers. Clearly they didn't get to this standard by following the LTAD. They didn't get eased into rigorous training over a number of years. But when it comes to squash this feel different. I think some parents feel it isn't fair because their daughter wasn't nearly as strong of a player and may never be. So what can you do?

I'm sure if you went to Egypt you would see many kids playing at an incredible standard at a very young age. For me the difference here is where the motivation is coming from. Is it the young kid or the parent or coach? If a young child is intrinsically driven to play more and train hard that it great. If the parent is dictating all of this and the child is just following instructions there is an issue.

Everyone wants to believe that their child is the best and can be the best. But there are lots of kids that play squash and not everyone can become a world champion. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't allow them to follow their dreams of becoming an elite squash player. It's a parents job to aid this process. Looking back at my junior squash career. I wanted to be the best in the world. Even though I never player professionally I know that I was able to become the best in Canada just from working hard and being dedicated. It taught me I could do whatever I wanted if I put my mind to it. That hard work really does pay off and if you believe in yourself you can do anything you want. And when I was a young kid my motivation to pay and train and be the best was all internally motivated.

I haven't come to any grand conclusions about this topic. I found it quite fascinating. I'm sure as a parent you feel you know what's best for your kid. At what point is the line crossed and are you over the top and doing more damage than good? I don't know if this girl has another coach back home, or if it's just her dad that coaches her. There's always going to be a coach that enjoy working with a top athlete that will overlook the dominating father to work with the girl. Only time will tell how this will play out. I know some people hope this girl will not become a squash star because they don't approve of the method. Others feel bad for this girl as her entire life is squash. There is more to life than squash...hmm or is there??

Have you ever read Andre Agassi's biography? His dad was super strict and made him hit endless tennis balls that were fed by a homemade ball machine. Even though Agassi became the best player in the world he hated tennis and says he won't let his kids play tennis or any other individual sport. Even though he's married to Steffi Graf and their kids would likely be pretty athletic he said it's such a long and lonesome journey becoming a professional in an individual sport. As coaches how do we ensure that our athletes keep balance in their life? If we want to produce the top athletes they need to make a major dedication to their sport, which means they may lack some balance. It's an interesting debate.

Are you a squash parent? What's your take on this situation? Do you play the role of parent and coach? Or do you leave the coaching to the coach? Are your kids chasing your dreams or theirs?

Friday, December 19, 2014

Staying Active Over The Holidays

I'm back on track! Two days in a row. Today I'm going to talk about a few tips for staying fit and active over the holidays. I haven't always done this well, but I also know the importance of taking some time off. The problem with the holidays is that most people eat and drink a lot of crap and don't get any exercise. I've been guilty of this in the past and am going to try and do a better job this time around.

Yesterday I went over to the gym and did some strength training. When I was at the gym I found out they have a deal for the rest of the month for $26. I was about to pay $13 for a single visit, so I signed up for the month and plan to get my money's worth! I'm sure many gyms and squash clubs have something similar to this for the month of December. The gym isn't as busy this time of year as people have Christmas parties, are busy shopping and going out for dinners. The tricky part is that unless you're a member at a key club, many gyms and squash clubs are closed around the holidays. I don't like taking 2 or 3 days off from exercising in a row. Back in Victoria I have a gym in my building, but I'm in Ontario and will have to find other ways to get some exercise. If you have a home gym or it's warm outside you can at least do something. This is about maintaining some balance in your life. Especially if you are going to be eating a lot of junk food, make time to get some exercise in.

I find many people do absolutely nothing for a week and really enjoy it. They don't feel guilty because that's what they are supposed to be doing during the holidays as you catch up with friends and family. My brother plays squash and is pretty active so I have someone to go and work out with. Having a workout partner and someone to get you going is always nice, but even more so this time of year.

The last thing most people want to do when they have been up late at a party is to go to the gym the next day. Maybe for one of your Christmas presents you should ask or buy some home gym equipment. When I was a kid I had a treadmill, a stationary bike, a chin-up bar and a multi-faceted exercise weight machine. You can also do a lot with just a mat.

I know New Years is a time when many people are motivated to get back in shape because they've had a lapse over the holidays. This is where gyms make big money. If being healthy and active is a part of your regular daily life you won't need to make a resolution that will eventually fail anyways. Nobody is going to keep doing something they don't enjoy. If you are active and eat well you will feel so much better that you won't want to be sedentary and eat a lot of junk food. Plus if you are an active and healthy person indulging a bit over the holidays won't be too bad for you. If you stay active and still have healthy meals a few snacks in between won't do much harm. If however you eat and drink a lot and you are normally healthy and active you may not have the energy (the fuel) to go out and be active during the break.

There are always a number of squash tournaments early in January so if you eat well and stay active over the holidays you will be ahead of most of the field. If you do nothing for a couple of weeks you will have a pretty big lapse in your fitness. This goes back to the New Years resolution talk. I know when I was younger I always worried about how to maintain my fitness routines and levels year round. To play squash at a high level you need to be very fit all year round. Some people like to stagger their training so they always have say 1 strength training routine every week. Others like to focus on specific fitness attributes for a certain number of weeks or months. For example, you may want to work on your aerobic fitness by doing spinning or running 2 or 3 times per week. You wouldn't need to keep up this frequency all year round. So certain fitness levels will slightly drop throughout the year as you concentrate on others as they increase. This is why you pick and choose what you want to peak for and what your physical strength and weaknesses are. Right, so how does this have anything to do with this post? Well staying somewhat active over the holidays will help keep up your overall fitness, regardless of the intensity; something is better than nothing and even if your goal is to maintain your current level you're doing great. It's okay to have a slight dip, if you stay relatively active you can pick things up again pretty quickly. If you are inactive and unhealthy it will take much longer.

That's it for today. I'm going to go to the gym now and ride the bike for half an hour. I hope all of you stay active and have a few healthy meals between your holiday snacking. Don't get me wrong, the holidays are a nice time for a break, but try and make some time for exercising. Do you have any strategies for staying active and healthy over the holidays? Do you make New Years resolutions? If you want to share any that have to do with squash, heathy or fitness let me know.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Playing The Big Points Well

I've been busy the past week at the Canadian Junior Open but I am getting back on track with my posts. Today I'm going to talk about playing the big points well. I consider a big point near the end of games and matches. A big point can be at 6 all or 9-7. Playing a point a rally scoring method makes a single rally at the late stages of a game extremely important. You can go from leading by 3 with game ball to being up just 1 point. Almost as important as the score differential is the momentum gained or lost. Sometimes a big rally is a really long and physically gruelling point. if you win one of these tough rallies it can crack your opponent and turn the match around.

