Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Western Mustangs

Today I'm going to talk about my alma mater, the formerly known as the University of Western Ontario. Now it's officially just Western University. So I don't actually know if they go by UWO anymore. Anyways, I was very lucky that Jack Fairs was still coaching and travelling to most of the trips back then. As he's gotten older he's had to back away from coaching and hasn't travelled with the team in a few years. Today I'm going to discuss my experience at Western, where they are now, and what lies ahead for them.

My Experience at UWO
I wouldn't have went back to school if it wasn't for Western. I really loved squash and they had a strong squash team. My brother and some of my friends were already playing on the team. I knew lots of Canadians that were playing on teams in the U.S. as well. At the time I was about 21 and coaching in Toronto. I still had a love for competing along with coaching. Since having a few years off as a teen from squash I felt I had a lot more to learn and improve and thought that going to Western and playing for 4 years would be a great way for me to do this. It was a big risk as I had been out of school for a few years.

When I first got to Western we had a really strong team. We ended up coming 5th that season at the CSA team championships. It was so cool to train and compete as a team. I had 5 or 6 real evenly matched people to train with. There were a couple of seniors at the time that were hard workers and quite motivated to leave on a positive note. We trained really hard and the results spoke for themselves. Sadly, UWO hasn't finished this high again. In the next 3 years we finished 6th, 7th, and 9th (winning the 2nd division my last season). Our team was still pretty strong, but we lost a couple of top players and some didn't train as hard their 3rd and 4th years. Jack was an amazing man and I spent a lot of time chatting with him and writing emails for him, but he wasn't around to coach or run practices. We basically had captains practices all year. I always trained hard and some of the team did as well. But it was always challenging enforcing practice and leading practice as a player coach.

In my 4 years we only ever had 1 home match. So we always had to travel and play on the road on the other teams home courts. I felt like our team was normally the stronger team, but often just wasn't as fit. Our courts back in London were so cold that if a ball got to the back wall it rarely came out. When we went to play in the schools in the States the courts were very bouncy and our guys just weren't prepared to play 40 or 50 shot points. Back then we would drive 2 minivans to various schools. I always drove one as I was one of the older members on the team and Jack and/or Peg drove the other.

I was also lucky to be able to play the CSA individuals twice. In my senior year they were at Williams where I was runner up in the B draw losing to Chris Binnie of Trinity in 5 games. The other time it was at Navy and I played in the top draw and lost my only 2 matches, one was 3-0 to a top Princeton player Kim Lee Wong on the 4 wall glass show court and the other 3-2 to someone I can't remember. Guess I'm getting old! The caliber at the top of the CSA was already quite strong back then. I had a lot of tough matches and had a pretty pretty solid record considering I played 1 most of my last 2 years there. But playing as a team it doesn't matter if you win and your team loses. I've lost and the team won and I've also won and the team lost. Neither feels good, but it's always more satisfying having the team win. You just want to contribute.

So while at Western I studied kinesiology because I thought it was the most relevant to squash and for my future coaching career. I was surprised that I enjoyed a lot of my classes and the student athlete lifestyle. Playing squash while doing my degree made all the difference for me. It kept me focused, in shape, and improved my game. I also gained leadership qualities organizing practices and being the responsible one driving the team all over. While doing this I got to travel and play at some incredible schools and squash facilities all across the eastern United States. It was a terrific 4 years and many of my best friends are former teammates from UWO.

Western's Current Status
This is a tough one. We always knew that some teams didn't want us to be there. Being the only Canadian team that we didn't belong. Even though our team travelled to play all of our matches, some coaches didn't want us competing at all. I heard about many coaches meetings where they discussed how to get rid of us. It felt like every year could be our last. Somehow Western is still in the CSA. The big question is for how much longer? As all the other teams get better, Western doesn't have the same resources, namely coaching, the budget or facilities. This season a friend of mine is coaching the team while he is doing a masters degree. I'm sure he will do great, but he's busy and won't have the time to put into running the team like all the other schools do. This is only a short term solution. Western needs to get some money from fund raising and hiring a full time coach. All the other schools have a head coach and assistant coach (or 2) for both the mens and women's teams. Western has 1 player-student-coach. It's a tall order this season. But maybe because Western won't be taking a div 1 spot the conversation about kicking them out will drown out, thinking that they may be on their way to extinction as it is.

Western's Future
What happens from here is anyones guess. It surely doesn't look good though. There is such a great tradition built there from Jack and there have been countless great squash players represent the school. It would be a shame to see it fall apart. Unfortunately there are only a few solutions and none seem very promising. Western has to fundraise a lot of money annually from the squash alumni and use it to higher a full time coach, but I don't think they're currently raising anywhere near enough money from what I hear. On top of the coaching, it's also the expenses to go on all of these road trips with 10 kids. It adds up. Another option is that they hire someone as a faculty member that is also big into squash and does this on the side. This isn't a great solution, but Jack did this with the help of Peg for years. It's a lot of work running practices, organizing trips and matches with other schools, plus they would have to drive a minivan for 6-12 hours each way 6-8 times per year during the winter. It's a lot to ask of a professor. So unless this was a part time staff member it seems highly unlikely. The next alternative is that they continue using ex-players or people doing post grad work at the school to coach. This is again unreliable and will be difficult to have the sustainability that you need to drive a program forward.

I heard that Jack once raised over a million dollars (quite a few years ago) to build a squash facility for the team. And for some reason or another this was turned down by the school. I heard that part of the reason was that the finances needed to keep the facility operating year after year. That once the facility got built the school worried that they would end up having to cover the operating cost. But I'm sure there is more to it than that. If that facility got built, I'm sure Western would be in a different position these days. Of course they do have courts in their new athletic facility. But when I was there we weren't allowed to run team practices on them or host any team matches on them. Not to mention that they were incredibly slippery because they didn't put carpet down outside the courts and the other students played in all kind of improper footwear.

I can't think of any other positive alternatives for Western. I hope somehow it works out and many more kids have a chance to experience what I did. I was fortunate that I was able to stay in Canada while not spending a small fortune that I didn't have on tuition. I wasn't in a position where going to the U.S. would have been an option.

Did you go to Western? Do you know people that played squash there? Do you have any other solutions for the team? Do you think Western should be allowed to compete in the CSA?

Monday, September 29, 2014

You're More Likely To Win If...

Today I'm going to talk about how to improve your chances of winning. This what we all want to know. Squash is a game with many variables and components to it. If we think about winning and losing points from a statistical standpoint we want to make better decisions and hit better shots than our opponents. This doesn't imply we will win every point where we do this, but over a large scale of shots and rallies there should be a noticeable difference and this is normally why one person wins over the other. Sometimes it is a small thing that is overlooked (like the serve) that makes a 1 or 2 point difference in a game or match which could make the difference between winning and losing. As we get better most people are generally pretty good at everything, but still there are fine lines and reasons one person wins and one doesn't.

Today I'm going to break down and compile a list of how to increase your chances of winning. I will start with what I believe are the most important factors for winning and work my way down. I will include the ability to execute specific shots, tactical play, psychological skills, and physical ability. All of these factors play a part in determining your current level and your chances of winning or losing each rally, game, and match you play.

Often we watch 2 people playing and it's hard to tell who is winning if we only see a few points. Sometimes the person with the better looking strokes doesn't win. Why does this happen? Let's take a look and see what influences the outcome of a match.

You're more likely to win if...
1) You hit better length than your opponent (consistently tighter, deeper, wider cross courts, pace, varying height, etc all play a part)
2) You are better prepared than your opponent (training leading up to the match/tournament)
3) You spend more time in front of your opponent and around the middle of the court
4) You hit more volleys than your opponent (is normally a result of doing the #1 item better)
5) You anticipate better than your opponent
6) You move more efficiently/take less steps and run less than your opponent
7) Your racquet preparation is better than your opponents (shape up earlier and a more consistent and compact swing)
8) You have a higher aerobic fitness base, a higher VO2max and lactic acid threshold than your opponent
9) You are faster than your opponent
10) You hit less unforced errors than your opponent and force more errors
11) You have the ability to play different styles and expose your opponents weaknesses better than your opponent
12) Your volleying ability is better than your opponents
13) You are more confident than your opponent
14) You maintain your focus and composure better than your opponent
15) You hit the ball harder than your opponent
16) Your return of serve is better than your opponents
17) Your serve is better than your opponents
18) You warmed up better than your opponent
19) You control your nerves at the start of the match better than your opponent
20) You get off to a better start in the match than your opponent
21) Your deception and disguise is better than your opponent
22) You have more experience than your opponent
23) You can hit higher quality shots under pressure better than your opponent
24) You are stronger than your opponent (more important in squash is the strength-weight ratio). Maximum strength is less important than strength endurance and also strength is more vital in specific muscles groups over others.
25) You had a better nights sleep than your opponent
26) You ate a healthier (and have superior fuel) pre game meal and are better hydrated than your opponent. Along with the proper quantities and timing.
27) You adapt quicker to different courts and the bounce of balls than your opponent
28) you hit more straight drive than your opponent
29) You play a higher T and get back to it more consistently than your opponent
30) You had a less physically and mentally demanding match prior (for tournaments if you both played earlier that day)

Obviously you want to focus more on yourself, but this list can be used to help you understand why you or someone else is winning or losing. We hit thousands of balls over the course of a match and what makes the difference in those tight matches? Regardless of your squash skill level, some of these areas you can control. You can take care of things like preparation leading into a match, your fitness, strength, eating, hydration, and sleeping habits. Some of the more difficult areas to improve are between the ears, but also have the biggest impact on performance. You want to be confident when you play and this doesn't diminish when you have a slow start or make a couple of mistakes. Confidence is trusting your ability and knowing you will be successful, as opposed to hoping to be.

