Sunday, November 30, 2014

Believe In Yourself

Today I'm going to talk about self-efficacy, self-confidence, positive thinking, believing in yourself and how this leads to success in all areas of life, on and off the squash court. Can you really fake it till you make it? Do you believe you can win each tournament you play? If you've lost to someone previously, how can you go in believing you can win? How can you learn to see yourself as a winner? Besides winning what other ways can you build a person's confidence? When in a challenging situation do you give up or get up?

Let's take an example here. Two players are at the same level, perhaps identical technically, tactically and physically. One of these players completely believes they can win, they expect and know they will, while the other just hopes they do and will see how it goes. Who would you bet on? When the player who is confident in their ability gets into a challenging situation they will pick it up and stay positive because they have an unwavering self-efficacy that they will be successful. Clearly the person that believes they be successful has a much higher probability of actually doing this. If you're the one that lack self-confidence in your ability to be successful how can you change this? How can you hold yourself to a higher standard and be tougher psychologically? How can you play every point, game and match to win regardless of your opponent?

Quickly, I should mention what self-efficacy is. Self-efficacy is the confidence that you can accomplish a task or a goal. Dr. Albert Bandura built a self-efficacy model many years ago that divides it into 3 core components: vicarious learning, mastery experiences and social persuasions. Vicarious learning is gained by using someone similar as a model.

Let's look as some examples of these core components. If nobody thought they could beat Ramy Ashour and then all of the sudden James Wilstrop beat him, other guys on the tour would have a bit more belief that they could do this as well. They may look at how Wilstrop beat Ramy and build their gameplay around this. So even though this person has never beaten Ramy before, if they are similar to Wilstrop's level they will have gained some confidence in their peers result. In a similar example, let's say Ramy was playing Wilstrop. Wilstrop gets a good start and a lead in the first game, and maybe even wins the first game. This gives James some believe that he can beat Ramy. Of course if Wilstrop beaten Ramy in a full match previously he would be much more confident that he could do it again. Social persuasion is reassurance and belief from people around you that you can accomplish your goal. A lot of players need to hear this because they lack self-efficacy. If you keep hearing that people believe in your ability and that you can be successful, this can have a positive influence on your self-confidence.

So how can you believe in your ability to be successful if you haven't been? How do you stay positive and upbeat regardless of what happens? I believe that you should always play to win, but to improve your chances of winning your focus should not be solely on the outcome. If you believe you can win you won't get discouraged when you face obstacles such as a bad call, or a injury timeout, the ball breaking, or losing a few straight points or even the first 2 games. Look at these as challenges; the tougher the challenge the more meaningful it would be to overcome. If you don't win, well you have to believe that they next time you will. This unwavering confidence is an attitude that extends beyond the squash court. If you believe you'll get that job or that the girl will say 'yes' when you ask her out, you will probably be right. And even if you're incorrect, that doesn't mean you won't be right next time.

I had a lesson this weekend with someone that is very talented. This person has great racquet skill, but doesn't believe that he will be successful. I asked him to repeat after me, 'I will win the Canadian Junior Open.' Let's just say he didn't convince me. The point was not that I think he can win, just in the way he says I can do this and achieve something great. This got me thinking, how many of the kids going to the Canadian Junior Open actually believe they can win? There are only 8 divisions and just 8 winners. But surely more than this believe they can win. If you believe you can win when you go to a tournament, even if you don't win you will be one tough out. This was the point I was trying to make. There are less talented kids going to this event and expecting to do well and win. Losing has damaged his confidence, so how do you rebuild it?

The first thing I recommended is believing that you can win this single point. Don't get ahead thinking about the whole tournament or match. Regardless of who you play, you can beat anyone in 1 rally, even Ramy! So play to win this point and believe you can. If you don't say something positive and tell yourself you can win this one. This is a good method for staying in the moment and not getting ahead of yourself. The tougher your opponent the more difficult this will be. But it is humanly possible, win this point and then the next. Maybe in the end you'll lose on paper, but you may just have played the best squash of your life by believing and fighting for every point. With this attitude you will begin to have more success and will eventually have a mastery experience that will bolster your self-efficacy. Never give an inch, even when you're down game or match ball. If you want to know more about that, read this previous post

If we look back to Bandura's model, social persuasion is another positive way we can believe in our ability. This is why I feel it's always important to tell people what they are doing well, not just the areas they need to correct. I believe in my athletes and let them know that I do. If we give them this support and they know we believe in them it will help. Be positive and if you need to give some constructive criticism, put a positive spin on it.

There is one area here that I should clarify. You can be successful every time you play. Although we normally define success as winning and losing, it's the process which leads to this. I don't expect people to play any better than their ability, but to play their game and try their best. If you can do this for an entire match you can never lose in my eyes. This is hard for most of us to see. Try and concentrate on playing the right shot and continually making good decisions. If you do this, but make a few mistakes on your shots, that's fine. Sometimes we all make a mistake in our execution, but continue playing the right shots and you will overall be more successful. So yes, I've just talked about believing in yourself and that you should play to win. But now I am saying focus on the process and don't think about the outcome. Which is it?

Believe you can win, play to win, but don't put the pressure on yourself that you have to win. All of us that play squash will lose matches every so often. If we don't we aren't playing healthy competition. So we all need to learn how to believe we can win even after we don't. Go out an expect to play well, don't wait to play well to believe that you will. Confidence should come first and you can see it in the knock up (as I discussed the other day here and in a person's body language.

Learning to focus on the process is an important trait for playing consistent squash and for continuing your development as a squash player. I like asking my athletes what their strategy is? How do they like playing? When are they most successful? To play your best you need to be in the zone. When you're in the zone you can't be thinking about the past or the future. To be in the zone means to be completely absorbed in the present task. You can imagine how challenging this is to do if you're not happy with how you're playing. This is when you have to give yourself a break and have a short memory; just move on to the next point.

If you're an attacking player you will likely make a few mistakes. Look at Ramy in the finals of the World Championships. In the first game he made about 6 unforced errors against the #1 ranked player in the world. Did Ramy stop playing his game, nope! And he someone won this game. I've heard Ramy talk about how he has to fight the negative thoughts, the demons when he plays. Because he knows for him to play his best and be successful he has to keep the attack on, even after a few mistakes. You need to have a short memory, especially after you make some unforced errors or lose a match. If Ramy got tense he wouldn't have such soft hands and immaculate touch. Ramy needs to stay loose and confident no matter what or else he wouldn't play his game. If you want to play attacking squash you have to be able to stay confident and positive to play this style effectively.