The mental game is such an important factor in winning the big points and eventually the match. I've done a previous post on Gaultier's mental collapse http://www.serioussquash.com/2014/11/gaultier-breakdown-vs-ashour.html. This doesn't happen to everyone and at all levels. In the World semi's Gaultier was physically taxed which played a big part of his mental collapse. Although we may not be as physically damaged as Gaultier was during this match we can still suffer from the same heart breaking loss he felt. There are very few people that can lose a close game that they should have or could have won and don't let it affect them one bit the following game. 

So what qualities enable someone to play points well? Is it something that you are born with or nurtured to do well? If you don't play the big points well there are a couple of questions you have to ask yourself. Here they are.
1) Are you fit enough? Are you getting tired at the end of games and giving up cheap points? Do you have trouble keeping up the same level of play throughout the match? 
2) Do you get nervous near the end of a game? 
3) Do you get ahead of yourself? Do you think the game is over before it is? 
4) Do you try to rush to finish off the game? 

I believe these are the biggest issues facing people that fail to play well at the end of games. What should you be doing and thinking instead? Do you play the same throughout the entire game or do you change your tactics slightly towards the end of the game? This is what we're going to talk about now.

1) Fitness
If you're tired and not fit enough you can still play big points well. This takes a lot of mental strength and discipline. I find this easier if you believe and know you can beat this person. You are able to push harder and you can overlook the physical fatigue and pain. Somehow when you're on court with someone you think is fitter and/or at a higher standard we can mentally cave in slightly easier. I can't say that this happens for everyone, but I do believe this to be true for most people. Those that can play at a high standard through physical distress are extremely difficult to beat. This is why I feel that psychological strength is such a crucial skill to be a top competitive squash player. 

Clearly preparing properly for competition is important not only for your physical fitness but as well for your confidence and psychological strength when things get tough. Training hard also makes you a little mentally stronger. You improve your ability at pushing though the pain barrier. You don't stop your session when you feel tired. How long can you keep pushing through the discomfort? Can you learn to enjoy this painful sensation? This reminds me of another quote, 'when you think you cannot go on any longer, you are on the verge of doing something special.' This builds your mental strength and confidence in your ability to play long and hard matches. 

2, 3, 4) Nerves, Thinking Ahead and Rushing
Many people get nervous at the start of a match. We then settle down until it gets to a late stage of a match. Getting nervous has to do with thinking ahead and rushing to finish things off. Here the big problem is that we begin thinking. Our focus shifts from just playing (the process) to winning (the outcome). When we start thinking about the future we are no longer in the zone. When this happens our actions are delayed as they involve thought and reaction opposed to instinctive play. 

I find it fascinating that to have the best chance of winning you can't focus on it. If you try too hard and think about just trying to win the game you won't be playing the same you did throughout the rest of the game. You'll notice that most people get down game ball and start hitting everything as hard as possible. And other times people think they are going to lose and often play better because they relax and stop focusing on winning. If we can focus on the process all the way through a game we improve our chances of winning. When you try and finish off a game when you're ahead you are prone to rush things. If you begin thinking 'I may actually win this game,' or 'I can't believe I might beat him,' you are setting yourself up for disappointment. If this situation presents itself you may feel you need to play low percentage shots to try and squeak the game from the stronger opponent instead of just playing the same way that got you into this winning position. 

What happens when you get to a tight part of the game? Do you keep playing the same shots? Do you play slightly more conservative when you get to the end of the game? What can you do if you want to play the big points better? 

The first thing is deciding if you want to play the same way regardless of the score. This is what many of the Egyptians are able to do and is why it so challenging to play them. They play without any hesitation or fear. This can be a tricky thing to do when you get to a big point or after a few errors. If you play one way all of the time you don't have to worry much about playing the big points well; you will likely have 1 tactic and stick with it no matter what (attacking or defensive).

Many of us would benefit more from formulating a plan for these situations before getting into competition. If it's 10-9, 9-10, 9 or 10 all what do you do? If you're nervous you should try and sow thing down between points. Take a deep breath, stick to your routine and use positive self-talk. As for the tactics at this stage of a game. Depending on how confident you feel at that moment you would benefit from picking the right time to attack short. If you can feel the nervous tension in your body you will have to be a bit more cautious. I believe you have to go for your shots when they're on, but you won't be as accurate when you're body is tight and your mind is racing. If you don't have a good attacking game or have much confidence in your short game you will have to keep the rally deep and try to win in the back or hope you're opponent makes a mistake. In my opinion this isn't the best strategy for long term success in the big points. I feel that you are better learning to control your nerves and maintain your focus on the present and on the process. 

You can see there are a few ways you can play the big points. If you wait to get into this situation to decide what you should do you may make a decision based on your fatigue along with yours and your opponents perceived abilities. What is your strength and your opponents weakness? This is always a good way to play a higher percentage point. 

Some people have a history of winning or losing tight games. If you're one of the people that's notorious for losing close games you have to ask yourself a few questions. Is your fitness to blame? Do you get ahead of yourself? Are you nervous and tight? Do you lose your focus and think ahead to what may or may not happen? If you know what is happening you will have a better chance of being able to change your underachieving history. 

The best method for playing the big points well is to be fit, stay in the present, focus on the processed and planning ahead for these situations. Know your strengths and your opponents weaknesses. Focus on what you can control. Plus winning breads confidence. When you win a couple of tight games your confidence will increases and you will be more likely to win big points down the road.

I've seen a few people that enjoy big moments in matches. Some naturally get tight and don't play well, while others appear to stay more relaxed and enjoy these situations. Clearly if you an enjoy thee moments you will play them with a clearer head and less tension in your body. Learning how to enjoy these and stay calm is easier said than done. 

I can't finish this conversation without noting how often I hear people blame 1 instance near the end of the game for losing. This may be a bad call or a lucky shot. Whatever it is, I don't like making excuses and pointing the blame. If you haven't read this previous post you can do so here http://www.serioussquash.com/2014/12/no-complaining-no-excuses-just-play.html. One point is never the reason for losing an entire match. Even though it may be a big point, it is just 1 of the many rallies you play. If you let a match come down to extra points in the 5th game anything can and will happen. You don't want to end up in a situation where the referee or 1 lucky or unlucky bounce is the difference between winning and losing. It's what got you to that point in the match that has put you into the current predicament. The last rally or 2 is a small sample of a large number of rallies. Every point is important so play them all as such.




Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Tactical Talk: Shot Combinations

Today I'm going to discuss tactics. I'm going to talk mostly about shot combinations. What is your best shot and what is your favourite shot? How do you set yourself up to get more of these opportunities in a match? This is what shot combinations are. When you play a great boast do you instinctively look to cut off the crosscourt? Experienced players know what they are trying to do in a rally. They know their strengths and weaknesses and know how to make their opponent play to their strengths.

Top players are quite advanced tactically and have a lot of lethal shot combinations. Many plan 1, 2 3 or more shots ahead and change how they compose their rallies depending on their opponent. They will pick up on cues and look to expose them later on that rally or sometime in the near future. If they notice your hanging back on the T or not covering a short ball they will make a mental note of this for next time. Most amateur players don't recognize any patterns of play. This is a major part of learning the game and an area that can help you improve instantly. Here's how.