I chose hitting better length as the #1, because I don't think I've ever lost to someone that I hit better length than they did. The more squash you play the more important you realize this is. This is what creates and relieves pressure. Good length sets up points and keeps you in front of your opponent and puts your opponent under pressure. There is a lot more to squash than length, but it's where most matches are won and lost. Even at the youngest levels, whoever gets more shots to reach the back wall will probably win. This includes their serves. Agains some areas, like serves are more critical to the outcome of a match at different levels. But regardless of the level a poor serve gives the receiver and advantage in the point where a good serve can cause a slightly weaker return and set up the point for you.

So what am else am I missing on my list? It was hard to organize them from most important feature to least. There are situations where some of the lower ranked ones will make the difference. I didn't even get into areas like travel time and time zone change to a tournament, meaning potential jet lag. And you'll notice I didn't include anything about equipment. Yes there are likely small advantages to having lighter shoes or superior string in your racquet, but unless your opponent is wearing shoes with holes in them or playing with a wooden frame I wouldn't include these in this discussion.

If you were interested in learning how to beat someone see how many of the areas above you do better than they do. The more you can do better the increased chances you have of winning. And if you can only focus on one, work on your basic length and width and obviously being prepared leading into a tournament gives you that all important confidence. You're certainly more likely to win if you believe that you can.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Post #100: Serious Squash Review

Today is my 100th post! Some posts have had 500+ views while others under 100. So I learn what people find most interesting. For this post I thought I should do something special and different. So I'm going to summarize my experience so far. Yes, I'm going to use this post as a time to reassess what I've done and where I'm going, just like we do in goal setting. So by the time I get to my 200th or 500th post I am getting better at writing and continue to find interesting topics to explore about squash.

I started Serious Squash back when I was in New Brunswick. The club I worked had had a very outdated website and I thought a blog was a good method for updating the members about stuff happening in the club. It was around this time that I started talking to friend of mine about designing a logo and clothing for Serious Squash. I didn't really know what I was going to do with the brand, but I wanted to raise some money for the development of junior squash. I think mostly because I had no idea of where to go and do next this idea never came to fruition and I eventually left New Brunswick to begin my masters at the University of Victoria.

My blog went unused for a couple of years. I didn't want any attention and to be noticed, I didn't think blogging was for me. Eventually I realized this was also a selfish thing to do as I could help other people by writing about squash.

I restarted this journey with just the kids I coach in mind. I thought I had more to offer them and that some of them would want to know more about squash. When I was a kid I didn't like asking for help, but would have done anything to get better at squash. Now with the internet people like me can share tips and experiences with the next generation. After getting some positive feedback from outside of my target audience, I decided that this was a good thing. That I could help other people who were keen about improving their squash game. I've had people like Serious Squash on Facebook and people read my blog from all over the world. I guess I have learned a few things over the past 25 years.

In my day to day coaching I always come up with ideas that I feel would make for an interesting post. So this is why I haven't had a problem coming up with topics yet. For a game played within a small box there is an awful lot of stuff going on. From tactics, nutrition. off court training, technical tips, and goal setting I foresee a long future for Serious Squash. I know one of my next posts is going to be about my time at the University of Western Ontario. Yes, another college squash post. I also have a lot of good books lined up to read that will provide some new material shortly as well.

Now is the part where I ask for your feedback. If anyone has any feedback they wish to share about my blog I encourage the feedback, both positive and critical. What are some of your favourite posts? Which ideas made no sense? Was there something I said you disagree with? Anything that you feel would improve this blog will be taken into consideration. Maybe you have some ideas for topics that I haven't thought about yet. Any and all feedback is welcome.

Thanks in advance for reading my blog and for all of you that have provided feedback, both positive and negative. I've had assistance with the design, the link, the posts, and even some free assistance editing some articles! If I ever publish some of these articles I'll make sure you get the credit you deserve! And lastly, I would like to thank everyone that motivates me to do more and be a better coach. I coach a lot of great people that are driven to be the best they can be and really love the game. It makes my job extremely satisfying and enjoyable. Play better, play smarter!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Play Better, Play Smarter

Today I'm going to discuss tactics once again. What it the goal of squash? How do you win? To win a point you have to make the ball bounce twice or your opponent makes a mistake. There are countless ways that this can happen. Do you have a strategy when you play? Does it change depending on your opponent?

If you haven't already done so, read Brad Gilbert's book Winning Ugly. As you can guess from the title. Brad talks about the importance of tactics are and how they are normally underdeveloped in even the most experienced athletes. Brad was by his own account a very average tennis player, but thought a lot about the game and came up with strategies to beat what others considered to be better tennis players. He didn't have the arsenal or the athleticism that many of the other other top players had, but he found a win to win and get into the 5 in the world.

A lot of squash players only play one way and are unable to make adjustments when things aren't working. Although just because a plan hasn't worked yet, it doesn't mean it won't in the future. You may be playing tactically sound squash, but unable to finish off the points. Maybe you are making too many mistakes, but I don't mind mistakes when you're trying to do something on the court. For years I played without any game plan. I just went in and basically reacted to what was happening and what my opponent did. I would sometimes learn to expect certain shots from different people, but I never thought about trying to dictate the points and rallies. I see this a lot when I'm watching people play at all ages and skills levels.

In a previous post I talk about tactics at the start of the match. I suggest a simple approach to settle into the match and establish your length. But this doesn't mean you have to do this. This may not suit your game or style you enjoy playing. However you want to play, it's more important going on court with a game plan. Still keep it simple, but what are you trying to do? What is your goal? What do you do well when you are playing your best squash? Are you trying to change the style you play? Maybe you're trying to use the front of the court more. If you don't have this consciously in your mind while you play you likely will continue playing the same way time and time again. You need to have that focus for each point and that mindset about what your doing out there. This is why it's important to keep it simple. If you think too much you will just be reacting and not in the right zone for playing in the flow.

I read a book written by Phil Jackson called Sacred Hoops where he discussed an idea of playing with basketball with a completely blank mind. I've tried to do this in squash and found it impossible. It felt forced and didn't work for me. When you're in the zone are you focused on something specific like your drives or getting to the T fast? Or are you playing absent minded? Or out of your mind? That's another post altogether. I'm going to get back on track here.

Tactics are an important part of squash. As you progress and learn more about your game and understand what's happening on court you can begin preparing for different opponents. Until you get to that point you will want to focus on your own game plan. But you can see how expecting a certain style from your opponent can allow you to have a counter game plan. This is why people refer to squash as a physical game of chess. Do you just move the pieces around without any intention or are you setting up rallies and combinations of shots? Are you trying to wear down your opponent and keep up the intensity?

Can you change your tactic if it's not working or your opponent has adapted to it? I like thinking outside of the box when this happens. There are lots of ways you can change the game. You can slow or speed the game up, during rallies and between. You can vary the pace more. You can be more patient, more aggressive, start holding the ball, throw in some working boasts, try some different serves, look to cut the ball off more, play straighter, play more cross courts, hit intentionally down the middle, at hand out serve to their forehand first, and so on. Especially in practice matches, think of having a game plan and try some different tactics that just may work better against one player than another. And some tactics will work indefinitely against some people, while others will have to be mixed in here and there.