I've covered a few interesting topics today. Self-efficacy and focusing on the process of the performance. Just because you haven't beaten someone before doesn't mean you won't in the future. I remember one match when I was in university and I was beating who I thought was a better player. I noticed in the 3rd game he wasn't moving right and seemed to be having some trouble with his back. I didn't keep the pressure on and let him back into he match. I eventually lost and he asked me after what happened. And I recall saying that I just didn't think I deserved to beat him yet. I didn't think I was good enough, but there I was in a winning position and I let it get away. I was in the zone and had him down and out. I can say that I did get my win a couple of years later. Although what happened at the previous tournament was disappointing it was a learning experience. I learned my lesson and it hasn't happened again since.

Last quick story. When I was a kid I remember being asked to visualize myself play. I was never able to see myself hitting good shots and winning. I don't know what it was, but I would see myself hitting loose shots and losing rallies. I don't know if this was because I had low self-confidence or that I just wasn't good at visualizing yet. I was pretty successful and a good junior but I couldn't visualize myself playing winning squash. Looking back this is something that I should have continued working on and trying to change. Instead I just didn't do it because I couldn't do it properly. I do believe that visualization is another method to improve your self-efficacy. If you can see yourself in your minds eye playing well you are more likely to go out and do so.

Do you always need to have success before you acquire confidence? Dr. Bandura and I don't believe so, but it certainly helps. Once upon a time the 4 minute mile was thought to be impossible until Roger Bannister broke it. The following year a bunch of people did. Seeing Bannister break this proved to others that it was possible. But how did Bannister do it in the first place? He proved that just because it hasn't been done, doesn't mean it won't. Play to win, focus on the process, believe in yourself no matter what and you will be more successful and a much tougher opponent.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Time Management and Maximizing Training

Today I'm going to talk about time management and in particular how you can maximize your training sessions each week. Think outside the box. Do more, but do it smarter. Manage your time and know what type of training to do and how much to do it. You can train twice per day and not burn yourself out. Keep it fresh and change it up constantly. If you want to be the best solo hit every day, even for just 20 minutes. I know top students at university that are able to train 3 times per day. I heard that Jansher Khan use to train at 6am everyday because he could get in a practice before most people even woke up. I know most people are busy these days, including students, so managing your time and getting into a routine is essential if you wan to be the best you can be.

Everyone has heard about deliberate practice. That it takes about 10,000 to become an expert in a field, including squash. Well some people play that long or longer and never become close to an expert. 10,000 over 10 years is much different than over 20 or 30 years. It's also not just about the quantity of practice time. Quality is always more important. Practicing every day for your entire life with the poor technique will only get you so far. So today's post is not about playing a match and doing drills every day and overtraining with only 10,000 hours as a goal. Today the discussion is how to keep the quality up by being smart and managing your time using a weekly training log.

When I was in university my body could only handle so many tough training sessions per week. Especially when the team went away for the weekend and I'd play 3 or more hard matches. I couldn't just get back and begin my training routine right away. Often I was stuck in a vehicle for half a day coning hime and if I wasn't already sore from my matches I was from the trip back. I learned early on that solo hitting was the way I could protect my body and it was also the fastest way I could improve when my body needed some rest. So I would find time to solo hit at least 3 or 4 times per week. I know some of the top players solo hit every day.

I know you're thinking, I have school or a job, I can't solo hit everyday! Well you may be right. But if you're a top player and really want to improve you can find time. Before work, maybe at lunch or after dinner. If we get into a routine and make time for things we can accomplish more than we may think. This is why I promote the idea of setting up a weekly training log that you can repeat. It's this routine that you will adjust to and as the weeks pile up you will be training more than your competitors and improving faster.

There's a few important points about a weekly training cycle. The first is that you need to incorporate some easier non-physically demanding routines. This can include yoga, solo hitting or swimming. You'll also need to pay more attention to cooling down, stretching and doing some light aerobic activity so you recover faster. Another critical part is that you adjust and spread out your hard training sessions. For example, if you like to spin 1 day per week. Change that spin routine up every week or two. The body adjusts to training very quickly. I believe it's important to change the work to rest ratio, the intensity, duration and even the type of exercise you do. Of course if you're training every day, or even twice per day you need to spread out the really physically demanding sessions. If you do a tough plyometric routine and you really burn your legs, make sure the next session or the next day you aren't overdoing it. Plan a solo hit and maybe some active recovery like swimming or an easy bike ride. Also you could go and focus on your core and upper body if they weren't heavily involved in the plyometrics. When you train like this you are working hard, but not overloading any one part of your body.

So you have your week lined up and you're getting into a good routine. Now you have a tournament coming up this weekend. How do you plan before and after the tournament? You should begin tapering before the start of the event. If the tournament begins on Friday, I wouldn't do any really hard training any later than Tuesday. A match may be fine on Wednesday, this depends on the level, length and intensity. And after the tournament is over it can be difficult getting back into your routine. Your result in the tournament will dictate if you need Monday off or perhaps you didn't make it to Sunday. If you had 5 or 6 matches you may need two rest days after. Rest if often overlooked by the top athletes. If you are in need of some rest, make it active rest not just lying around on the couch. Get up and move around, maybe a solo hit and an easy bike to loosen up the legs.

The really tricky thing around these weekly training logs is when you get back to back tournaments. Obviously this completely disrupts your training cycle, but you should plan for this ahead of time. You won't be able to do much training in-between events. It's mort important here to make sure you're recovered from the previous event and that you're fresh as possible going into the next one. You'll probably have some areas you want to work on, but you won't have much time to do so. This is again when solo hitting or some feeding sessions can be the best. Just because you're a good player it doesn't mean that practice always has to be 100% physically demanding, if your 100% concentrated at the task at hand it will be a beneficial session.

Basically the main point I wanted to make today is that to be the best at anything you need to make sacrifices. You may need to get up earlier and spend time before work or school training or hitting balls. Think about what an average week looks like. How many hours do you spend training on court vs. off court? Where can you sneak in even just 1 more practice? Again this doesn't mean it has to be another physically tough session. I haven't even mentioned psychological skills training. This isn't physically demanding whatsoever, just mental. There are plenty of ways to improve your game by reorganizing your week and managing your time effectively. If you can't handle anymore physically, try some less demanding practices. Solo hitting, imagery, swimming, easy cycling, stretching and yoga can not only allow your body some time to heal but can speed up the recovery process. Even making time to watch pro squash matches or your own games, or reading an insightful squash blog;) can be extremely beneficial and is something you can do to improve your squash game when your body needs some rest.