The first thing I like to do is think about what your best shots are? How do you win most of your points? Can you set up a game plan around these shots? Just having a strategy and thinking about your game in this way will make you better. You will continue developing and refining this as your game evolves and eventually you will be one of those crafty, smart, analytical players.

The second thing I like to do is practice drills in probable game type situations. For example, you may play a length game, but you can play a volley drop if you volley a crosscourt drive. This is one way to compose a rally with length. Hit it tight and put pressure and wait to expose your opponent when they play a lose crosscourt drive. You will begin to recognize pressure and openings and will start anticipating the next move easier. This is what makes people so fast on the court.

Experienced players will know when to stick to a game plan and when to adjust it. Just because you lose a game, it doesn't mean your game plan should change. When should you stick with it and when should you alter it? Some very experienced players will have a game plan that adjusts slightly as the match progresses while others. They know their opponent will be slowing down slightly and can open up the court more. A lot of us may play like this without even realizing it. This is why attention to detail and experience are so valuable. The better technical player doesn't always win the match, especially at the amateur level.

Before getting into specific shot combinations, I want to discuss one last thing. When you play, each shot should have a purpose. Don't just hit aimlessly to a corner. You should be trying to apply pressure, relieve pressure, extend rallies to tire out your opponent or neutralize their attack; whatever the case is, each shot you hit should have a purpose.

Now let's look at some shot combinations. I'm going to talk about possible combinations after you execute a good shot and put your opponent under a bit of pressure. Of course there are shot combinations on the defensive side of things as well, but this is more on your opponents terms than yours!

Following up after a straight drive that applies pressure: this depends on the depth, pace and tightness. The more pressure the less options your opponent will have available. This is why this is such a great shot. If you hit a dying length your opponent will be limited to a boast or back wall boast. You should be able to see them shaping up for these and then you have to know what you want to do to finish them off. If they hit a weak boast do you play a quick counter drop? This depends how high their boast is and how quick you get on it. You can also get their early and delay and then send it right back to the same corner. This doesn't work often at the amateur level as many amateurs sit and wait in the back corner when they think the rally is over with. So you should practice attacking off of a boast and back wall boast so you are comfortable when these situations arise. If you're opponent is only under a moderate amount of pressure they may be limited to a straight drive or a boast. This means you can poach on the T and look to cut off the ball if the hit a drive and you can still cover the boast. If you get a loose drive do you play the volley drop, boast or a hard low crosscourt drive? Again this depends on what you are good at and how well your opponent hit their drive. Practice volleying off a straight drive when you know they can't get a crosscourt by you.
Drills to practice:
1. Rotating drives with the option to volley crosscourt drive
2. Rotating drives with the option to boast, you can hit anything off of the boat
3. Length game with the option to go short off the volley, straight or crosscourt length off the short ball
4. Straight game (short or deep)

Following up after a crosscourt drive that applies pressure: a good crosscourt drive should make your opponent unable to hit a crosscourt drive back behind you. So if you hit a good width you should again be look g to force a boast. At the worst you want to limit them to a straight drive or a boast option. If they are under pressure you can anticipate a loss drive and look to volley it. The options you'll play off their boast or loose drive are quite similar to the ones above.
Drills to practice: see above (after a straight drive that applies pressure).

Following up after a tight drop shot: if you get your drop right on the side wall they will be very limited. If they are late to your drop and it's tight they will be even more limited. Here is where you get behind your opponent, push up on the T and look for the loose drive and stroke or a weak crosscourt. Only the top players will be able to hit a decent width off a clinger. If your opponent manages to hit a counter drop or lift the ball high and tight the tables may turn or you may have to rest the point.
Drills to practice:
1. Straight drive straight drive drop
2. Straight drive straight drive, straight drop, straight drop
3. Straight or crosscourt drive, straight drive, straight drop, straight or crosscourt drive
4. Long, long, short
5. Boast, straight drop or drive, drive off the drop and boast off the drive

Following up after a working boast that applies pressure: the later the are to the ball the less options they will have. If they are late they will have a lot of difficulty trying to counter drop or hit a straight drive. If you hit a good attacking boast you should look to volley a loose crosscourt drive. If they do happen to go straight it will likely be off target and you can still cut across and look for the stroke. If your opponent happens to hit a good lob then you just reset the rally.
Drills to practice:
1. Rotating drives with the option to boast, straight or crosscourt length off the boast
2. length game with the option to boast, anything off the boast
3. Straight drive, straight drive, boast or drop
4. Boast, straight or crosscourt drive, straight drive

Following up after A lob:
Drills to practice:
1. Boast, straight or crosscourt lob, straight drive
2. Boast, straight or crosscourt lob, straight drive, if you can volley the straight drive you can drop or boast
3. Boast, crosscourt lob, straight drive, if you can volley the straight drive you can hit a straight drive of boast
4. You can only hit under the service line if you volley

You can see this is just a list of the most common shots that produce weak responses. You can also expect certain shots back because of how someone sets up for the ball and by their shot history. There are also a number of other shots that you can hit that can produce weak replies. Basically you need to know what to do in the front and middle of the court when your opponent is stuck in one of the 4 corners. It's great to set up the loose ball, but you need to know what to do with it!

After a shot from any corner if I hit a good shot that limits the opponents options at all I'm looking to poach my position on the T and cut the ball off. If I didn't hit my best shot I will have to wait more in the middle of the court until I can either anticipate what the shot will be, or if it's a top player until they actually hit the ball. Most amateurs I can read very easily, but you don't want to give time to a good player, especially at the front of the court.

After Your Best Shots - whatever your best shots are you should know which options your opponent is limited to after you hit them. This of course is assuming that you hit your target. Just as above, when you squeeze your opponent or put them under a lot of time or spacial pressure they will be limited to what you can do. How do you follow your shot up and keep the pressure on? If they hit a quality defensive shot you may have to reset the rally, but you should be expecting a loose response after you hit your best shots. If your opponent is putting you under pressure off of your best shots chances are they are reading you too easily and/or they are at a higher standard.

Basically anytime you can hit a shot that limits your opponents options you are in good shape. Don't let these situations pass you by. I've talked about many of them already.

Another way that players think ahead a number of shots is by lulling them to sleep. Some smart players will lull you into a pattern and then apparently at random will do something that completely catches you off guard. They are likely thinking about setting you up for this well before it happens. They may have it in mind that they are going to hit the first few shots deep from the front and bury you further back in the court and then play a trickle boast later in the game when they need a point. I'll go one step further and not play any 2 wall attacking boasts from the back of the court until later in the match. When the person is starting to get comfortable, hanging back slightly on the T and perhaps even moving or leaning their weight before I hit the ball I'll mix things up on them with a boast. As they have been lulled into this length from the back and are not as fast off the mark, this is normally a winning shot or at a minimal puts them under a lot of pressure. If they don't get the boast back they expect to see if again pretty soon.