Don't just play without any idea of what you're trying to do. Even a game plan that fails miserably provides a valuable learning experience. You will have to learn how to apply that tactic better or maybe try a different tactic next time. This is why just because you beat someone and lose to another person, that the person you beat could very well also beat the person you lost to. Different styles match up differently against different opponents. If you have one style that works against everyone you must be doing it extremely well. Otherwise, learn to add more to your game and be able to change the style you play. Play chess not checkers; and of course play better, play smarter!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Tee It Up!

Today I'm not going to be discussing what you may think from reading the title. I will not be talking about the 'T' in the middle of the court. Instead I'm going to talk about the imaginary 'tee' that I try and place the ball on before I hit each shot. You physically do in golf or tee ball in baseball, while playing squash if you can hit the ball off of this imaginary tee more often than not you will play better and hit more consistent shots. If you could put the squash ball on a tee before you hit it, where would you position yourself relative to the ball? Let's find out where to set up and how to do this in a game.

The first step is knowing where about you want to hit the ball relative to your body on your forehand and backhand. This will differ slightly for cross courts, boasts, and so on. To keep things simple I'm going to use the straight drive as an example. On the forehand side you will probably hit the ball a little behind your lead foot when you are stepping with your front foot (conventional footwork or closed stance). If you hit your forehand with an open stance (on your back foot) you will aim to strike the ball parallel to your foot. We use these spots as frames of reference between body and the sidewall so that we can accurately hit the ball parallel to the sidewall. Squash is a game of inches and hitting the ball a half inch too early or too late will end up spraying the ball into the middle of the court.

On the backhand side, when you hit a drive from a closed stance (front foot) you want to hit the ball parallel to your foot or slightly on the edge closer to the front wall. Top players are just as comfortable hitting off of their back leg (open stance) on the backhand and when they do this will try and hit the ball at the back foot.

Knowing where you want to place the ball to hit it straight down the wall is crucial. But you also need to get the spacing between you and the ball correct. Just like in golf, if you're too far away or too close (which is most common in squash) you will be unable to take an optimal, full and fluid swing. You may be off-balance and unable to transfer your weight properly into the shot. This is even more important on the backhand side of the court as it's much more difficult to hit the ball when it gets just a bit behind you (as opposed to the forehand side). Your spacing depends on the height of the ball you are striking. I like to get low to the height of the ball, so I don't just drop my racquet head to hit a low bounce. I keep my hand and grip at least the same height as the ball or slightly below. If you follow this rule you will keep better spacing. This also means the taller you are the lower you have to get your hips and bend your knees.

So if you can visualize where this spot is you can begin doing simple repetitive drills and attempt to hit more consistently off of the 'tee' and you will be hitting the ball straighter, with more consistency and with more power. You should build up your drills from basic repetitive drills to more complex and random ones. This will make it much more challenging to get the ball on the tee. A lot of this has to do with footwork (spacing), judging the receiving ball, and racquet preparation (shaping). To me these are the two most important skills in squash. If you do these well you will be successful.

This paragraph is more for advanced players but is also something I like younger kids to think about. Advanced players seem like they consistently tee up the ball and hit the middle of the strings. Besides hitting more consistent, the relative ball location (the imaginary tee) has a lot to do with disguising your shot, deception, and anticipation. Once you can consistently put the ball on the tee you should begin thinking about how to couple shots. Can you hit 2 or 3 or even 4 shots from the same relative ball location, from the same spot you've tee'd up the ball? This is why a disguised attacking boast and trickle boast can be so effective. The player shapes up like a drive and are spaced the same, the only difference is late in the swing they are able to withhold excessively supinating their forearm and extending their wrist until just after ball contact. This means the racquet face is closed at impact and the ball goes into the side wall first. The same thing can be done at the front of the court to disguise your straight and crosscourt drives. It's usually quite obvious when someone is going to hit crosscourt because when they start their downswing the ball is well in front of them making it quite difficult to straighten the ball.

How consistently do you hit the sweet spot on your racquet? Think about 'teeing up' the ball the next time you play and you may just start squaring up more shots. Professionals have this tee perspective for all shots and have the racquet skill and agility to make adjustments when they're not. But even pros lose consistency when they don't hit the ball from the tee or the sweet spot. This is why the shot down the middle and clinging drives work well at every level.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Balancing Life and Sport

Today I'm going to talk about having balance in your life. Coming from someone that once identified himself as a good squash player, I know some of the challenges of this. I'm always curious if the professionals have some form of balance in their lives. I assume the ones that have gotten married and have kids do. But it's well documented the troubles that retired professional athletes have. Many can't find the same thrill, excitement, and adrenalin in everyday life; while others just feel like they are now average and can't find a place to feel special and significant anymore.

There comes a time where either by decline in skill, injury, or just loss of motivation that we all move on from competition. Of course in squash there are masters events and you can compete for a long time, so we're lucky we have that going for us. I don't envision Michael Jordan playing competitive basketball these days nor do I imagine Wayne Gretzky playing competitive hockey games. So what do these people do now? Are they happy? Have they accepted their retirement and diminished skill? Or like some others that we've heard in the news; retired athletes that end up abusing substances, gambling and eventually end of declaring bankruptcy. Some retired athletes become depressed and feel like they having to live for. Many likely didn't have any of these issues surface while they're competing, but now are lost out in the world. Is this only a problem once it arises? Or was this always destined to be an issue once they retired?

I'm going to start with kids in sport. As a kid that was pretty good at squash and won a lot of tournaments, I didn't have balance in my life. I would spend every day on the squash court and would hit for 2 or 3 hours at a time. I played as many tournaments as possible and when I didn't win a tournament I would get angry. Why would a kid get so upset about losing a match here and there? I think it was because I defined myself as a squash player. I thought I was better than anyone I played and did everything I could to be the best I could be. I didn't learn from my loses. When I stopped playing squash for a few years it was the first time I got to find out who I was outside of sport. I felt pretty empty and unfulfilled and eventually I gravitated back to the sport.

These days I see some of the top players and wonder if they have balance outside of squash. Do they enjoy things in their life besides playing squash? Because one day squash won't be there for them and they'll have to face reality. This can also happen while they are still active in sport. When you are going through a slump or not having success on court, you likely won't feel very good about yourself if your ego is identified as a good squash player. You can see how this puts a lot of pressure on you every time you step on court. You have to prove not to anyone else, but to your ego that you are indeed still a top squash player.

I'm sure to be the best you have to go all in and not have reservations. But does that mean you have to have an ego? That you cannot have balance outside of the court? Or is balance the only way you will have any longevity in the sport? Well not many of us are going to be the next Ramy Ashour, even though many of us dream about it. Does that mean we should not try to be the best we can be? Or that we have to keep things in perspective? That there is more to life than squash?

This is why I feel it's important to have other interests, hobbies, and a personal life outside of sport. Even as we age and are unable to compete at a high level in our sport we can still learn and improve at other activities. This is why I value balance in life. Too much of a good thing is still unhealthy. Yes, even water! Having a day off and spend time with your friends and family not playing squash is good for your well-being and mental health.

If you identify yourself as a squash player first maybe it's time to try something new. Your perspective needs to change or you will encounter some issues one day. Create some balance in your life, find new interests, and have relationships that don't involve sport. This way you can be happy in life independent of what happens on the squash court. 'Don't let a win go to your head and a loss go to your heart.' When the match is over, give yourself an appropriate amount of time to digest everything that's happened (e.g., 1 hour). Some will take longer than others at doing this. After this time has elapsed just move on mentally, regardless of what happened or didn't happen on the court. Even if you believe you're a good squash player and not special at anything else, you're much more than that. Squash is only a small part of who any of us really are, even Ramy!

Have you encountered difficulty balancing things in your life? If not squash, maybe your career and personal life? Do you think it's possible to be one of the best athletes in the world and have balance in your life? Do you think it's possible for a talented kid to be on a path to play professionally sport while maintaining some form of balance in their life?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Enjoying Competition

Today I'm going to discuss enjoying competition. I could also call this post, winning by not focusing on winning. Do you play better in practice than competition? Do you enjoy practice more than competition? After the first tournament of the season this past weekend it was obvious that some of the kids were focused on winning and not the process which leads to this outcome. Some were also getting frustrated with themselves, while at practice they are so happy, care free and enjoying their squash. I've been guilty of this before and when you want to win so bad you often try too hard and end up reacting to what your opponent does. If your agitated and in a sour mood only in competitions, you probably won't be playing as well as you do in practice.

It isn't as easy as just saying, 'have fun out there.' But little things like shrugging off mistakes or laughing at w frame winner or even a very poor decision can help you stay more relaxed during competition. There are hundreds to thousands of shots and  decisions being made every match, of course they can't all be right and executed perfectly. A perfectionist will have a difficult time enjoying themselves in competition.