How many training sessions do you do per week? Would you be better if you added one more? Do you regularly adjust the type of training or intensity you do? Do you have a weekly training log/routine? How many hours do you spend on court vs. off court? How many hours do you solo hit per week? Regardless of your goals or level we have more time than we think if we're motivated to improve our game, lose some weight, get healthier and fitter. Write out your weekly schedule and find where you can improve it. Even just a slight adjustment can make a big difference over the long run.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Knock Up

I thought about calling today's post the warm up, but that wouldn't be technically correct. Today I'm going to discuss the knock up. This is the 2 and a half minutes you get per side before starting the match. If you don't watch a lot of squash and pay careful attention to the knock up you likely won't understand just how important it is. Hopefully after I explain its importance today you will. Let's get right into it!

I have to begin by saying that the knock up is not the time to physically warm up. You should have done your warm up prior to going on court. Another pet peeve of mine in the knock up is when people hit the ball back to themselves countless times before they accidentally hit it over to their opponent. You should hit the ball no more than 3 times to yourself and then over to your opponent. You only have 2 and a half minutes per side and this should be shared equally. Before getting into what you should do in the knock up I want to make sure everyone is on the same page for these 2 areas. Warm up before going on court and hit the ball a maximum of 3 times to yourself before hitting it over. Let's move on.

So you're asking why the knock up is such an important topic that it requires an entire post all to itself? You're about to find out.  The knock up is a very important part of the match. Although you can't win or lose any points during it, it consistently influences the outcome. I see this all the time especially at the junior level. Here's how..

The first problem here is that it is easy to read a kids body language I can tell when they are intimidated by how good their opponent's swing looks. They also get nervous hearing how hard they crack the ball and by fast volleys and nice drops their opponent is hitting. Mostly kids psyche themselves out by watching in awe of how focused and prepared their opponent is. They're concentration is no longer on their hitting and what they can control. They've already begun thinking, 'oh oh.' Or it can go the other way and they may underestimate their opponent and think they don't need to play their best. I thought it would be helpful to make a list of Do's and Don'ts for the knock up. Some are more critical than others, but hopefully this will give you an idea about what I like to see during a knock up.

Knock Up Don'ts
- focus and watch your opponent in awe
- stand flat footed
- have your racquet by your ankles
- just hit aimlessly
- think about the outcome
- hit every shot as hard as you possibly can
- look all over the place, including outside the court
- this is not your time to stretch and warm up!
- this is for safety, but don't wear track pants that touch the floor as I've seen people slip

Knock Up Do's
- on your toes and moving around
- vary the pace of your shots
- hit some volleys
- keep your thoughts positive
- breathe to allow you to relax and calm the nerves
- keep your attention and vision inside the court and on the ball
- think about your strategy and reaffirm it
- adjust to ball and court but finding your length
- hit difficult width to your opponent and see how they fair on the volleys against pace and lobs
- have your shoe laces tied up!

I've seen some people still have their headphones in during the knock up. How can they hear the ref tell them to switch? Personally I don't like going in with headphones on. I think it's a little rude, but that's just me.

Their is a big mental side to the knock up. Don't underestimate it and pretend like it isn't important. A lot of the time the person that looks more focused and relaxed not only has a better start but also wins the first game. If you win the first game, well that surely helps you're case in winning the match! The knock up is to get the ball warm and adjust to the bounce of the ball. If it's bouncing weird or has a small crack in the seam you can always request a new ball. Depending on the level of the tournament  you may get a new one. If not, don't make a fuss and get upset about it. It's the same for both of you.

If during the knock up you can't help but thinking how good your opponent looks and that you have no chance. You need to tell yourself that you're prepared. I like to think that I've played squash my whole life and I'm ready for this. You never know how fit or fast someone is, what their shot selection is and how accurate they are under pressure. I've beaten a lot of people that were bigger and hit harder than me. Be confident and stay positive.

I should also mention that when a ref isn't there yet, many people will keep hitting for as long as possible and never switch. You don't have to time yourself, but as someone that has organized tournaments make sure to switch after a few minutes. Hopefully by the time you're ready to start the ref will be there. This can help keep the tournament running on time which helps everyone involved.

Even though I said that this post wasn't about the warm up prior to getting on court. I do have to mention that a prematch warm up routine helps not just to prepare the body, but also the mind. Which of course gets you into an optimal mindset for the knock up. I find a good warm up routine is very individualized. I wrote a short post a while back about the physiological benefits of warming up and cooling down. Here's the link if you're interested. But remember that these are just the physical reasons to warm up, to me the psychological reasons for having a warm up routine is as or more important.

I'm also going to write a post in the near future about imagery. Imagery is something that a lot of pros use as part of their warm up routine. If you're serious about your squash this is something I highly recommend.

Hope you enjoyed today's post. Maybe you'll pay a little more attention to the knock up in the future. Be honest, do you make match predictions during your knock ups? It may give you some clues to their weaknesses and assist you with a strategy, but you should never get ahead of yourself. If you don't know your opponent going into the match focus on your own game plan. Always expect and prepare to play your best squash, regardless of your opponent. Maybe you'll even win a few matches because of how good you look in the knock up!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Keep Score

Today I'm going to talk about the importance of keeping score. Obviously this is important when you're playing a game or match, but also when you're doing drills or playing condition games. Most of us keep score only when we play our matches, actually most people don't do anything but play games. But for those of you that are trying to improve, that do drills or play condition games, you will benefit more if you keep score. Let's discuss why this is.

I have to start with saying that you don't need to keep score for every drill. For example, if you're warming up with some boast drive or drop drive you can just do it for however long you want. But once you're warmed up and ready to go full speed you should try and keep score for most of your drills. Of course you can always mix in some feeding drills in between, like volley drops where you don't need to score against one another. Although even in a feeding drill I like having a target. I find that scoring and using targets keeps your concentration on the task at hand. I know how easy it is to lose your focus when you're not in a match situation.

Why keep score you ask? It makes both people try harder to start with. If you're competitive like I am, I don't want to lose even just a condition game in practice. This already makes the practice have a  different feel to it. Keeping score also makes you refocus after you make an error or two. Just like a game this is an important skill set that gets better as you practice it. This is a good time to work on your positive self-talk and taking a deep breath. You can also work on your preserve routines if your drill or condition game require a serve. Another reason why I believe keeping score improves practice is because you will get into big point situations from time to time. Say you're playing a straight game and it's 10-9 or 10 all. Even in a practice setting you can get tense and it's these type of scenarios that can be challenging for people to play their best. Some become tentative while others take any opening to try and rush and finish the game. Playing these big points well is a skill and you can get better at it by practicing in these types of situations. Convinced?