Many players have a general strategy when the play. They may for example want to keep the ball to your backhand. So when the ball is over on the forehand side they don't just hit it crosscourt every time. This would be too obvious and it's difficult to do off of a tight ball. So here they may wait until they have an opening that they know they can get the crosscourt wide enough and by you. Once they have done this, depending on the quality of their crosscourt you will be limited to what you can do next. They will then likely have a combination to play afterwards. If you hit a straight drive they may be there to volley it, either a drop if it's loose or something deep if it's tighter. If they forced you to boast they will read this and try and get on it early and have many options to attack. So you can see how important experience is. A technically strong player that has no game plan and is not thinking ahead is always going to be on the receiving end of the rallies and reacting to what the smarter player does.

In the end it doesn't matter how pretty your swing looks and how hard you hit the ball if you can't think the game. Squash is a very strategic game. You should spend a lot of time not just refining your technique and shots, but learning to make decisions, play combinations of shots, while also learning to anticipate and deceive your opponents. And everyone is different, so to be best prepare you need to play a wide variety of players. This is also why I think condition games and drills with options are so important to do. We learn when to keep the pressure on, reset, how to get out of pressure and it keeps us thinking. When we do a repetitive drill our brain can be pretty inactive as we don't have many decisions to make. We may be thinking just if you can volley or not or if you need to hit the ball before or after the back wall, but if you'r not thinking about which shot is the best option. Make condition games a more integral part of your training.

There are countless ways to win a point meaning there are endless combinations. Can you find one that works well for you? Which is you best shot? It may be any chance you get to play it. What is your most effective shot combination?


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Meditation For Health, Happiness and Your Squash Game

Today I'm going to talk about meditation. Meditation is and includes relaxation and breathing exercises. I'm certainly no expert in meditation, but I know full well the benefits they can have on your health and your squash game. I've read a number of Zen books and have a pretty thorough understanding of the concept of meditation. Taking some time for yourself can help clear the mind. When a professional athlete gets to the highest level the psychological skills to perform at their highest level every time they play is what makes them special. Having control of their concentration and a clear mind is a big part of this. The good news is that you don't need to be a professional athlete  or a monk to try and benefit from mediation.

From what I've read you don't even have to follow the guidelines in Zen books. In Zen you are supposed to sit a certain way with good posture. If this is what works for you then great. But I think you can take a mental time out in a variety of ways. I go for a weekly 90 minute float in a float tank. This is time away from your computer, your phone and work. It's a time to just sit. Sometimes I am able to simply count my breathing and quiet my mind while other times my thoughts drift around. No matter what happens though I always get out and feel much more energized.

What you want to do during mediation is up to you. When you try not to think, you aren't really in a relaxed frame of mind. So personally I don't worry about this. If something enters your brain just let it go, but don't force it out. The idea is to be living in the present. That you are the centre of your universe. Your attention moves inward. Focusing on your breathing allows your attention to be in the now. After trying some mediation and floating I realize how frequently my thoughts drift to the future and the past. All we have is this present moment so this is where we should focus our attention and energy and to just live. This is the mindset we need to play our best squash. When I was younger I would spend most of my time and effort trying to achieve future goals. Little did I realize I was so focused on the future that I didn't always take care or enjoy of the present. Having gaols is great, but we shouldn't spend all of our time and effort living in the future.

So how exactly does mediation help your squash game? Well for starters, I read recently that their was a Harvard study that suggested that after 6 weeks of regular meditation the participants gray matter density in their brain increased. http://www.feelguide.com/2014/11/19/harvard-unveils-mri-study-proving-meditation-literally-rebuilds-the-brains-gray-matter-in-8-. The participants also said they felt less stressed after doing their meditation. So meditation is relaxing, but also improves our brain functioning. When I was young I had poor concentration. I think this is why I didn't enjoy reading and had trouble with imagery. So I feel that mediation can help your focus and concentration. As I've already said, mediation can allow you to enter into the now by focusing on your breathing. This can be extremely beneficial before and during a squash match. If you're nervous or feel some anxiety, doing some breathing exercises and meditation can calm you down and bring you back into the present. I've read Phil Jackson's book, Sacred Hoops. Phil said he had team mediation sessions when he coached the Lakers. Sometimes in the heat of battle being able to step back and take a breath can give you an edge. When we become too emotional we can use mediation and breathing to relax us, refocus and recenter.

I don't have all of the answers about mediation. But I have come across a website that is designed specifically to help people meditate. You can check it out here calm.com. It's an interesting concept. Is staring at a computer screen the best way to unwind? I'm not sure, but you can always close your eyes and listen to it. You can select how long of a timer you want to set, change the display and they have a person talking to help guide you through some relaxation. They also have an app for the iPhone and Android. You may find a simple app like this helps you relax and sleep better during tournaments.

I've found meditation and imagery to be one of the toughest areas to teach. Just like when I was a kid, many kids don't have the concentration and can't sit still or just don't appreciate this part of the game yet. It is something that I believe is important to introduce to kids that want to play competitively. Psychological skills and mediation goes much beyond squash. Like any skill you get better with practice. So stick with it and make it a part of your routine.

I know a lot of yoga classes have a breathing and mediation aspect to them. I really enjoy floating. Some people find running to be therapeutic. Run hard enough until your mind wants to stop and all the other mental noise is drowned out.

Do you have any experience with mediation? Have you ever read or heard of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind? It's a good into book to Zen. It was written for western culture. Zen has been through fads on the North America's west coast. How about the book 'The Power Of Now' by Eckhart Tolle? If you're just getting into mediation or Zen I would recommend these two books.

 I find it fascinating and believe we would all be happier and healthier and of course play better squash if we made a little quiet time for ourselves once in a while. Maybe you're thinking, who has time to meditate every day? You likely do, but also it doesn't have to be something you do every day. If you end up feeling better because of it, it will be worth every minute of it and you won't want to go a day without it. It can reduce your stress, improve your brain functioning, help you control your emotions, improve your concentration and can benefit your squash game. If you don't already meditate, I hope I'v'e convinced you to give it a try.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Slow Motion Backhand Straight Drive

video

Today I'm going to show you something. Yes, that's right. I have a short video clip for you. I've been working on the same area with a few people recently, so I figure this would be w worthwhile post for many of you. As I mentioned before, I use my iPhone 6 for coaching quite a bit. You can film in slow motion and it provides great feedback. For a while I used this sow motion recording and I tried showing and explaining where a swing went wrong. Eventually I realized I needed to film myself in slow motion so they can see what I'm talking about and compare their swing.