We always want to win, but our focus should not be on this. This goes for our goal setting too. If our goals are based only around the results and not about how do we get these results we put pressure on us to perform. This is why I believe in setting process based goals that will help you reach the results you want. We can't control what everyone else is doing and how much they improve, so we should focus on our own games and how we can continue to develop and improve our game.

Going into a match and thinking about how much we want to win can be just as deadly as going in expecting to lose. Many people have won or lost the match before walking on court. The goal should be to play our best and to get better each game and match. If we do this, we can reach our goals and be satisfied with almost every match we play. We can only do this by not fixating just on the end product. We may lose rallies that we constructed quite well and we may win games where we didn't seem to do anything right. Saying congrats after a win and tough luck after a loss only reveals how much we value winners and why it becomes our focus when we compete.

Competition is great and so is winning don't get me wrong. We want to win so we focus our goals on how to get better so we can put ourselves in position to win more often. So when you get there in competition, the best chance you have of winning is by not thinking about it. It's by relaxing, enjoying the challenge and the competition. I've only seen a few athletes that appear to really enjoy competition, even when the match gets tight. While most players get anxious as a match is tight late in the fifth game, if you can enjoy this and stay calm and relaxed you have a better chance of winning. Simply be not focusing on winning. Your head will be clear and more focused, meaning you will be in a better space to make good decisions.

So should we not have goals like winning tournaments? That's a tricky one. Again, we can't control what everyone else is going to do. We also can't control our draws and can find excuses when we find out we have a low seed and a difficult draw. This means we will look to excuses if we don't meet our goals. Focusing on things outside of our control is a waste of mental energy. Focus on the process and continually improving and you will win your share of tournaments and most importantly you will enjoy competing more. If you take squash too serious you will not enjoy it. You will put too much pressure on yourself to win and avoid losing against some weaker opponents.

Enjoy the game, because that's what it is. This is how top athletes can find their zone and can achieve the consistency from game to game and tournament to tournament. Some may not consider this a happy zone, but it almost certainly isn't a self-critical and destructive mindset. When something happens that you aren't happy with, try approaching that situation as a challenge. As things appear to pile up against you, instead of thinking that this isn't your day, try viewing these as tougher challenges. Ac competitor rises and accepts the greatest challenges; learn to embrace these and you may even begin to relish and enjoy these times. If you can, you are well on your way to becoming a mentally strong player and enjoying your squash, and by doing so you will have better results.

Do you really enjoy competing? What can you do to have more fun while you play? Do you think it's possible to enjoy competing while being successful? Does winning always imply you were successful? And does losing always imply you were not?

In my opinion, the only way to be successful and have longevity in sport is to enjoy it and to focus on the process and continue to improve your game. Embrace the challenge and learn to enjoy it.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Athletic Player Profile: Nicole Bunyan

Today I'm going to do my first athletic player profile. I will be profiling current Princeton student and St. Michaels University School (SMUS) alumna, Nicole Bunyan.

Nicole graduated SMUS the year before I started working there. When Nicole is back in Victoria I get on court with her quite frequently. I've seen her game develop over the past 3 years. She's a tremendous role model not just for the kids I coach, but for me too! Nicole has a wonderful personality, loves squash, training and working hard. Two summers ago she started training for a triathlon as part of her off season training and was a top finisher in her age category. Undoubtably being a top squash player and doing well with her academics must be a challenge. It's hard to imagine where she finds the time for her new health and fitness blog Squash On Squash (http://squashonsquash.com). Once you get to know her you will understand where her motivation comes from. Today you will get that chance to find out how she has gotten to where she is, what drives her to do what she's doing, and what her plans are post graduation.

Here are my Nicole Bunyan interview questions and answers. Enjoy!

Question 1Where are you going to school, what year are you in and what are you studying?
I'm a senior at Princeton University, and I'm majoring in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB, for short), and getting a minor in French.

Question 2: What do you want to do once you've graduated?
Ah, the age old question! Well, it is if you're 21. I have realized over the past few years that I want to pursue my passion in health and fitness. I used to think that meant that I would be come a sports medicine doctor, but I've since realized that there are other options out there. I find exercise science and nutrition fascinating, so I might pursue a masters degree in one or both of those fields. I also want to get my personal training certification, and become a trainer either full or part time for a little while. Another option I'm considering is working for a health and fitness startup, such as Greatist or Popsugar. Right now this is just an idea, but I'd love to continue writing about and researching health and fitness.

Question 3: How old were you when you started playing squash?
Well, I first tried it when I was about 7 and hated it. I don't know why, but I was just much more into soccer and team sports. I was much more interested in playing "squash golf" (whacking the ball around the ground with a racquet) than actual squash. Then, when I was 10 I quit tap dance, and picked up squash again, this time with one of my best friends, Lindsay. We started playing together once a week, throwing the occasional tournament in there. This escalated to twice a week, and eventually, in grade 9, I quit soccer altogether (except for my high school team, which happened after squash season in the spring), to focus on squash.

Question 4: Why did you start playing squash?
Like I said above, my mom told me I had to replace tap dancing with something else. I don't exactly know if it was my mom's decision or my own, but the replacement activity was squash! Both of my parents play, so I'd always been around the courts hanging out. I also really liked running around, and so it's possible that my parents wanted to contain my energy and excitement in a large box, aka a squash court.

Question 5: Why do you continue to play squash now?
I continue to play squash for many reasons. First off, I love the game. I love how you can hit by yourself and practice every single shot. I love how there's also a fitness aspect to it, and that you can get a workout with just one other person in a period of 45 minutes. I've also been fortunate to have met an enormous number of amazing people through squash. It's such a great social game, and I have had the opportunity to connect with people all around the world, just because of our shared love of the game.

Question 6: What drives you?
Since I am playing at college, my team is a big factor in my drive right now. Aside from the team aspect, I like playing to feel good about myself. I like getting tough shots back, and I like hitting a satisfying nick (once in a blue moon, I mean). Knowing that it's "all on you" gives you a sense of power and also pride, which can be daunting, but also rewarding.

Question 7: What is your favourite shot?
Oh man, my favourite shot, or my best shot? You'd think they'd be the same thing, right? Alright I'll try to make this a little less complicated. I'd say that I love the backhand volley drop off the serve, especially if it's a lob serve. If I'm feelin it that particular day, I will exploit that one until my opponent is literally running to the front left corner to cheat for it.

Question 8: How would you decsribe your style of squash?
I would say that I am an "aggressive digger" (that sounds like I'm some kind of insect or something). I like to prolong the rallies to exhaust my opponent, preferably by volleying as much as possible to stay around the T area. Funnily enough, I actually find that I win most of my rallies in the back of the court. I use my front court shots more as "moving' shots, and then try to use their weak "get" to my advantage by putting it away in the back corners.

Question 9: What type of cross training do you prefer?
Are you asking me to write a novel here?! Ill try to narrow it down. I'd say that my favourite way to cross train is spinning as I have found it to be most effective. I also think that circuit training with a combination of
weights and explosive exercises is extremely beneficial, as I've found that doing this has improved my speed dramatically. I also do "enjoy" treadmill intervals, but I found out this summer that too much running on top of squash is too much high impact activity. The way I got fit way back in the day was by spinning 3 times a week. I honestly owe 95% of my fitness (both mental and physical) to spinning, as it taught me how to push in uncomfortable settings, and this translated directly on court.

Question 10: How many times per week to you play squash?
During season at school I play 6 days a week. Sometimes I will go down to the courts twice a day to either hit with a coach or to solo. One of the things I've found about college squash is that since the practice plans aren't specifically tailored to your needs as an individual, you need to find the time to work on your weaknesses (and strengths!). Freshman year I found that my drops had somehow magically disappeared by the end of the season. Since I hadn't been practicing them as much as I had in the past, I had lost confidence in hitting them. It wasn't so much that they had "left the building" altogether, but rather than I hadn't been practicing them enough to be confident in hitting them.

Question 11: How many times per week do you train off court?
During season, we practice 6 days a week, 2 hours a day. Twice a week, an hour of these sessions are off court in the weight room, and every single other practice we will do some sort of fitness, whether it be on or off court. Our non-hitting fitness training consists mostly of ghosting (maybe once or twice a week), bike/spin workouts (about twice a week), and on occasion, circuit workouts (stairs, jump rope, etc).

Question 12: What are your goals for this coming season?
This is my last year, so I'm all about no holding back this season. I'm going to pull out all the stops to see how fast I can get on court, and work on consistency in my shot making. Most shots I have the capability to hit, but I don't have the confidence to hit them consistently. I guess my motto this year is "confidence and consistency".

