Today I'm going to talk about proactive vs. reactive squash. Do you win or lose on your terms? Are there situations where playing reactive squash beneficial? In general terms like to think that proactive squash is playing to win while reactive squash is playing not to lose. Of course the result of either one can be there same, but the way you get to the finish line can be much different.
I'm going to start off by talking about reactive squash. Some people are runners and just get the ball back. If you are playing a stronger player, someone that hits the ball exceptionally hard, attacks from all over the court, you will likely be playing reactive squash. You will also be playing reactive squash if you're nervous and tense. This is partly why people normally start off matches playing passively and reactive. At the beginning of a match you are feeling out your opponent, finding your range as you adjust to the court and the ball, and also calming your nerves. Many people try and force play at the beginning of a match before they've actually found their length and width and give their opponents some free points and/or lose confidence early on in their short game. It's not your short game as just disappeared, it's just that most people need to settle into the match a bit before attacking effectively.
Sometimes playing reactive squash isn't a bad thing. Maybe your opponent is exhausted and starts shooting, you know you just have to keep the ball in play and wait for mistakes or for them to become completely fatigued. Of mage your opponent is getting frustrated and is about to blow a gasket. If you're playing a stronger player that maybe isn't as fit as you, you may also want to play reactive squash; not just because they won't allow you to play proactively, but because you want to keep the rallies as long as possible and not give them any cheap points by forcing it short. Playing reactive squash against a proactive player means you need to really focus on your length and width to contain your opponent.
Even if you are a proactive player, you can see there are times where playing reactively can actually benefit you. Personally I always preferred being proactive whenever possible. Again this isn't possible against someone that is a much stronger opponent, but let's talk about some ways to play proactive squash.
Volley and controlling the T - when I think of a proactive squash player, it doesn't necessarily imply they are always bringing the ball short and opening up the court. Sometimes a proactive player will just be taking the ball early. You are able to read your opponent well and are putting them under a lot of pressure with your length setting you up with some easy volleys. If you can do this well you won't have much trouble in your match. Remember just trying to volley is quite challenging if your length isn't applying pressure. When you can volley and control the T against a similar skilled opponent it comes down to focus and a game plan. You can either hit a length and get to the middle of the T and wait for a lose ball, or start poaching and force your opponent to hit away from you. Here are some examples I use. When I'm playing up and down the backhand wall, I know if I hit a decent drive it will be hard for my opponent to hit a wide enough crosscourt with pace to get it by me, so I move over and force them to hit a near perfect drive to get me off the T. On the other side of the court. When I hit a straight drive down the forehand wall, I know most players don't enjoy rallying up and down the forehand side, so I'll position myself near the middle and think here comes the crosscourt drive, and if it does I'll be ready to pick it off. If it doesn't I'll simply hit another straight drive and do the same thing again. Also, if I hit a good deep width, I know my opponent should be unable to hit back crosscourt and I will again wait for their straight drive, forcing them to hit a perfect shot to get me off the volley. If you play your length and width with these kind of tactics in your mind you are playing proactive squash.
Taking the ball early - this also implies volleying and controlling the T, but a bit more as well. This doesn't even mean you are always hitting the ball early, it simply means you are reading your opponent and getting to the ball early. When you get to the ball early you will be balanced as you hit, you will have many options available, and you can also delay your shot. When you arrive at the ball early you also have the option to hit the ball before your opponent has recovered to the T. Even extremely fit people will get tired if constantly made to sprint around the court. Taking the ball early means you anticipating well and hitting high quality shots. When you watch Nick Matthew volley you can see how early he tries to cut off the ball along the T line. I try and teach a lose ball at the front as a time when you should get there as early as you can because this is the opening you've created and been waiting for. If you get to this ball early you can do so many things with it. When you have options and take time away from your opponent you will likely be putting them under all kinds of pressure and playing proactive squash.
Shot variety - a lot of people play shot x from position y and maybe once every so often shot z. If you have more shot options from each spot on the court, not only are you playing proactive squash, but you are also forcing your opponent to react to you as you dictate play. Not only should you have a variety of shots from each position on the court, but you should be able to couple them so they are not easily read by your opponent. This is where I like doing drills that the athlete can chose from 2 or 3 shot selections. Even sometimes from the back of the court it is important to go short (assuming you can do so accurately) because you're opponent has the match settles in will likely be waiting back on the T and be surprised by this change up. Knowing when to change up the pattern and when to stick with the most correct shot is important. If you start trying to do too much and forcing the ball into different areas you will probably be making mistakes or putting yourself under pressure. But this is also part of the learning process. If you don't try this at all you will never learn how and when to play these shots. It's also important to know why you are playing each shot. Sometimes we don't have time to think and just hit whatever we can. Top players have a purpose behind each shot, as opposed to just hitting the ball around the court hoping for the best.
Playing without fear - when you do this, you play with unwavering confidence and you never hesitate or second guess yourself when attacking. Even when you make a mistake you don't let it get to you and this doesn't make you change your game plan nor does it affect your confidence in your ability. When you play without fear you are dangerous, because your opponent nows that any slight opening they give you will mean they will be under a tremendous amount of pressure. When you play without fear you don't think about the score and you don't get tense when things are tight on the scoreboard. When you play without fear you have to be in the zone and completely focused. This is how I feel Ramy plays when he's at his best. When he gets beat it isn't his opponent beating him, he just beats himself. And when this does happen it's either because of his hamstring or he is fighting his mind and isn't in the zone. He'll be upset with poor decisions and smacking himself, telling himself he knows better. Which he does, but to play without fear and at your best means that you don't let mistakes get to you.
Ok, so that's my bit on proactive vs. reactive squash players. Which type of player are you? A lot has to do with your racquet ability and your mindset. Which type of player do you enjoy or dislike playing? What is a strategy you can implement against these different types of opponents? If you're not sure what type of player you are I'll leave you with once question, do you force your opponent to hit a great length to get you off the T or do you move back instinctively?