Here are the most common areas I focus on when teaching a backhand drive to someone. 

Wrist Cocked: the main area that most people have difficulty with on their backhand is getting the wrist cocked and keeping it cocked during the initial part of their downswing. You'll see that I lead with y elbow and the butt of the racquet while my wrist stays cocked and the racquet face open. It isn't until later in the downswing that my wrist extends (not backwards though). This allows me to create extra racquet head speed. 

Racquet Preparation and Torque: you'll also notice that I generate a lot of torque. Even though I'm not trying to hit the ball very hard and the ball is cold. I start with my racquet back by my left shoulder. I like to focus on getting the top of my grip near my left shoulder. I then rotate at my trunk and shoulders to produce more torque in my core, all while keeping my wrist cocked. 

Posture: The last area that I want to point out is my poster. If I was warm and hitting in a game I would be a bit lower and the ball would be bouncier, but I want you to look at my back. I'm leaning out over to hit the ball but I still have good posture with my back. It takes a lot of core and leg strength to be able to hit like this. Because of my strength and posture I can keep my shoulder and hips more squared up to the sidewall through impact. 

Here's a Youtube link incase the video above doesn't work too well.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXzwL4L9efE&feature=youtu.be

If you have a slow motion camera, film yourself hitting some drives and compare it with mine. At least look for the 3 areas I talked about above. How do you measure up? 

When I work with kids on getting their wrist cocked in their backswing I focus on getting set. Find the right position to start your swing from. Then lead with the elbow and the butt of the racquet. The wrist should stay cocked until later into the downswing. When I watched two of the top women play on the the weekend at the World Team Championships, I saw even some dramatic differences within the top players. Nour El Sherbini from Egypt has a very cocked wrist on her backhand. Whereas Low Wee Wern has a more relaxed wrist, still cocked, but not as pronounced as Sherbini's. If you get to watch these two players again look for this. There is more than 1 way to get a good result. But I prefer Sherwin's backhand. I think Wern has more of an open grip on her backhand, meaning she doesn't need to cock her wrist as much, but this gets her into trouble on her forehand drop because her racquet face is too closed. But this is just my opinion. If you can get a backhand that resembles either of these two ladies you're well on your way! 

I may look at doing more video, and in particular slow motion in the future. Let me know iyour thought and f you find it helpful. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Women's World Team Championships

Today I'm am going to discuss the Women's World Team Championships. I am very late getting around to this topic, especially seeing they are being held here in Canada! The are playing at White Oaks in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario. I am heading to that club next week for the Canadian Junior Open, but that's another post. I have to say the glass court looks great and the club is steaming matches on 3 courts in total. You can tell they got a good deal of government funding to run the event.

You can watch the matches here http://www.sportscanada.tv/index.php/upcoming/444-2014-women-s-world-team-squash-championship or on SquashTV on HD here www.womensworldteams.com/squashtv. I'm unsure if SquashTV will be showing all of the matches, or just the semifinals and finals now.  SquashTV is trying a new 2.0 HD stream and it does look really good. It's also been fun listening to Jonathan Power commentate.

I've only been able to watch a few matches with the time difference and my work schedule. As usual, I have a few comments though. Why do they play the 3rd match in the knock out round? If a team wins the first 2 matches they are through, but they still play the best of 3 for the last one. I saw some of these scores and times and they were only about 10 minutes in length. What's the point? That's not helping the event or women's squash. They shouldn't have to play, or they can play their alternates if they want to get a match in for the audience. I really can't understand this one. I get it earlier in the box format where every match counts, but in the knock out rounds this match is meaningless and nobody is going to put in a great deal of effort because they have a match the next day.

My next comment is about having 3 players per team. Do 3 players really represent which country has the best squash talent? At the varsity level in the States the top 9 positions count. In Ontario it's the top 6.  In Toronto squash league it's 5 per team. I would love to see more people on each team. I think this would make the tournament a lot more interesting and would provide more validation for the top country for women's squash! Not just who has the top 2 players! I know this brings the cost up dramatically. Hopefully if squash gets in the Olympics all the countries will get more funding and we can improve events like this.

My next comment has to do with the well documented absence of India's top player, Dipika Pallikal. How could India's top female squash player not know that the Women's World Team Championships was being hosted at this time. I read a few articles documenting this. From what I read, Dipika was emailed and asked to respond by a certain date and didn't. And when the national coach followed up and told her that her funding was dependant on it she declined to play. Saying she didn't know about the event. I don't know exactly how it went down, but this is good Canada! As we beat India today mainly because of Dipika's absence. Thanks Dipika! I know there is no money on the line and there isn't much money to be made on the WSA tour, so who is really to blame here? All of the other top women are here. Is it because they need the funding? Most probably love this event I bet. It's not very often you get to represent your country. It's what most kids dream about. The good thing about squash is that we are a small sport and I don't expect our top players will ever all decide not to participate; like what often happens at the World Basketball Championships. After playing a long NBA season, not all of the players want to risk injury and do more travelling. They want to enjoy some time sleeping in their own bed; I can't blame them for that and the can certainly afford to take the time off!

While I'm on the topic of the WSA, what do you think about the merging PSA and WSA in 2015? Will this help professional squash? Will it make any difference? When I mentioned this to the kids I coach, some asked if they were combining the rankings and if they would have to play one another!! Who knows, maybe one day. But I do think that it will help with the calendar of events. Hopefully they will align more of their competitions. I think the men would like having the women around. They want to impress the women with their squash ability, the very few women that would be impressed by someone's squash game. I know it sounds silly. But I do think this would improve the vibe at events and the camaraderie between the players. I have only ever played 1 PSA event and watched a few others, so I know there are people that are much better qualified to give their opinion on this topic. I'd be interested to hear what the men and women think. Do they prefer the events where they have both, is it a bit distracting, or do they not care either way?

I don't know how else the PSA and WSA will change the professional tour. Time will tell. I'm assuming that this will ensure the women will have a world championships ever year now! And hopefully they will get more coverage on SquashTV. I know some previous events they've showed the women but didn't have any commenting. They just basically left the cameras rolling. I've also said before that some of the women are less experienced on the glass court so sometimes the matches are lopsided and the rallies are quite short. This will continue to improve with more exposure. I think most amateurs appreciate good squash, man or woman, it doesn't matter. We can all appreciate good shots, retrieving and a good taxi!

The merger could pave the way for more young female junior squash players. They need role models to look up to, someone to aspire to become. For a long time the men have had all the spotlight, which yes is the highest level of squash in the world, but we all want to see more women and in particular young girls play. This may be a step in this direction. I know things have changed already since Nicol David, but I haven't heard of any young girls watching WSA matches online, or having their idol's poster in their bedroom. It's much different for boys. We have Jonathan Power Harrow or Shabana Dunlop racquet, or a Palmer BK frame. We have posters or got an autograph at some point. I know I'd like the young girls I coach to have role models to look up to and aspire to be. The women's game is also slightly different tactically and watching the top women play will help them lean and then this means the future of the women's game will continue improving year after year. I feel that SquashTV has dramatically improved the quality of the men's game and I'm sure it will do the same for the women's.