Question 13: How do you balance school, squash and a blog?
It's busy, I'm not going to lie. However, I'm at the stage now where, 1) I've gotten so, so so much better at managing my time, and 2) I genuinely like 99% of what I do. Sure, I'm busy, but I love doing all of these things. I also teach spin classes once a week, coach a 15 year old girl squash, and peer tutor French to underclassmen, but these are all things that I chose to do. Being busy isn't so bad if you like what you're doing. I'd much rather be insanely busy but happy, than have lots of free time but bored. I find that the busier I am, the better I have to manage my time, and the less I procrastinate. Every once in a while I have to take a step back and either let myself sleep in, or take a couple hours to have an unplanned "chill out" session with friends, and this keeps me grounded. Work hard, play hard, and rest hard.

Question 14: What was the inspiratin for your blog, Squash On Squash?
I've read healthy living blogs ever since my spring semester of my Freshman year at college. I was on a mission to get healthier, and became obsessed with reading about other people's workouts, meals, and recipes. I'd casually thought about starting my own, but never had the motivation or the material to do so. This past summer I had some time to kill at home (aside from training), and talked about it with a friend (who is currently training for a couch-Ironman!) who was also interested in starting a blog. We thought about starting one together, but eventually I decided to just do it on my own, since I wanted to "go big or go home". When I'd go for long solo rides or runs, I'd find myself thinking a lot and analyzing how I felt and was performing. I kept having all of these "workout epiphanies", and eventually realized I needed to write them all down to keep track. Furthermore, I really enjoyed sharing this knowledge with my family and friends, or seeing if others athletes had these "epiphanies" as well. Once I had written down a fair number of these thoughts, I realized that I had enough material to start a blog, and that I finally had something that I thought was worthwhile to write about.

Question 15: What would you eat during a typical tournamet day?
I'm a big fan of eating what you train with (same goes for races). If I have a match at 11, I'll make sure I have finished eating by 9. Depending on whether I am at home or on the road, my meals differ. I'm not too picky, as long as I have protein and some healthy fat in there. 

Typical prematch/race meals:
-Greek yogurt with PB/AB and a banana (or half a banana)
-Greek yogurt with protein powder + almond butter and a couple bites of banana
-Oatmeal with peanut butter and preferably a banana as well.
-And, if I can't find oatmeal or Greek yogurt, I can do a whole wheat bagel or toast with PB or AB and a banana.


Most of my breakfasts are around the 500-600 calorie mark, and although I don't count calories, I've found that I feel my best on court if I have a healthy well rounded breakfast that is in this range. More than this will send me into the lethargic stage, whereas less than this will leave me hungry by the time I am getting on court. 
Some exceptions: When I am extremely nervous (usually before races, which are also early in the morning), or before a really big match, I don't eat as much, and try to listen to my body. I find that the adrenaline compensates for the under eating, and that I actually perform better on a slightly empty stomach under these circumstances.

Things I avoid on race/match days:
-eggs and omelettes. I find that if they're not cooked properly, they can sit funnily in your stomach. Also, I don't crave salty things in the morning. If I have an evening or afternoon match I can eat eggs a few hours before, but if it's a morning match, I try to stay away from them.
-Pancakes and french toast. When I was in high school, I was famous (well, not famous, but it was a trend) for getting a large crepe from DeDutch, French toast, or chocolate chip pancakes (with whipped cream!) before matches. And you know what? It worked just fine for the most part. I don't know if it's because "ignorance is bliss" or because my body actually can't function at the same level with those foods in my stomach, but I don't touch them before matches anymore. They are too heavy, and sit in my stomach making me feel lethargic. I don't even eat them before training sessions (mostly because I like to train how I compete), and try to leave these special indulgences for off-days, or as a post-tournament/race treat.

I like to keep it simple, have a sandwich or substantial salad. My body is pretty good at telling me if it "needs" a sandwich, which usually happens in between tough training sessions, when it's craving carbs. My general rules for in between match meals:
-Nothing fried or greasy.

-No red meat (it takes too long to digest)
-Must have some lean protein (fish/chicken/turkey, or beans) -Vegetables (they also help re-hydrate you!)
-Keep it on the lighter side (around 500-600 calories for a healthy meal)

I am much more flexible when it comes to dinner, and I don't have to do the boring" grilled chicken and vegetables" route. I actually like having Indian food, Mexican food, or something even more exotic, just as long as it's not greasy. Of course, I make sure it fits the "eat clean" bill, but I don't worry about straying from red meat or any other specific foods.

Question 16: How many hours of sleep do you typically get a night during the school year?
I shoot for at least 8. Sometimes it ends up being 7.5, by the time I actually fall asleep, but if this happens consistently during the week I'll make sure that I get at least one or two nights of 9+ hours. I find that Sundays are great days to catch up on sleep, and I try to leave Sunday mornings free for this purpose.

Question 17: What has your experience been playing an individual sport on a team setting?
It's great, especially coming from Juniors where it's very individual. As someone who found it difficult to get that competitive/kill instinct (funnily enough I was, and still am, better at training than competing), I think that I thrive in the team atmosphere. Having your whole team behind you gives you that extra incentive to push hard and pull out the win. If I could name one thing that I've learned from competing as an individual on a team, it would be learning how to make yourself win, even when you're not playing your best.

Question 18: Do you prefer competing individually or as a team?
I find it easier to compete for a team. It naturally pushes me, rather than having to find extra motivation than just "winning". That being said, when I'm on court, I'm not thinking about the result, or what my team is thinking. My team motivates me by cheering, and physically being there. Oh, also, I am such a crowd lover, which I discovered in college squash. If I see that I've got people to play for and impress, I find that I rise to the challenge, and my intensity skyrockets.

Question 19: How many times have you hit your head coming out of a squash court at Princeton??
HA. Maybe only once I think. I have, however, suffered from many, many leg cramps from having to stoop so low to get through those doors.

Question 20: How do you hydrate before/during tournaments or matches?
The day before I make sure I am drinking enough water such that I am peeing every hour. The morning of the match(es), I drink a lot of water, up until an hour before my match so that I don't have to pee during the competition. If you're in a dry, air conditioned building all day watching squash, you're getting much more dehydrated than you think, so my advice is to always be carrying a water bottle around with you. If I've got a water bottle, I will drink it without thinking,

Question 21: Why do you have so much to say about health and fitness, and why are you interested in it?
I never realized how much of a difference doing all of the little things consistently would make. When you get used to being well hydrated, eating clean, and thus performing well, that becomes the norm. You then realize how you were in a fog before, and how those "crappy/bad" days were not inevitable, but largely a result of not being aware of your potential. In other words, I do healthy things so that I can perform my best (or as close to it as possible), 99% of the time. This severely diminishes the number of "bad" training days that I have, such that when I have a bad day, I can accept it and not feel too upset with myself.

In Summary
You can tell why I chose Nicole as my first athletic player profile. I've been fortunate to meet her, coach her, and have various discussions about squash, fitness, and training. I'm also thrilled she agreed and took the time out of her busy schedule to do this interview. She is such a motivating and inspirational human being. Nicole is proof that you can succeed at school, sport, and life. She is also proof that it is possible to enjoy training hard and pushing yourself to the limits. Nicole is also proof of the link between physical and mental wellbeing. When asked how she performs at such a high level on and off the court she responded with, 'it's about getting enough sleep, hydration, and eating well. All of these factors affect training and are way more important than any new pair of shoes, or training equipment will.'

If you haven't already done so, check out Nicole's blog at squashonsquash.com. She has lots of tips on how to improve your fitness and to say healthy, even while being away from home as a college student. It's obvious that whatever Nicole pursues after school she will excel in. She is motivated, a hard worker (and enjoys it!) and makes those around her better. The only thing I'm not so thrilled about is that she is now the author of the best written and most interesting Serious Squash blog post! Thanks Nicole;)

Friday, September 19, 2014

Pre Game Team Speeches

Today I'm going to talk about the pre game speeches you give to a team. Yesterday I talked about the individual coaching I'll give to my athletes, but when you're with a group there are some things that are best said to all of them. We've all seen the ra ra ra football speeches to fire up and inspire their team. We've also seen many famous speeches in sport movies. Who's seen Any Given Sunday? This is a popular football movie speech https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oSDhhZtRwFU. I wonder how a professional squash player would react to a speech like this? Maybe I need to hire myself a professional write for my speeches..

