Thursday, July 10, 2014

When and How to Change Technique

Today I'm going to discuss a topic that every coach has to deal with. I'm going to talk about how to decide if you should change a person's technique or not. Every coach has some players that have unusual swings, or have a slightly different and what most would consider a flaw in their technique. Some people have physical limitations that will not allow them to do something correct, while (many) others have been doing something improper for a long time. This is what makes coaching juniors so easy and fun. Juniors don't have years and years of engrained bad habits. When I coach kids I always want them to have a higher ceiling for potential, so I will always try and improve the technique of kids. Here we also have to be cautious about how many hours we spend tinkering with their technique. Kids want to improve, feel like they are successful and most importantly want to have fun. If you're a beginner, professional, young, old, or somewhere in-between, how do you (and us coaches) know when to make a change in a technique or to just try and let the player do the best they can with what they have?

My philosophy for coaching kids is to try and have 1 technical focus in a lesson, spend a bit of time on this and make sure they have fun. Some more experienced players have difficulty changing their techniques because they don't think about how they do something (and never have), they just do it. If I'm coaching an adult I want to learn how motivated and committed they are to getting better. If they aren't really convinced of what needs to change, I try and get them to see why. I do this by trying to put them in a position where their technical flaw is exposed.

Someone that is changing their technique will likely digress in their level of play in the immediate future, even while making minor technical adjustments. Once they start losing to their buddy, then pride kicks in and out with the new and welcome back the old reliable bad habit. This also makes the time of the season you chance a technique a concern. You probably don't want to start working on it just before a tournament. I would also recommend changing just 1 thing at a time. So even though someone may have a lot of problems with their swing, pick one that you feel is the most important. I usually say the grip is #1, a close 2nd would be those that break their wrist on the backhand backswing. So whatever you think is the first thing, pick it and stick with it for a while. Put them in a position where they are hitting a hot repetitively and don't focus on the quality of the shot. If they struggle with this I use video (on my iPhone) or have them take practice swing between the actual shots they hit to improve their muscle memory. When they have this down in a repetitive drill, add in another shot for some contextual interference and see if they reproduce this swing after a slightly different skill set is called upon. For example, if you are working on cocking their wrist on the backhand, you could now introduce a forehand shot every second shot. From this I would introduce either a third shot, put them under more pressure, and finally I would build up to a condition game or a drill where I have options so they cannot plan ahead the skill set they are working on.

Everyone has heard of Nick Matthew. Here is an interesting story I read about him, you can copy and past the following link if you want to read it.  http://www.wired.co.uk/magazine/archive/2012/07/features/winning-by-numbers?page=1
It says how in 2004 Nick had been playing for 12 years and was ranked in the top 100 in the world. Even though he was one of the top juniors in the world and already inside the top 100 he spent two years relearning how to hit a ball on his backhand. To this day I've seen some strange pictures of his backhand backswing (so I'm curious to see what it use to be like), but he obviously has spent a considerable amount of time later in his development reworking years of poor habits. But on the other side of the coin you have someone like Ramy Ashour who I'm sure had coaches trying to change his technique all through juniors. So these are two very different examples of two of the top players from the past decade in squash. I consider what Ramy does as an outlier though. If I had coached him when he was younger I probably would have tried to change some things, but I would have also tried to see if his grip or lose wrist was a problem and hurting him...which for Nick Matthew, this issue did not hurt him in juniors, but he knew if he didn't change his ceiling would be much lower for his professional career.

Hopefully I've given you a few things to think about today. Are you motivated and committed to making a change in your technique? Even if this means a step back on your club ladder? Have you played for so long that you really don't think you can change? If you don't think you can change or you don't want to then think about how you can do the best with the tools you've got. If you know your weaknesses, learn how to play to your strengths. An opponent that is weak technically, but smart tactically and mentally tough is in my opinion a far superior player than one that lacks in the these two areas, but is technically sublime. And as much as I want to help people improve their techniques, always remember that there are no pictures are the scorecards:)

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