I know two people that drill together aren't always the same level. So here are some various ways to keep score to make it equally challenging for both.
1. the stronger player has the condition/restriction
2. the weaker player keeps his point total from the previous game
3. the stronger player has to do courts sprints whenever they lose 2 rallies in a row
4. the stronger player has to do court sprints after every 5 points
5. give a few points to start for the weaker player, the stronger player starts with a deficit
6. the only way the stronger player gets a point is by hitting a target, not just by winning the rally
7. the stronger player only gets a point when they're serving, while the weaker player is playing PAR
8. if the stronger player loses a rally they also lose a point, while the other person gains a point
9. the stronger player doesn't get a point when the weaker player makes an unforced error
10. the stronger player always starts returning serve or the defensive position (e.g., if you played a condition game where you serve off the back wall, the stronger person would always do this)

I know a lot of people don't want to admit they are weaker and don't want to have a lead. If this is the case then just play 1 game with 1 person having a tough condition and then switch for the following game. This means both people will have at least 1 hard game.

You can also still use some of my ideas for keeping score above even if you and your opponent are equally matched. When you keep score it makes the drill or condition game and each rally count for something. It makes you both try harder and want to run down each ball. You can also say the lower busy the beverage or use some physical exercise like courts sprints or pushups after certain things happen. This ensures that you're both going to play hard as if it were a match and that your workout will be more physically punishing than your matches are. If you want to get in good squash shape this is how you should be training. You're training sessions should be harder than your matches (or at least as equally tough as one of your most physically challenging matches).

If you don't keep score when you play drills or condition games I hope you will now. Of course there is a time and a place for feeding and working on technique. Keeping score is not the ideal situation for doing this. Keeping score will help you stay focused, be challenged, have more fun, be creative and will improve how your decision making and how you play big points.

After yesterday's lengthy post I thought I would keep this one a little shorter. Hopefully it was still insightful nonetheless.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Conventional vs. Unconventional Squash

Fresh off of the World Championships I thought it would be fitting to discuss conventional vs. unconventional squash players. I have to warn you right off the bat that this is a lengthy post, maybe my longest of all time. I hope you enjoy nonetheless. I've spent a lot of time thinking about squash and have had a lot of healthy debates about the strategies and tactics for playing winning squash. I could write a bunch of posts on this single topic and I would love to hear people's opinions and talk it through with all of you, but we'll see where it goes. Since most people that have gotten instruction on how to play likely play structured and conventional squash, maybe this won't be as interesting to you as it is for me.

We've all had trouble moving up through the ladder, especially in the Men's C division in particular against a few hackers. The ones that spray the ball out, don't clear properly, are wild and hit it hard. For kids, these are the toughest opponents to beat. You feel as though you're such a better squash player, yet somehow you lose. Well this is just one example of an unorthodox or unconventional squash player. Clearly this type of opponent just lacks skill and ball control. Even thought they can be tricky to play against, today's post is not about how to beat a hacker or play like one!

As I talked about in a previous post, I used to play very attacking as a young kid and did it well. I put up a link to me playing when I was 11 and 12 at the junior nationals. Although I mentioned in that post that it would have been nice to have a bit of structure to my game and some coaching. Possibly I would have been more successful, but if I did have that extra coaching maybe I would have felt limited and wouldn't have enjoyed the game as much as I did as I was creative and would 'think outside of the box.' I always enjoyed the challenge of trying to prove people wrong, that I could attack from anywhere and still win. Can this style work at the highest level of the squash world? Let's find out.

As most of you could probably guess, Ramy is certainly an unconventional player. This just means he doesn't play like the other pros do. This is why Ramy is so fun to watch; he doesn't just hit length after length; he has a purpose behind all of his shots and is fearless going for a winner at any time. Ramy will play shots that most coaches consider low percentage to the rest of the planet, but to Ramy he has practiced these shots over and over and they have become high percentage for him. Ramy also gets away with this because he reads his opponent so well. Clearly Elshorbagy wore down during the finals as it is hard to replicate the type of movements, the twisting and turning and the stoping and starting you are forced to do when you play Ramy. I think Elshorbagy is the fittest and strongest player on the tour, but even he wore down. So clearly there is something to Ramy's unconventional brand of squash. Of course this doesn't mean this style suits everyone (or anyone?). Let's look into this in greater detail.

Conventional and unconventional can mean how someone swings, their grip, which foot they hit off or simply their shot selection. Today I'm going to talk mostly about shot selection, varying the pace, being unpredictable, using deception, anticipation and open vs. closed type of squash. Open squash to me means using angles while closed squash means trying to keep the ball straight and attacking off of your opponent's angles. Some people just play the game and don't pay much attention to it, but everyone has a style of play that they prefer. If you can dictate the style you will probably come out on top.

Let's look at Ramy, if any of the top players try and emulate Ramy's style they will inevitably lose the match..nobody can play his game better than him. The only hope of beating Ramy is to get him into more structured rallies and bore him and slowly wear him down and hope that he forces the play and makes mistakes. This happens so infrequently as he reads the court so well you would have to be pin point accurate on every shot. Although in the quarter Bojra Golan had a lot of success just counter dropping Ramy every time he went short. I didn't think Ramy was himself in those first few games though. I should also mention here that the one downside to Ramy's style is that even though the rallies are short they are hard on his body. They are using all 4 corners and he plays at a high intensity. So not only is his opponent doing a lot of tough movements and twists, but this also exposes Ramy to some of these physically punishing movements as well.

I should mention that I'm not encouraging everyone to go out and try to play like Ramy. Just that there is something to be learned from this thinking and style of squash. Playing to win instead of playing not to lose. When I'm working with kids I try and avoid using the term 'don't hit that shot.' Because I truly believe there is a time and place for every shot. If we coach by saying you should always hit shot x from position y, even if they do this well they will become predictable and are not thinking while they play.

If we look at other players like Nick Matthew or James Wilstrop, they play better when there is more rhythm to the rallies. They wait patiently for an opening or counter attack off their opponent. While Ramy can create his own angles to attack and he can also counter you dare open up the court against him. This is an example of open vs. closed squash. Some people play very well in straight games and length games and others prefer opening up the court to expose their opponents weaknesses and to apply pressure. Which type of squash do you play? Which style do you enjoy watching?

Conventional is more basic tactical decisions, not forcing anything when it's not on. When it is on they attack straight. Nothing spectacular, few unforced errors and they try and grind you down and beat you on their accuracy. Unconventional players can have all different types of styles. Basically they don't allow you to get into a rhythm, they play shots that go against the grain. For example, they may hit a lot of crosscourts, change the pace a lot, attack from the back, hold and delay their shots and so on. Some unconventional players hit the ball loose as well, some on purpose others not. This makes it uncomfortable trying to control the rallies and play volleys from areas that are normally practiced. This is what Elshorbagy did quite brilliant in the semifinal against Matthew. Matthew looked quite uncomfortable trying to control the ball and keep it tight.