Last point. Does anyone else find it strange that Squash Canada is introducing 3 of their men into the hall of fame at this event? Shouldn't this event be focused around women's squash? We've had some great female squash players and coaches. Maybe one of them could be inducted instead..just a thought. But maybe since the PSA and WSA are about to merge it's not too big of a deal.

Alright, that's enough. I hope you're enjoying the Women's World Team Championships! Go Canada Go!!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

No Complaining, No Excuses, Just Play

Today I'm going to discuss something that sounds so simple, but as we look into it is isn't. Today I'm going to talk about not making up any excuses, ever. This isn't only done by kids, I hear a lot of people make excuses. It's as if they are sparing their ego from the outcome. It wasn't their fault they lost or may lose. And it wouldn't be the opponent that played better and won, no that couldn't be it. It's human nature to internalize winning and externalize losing.

I have to start off by saying that I am not a saint either. Especially when I was a kid, I would always make an excuse for a loss, real or imagined isn't the point here. Often our excuses are based on some relatively valid point. Maybe we didn't get enough sleep, or we had a hard draw, whatever it is, yes that may be the case. But I don't like hearing people say or think these things. This gives them an out a reason to accept defeat if things start going wrong. Not only that, but your focus is self-destructive and negative. Instead of preparing for you match and on your squash game you are spiralling further from where you need to be psychologically when you step out on court. If you start the match thinking how there is a conspiracy against you, you're in trouble.

Squash is an individual sport. This is normally what people love about it. What happens is directly influenced by how you play. When you play well you don't overthink things and you're generally positive. When you have a self-destructive thought in your head you don't have any hope of playing your best squash.

Some people don't even realize they are making excuses or complain, it's so ingrained. Here is a list of many of the complaints I've heard before even stepping on court.
- I'm so tired
- I don't feel well
-  ______ hurts
- I have a terrible draw
- I didn't have enough time to recover between matches
- this is too late
- I don't like these courts/ they don't suit my game
- I'm not fit enough
- I don't like this shirt
- I don't like wearing my eye guards
- This person is in the wrong division/ this person is too good for me
- This is too early/late to play squash
- This is too many matches in 1 day
- That person has been training really hard and playing well
- My opponent just beat this person, I can't beat them
- I have a test tomorrow/I have so much homework

Here's some I've heard between games
- I'm tired
- I don't feel well
- They hit so many lucky shots
- That's the worse I've ever played
- The ref is blind
- My opponent is blocking/I keep bumping into them
- My opponent isn't calling their shots down/out

After the match is over I've head
- I didn't play well
- They were lucky
- I didn't feel good tonight
- The reffing was brutal
- The courts were terrible
- I never play well against this person
- The floors were slippery
- The ball was bouncing weird
- Something was wrong with the ball
- I really don't like playing that person

You get the point. And regardless of what is true, suck it up and play on. If you can just accept that different challenging situations and look at them just as that, you will handle them better. Getting flustered and angry doesn't help. You still have to go out there and play the match. Go and compete. That is all that you can control. You go and give it your best and see what happens. Maybe you'll surprise yourself and handle a tough situation really well. The more positive you can interpret these the better you will do and the less they will rattle you.

Some of the things I listed above can be solved by preparing properly. Warming up, having back up racquets, new grips and the rest of your equipment is all stuff you can control. The stuff outside of your control, like being a little banged up, your draw, who you play, the ball, the facility and the ref are no under your control. Many of these also are the same for both players. Maybe the court isn't great, maybe its too cold or warm, or the ball is skidding; but this is the same for both of you. Normally whoever can accept this and focus on adjusting to the conditions will play better and win the match. Focusing on things outside of your control is a waste of time. So take notice when these thoughts do come up. Slap yourself out of it and have a positive attitude.

If you do end up losing. Congratulate your opponent, thank the ref and let any companies go. They only make things worse for you. Many people have difficulty accepting defeat. If you can't think of something nice to say, don't say anything.

Life is filled with things that are unpredictable, that we can't control. The same goes for squash. When you learn to accept this you'll be better off for it. Even if it's an extreme situation and your opponent serves out at match point and the ref doesn't call it. Just put your finger up and play the rally out. Many people in this situation just stop altogether and lose the point. Of if they do play the rally they are distracted and keep looking back at the ref. I know this is a tough spot as the ref and your opponent are responsible for calling this shot out, but it's outside of your control. How you handle the most difficult of situations like this one reveal the type of character you have and the person you are. I know this is incredibly tough to do in the heat of the moment, but it like everything else is a learned behaviour and skill. Learn to let these things go and you'll be happier, play better and focus on simply playing your best squash possible.

When you win,  be humble and gracious. We like to internalize victories, which is fine if you do the same for defeats. Sometimes it helps to have someone blunt in your corner so they can tell thing like they are.

The goal is to become the best you can be and become more consistent at your weekly matches and in tournaments. If you can stay eivenkeeled before, during and after your matches, win or lose, you are well on your way. If you learn to just play and never look to complain about a situation, it's just one step up you have on all of your opponents. It's also one less thing to distract you from your match. This is what it takes to become a top pro. Pros have to deal with so many variables at every event. If they give an inch mentally it will likely be the difference between winning and going home.

Enjoy the competition and the challenge of your matches. No Complaining, No Excuses, Just Play!


Staying Positive After A Loss

There's a famous saying that goes something like this, 'don't let a win go to your head and a loss to your heart.' Staying positive after making an error and losing a point is one thing, but how do you stay confident and upbeat after losing a match? This is an important discussion because we all lose. We have all had tough loses, either very tight matches that could have went either way, or just performed below our standard and lost to a player we believe we should have beaten.

John Wooden, the legendary college basketball coach at UCLA once stated that the only thing worse than losing too much is winning too much. At one stage, Wooden's team won over 50 straight games and he said his team felt the pressure every night and weren't able to play up to their potential. For most of us, winning too much isn't a problem. If that is happening you need to face some stiffer competition.

I've been in this spot a few times in my life where I was the best player at my club and didn't lose a match for months or even a year at a time. It's pretty nice winning all of the time, but it isn't good preparation for tougher competition. I would go to a big event with evenly matched competition and I wasn't properly prepared. It's tough to simulate that level of competition and pressure. I wasn't prepared mentally either. Sometimes I would have trouble during the big points simply because I hadn't encountered these situations in training. I also had difficulty preparing for a tougher match because normally you are so relaxed when you know who you're playing and that you won't be challenged. If you don't get a healthy dose of competition from time to time it's hard to believe that you belong out there and that you are capable of beating who you perceive to be a stroneger player. So if you win too often, set up some tougher matches! If you lose to much set up some easier ones and get some wins. Neither is healthy for your game.

