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?