I like to think of unconventional squash as creative and often unpredictable. When we watch someone win a point in an unimaginable way that we can only sit in awe because we know we would never think to play that shot yet alone execute it with such accuracy. We admire the zone they are in and the poetry in motion. Yet even the most attacking and unconventional players such as Ramy will play the smart/higher percentage tactical shots at times. Ramy has a great lob and can get out pressure like no other. If he tried to attack all of the time he wouldn't be as good. He knows when he can force it and when he needs to back off and wait for at least 1 more shot. I think Ramy exposes the lack of creativity we see at the front of the court from all of the top players.

Jonathan Power was so dangerous at the front when you gave him time. Shabana is as well, but isn't as quick to the ball these days. If Ramy doesn't hit a flat out winner, he isn't worried about leaving his opponent at the front as he constantly traps his opponent up there. You can imagine the type of pressure you must feel when you're at the front of the court with Ramy waiting to bounce right behind you reading you like a book. None of the players have enough variety and are not deceptive enough. This is why I chose to write my masters project on decision-making from the front of the court. There is a lot of room for improvement in this area of the game.

So how can you become more creative? Well I think the big thing is to play condition games and drills with options. When you practice repetitive drills over and over such as boast drive or rotating drives you may get more accurate, but there is no decision making involved. There is a place and time for these drills, but you will not become a creative, play an open style successfully if you routinely practice in this way. I like running condition games that allow people to try new shots or take away shots they regularly play. This is how people can add to their repertoire.

Conventional squash works up to the highest level and there is nothing wrong with it. It suits some people and if they tried to play attacking and open squash they would do poorly. The trait likely has a lot to do with how a player as coached, the players they watched and idolized when they were young. Even though I enjoy watching and playing open and attacking squash, I know there has to be a balance and the fundamentals come first. It doesn't matter how creative you are on the volley or at the front of the court if you're always under pressure. I also feel it's important to cater to the individual. I wouldn't try and make someone play outside of their comfort zone if they didn't enjoy it or want to.

As I wrote in a previous article about Egyptian Squash, this is why I think they dominating the squash world. This creative style of squash is an art form and encouraged in Egypt. They want to make shots that most coaches would never teach their athlete. Does that mean other nationalities can't play, coach and encourage unconventional, attacking and an open brand of squash? Of course not. It just goes against current coaching curriculum. Everyone just thinks, well Ramy is a unique one off example and exceptional. Yes this is true but that doesn't mean we shouldn't rethink our coaching strategies and the tactics we teach to our youth. Because Ramy has played so open squash he has had more opportunities to learn how to read players from the front of the court and has no fear of attacking short at any time. I don't feel that someone can completely change their style once they've become an accomplished player. If Nick tried to play like Ramy he wouldn't be successful; but really who would?

There are an unlimited number of ways to win a squash rally. If you're still unsure if you're a conventional or unconventional squash player, do you win most of yours the same way or do they vary greatly? Do you build rallies? Do you have structure? Most good players need and want this, but some that are daring to be different and not follow conventional methods have been very successful.

Ramy is an obvious selection, but there are some other Egyptians that play unconventional or at least play some unconventional shots and do it extremely we'll. To name a few: Mohamed El Shorbagy, Karim Abdel Gawad, Mohamed Abouleghar, Nour El Sherbini and Raneem El Welily. The thing is when someone like Abouleghar doesn't hit good enough length to put the top guys under pressure he cannot play his creative and free flowing squash. Players like Ramy, Raneem and Sherbini have the basics down so they create openings quite quickly and can move their opponent around the court. And who remembers Peter Marshall? Somehow with a 2-handed forehand and backhand he made it to #1 in the world! Peter is an even more extreme version of unconventional, but this is more about his technique than his shot selection. I also find it interesting that Marwin Elshorbagy plays a much more traditional style of squash than his brother. Will he get as good as his older brother? He did pretty well in juniors and he's still climbing the ranks. Time will tell. Even if does, who do you enjoy watching more? Who promotes our sport better? Who will attract new fans and hopefully help sell squash as an Olympic sport?

Last but not you want to know if you can play a more attacking and an unpredictable type of squash? What do you need to be able to do? Well for starters you need to use trial and error when you play and stay positive regardless of how it goes. I actually made a chart to count how many shots I have from each position of the court under various amounts of pressure. This is easy to do. How many do you have? You may realize how you only use part of the court from certain areas. Some other keys to playing more attacking, open or unconventional is to be a good volleyer, vary your pace, have soft hands, be able to attack short and in various ways from anywhere on the court, have a quick and strong wrist, be deceptive and anticipate well.

The challenge with coaching juniors is how much time do you spend on working on the more creative types of shots and decision making versus the fundamentals? It takes a significant amount of time to become effective at either skill set. Personally, I like to work on more than just straight drives within a lesson. With kids I normally work on variations of swings, swing paths, varying the pace and height as well as spin. I think working on more variety of shots and swingpaths improves a persons touch and feel with their racquet. Of course you need to have a grooved and consistent swing for your drives. But if you focus just on your length you'll slowly improve this area of the game, but you won't be able to do much else with the ball. One day you'll probably come up against someone that exposes you're lack of attacking shots and creativity. I don't think I've ever lost to someone that I hit better length than, but I also have an effective attacking game and am dangerous on the volley and deceptive from the front of the court. If I wasn't, I probably wouldn't be able to make such a statement.

Odds are most people would benefit from a mixture of both styles. If you play pretty conventional and than just sparingly throw in a random shot you will probably catch your opponent flat footed. If you want to be the next Ramy Ashour you better solo hit every day, or even twice a day to change your racquet into a magicians wand and even more importantly you have to believe in yourself and the long term product. When I see someone try some of Ramy's shots they usually don't go over well, it has to be learned from the start and practiced over and over. We're lucky that we get to see people like Ramy play and succeed so we know that it's possible. Perhaps we can't teach someone to play like Ramy, but we can certainly encourage and foster someone that shows potential to play different or unusual brands of squash.

My last point here is that to do well at playing unconventional squash at a high level you have to make a lot of mistakes in both shot execution and decision making. Try to envision how you (or your pupil) wants to play as they develop and get older. As a coach we shouldn't tell them to play the way we want them to play. We can offer suggestions and our philosophies, but in the end it's up to them. If they want to play creatively and attacking squash don't get upset at them for forcing some shots and hitting a few unforced errors; this comes with the territory.