I'm working with kids from grade 7-12. Many of the younger ones are relatively inexperienced to competition. So my pre game speech today will be about playing hard every point, calling their own shots down or out, and having fun. For this particular tournament they did not enter a category, they were sorted into divisions by ranking points. So some of the kids may be upset with which draw they are in. So before encountering this, I will also mention that this doesn't matter. This tournament is about getting back into competition and seeing where you are. We will use this to reassess our goals and make new ones.

No doubt that most kids will be a bit nervous playing the first tournament of the year. It's also important to reassure them of the hard work they put in over the summer. A lot of people have expectations and put pressure on themselves going into an event. This is why a good consistent warmup routine is used by most athletes. It gets their head in the right mindset for competition. It gives them a chance to change their thoughts and focus from stuff like homework, chatting with friends, and into squash mode.

Other types of pre game team talks will vary depending on the tournament. As I coach a team, I will often emphasize the team aspect and how much it helps having us all pulling for one another. In squash this doesn't happen very often until you go to college or if you make a provincial or national team. But our kids train and travel together, they just compete individually (except for 1 team event per year).

With teenage squash players, I don't think they will ever need a ra ra ra motivational speech. Although I remember our team at college getting one once from the coaches wife. So I should never say never. Pre game speeches can set the tone for your team and can be an important lesson for your athletes. It's a chance to share some of your thoughts and feelings about competition and the team. The team gets to learn what you value at competition, your coaching philosophy. Are you going to focus and discuss winning? And doing anything it takes to win? If you're focus is result oriented I think you need to be working with a very experienced group of athletes. Otherwise if they are less experienced I feel they will think and try to win, instead of just playing and having fun. If this happens, I believe this reduces their chances of being successful and adds pressure to their matches. It's great if they win, but I want to see how they handle defeat, what they learn from it and how they respond to it. That's what shows character and is what translates to life outside the squash court.

I think it's important to know what you want to discuss ahead of time and keep it short and sweet. I'm lucky the kids will all be on the bus travelling up to the event together, so just before we get to the event I will have all of their attention. Otherwise it can be hard to track down everyone in a large group. In conclusion, use these opportunities to enhance your group. Some teams will have a team chant, song or ritual before games. Chant or not, it's a good time for your team to learn and to direct their focus for their tournament.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Coaching During Matches & Tournaments

With the first tournament of the season coming up this weekend I feel it's appropriate to discuss my philosophy for coaching at tournaments. This includes prior to matches, between games, and post match discussions. I'll divide them into 3 categories. It's important to remember that every athlete is different and getting to know how to best handle them in various situations takes time. I've made the mistake of giving too much information and talking too much. Some people need a kick in the pants (because of the Adrian Peterson situation I should declare that this is figuratively speaking of course!) to get going and others don't want to hear anything you have to say. During competition many of us become quite emotional and coaches have to be sensitive to this.

Prematch Talk
Here I like to keep things positive, short, and simple. Depending on the athlete I may get into a strategy against the specific opponent, but others I will get them to concentrate just on their own game. Whichever it is, I like to focus on a very simple game plan. If they are tense sometimes it's talking about something other then squash or even making a joke. As for the tactics at the start of the match, you may have seen in my previous post that I like to suggest trying to establish your length. If someone is naturally a slow starter I will make sure they have a good warmup and will give them a goal like getting to 5 points first. The timing of the prematch talk is also important. Sometimes I have so many kids playing I don't get a chance to talk to them all. If possible I like to talk to them before they warmup. I don't like talking too much just before they are about to go on court, but if I do I like to get them to take a couple of deep breaths to calm themselves down, relax, and focus.

Between Games Coaching
There's a rule of thumb of 30 - 30 - 30 for between games. Let the player get a drink for the first 30 seconds, talk/coach for the second 30 seconds, and then the last 30 seconds is for them to refocus and get back on court. This rule also ensures we don't give them too much to think about. What you say to each athlete depends on the person and the situation. Saying too little is always better then saying too much. With kids a lot of the time it's about getting them to hit the rest button if they are losing. You can do this again by getting them to take a deep breath followed by a few positive reinforcing comments. There is no need to point out their obvious unforced errors...they know they missed that drop or return of serve. Focus on the positive and keep it light. If someone did well then it's important to keep their focus and momentum so that they don't ease up thinking the match is over before it actually is. This happens a lot to kids and it's just about concentration. Playing every point with the same intensity and focus is always a goal I have for my athletes.

Sometimes I will get into strategy if I notice something and I feel the athlete has the ability to make the adjustment. I prefer using guided questions like, 'what do you think?' or 'what's working?' or 'what do you have to change or improve for the next game?' If they are unsure I may lead them towards an area I'm thinking about. I want them to be able to make adjustments on their own if not now then one day down the road.

There may be a weakness or strength or a pattern I notice in the opponent. It may also just be something like the athlete is hitting too many poor widths or their length is landing too short or they got tentative after making a couple of unforced errors. This has happened to me in a match and I remember getting good advice between games and was told that I have to go for the shot when it's on. There is to be no hesitation and trust your skill. Instead of the coach pointing out my mistakes and saying that I shouldn't have missed them or not to play them anymore, he gave me some positive reinforcement because he knew they were shots I can and will make next time. The brain often gets in the way and sometimes slightly altering your thinking can help you relax and play better squash.

Other times it's about getting the person back to their original game plan. Something may have happened and they deviated from what they set out to do. Or if things aren't going well, I try and get them to focus on the basics; finding a way to get the ball by your opponent and into the back corners.

For just 30 seconds worth of coaching, this could cover a number of posts. It really varies depending on the child and the situation. Also the type of coach plays a major role. I've seen one coach get really worked up and yell at the child. It was pretty harsh but it worked as the kid ended up coming back and winning the match. But this isn't the method that suits my personality, so if a kid is relying on a coach to get them up for every match they play then they are going to have to look elsewhere for some between game 'talks.'

Post Match Talk
This depends again on the athlete and the result. If the player lost they normally want some time alone to calm down. The first thing is normally to make sure the person begins to replace fluids and does some stretching or gets on a bike. They should also get out of their sweaty clothes (especially if they have to ref) and have a snack to begin refuelling. As for discussing the match, if they lost and have to play again you have to try and help them move past this and refocus on their next game. This can be a tall task for those that lost a close match or that didn't play well and lost to someone they feel they should have beaten.

I like to use this time for learning and setting some goals. Especially for kids competition is all about learning, win or lose. I always want to mention some of the good things I saw them doing on court. Now is also when I have more time to use some questions to poke around and see what they learned from the experience. Were they prepared and focused at the start of the match? What worked well? What area did the opponent struggle with? What do we need to work on? Again I won't get into this too much if the tournament is still going on. I don't want them going into their next match thinking about what they need to work on. But I like talking some strategy after the match is over so they can learn what was happening on court and so they can continuing developing their tactical knowledge.

I used to give all my athletes a list of things they did well and other things they can work on for next time. But I now ask my athletes do this in their journal. I can help them with this if they are unsure. With all of the talks we have during the course of the weekend they should have a good idea about their direction moving forward.

Get to know your athletes and what they like to hear and can interpret between games. Learn who can handle strategic information and who needs to be calmed down and refocused. This is something you can discuss with your athletes and some of them may know what works best for them. I also make sure to avoid using the terms 'can't' and 'don't' and 'shouldn't.' Even if someone is making a lot of repetitive mistakes I wouldn't say 'don't hit this' or 'don't do that.' Whenever someone says 'don't hit tin,' they usually hit tin. Instead I would go around it in a more positive manner, and say something like, 'you've got them set up now, keep up the pressure.' Or just tell them how well they are setting up the points.

I really could have broken this into 3 posts and written into more detail about each topic. I may do this someday down the road.

What do you like to hear between games? Have you ever been over coached? Yelled at? If so, did it help or hinder your performance?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Packing For A Tournament

This week has all been about preparing for a tournament. Today I am going to discuss and list some of the important things you should bring to a tournament. This may sound like a simple task, but look inside any experienced players squash bag and you will find a lot of unexpected but useful items.

We all know the basics, racquet, eye guards, court shoes, and ball. So what else do you need? Depending on your level and experience I recommend a 2nd racquet that is the same; same model, same string and tension, and same grip if possible. I always brought at least 3 racquets to tournaments. I've had 2 strings break in a single game before, so if this is a common issue for you a 3rd or even a 4th racquet can come in handy. I say last year that Nick Matthew brings something like 21 racquets with him to tournaments. Crazy! I've also heard a story about Jonathon Power where he broke a string or racquet and his backup racquet didn't have a grip on it and the ref wouldn't allow him time to regrip it, so he had to finish playing the game with no grip on his racquet. I know this story sounds like an urban legend, but that's what I've heard.