I can't remember for sure, but I believe this story was about Tiger Woods. When he was a boy he would play people better than him a third of the time, close to his level one third of the time and not as good as him the other third. When we play people better than us we learn, but we are under lots of pressure so we don't get to practice different shots and tactics. When we play someone close to our level we learn how to play in tight matches and get an even balance of attacking and defending. When we play someone that isn't as strong as us we can work on various parts of our game; you can try different types of serves, to volley a lot, some holds, etc. I think it's important to have this balance. So whether it's losing a single match or a few in a tournament it is necessary expereicne for your development as a squash player. If you only win you won't think you need to work harder and try to improve various parts of your game.

We all lose, so how do you stay positive after a loss? The first thing I ask myself is how I played. Sometimes we think we played poorly, but really this may not be true. Maybe we played at our potential, but our opponent was just a little better. The way squash is scored you can win more points than your opponent and still lose the match. Does this mean you didn't play better than your opponent? This is why I always try and focus on the process of the match. If I won and didn't play well I may be content that I was able to battle through it and pull out the win, but I won't be satisfied with my level of play.

I think most people look into a loss too much. We want answers and don't know why all of our training hasn't paid off. If you have a really bad loss, sometimes the best thing to do is not even think about what happened. Just toss that one out and forget about it. Often after a tough loss sometimes the best thing to do is get back out there and play again. When we sit around and think too much about a loss we get down on ourself and lose confidence in our ability. A single outcome doesn't mean that is who you are. Be respectful to your opponent and even if you think you played awful congratulate them on playing well. It's disrespectful to take a cheap shot and make excuses; valid or not.

Now let's talk about staying positive after a poor result at a competition. Everyone but 1 person in your draw is going to lose a match. Unless you're a professional all but the 2 finalists will likely have to play after losing a match. This is why it's crucial to have a short term memory after a loss. You'll feel much better about your game if you can back up a loss with a good win. I've seen a lot of people drop out of tournaments after they get knocked out of the main round. This is ridiculous. Unless you are injured or sick you should play out the event. If you drop out you make it unfair for some of the other players and this also demonstrates that you are completely absorbed in the results. Put your ego aside and get in there and try your best.

If you have a poor showing at a tournament when you get home you can analyze it. This is a good method for setting and adjusting your goals. Were you prepared for the tournament? What can you do to prepare better next time? What did you do well at the event? When we are unhappy with our performance it's easy to be too critical, but normally we aren't too far off the pace or our standard. Make a list of 3 things you did well. How was your fitness? How was your warmup? Did you eat well and stretch after your matches? These are all things that everyone can take care of even if your squash isn't the highest standard. If you worked hard up to the competition and did the little things before and after your matches you should be proud of yourself. If you continue doing this the results will come. If you didn't prepare properly than you know what you need to improve for the next tournament.

Sometimes what we've been working on in practice doesn't show up in tournament play. We get nervous and play different opponents. Something is on the line and we aren't able to play how we normally do, how we would like to. How can you improve this? The first thing you can do is keep playing tournaments. The more you play, generally you get better at handling your nerves and playing up to your ability. Also changes in tactics or technique take a lot of time for the muscle memory to kick in. Don't give up on it if you believe in the changes you're making. In competition many of us are only focused on that point, game, match and event. We don't trust the shots we should be hitting and have worked on. This is very psychological. We have too much pride to maybe lose this game so we resort back to what we're comfortable with and what we've done all along. This also happens when we get tired. When we're fatigued we usually fall back into our old habits.

I like to use this example for the pressure we feel in competition. You're serving down 9-10. Would you trust hitting a lob serve? Maybe you've even had some success with the lob serve during the match. What would you be thinking at this stage if you considered doing one? Could you hit this serve without your conscious mind getting in the way? Are you able to block out the negative thoughts? 'Don't serve out.' 'What if I miss? That would be a horrible way to lose the game.' What if you served out previously in the match? Do you have the belief and courage to go right back to it? Do you think you would feel the extra tension in your arm? If you do, do you shy away from it?  We all play the scoreboard and I wouldn't tell someone they have to hit a lob serve at this stage of the match. If you're not 100% committed to the shot you will probably not execute it the way you normally do in practice. In the case of the lob serves this means you may hit it out or so far off the wall it's not effective whatsoever.

The next time you play don't focus on the score, hit the shot you think is best regardless of the score. If you want to reach your potential this is how you have to play. This is how you'll improve long term. Learning to handle your nerves and play your best in competition has a lot to do with preparation, but is also very psychological. Keep playing the best shot so you learn how to fight off the self-destructive thoughts and control your nerves. If you have ever been in the zone when you've played you'll know that the mind is quiet. Your body is already programmed about what to do and you just keep your brain out of the way.

There are lessons in losses. Don't overthink them. Know when to disregard them. Use them as fuel to train harder, prepare better and improve your game. Play hard, play to win, but if you don't be gracious in defeat, learn from it and move on. Squash is a journey, not a sprint. Losing is part of sport and we don't have to like it, but we have to accept it.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Staying Positive After Errors

Today I'm going to back up what I discussed yesterday. My last post was about believing in yourself. I had a section in this post about how this is even more important for an attacking player as this style of squash is prone to having a few more unforced errors to go along with it. I notice that unless people have to play an attacking style of squash, for example if they are unfit, injured or elderly, most people don't. This has a lot to do with how we respond and interpret to risky or low percentage shots and unforced errors; we're just limiting ourselves because of a few short term blunders. Today I'm going to discuss how to stay positive and what I think after I make a mistake. Regardless if you are an attacking player or not being able to stay confident after making a mistake is an important trait for playing consistent squash.

At most levels of squash whoever hits less mistakes generally wins. But at least for me this isn't an enjoyable way to play squash. I know I always praise Ramy, but this is what makes hims so special. Not only does Ramy attack better than those that can't or don't want to run, but he has proven that you can play this style successfully at the highest level. For Ramy or anyone else that wants to play a successful attacking brand of squash they need to know how to quickly forget mistakes, accept them, stay positive, keep firing and stay confident. Ramy would't have become who he is today if he got cautious and defensive after making a couple of mistakes.

I enjoy playing an attacking style of squash and came up with my own system for responding to my mistakes. This is how it goes. If I hit a forced error I say or think 'good shot.' Sometimes there is nothing you can do about it. This doesn't bother me at all. Sometimes I know my shot previously had to be better, that's all. It gets trickier when you hit an unforced error. When I do I think, 'was this the right shot?' If my answer is 'yes,' I tell myself good. I may reinforce how I constructed the rally correctly, to stay attacking, aggressive and to keep going for it. Basically I can let this type of unforced error slide and I am able to stay positive when I make this type of mistake. This reminds me of a baseball scenario. When a fielder makes an error on a play, some don't want the ball hit to them again. But the good ones do, they have confidence that they can make that same play next time. They stay positive, shrug off the mistake and believe they can do it next time. This is the same when I miss a shot that was on.