If you read this entire post I'm guessing you must be a hardcore squasher. Hope you enjoyed it! Feel free to share your thoughts on conventional vs. unconventional styles and just squash tactics in general.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Assessing And Nurturing Potential

Today I'm going to talk about seeing and judging potential for a person to become a good squash player. Google defines potential as 'having or showing the capacity to become or develop into something in the future.' Even though I'm going to base my talk today on kids much of it also applies to adolescents and adults. I work with more kids than adults these days, but when I'm working with an adult who is newish to squash there are a few things on the below list that I look for before deciding how I'm going to approach the lesson and teaching this individual. When getting a look at someone hit the ball or play for the first time I'm always assessing them and looking at their potential and ways they can improve.

But let's get back to talk about potential in kids. This is what's really exciting as a coach. It takes a lot of time for someone to get to a decent level at squash and when someone has a lot of potential I feel it's my job to get them some extra coaching early on to learn the technical portion of the game. The balance here is to make sure they understand why you are doing some boring feeding and repetitive shots. If they are real new you want to make sure to mix in some fun stuff and rallies.

I've found that if we don't get a kid introduced into squash at a young age and they are moderately athletic they will likely be swept up by some other sport. We're lucky at the school where I work as kids begin learning squash in grade 1 and will be able to make a better choice on which sport or sports they want to play as they get older. When kids gets introduced to squash late and after they are already have some skills in another sport it is unlikely they will take up squash, unless of course they have some potential and enjoy the experience.

If kids get involved in squash late sometimes this means that they just didn't make it on some of the team sports. For a top tier squash team they may not be selected, but normally there are various levels of group practices and tournaments that almost any child can play. There isn't always a long list of kids wanting to get on court everywhere you go, so we take whoever shows some interest and commitment. Regardless of level you don't have to worry about not getting court time like in team sports where you're not a starting player. If you play squash you are on court playing the entire match. This makes it important to get the levels close when kids are participating in their first tournament or two.

Now back to judging potential in kids. If I see a young kid who is new or relatively new to the sport there are a few things that tell me right away that they have potential. Let's take a look at each one.

Solid Hand-Eye Coordination - some kids have played other sports and are good at getting the racquet head on the ball while others really struggle. A high level of hand-eye coordination is necessary to get good at squash. This is something that be practiced with kids by just throwing and catching.

Good Natural Biomechanics - if a kid has played another racquet sport you can normally tell right away. Even still some that haven't have nice natural biomechanics. The forehand is like throwing a ball sidearm or skipping a stone while the backhand is similar to skipping a rock. Some are just naturally better at this than others. Do the kids that have a nice natural backhand swing skip a lot of rocks when they were younger, I don't know. But some of these kids are visual learners and pick up just watching other good players. I believe this is why kids that hang out at the squash club when their parents play (depending on their biomechanics) will learn quicker how to hit the ball from watching.

Easily Coachable - every person new to squash is going to have to learn some of the fundamentals. Some kids can pick up and make a change instantly after they've been told while others you need to constantly repeat the same instruction over and over. This is where it's important to remember that some kids will learn better watching you demonstrate the skill or themselves on video and others learn well from verbal instruction.

Runs Down Everything/High Level Of Determination - if a kid has half decent biomechanics and hand-eye this is the trait that really excites me. Kids that get a lot of balls back and try really hard will become good players. Simply by putting a consistent high degree of effort they will improve. And of course from having these long points they will be fitter than most kids and will force a lot of unforced errors. The one area as they progress that is dangerous here is that they rely solely on their speed and retrieving and don't learn how to use their athleticism to attack.

Powerful - accuracy will come with practice and repetition, but sometimes you'll get a kid that hits the ball harder than anyone else. This is normally closely tied in with the hand-eye and biomechanics, but not always. Just like aerobic fitness is a key component for winning squash, powerful legs and arms and being able to generate pace on the ball is as well.

Has Fun - if a kid really enjoys squash and is smiling you know they are going to keep playing and will want to play more and more. This is why it's so crucial to keep squash fun for young kids. Some young kids take well to instruction, while others don't care and lose interest. Squash should be fun first and foremost.

Doesn't Want To Leave The Court - when I was a kid I would hit everyday, normally twice a day. It wasn't a fluke that I got good. I wasn't the most athletic or gifted kid. I just practiced more than everyone. You see kids like this at tournaments that run on between matches. Any kid that just wants to keep hitting whenever they can get on court will improve quickly. If someone has all the skill and potential but doesn't have the passion that these kids do probably won't end up being as successful. Kids just want to play and if they want to keep going let them. The more balls they hit and the more hours they spend on court the faster they improve.

Enjoys Competition - this is similar to determined. Some kids are just very competitive. Although I've seen a few that are too competitive that they cheat and have poor sportsmanship, even at a beginner level. The most important part of coaching young kids is not that they win, but that they improve. But it is important that a kid enjoys competition and doesn't shy away from it.

Once a kid becomes motivated and goes from being told they are going to squash to asking when can they go next, things change. Once this happens, you know they are hooked and often they will stick with the sport for a long time if not for good. It's a very satisfying feeling to get kids to this point. When they get to this stage you can work more on the process of how they improve and they enjoy learning and getting better; not everything has to be a fun game. This is when coaching kids of begins and you can really mould the kids and they can improve quite quick. Some will never get to this stage and that's fine, we don't need to push them. There's nothing wrong about just playing squash for fun.

As a coach I want to work with kids that want to improve and reach their potential. This is why I get excited when I see a young kid with a lot of potential. Maybe they have 2 or 3 of the traits I listed above, or once in a while you may come across someone that has most of them. If this happens I believe it's important to let them know that you think very highly of them. That they could become a good competitive player if they continue playing. At a real young age I may not bring this up, but if they were maybe 8/9 or older I normally would. If you show belief in their ability they will be more likely to believe in themselves and stick with squash as they learn how to play. Perhaps they don't know just how much potential they have and think they are doing terrible and playing poorly. If you can list off a few things they do well and then give them 1 thing to work on you may keep that kid in squash and who knows, maybe have a top competitive junior down the road.

So how much potential did you have when you started? Which of the skills on the list did you possess? Or were you the one who didn't make the basketball team? However you got into squash it doesn't matter, the important thing is that you did. Even if you weren't aware of it, I bet someone was watching you when you began and judging your potential. Sometimes someone gets really good and they didn't show any potential. They just stuck with it and slowly but surely kept improving. Some adolescents and adults lose interest when their priorities change to dating, university or work. It makes me wonder how many of people started when they were a young tot and played constantly all the way through their whole life.