So besides the basics and extra racquets what else should you pack? I would start with a water bottle and/or some gatorade. A can of Gatorade powder can be cheaper and will be well used. At tournaments hydration and good sources of fuel are important. So I also suggest brining some granola or protein bars. Other foods that go well at tournaments include, bananas, trail mix, apples, sandwiches, and veggie sticks. Even if a tournament says they serve food I never rely on this. Sometimes the tournaments don't serve the food when you should be eating or don't serve the healthiest or best options for during a tournament.

I know this may sound obvious, but bring more squash clothes than you expect to need. This goes for socks and underwear. They don't take up much space when you travel and they are the worse clouting to run out of. You can't reuse clothes after tough matches so be prepared. I always brought at 4 or 5 pairs of shorts and at least 6 or 7 shirts. You should also bring track pants and a long sleeve top incase it's cool around the courts or for after your matches while you are refereeing.

Must Have Items:
- squash bag (big enough to fit all of the stuff on this list)
- 2+ racquets
- eyeguards
-  4+ pairs of shorts/skirts
-  4+ shirts
- 6+ pairs of socks/underwear
- track pants
- long sleeve athletic top/sweatshirt
- water bottle/gatorade
- granola or protein bars
- other snacks & food
- maps and phone numbers plus information about the hotel and club location
- passport (depending on age and where you're going)
- extra shoelaces
- extra grips
- squash balls (in case you get a chance to practice on the courts)
- bandaids/sports tape (black if possible)
- 4+ headbands/wristbands
- advil/ibuprofen/allergy pills/asthma puffers
- bobby pins (I've seen a lot of girls have hair malfunctions which have interfered with their game)
- daily hygiene products

Nice To Have Items:
- power gels
- foam roller
- a towel
- plastic bag/something to put sweaty/dirty clothes in
- a watch/heart rate monitor
- skipping rope (some people use to warm up)
- extra pair of shoes (if you don't have time for your other pair to dry between matches or if your first pair falls apart)
- extra pair of eye guards
- ipod (something to listen to music to while you warm up)
- cell phone (can film your matches with this)
- laptop/tablet (can also use to film your matches with and to watch movies and relax and unwind in the evenings)
- book to read of some homework!

It's also a good idea to make sure that your eye guards are approved for the event. In Canada for national events only certain types of eye guards are approved and some officials will check to make sure yours are on the list. If you wear prescription eye guards, sometimes these aren't allowed either and you will have to wear contacts or the iMask. Remember it's also not about just bringing this stuff to the tournament and leaving it at the hotel. You may have a situation where you need something in an emergency during your game so you should have the important items with you in your squash bag and by the court you are playing on.

Last thing. If you arrive before the tournament begins and can get a practice court you are one step better prepared for your first round match. This isn't always possible, so if it isn't then at least taking a look and getting to know the facility is helpful. Also know where you are travelling to is a key to proper planning. Maybe the weather is much warmer or cooler than where you are coming from. So you can practice with a slower or bouncier ball to prepare yourself. This may also mean you need to bring a winter clothing and leave early for the tournament. In many provinces in Canada the weather has a major impact on tournament travel. You'll also need to know how long it takes to get to the club from where you're staying, will there be any traffic, and so on. This is all about managing your tournament travel to allow yourself to play your best squash.

What other times am I missing from the above lists?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Tactics At The Start Of The Match

Today I'm going to talk about tactics at the start of the match. This is all about setting a tone for the match and future matches. We all know that winning the first game plays an important role in winning the match. Many people get off to slow starts and some begin the match without a game plan. This is why it's so vital to have a good warmup routine. The warmup is not just about getting your body warm, but your mind focused and prepared for battle.

So you've had a good warmup, but still aren't performing well at the beginning of matches. Is it that you have trouble adjusting to your opponent? Or maybe you are a bit nervous and it takes some time to settle in? Other people just seem to take longer than others to establish their length and width. A lot of kids in particular give up many free points at the start of the match. They aren't quite settled into the game yet and go short too soon. Sometimes these may even be good openings to go short, but I find that in the early stages of the match these tend to lead to mistakes.

Early in a match I like to have a very simple game plan, establish my length. If your length is better than your opponents you will likely win the match. If you haven't established your length and gotten your opponent behind you there isn't really a point to force the ball into the front of the court yet. Even if you get a quick point attacking from a high risk situation, this doesn't bode well for the rest of the match. So in your next match, go in with just a simple game plan at the start, establish your length. If you can do this you well you will get lots of opportunities to volley and attack the front of the court later on when you have settled down and feel more relaxed.

This early match tactic may sound like you are playing not to lose as opposed to playing to win, but when you watch the pros you will see long rallies at the beginning of the match as they jab each other, settle their nerves, and feel each other out. The person that finds better length will soon be attacking and dictating the points.

If you're not playing well or are playing someone a bit stronger than you. If you haven't found your length yet, don't give up on it. Just keep trying. Maybe you need to slow the pace down and lift the ball a little, or perhaps keep it straighter. What I see at the beginning of matches is people too amped up and overhitting the ball and it comes out loose and either lands too short or bounces way off the back wall. Overhitting your length doesn't put any pressure on your opponent. If this is what you tend to do, maybe you need to start matches aiming for the service line or even a bit higher on your drives. Focus on the depth of your length. As a bonus this also helps you conserve your energy so you can pick up the pace later in the match if you chose to.

An effective start of the match tactic can get you well on your way for success. Maybe you need to stick with it for x number of points. Others will just know when they've established their length as the begin to create plenty of better openings to attack. At the beginning of the match I do not consider this reactive squash, you can still be proactive hitting most of your shots deep. This is just a way to settle in and get comfortable before playing short shots. The deeper you push your opponent into the back of the court the more area you have to attack in the front. Not to mention that you are also testing out your opponents strategy. You may be surprised that they have no strategy and give you some easy free points at the start of the match and let you relax and get a running start.

In summary, warmup is for your body and mind. This is why it's called a routine, they prepare the same way each day to get into the same mindset. Once you get on court, keep it simple! You should't be consciously thinking about too things when you play squash. If you do this your focus is too broad. Have a basic plan (like establishing your length) and stick with it until you do. If you don't find your length early, keep trying. If this is a new way for you to play it may take some time before you begin to do it instinctively. Settle into the match before you start attacking the front of the court at will. It's such a confidence booster for your opponent when you hand them free points at the beginning of the match. Maybe they were feeling nervous and tense about the game and now you've let them relax and get ahead. Plus if you make a few early unforced errors you will lose that confidence for going short later in the match.

At the beginning of matches, dig in, fight and scrap. Send a mental message to your opponent that you are there for a fight and are going to give it all you got. I've won countless matches without being forced to play my best squash. People think they need to do something special to beat me and force it short and give me free points. It's such a nice feeling. When they do this I can play entire matches without an unforced error because I know they are beating themselves so I just keep hitting good length and counter attack. I don't know what the odds are of winning a match after you've won the first game, but it must be pretty high. Therefore having a solid strategy at the begging of the match can increase your chances at winning. Get into a habit of setting a winning tone at the start of your match. Do this by implementing a fundamental tactic.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Tournament Match Play Preparation

Today is an important post leading back up into tournament season. Today the discussion is going to be about some tips for replicating tournament match play. This is a challenging thing to do for a number of reasons. Of course compared to drills or other training, playing a match is always a good way to prepare for tournament matchplay. Even still there are a number of differences between a regular match and one in a tournament.

Often in tournaments you have to play against someone you have not played before. Sometimes you will be sore or fatigued from the previous matches while other times you will have to play much earlier in the day or later in the evening then you normally do. You may also be playing a tournament on different courts and the ball could be slower or bouncier. There is also the factor of nerves and the mental game that don't seem to be an issue outside of tournament competition. Playing the same partner each weeks brings about a certain level of comfort that you will likely not feel in competitive play, even if you play that same person in a tournament. Some people perform better in tournaments, while others are at their best in practice. Regardless of which type you are there are a lot of ways to improve your tournament match play preparation.

Playing in a tournament there are normally ranking points on the line and a history of the result will likely be kept in the archives. Because of this you spend more time thinking about the outcome and who your next opponent may be and what time it will be at. For this reason I always like to look at the first match in a tournament and take it round by round. I hear complaints about the draws in every tournament. It's almost like we are giving ourselves a reason for us not doing as well as we should before a match has even been played.

Basically there is normally a sense of expectation and pressure in competing in a tournament. The more exposure you receive in tournaments the better you will be able to handle the pressure and consistently perform your best. There are a number of methods I like to use to help prepare my athletes for tournament play. Here is a list of some that I use.