If I hit an unforced error and I forced it a little and it wasn't on, this is when the learning takes place. Any attacking player has a fine line between attacking too much and being a tad reluctant. There are so many shots played within a rally, game and match that we are bound to make a few poor decisions. When I force the ball a bit and make an unforced error I'm not too hard on myself, because to become a top good attacking player you have to err on the side of being a little too aggressive versus being a little too passive. At least this is my perspective. I've played in matches where I made a few errors and stopped going short. Then I get away from the style I enjoy playing and over the long term would be more successful. So even though I force a shot and make a mistake, I'll just tell myself it wasn't on and I'll ideally this means I won't try that same shot again. Of course when someone hits a very risky shot but it works out for them, they should count their blessings and be thankful that they got away with it.

I've found that reflecting on my errors in a systematic formation helps me refocus faster. As I began doing this more frequently I would be able to shrug off an error almost instantly and stay confident and positive. I've also found that this helps me focus on the process as opposed to the outcome. I'm trying to play the way I want to play. I won't sacrifice this at possibly the expense of losing a rally, game or match. I didn't always think this way though. I wish I had as I think this is a great method for continually improving your tactics and your shot selection. If you do this you will find there are less times where you show indecision and frustration after making an error. Learn from it, stay positive and move on.

This philosophy sounds simple and easy, but at times it can be quite challenging. We all have a day where we are not quite squaring up the ball or make a few poor decisions in a row or hit a couple of bad unforced errors one after another. This is when it is a true test of your confidence. Normally this is a lack of confidence but it also happens randomly simply because of chance and statistics. If you realize it's a lack of focus you need to have a good between rally routine to get you regrouped. It's like hitting a reset button. What has happened in the past doesn't matter. Move on and start from right now. If you want to become more consistent learn how to refocus. Everyone loses their focus from time to time, but experienced players will catch this and will be able to get their mind back on track quicker than most amateurs.

So how does this approach apply to you if you're not an attacking player. The main thing is to just make good decisions. If you make a mistake but it was the right decisions, don't get upset about it. Everyone misses shots. Getting angry about it only makes it worse and can negatively impact the next time you're in a similar position. This is when you get indecision, some funky swings and some tightly held grips. You have to committed and confident before you play a short ball. When we concentrate on such short term products and let them bother us, such as a 1 or 2 tins we are limiting our potential to grow.

Also worthy to note here is your margin for error on your attacking shots above the tin. Some people give so much margin and don't technically make any unforced errors, but if you leave a lollipop at the front for your opponent you are asking for trouble. Though my coaching courses I was always told that drop shots are 'pressure shots' not 'winners.' Sometimes a pressure shot may result in a winner, but the main goal is to work your opponent, get your drop tight and maybe you can force a stroke a a loose crosscourt and cut it off. But when I watch Ramy play I see that he tries to hit winners. He has a small margin of error but is always very close to his target. He has such good touch and feel that his racquet is an extension of his arm. If your technique is good and your timing is spot on you can have a smaller margin. If you're a mid amateur player and your technically not very strong on your drop shot you will probably avoid it or play them with a large margin for error. If you're making to many unforced errors is your margin too small for your ability and the pressure you're under? This is an important point when interpreting your unforced errors. If you make 3+ unforced errors per game on the same shot it needs some extra practice.

How do you play the big points in a match? Do you play more defensive? Stay aggressive? Do you simply give more margin of error when you go short? Most people play a bit more conservative which is fine. I like to continue playing my game. Again though, this is where you may need to do a nerve check. If you can stay relaxed in this moment you'll be fine. If you're in the zone just keep doing what you're doing. But if you are a bit nervous and you can feel some tension in your body, namely your arm, you should probably be more cautious. This is why it was awesome to see Ramy in extra points in the 5th game of the World Championships. Ramy was down a match point and hit some amazing shots. You could tell he was still relaxed somehow. He was able to stay positive and not think what most of us would be, 'I can't believe I just blew 5 match balls and now I may lose this.' And then when Ramy got another chance to close it out he hit a great backhand volley drop that was too good for Shorbagy. Being so relaxed on the biggest stage in a pressure situation was cool to watch. Ramy showed us once again (through vicarious learning) that staying calm, relaxed, aggressive and focused during the biggest points on the biggest stage is possible.

For Ramy to play best he needs to keep his mind out of the way. We all play better when we play instinctively. When we are playing our best it is our mind that is at peace; when this is happening we are in what has been phrased the zone. When an athlete is in the zone time appears to slow down. We see the squash ball earlier, it looks bigger and we make good decisions and consistently square up the ball. Why can't we always play in this mental zone? We can't force our mind into this state and often it is our overthinking and judgement that gets in the way. We all judge and are very critical about our performance as we're playing. We also think too often about what has just happened and what may next. Shut up brain! This is destructive to your next point and will not allow you to be in the optimal mindset for playing your best squash, in the present and in the zone.

As I mentioned above, I thought it was amazing that Ramy could stay in the zone in such a pressure situation. How can he play like he doesn't know what's at stake if he clips the tin one more time? If he started thinking about this it would show on his body language. It rarely happens to Ramy though. I do think he looked a little shaky out of the gate though. At the start of the match is one area where I think it's important to settle your nerves before you start firing it in short. Ramy is notorious for being a slow starter. Even if we're focused at the start of our match, we can't be in the zone until we begin playing. If you're mind is wandering about and you feel some tension in your body you should flush this out of your system first.

This is why a prematch and between point routine is so effective at getting our mind into a consistent state to perform at our best. Take a deep breath between points and try and slow things down. I find most people rush when they are nervous or edgy. If you can try and slow things down and keep it simple at the start of the match you can slowly find your range and eventually your attacking shots. As I've heard before, the most important drop you play is the first one. Hit a poor one and you start thinking about it and doubting yourself; hit a good one and you fuel your confidence.

There is less margin for error attacking short and if you haven't found your range at the start of the match you are at risk of handing your opponent some free points. Even worse is that you allow them to relax and settle down while your anxiety increases with your poor start. As I discussed above, the same thing goes for playing the big points. If you feel a little uneasy play more conservative. So yes, this is how I would coach Ramy to improve his first game performances. But he is human after all! I would also advise him to do some imagery before his matches to try and get him not just focused but as close to being in his zone as possible from the first point of the match.

How do you react to your mistakes? How long does it take you to forget and move on after making an unforced error? What if you hit 2 or 3 in a row? Remember that squash is a game. Squash has a major psychological component to it. Is how you're handling errors helping or hindering your performance? Improve this area of your game and focus on the process and you'll make better decisions and play more consistent squash.