That's it for today. I don't know how much this would have helped any of you with your squash games. But maybe it will help you get a friend into squash or somebody's kid. Give back to the sport you love. If you're reading this blog you must love squash. Do a good deed this holiday season and introduce squash to someone new young or old. Who knows, maybe they'll have some potential!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

World Championship Recap On Squash Mad

I wrote a report on the final of the 2014 World Championships between Ashour and Shorbagy for Alan Thatcher on Squash Mad. You can check it out here . For the record it was edited a bit. I would never call Shorbagy a pretender. He's the real deal and is #1 in the world, but yes technically is probably #2. My original title was simply Drama In Doha. I'm Canadian, so of course I wouldn't say something that brash about anyone, let alone the #1 player in the world! Epic match though. If you haven't watched it, do it.

Also have to mention how strange that soccer clip was during the preview of the finals with Selby and Barker. I don't get it, they weren't in the finals! Selby didn't even play the event. Maybe they could have done a piece on something relevant to the finals!!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Gaultier Breakdown vs. Ashour

Today I've decided to discuss the semifinal match of the World Open between Gregory Gaultier and Ramy Ashour. The first game was one of the most entertaining games I've ever seen. It really felt like 2 full games and after 35 minutes Ashour finally took the game 17-15. Unfortunately this was it for the match. I know the first game is crucial, but it was quite disappointing if you're a Gaultier fan.

I know this first game took a lot out of Gauliter, but I'm sure he had more in him. Would the same mental collapse have taken place if he had won the game? Gaultier didn't make a push in the third game either. Ashour looked very suspect against Goaln the night before. So if nothing less, Gaultier just needed to extend the match and fight all the way through. Ashour has been out of competition and unable to train as hard for 6 months. Surely the longer the match the better for Gaultier, right?

I've seen this type of collapse from Gaultier before. He had a similar dismal performance against Shorbagy in the semifinal of the U.S. Open. I think once a top player has beaten him the next time they play he appears more fragile. If Gaultier goes down in the next match he tends to get negative and stops believing in himself. He played such a wonderful first game it's a pity he had nothing left to offer in the last two. Even if he just slowed the pace down and kept the ball in play maybe Ashour would show signs of slowing down himself.

Ashour didn't look very positive against Golan. I thought maybe he wasn't 100% healthy. Even in the 3rd game against Gaultier his shoulder seemed to be bugging him. I feel Matthew would have matched up better because psychologically he is tougher and never gives up. I know it's easy sitting here on the couch watching, but I find it surprising that a former #1 player in the world could be so easily mentally defeated. We all have a physical and mental breaking point, but in the semifinal of the World Open I can't believe it only took 1 game (yes I know it was a mega-game) to break him. This shows the importance of the mental game in squash. Ashour talked in his pre game interview about always fighting the demons, the negative thoughts that arise in his head. I don't think Gaultier was very good at that on this occasion. He almost lost in the 1st round and has a poor record against Ashour. But really, if he was ever going to beat him again it should have been tonight. In Gaultier's pregame interview he admitted that he didn't know what to expect out of the match. Gaultier didn't sound very confident to me. Ashour looked so shaky the night before. Gaultier should have picked up on that and should know that Ashour is not confident in his body or his movement.

So what can we learn from this? First and foremost is the importance of staying positive. No matter the situation, you have to do everything you can to be positive about the situation. Don't get ahead of yourself and think it's over no matter what. I don't think any amount of extra physical training or drills will help Gaultier. He just needs to be more positive when things aren't going his way and he gets behind. I also think we learned the just how important that first game can be. It can be extremely psychologically damaging when it is a long game and goes into extra points. Sometimes you feel like you played your best squash and to lose it can be disheartening. So you begin thinking there is no hope. These are the negative demons you need to fight. Instead focus on one shot and one point at a time. The tougher the situation you're in, look at it as a challenge and always believe in yourself, and that you can come back. Of course if you start doubting yourself and you don't believe you can do it you likely won't.

So who's your pick in the final? I'm a little worried about Ramy's shoulder. He really looked to be favouring it and stopped hitting the ball hard. I think Shorbagy is going to be nervous. To my knowledge he hasn't beaten Ramy before and as I said a couple of posts ago, you're not really #1 in the wold until you beat Ramy when he's healthy. I just don't think Ramy is healthy and I don't feel he'll have enough in the tank. I'm picking Shorbagy, but I think it will all come down to his nerves. If Shorbagy can relax and play his game he should win. I hope they both play like they did in the semis and if they do it should be a great match. Whoever is going to be World Champion better win that first game!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Attacking From The Back Of The Court

Today I'm going to talk about attacking from the back of the court on the bounce. As a coach these shots are normally considered risky, low percentage or ill advised. But for a player with confidence and good racquet skills these shots are important and should be practiced. Most people only practice length and boasting from the back of the court. No wonder most people can't attack well from back there. Becoming effective at attacking from what is normally considered a defensive position requires a lot of precision and will mean a lot of mistakes learning how to hit these shots well. So if you want to incorporate them into your game spend extra time fine tuning these shots.

I'm going to start off with who should learn these deep attacking shots. Not everyone is suited to play attacking shots from the back. It takes a lot f control to hit close to the tin from the furthest possible location on the court. So if you're still having trouble hitting a length out of the back I wouldn't concern yourself with attacking drops, but I may introduce an attacking boast. Some people are just not very attacking players as they rely on their retrieving ability to make the rallies long and physical. Some players just don't have the control to attack from the back mostly due to faults in their mechanics.

If however you have solid mechanics, decent touch, good footwork and you want to be a complete and creative player learning attacking shots from the back is an important skill set. This is an advanced skill, but like any skill set in squash the earlier it's introduced the more natural the shots and style become. I also believe that to attack short from the back you also need to be able to cover these shots. So if you are quick, move well and fit you may be a candidate for working on these challenging shots. The attacking boast in particular is played quite regularly with a high degree of effectiveness in the junior girls and women's game at every level.

Now let's discuss why you should learn to attack from the back. The first reason that comes to mind is that it keeps your opponent honest as you have more options from this area of the court. I see many people hang well back on the T or that don't move well and if you hit a drive you are almost hitting the ball right back to your opponent. Other players don't watch very closely while on the T. If you had a good attacking short shot from the back you will not only work your opponent very hard into the front corner but you may win the point outright. It takes a lot out of the legs to move to the front under pressure and get back to the T. This in turn makes you drives more effective later on as they move up on the T.

Against top players, a loose ball can be attacked with a high degree of accuracy from anywhere in the court; this includes the back corners. Whenever I hit a ball slightly loose and under or overhit a length I feel uneasy on the T. Against a good player I know this is an opening and they have any options. To attack well from the back you need time and space. You shouldn't make it a habit of attacking short from the back off of a good length. These are shots that are also best played if used sparingly. If you always go short from behind your opponent you are asking for trouble as they will just move their T up to cover the front.