Tournament Match Play Preparation and Simulation 
1) Have a pregame warmup up, and some consistent ritual that you will use at tournaments. Go through some visualization of your performance.
2) Play different opponents (opposed to the same person each week).
3) Play at different times. Yes, set up some early morning matches when possible and a few late night matches. This may be difficult, but with practice you will learn how to get yourself up to your standard of play at various times of the day. Maybe if you have a late match you will need to have a nap during the day while if you play really early, you may need to have a longer and more intense warmup.
4) Put something on the line. I use to play my friend for a pound of wings afterwards. It doesn't have to be much, and really it shouldn't be or it could become unfriendly. But playing for something, even a wrestling belt or some goofy trophy will make you both want to perform at your best and win.
5) Get someone to ref. Many people play through interference and take too long to warmup up and between games when they are playing a practice match. Having a ref can help make the match feel more like a tournament game.
6) Have a set game plan and strategy before you go into your match. Don't just go out and play and see what happens.
7) Play 2 matches in a day. This will replicate a tournament and will give you practice preparing and recovering in a short window of time. You can also set up 3 matches in 2 days or 4 in 3 to replicate a full tournament.
8) Play with a crowd. Try and get on the show court when the club is busy so people are watching. We all play harder when our peers and coaches are watching.
9) Play more meaningful weekly matches. This could mean a ladder match or participating in the city league. Usually these matches will be refereed and the results will have meaning either towards some form of individual or team rankings. Challenge matches within your team are also good ways of replicating a tournament match. You could even set up your own mini ladder with a group of friends.
10) Set up matches with people of different skill levels. At tournaments you don't play just people you are close with, so you need to get comfortable playing against those a bit weaker, the same level, and a little stronger.
11) Try and switch racquets during a match. Pretending that your strings or racquet have broken. This will happen to all of us at some point in a tournament and we have to be able to use our backup racquet.
12) Try and get in some matches at different squash clubs. If there are other squash clubs nearby, try and get some games on them so you have to play and adapt in different environments.
13) Set up matches with the people you least like to play. I know, who wants to do this? I just mean their style of squash. You probably don't like it because you have trouble playing them. Don't avoid it, because in a tournament you will have to play someone like this at some point. So prepare yourself and find out how to play against that type of opponent.
14) Take part in round robins and drop ins. Often you will get to play a lot of different people and this is also a good way to meet new opponents. Sometimes these have a rule that the winner stays on which makes it more competitive.
15) Try playing a match and filming yourself. I find many people have trouble forgetting about the camera and don't play as well when it's rolling.
16) Play with a brand new ball or one that skids. I also sometimes will switch balls mid-match, to replicate breaking a ball in a tournament. Then they have to go through the process of warming up and adjusting to the bounce of a new ball. This also can break the focus and momentum of the players. I've seen a ball break on over points in the fifth game at a tournament. I also like playing with a blue dot on occasion. This really changes the game and makes you adjust your targets. This is also a good method for training when you will be competing in a warm climate or at high altitude.
17) If possible receive coaching between games. This doesn't have to be your actually coach, but possibly a peer. Side note: I also don't like my athletes to rely on my advice between games to make adjustments, they need to be able to understand what is going on out there and make their own adjustments. So even just having someone ask them what is going on out there and what adjustments (if any) are they going to make?
18) Set up an exhibition/test match. So this probably won't work for an average club player, but if you're a top junior or adult preparing for an important event it can provide a good atmosphere and you may be  able to raise some funds for your travelling at the same time.

So here are some of the ways I like to prepare my athletes for tournament play. I also prefer doing drills and condition games that have options, so the players have to make decisions, watch, cover the whole court, and anticipate. I usually mix in a few drills to give players some repetitions on a shot, maybe volley drops or return of serves to build up their confidence leading into a tournament.

Many people avoid competition because they have not figured out how to enjoy themselves and the challenge. Many people haven't played enough tournaments to get comfortable and learn how to control their nerves. Avoiding competition altogether may be a solution, but it is not as satisfying as learning how to handle the 'pressure' of competition and play your best when it counts most.

What works best for you? How do you prepare yourself for competition? What methods have you used for simulating tournament play?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Nothing Means More Than This Day

Today is going to be a different type of post. Yes, you can probably tell by the title it's going to be a philosophical and motivational one! Today my entire post is based on a single sentence, a quote as a matter of fact. This is a quote from a German writer named Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Johann wrote and/or said 'nothing means more than this day.' When I googled this quote I also came across a similar one that reads, 'nothing is worth more than this day.' Either way they both imply the same thing and have inspired today's post.

So you're probably wondering how I'm going to go on about a single sentence for an entire blog post?   Well here we go. I actually found this inspiring little quote inside my bag of granola one morning last week. Packaging words inside a product is not just for fortune cookies anymore.

This line got me thinking about the motivation we need each day to be our best and give it our all. When we are doing goal setting it's challenging to see and feel our improvement little by little, day by day. We can also get stuck thinking too much and living for the future. We may say things like, 'one day when I'm older and in better shape I'll beat this person and win that tournament.' It's a good thing that we are persistent and determined and don't let individual results get us down. But we also can get lost with what may or may never happen and lose sight of what we can control. What we can control is the present, this day, this moment. If we continue putting our best effort in each moment every day we will get to where we envision ourselves in the future. But the warning here is losing sight of the present day, which is what matters most!

I can speak from experience after dealing with an injury last year. I thought I would be competing in tournaments and still improving at squash much later into my coaching career. That I would win more national masters titles and compete at the world masters. In hinds sight I took the last few events I played for granted, always thinking there would be plenty of more opportunities. You don't know how much you will miss it until it's gone and you never know how many more chances you will have at something. My advice is about just focusing and enjoying the present, on this moment of this day. It's often about the journey, not the destination. Do your best right now. If you were having trouble finding the motivation needed to give it your all today maybe this will help. 

Don't waste a single day, living for what the future may or may not hold. Which sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is to rest; this is such a tough thing to do for some people. I know I've already said it, but do what you can at this moment and then the next and you will eventually get to where you want to go. I believe in having lofty dreams and goals and they are only considered lofty because they are challenging to those that don't know you and don't have faith in themselves. I really believe that a motivated person can do whatever they want. That's the number one thing I've learned about myself from playing squash.

I want to touch base on the balance between between the present and the future. When someone is extremely driven towards the future, it may be difficult to 'take the time and smell the roses.' This is no doubt a challenging balance and one of the hardest parts of goal setting and becoming an expert in anything in life. It take a lot of discipline and sometimes hard work (it's not always fun!). It's what you do today that counts. You can't change what's happened before or what may occur down the road. But you can influence what may happen to you by what you do right now

Here's an example of a common situation. What would you do? You could do a hard training session by yourself that you don't enjoy but you know is good for your preparation for a tournament down the road, or you could go out with friends to a movie or a party. Which do you value more? What would you choose? Does missing a single training session really make a difference? Take a look at this clip on rowing before you answer that. The coach handles this very question quite well https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YNA-JaCkvQg. The hard training you do is for the future and not enjoyable today, so why bother? Doesn't this imply you value the future more than this moment? Does this mean my granola was lying to me?

You don't get fitter or stronger as you are doing the exercise. It's as you build up your fitness that you see progression. Good things take time to build. 'Rome wasn't built in a day!' So how can you live in the present? Enjoy the challenges and the hard work you put in each day? I'm always inspired when I read athletic biographies about all the obstacles they've overcome and all of the sacrifices they made to get to where they are. If you have any recommendations please let me know! Some athletes like they really loved every second of it, while others (like Andre Agassi) admit that becoming a professional athlete in an individual sport is a cruel way to live and he in fact hated tennis. Perhaps if he was more internally driven and not pushed by his father to hit endless balls he would have a different perspective. Andre also says he doesn't want his kids playing tennis even though he's married to Steffi Graf. How could they not be great! I think I better end this discussion now before I get sidetracked into a new topic (yeah I know, too late!).

I hope you enjoyed my philosophy 101 post! I also tried to throw in a bunch of common quotes. Perhaps I inspired you and got you thinking about what drives you to do what you do each day. It's easy to get ahead of ourselves. This could be even with a tournament or a match, thinking it's over before it actually is. Find that dream that motivates you and take care of what you can, this moment and this day. Don't get absorbed in the future so that you don't appreciate today. Like not being able to enjoy a Sunday because we know Monday morning is just around the corner!

What does the Johann quote mean to you? Do you think I overanalyzed it? And what are your thoughts on the Agassi hating tennis and not wanting his kids to play?