Today I'm going to discuss my three simple rules for playing your best squash. If you feel you play better in practice than in competition you will greatly benefit from this post. It's no secret that many people get angry or frustrated while they play, some actually try too hard, while others get nervous and tense, and we have all suffered from momentary lapses in concentration. These are all psychological areas that we can master if we practice and learn how to control them.
Here are my 3 rules for playing your best squash:
1) Stay positive
2) Keep it simple
3) Stay in the present
They sound simple, but we all know they are not. So let me explain each one and give you some ideas on how you can improve your ability to do each of them.
Stay Positive: negative thoughts, words, and body language means you are not just playing against your opponent but yourself. When I play my best squash I can shrug off mistakes quite easily. I may look at an error I think, 'good choice,' or 'good point,' even though I lost the battle I am focusing on the bigger picture...which is putting together well constructed points. The more mistakes you make the more challenging this can be to do. But this is how you have to view these situations, as challenges. Accept them as they come and no matter how you feel, tell yourself, 'I can do this', or something positive. Many people get worked up about things out of their control. Things like referee decisions, their opponents behaviour, or even what has already happened are all out of your control. You cannot change these things and focusing on them means that your focus cannot be in the 'zone.' In your optimal squash playing zone you are in the present. Squash is a game and it's meant to be fun. When we are kids we just played sports or games like tag for fun, we didn't get angry at ourselves. Picture yourself as your own private coach when you're on court and listen to some of the things you say and think. Would your coach ever say these things to you? Probably not, so try and stay positive regardless of the scenario. Positive self talk look will help you not just play better squash, but enjoy it more too.
Keep it Simple: I have to admit I saw the acronym KISS (keep it simple stupid) in a squash magazine. The article was written by Trinity's head coach, Paul Assaiante. He talked about how he fears his players overthinking and psyching themselves out, he coined the term 'paralysis by analysis.' At a high level of squash we should already intuitively know what to do, so keep your mind out of the way and let your body do the work. This doesn't mean to play absent minded. It means to have a single goal or strategy in mind and it could be something like finding your length. Remember less is more when thinking about a strategy. I want my athletes to know their style of play and how they play best. I play my best squash when I.... There are a lot of potential answers. It could be that you hit the ball tight, or deep, or volley a lot. So whatever your answer is to that question, try having that singular thought going into a match. If you feel like during your match you are deviating from this and not playing well, remember to 'keep it simple' and get back to your original game plan.
Stay in the Present: this is certainly a challenging goal for most people. We relive the past and anticipate what may or may not happen next. When this happens our mind is not in the present anymore and our performance deteriorates. Everyone has these lapses in concentration and the key is to limit the damage and refocus quickly. Here are a couple of ways I do this. When I'm playing I have a very consistent between rally routine. If serving I wait until I get to the service box and bounce the ball 5 times. I also never start the next point until I have forgotten about the previous point. As you practice this your ability to do so gets much faster. I also like to focus on my breathing between points. As part of my routine I take a deep breath, maybe 2 if I feel like I need to regroup. I make sure my breath is deep and not rushed. This is also a skill you can practice at anytime. During a test, doing your homework, at work, or reading this blog, whatever you're doing if you start daydreaming and need to refocus try and take a deep breath and feel your stomach rise, listen to the sound of the breath. When focusing on the sound or feeling of a deep breath we put our attention back into the present. Lastly, as part of a between point routine try looking at the dots on the ball (if you're serving) or a mark on your racquet, or maybe a spot on your on your hand, or a ball mark on the side wall. This helps to narrow your focus from a wandering mind to something narrow and in the present. In squash our focus cannot be too narrow and internal, but it is also very damaging if our focus is too broad and external. Finding this balance is the key to being in the zone and playing your best squash.
So here are my 3 rules for improving your psychological strength and playing your best squash. I have read a number of books about the zone and on zen. As you get better at squash the importance of the mental game increases. You need to spend time developing this part of your game if you want to be your best on a consistent basis. Stay positive, keep it simple, and stay in the present and you'll be one tough opponent!