So today I decided to further the discussion about playing reactive and proactive squash. Today though my focus is going to be on how to learn to become more of a proactive squash player. I feel that many kids play reactively because they can rely on their speed and endurance to get the ball back and win matches. Whereas smaller kids have to learn the tactics and play smarter from a younger age to compete with these bigger, fasters, and stronger kids that just run and hit hard. If you were or still are one of those players that rely on their speed to retrieve instead of attacking I will give you some tips and condition games for learning to play more proactively. This will allow you to take further advantage of your reach, quickness and endurance.
No doubt if you have played reactive squash for a long period of time you are probably pretty fit. Doing all this running and retrieving hoping your opponent makes mistakes and gets tired (or bored) will only work for so long and up to a certain level. Eventually if you want to win tournaments you will need to become more proactive when you play. This means that you should be capitalizing on good opportunities instead of just keeping the ball deep and limiting mistakes.
Yesterday I talked about a few different ways I do this when I'm hitting length. There is a general tendency for people to hit most shots to the back backhand corner, so I will poach and look to cut these shots off. Also when I hit a good wide crosscourt my opponent should be unable to go back crosscourt behind me, so I can anticipate a weak straight drive (while still covering a boast). All of these scenarios are engrained and I do them unconsciously when I play now. But for those that aren't yet comfortable with this aggressive mindset will likely fall back into a more passive and comfortable style of play when they get into match play and more specifically in tournaments..even more so when they make a few mistakes or when things get tight. This isn't playing without fear! Playing without fear does not imply playing recklessly!
If you want to become a more attacking player you will likely need to do the following: improve your ability to hit shots you normally don't use or feel comfortable playing in matches, you will have to do a lot of repetitions to increase your confidence to hit these shots when it matters and you should practice playing these different shots or tactics in condition games, practice matches and small tournaments. I feel it is also important to move around the court well and for me, this means being quick back to the T and fast laterally so you can cut off more shots around the middle of the court.
In match play as I was learning to play proactively I would constantly be telling myself to take the ball early and look to cut off everything I could. For me it was al about my mindset. Anytime I would get a weak ball at the front of the court I would try and get to it as soon as I could so I could either hit the ball early or delay my shot. Eventually this style of plays becomes instinctual, but it takes a conscious and consistent effort to make this change.
I know a number of people want to play high percentage shots. But to become a proactive player you need to sometimes hit shots that some people would consider low percentage or risky. But with a lot of deliberate practice you can make these shots high percentage. And this is what it takes to become a top class proactive player. Of course this doesn't mean you can forget about the basics. The basics are what sets up all the working, finishing, and glamorous shots. The basics include your serve, return of serve, your length and your width. You take care of the fundamentals or you won't get many opportunities to be proactive.
Ok so here are some of my favourite drills/condition games for learning to play more proactive squash.
1) Length game but off a crosscourt you can hit anything
2) Long long short
3) Long long short short
4) Length game and you can go short only on the volley
5) 1 player can hit anything the other only deep
6) 1 player can hit anything the other can only hit straight
7) short vs. deep 7b) switches front to back when the back player can volley drive
8) every shot has to go crosscourt - 1 side vs. the other (short or deep)
9) 1 player has to hit everything crosscourt (short or deep) vs 1 player that has to hit everything straight (short or deep)
10) Normal game but when you volley from in front of your opponent and you attack you play a let if you make an unforced error. This can help eliminate any hesitation about going short.
11) 1 player can hit anything, the other has to hit everything to a single corner of the court
12) Normal game with targets for bonus points on the floor (can put them along the side walls at the front and back)
13) Normal game but the ball cannot hit the back wall on the bounce or the player has to boast
14) Rallies that start with a back wall boast for the serve
15) Normal games but you get bonus points for hitting various shots or completing certain tasks at the end of the game (for example, a trickle boast, 3 volleys in a row, winning a rally on your return of serve, hitting a nick, etc)
16) Length game but you get a bonus point for every volley you hit. Normally play to 21 and it goes quick!
17) You can only hit straight drives unless you volley, if you volley you can hit anything.
So you can see I like to have drills and condition games with options (at least for 1 of the players) so they can make decisions and try new combinations and experiment with volleying, taking the ball early, and attacking. I also enjoy setting up practices that allow players to be creative and try new shots or styles of play. These are a much different type of practices then I grew up with. I feel that making a change to proactive squash will also improve your anticipation, but at first you will probably feel like you are seeing the ball too late. This is because you are normally reacting to your opponents shots.
As you can tell I'm all for playing proactive squash it's important to remember the fundamentals of squash. You still have to be able to good length and width out of the back corners. If Ramy had a terrible serve, return and length and width he wouldn't be the best in the world! I know, he's not technically at the moment, but we all know he is!