Time to learn how to attack from the back and what type of shots you can play. Here is a list of the backcourt attacking shots you can play.

Straight Drop - the main goal is to get it tight to the sidewall. If you can get it to come up short hitting just above the tin that is a bonus.

Crosscourt Drop/Flick Drop - I don't see people play this too often. When it is played you wouldn't be wise to go for the nick. You are better to aim to get it tight to the sidewall by the time your opponent would be playing the ball, so just before the second bounce. You can also flick it crosscourt which can be quite deceptive.

Straight Kill - I like this shot because the setup looks like a straight drive. You can hit it flat or with an open racquet face to take some pace off the ball. The further the ball is off of the sidewall the more severe you can hit it, meaning you can go for the nick. As the ball is tighter, you are better just trying to ht it parallel to the sidewall.

Crosscourt Kill - I see even less of these into the nick then the crosscourt drops from the back. Normally the shot that works here is bouncing twice around the short line. You hit is so low and with the right width that it catches your opponent off guard. It is normally most effective if played infrequently.

2 Wall Attacking Boast - this is another one of my favourites because again the setup looks like a straight drive. If you can delay your swing slightly you can catch your opponent flatfooted on the T. Even if your opponent gets to the ball, but is late they will be limited to what they can do and you can probably keep the pressure on them the next shot.

3 Wall Attacking Boast - this is a shot I hit when I'm feeling it. If you don't hit the nick it doesn't normally spells trouble. You need to do a lot of boast and drive to get good at this one.
Aussie Boast - this is a shot I see very sparingly, but is normally effective. It's kind of in between a straight kill and a 2 wall attacking boast. It just clips the sidewall first and the angle actually makes the shot come towards the middle of the court, but bouncing twice before the T. This shot is played rarely, but can be effective if refined and played irregularly.

Reverse Boast - this is a dangerous one that I don't recommend to amateur players. I know Shorbagy hits it once in a while, but I've never seen him peg someone with it. An amateur would. So don't do it unless you are in front of your opponent or you play hardball doubles.

The above mentioned shots can all be improved by being deceptive. If you are really talented with your racquet skill you may even be able to make a shot look like one shot and hit another. This is easier for say shaping up for a drive and hitting a boast or a 2 wall attacking boast. Can you shape up for a boast and hit a straight kill? Can you shape up for a drop and hit a straight drive? Can you shape up for a straight drive and hit a crosscourt drop. If you can execute some of these skills well you will drive your opponent nuts. It takes a lot of time on court to get good enough to play these shots in competition against talented players.

This is an area of the game that I feel most people are quite weak and for good reason. This post is more suited for elite players or young juniors with high aspirations. Think about what options you have from each spot on the court. Can you add in 1 or 2 new ones? Maybe you don't bring them out in serious competition, but in practice matches go for it. You'll need to make a few mistakes if you want to get good at them, so be prepared to stick with it regardless of what happens.

Ok, so you're psyched up to attack from the back. How do you practice this. Well for starters, solo hitting. This is what I did all the time as a kid and I got pretty good at it. Defy the odds and make turn low percentage odds into high ones for you! Here are some other drills you can do to practice your attacking shots from the back of the court.

Two Person Drills and Condition Games For Attacking From Back
1. drop drive
2. boast drive
2b. boast or drive to self and then boast, drive
3. drop or straight kill drive
4. Drive drive drop
5. Deep vs. short
6. Deep vs. short (short can be hit with pace, anything landing first bounce before the short line)
7. Long long short short
8. Rotating drives with the option to boast
9. 1 player can hit anything, the other only length
10. 1 player has to hit every shot into 1 back corner, the other can hit anything

Just like any other skill, if you want to become proficient at attacking from the back you need to spend time refining it. I suggest that you have the skill to attack well from the front and middle first before practicing too much from further away.

On the flipped of this topic, if you are getting beat on short attacking shots from the back of the court simply move your T up. If you're still getting beat move up even higher. Force your opponent to beat you with a perfectly weighted drive. And of course this also means that your length is not putting any pressure on your opponent. Sometimes you play a person who is out of shape with good hands and you know they want to go for winners every chance they get. This can be a tricky opponent because you are are relying on counter attacking and that they make mistakes. Focus on your lines and stay high on the T. If you force them to hit length you are extending the rallies and giving yourself the best chance to win.

Do you have an attacking shot on the bounce from the back that works for you? Which shot that I listed would benefit you the most if you added it to your repertoire?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Amateurs Give Crosscourts A Bad Rap

Today I'm going to discuss crosscourt drives. When I watch most amateur players I see a lot of crosscourt drives and a lot of poor ones at that. Are you hitting too many crosscourts or are you just hitting them aimlessly? A good crosscourt is a great shot at any level. While a poor crosscourt rarely works out. Although I should note that hitting the ball right down the middle is a shot that can be very effective if done sparingly. But I digress at that's not the topic of today's post.

So why do most people crosscourt so much? I believe that some of the reasons include being too close to the ball, it's easier to clear straight back to the T afterwards, their body is open to the front wall making it more difficult to hit straight, they are late to the ball (at the front anyways), they don't trust their ability to hit it straight and tight plus they want to hit it to their opponents backhand. A high level player will see these shots coming and pick them off and make you pay. Maybe at a lower level you get away with hitting everything crosscourt, but that won't cut it as you move up the club ladder.

The danger with a crosscourt is that it can open up the court for your opponent. This means if your opponent hits the ball before you get to the T they will have space to attack straight. The qualities of an effective crosscourt depends on the court position of you and your opponent. It also varies on what type of crosscourt you are trying to hit, a lob, a drive,or a hard low kill all have different targets. Let's take a look and see what your targets should be for each of these shots.

I always have people asking me what makes a crosscourt length effective. This isn't as simple as for straight drives. We all know that a straight drive that is tight, deep and hit with pace is very effective. So what about a crosscourt drive? Hopefully I can clarify the qualities of a good crosscourt drive.

To start with the main objective is to get the ball by your opponent. The angle then depends on where you receive the ball. Let's say you are in the front right corner and your opponent is in a neutral T position. If your opponent is one that looks for the volley you want to hit the side wall outside of his reach. If your opponent doesn't volley you will get away with slightly less width. The reach and anticipation of your opponent also plays a major factor here. This is why the top pros hit the ball down the middle.

Let's continue with this shot setup. You're in the front right and your opponent is on the T. How deep do you want the ball landing and how hard do you want to hit it? This depends on how balanced you are at the front. If you are late to the ball you'll want to lift it to give you time to get back to the T. If you have time and you're balanced you can be more aggressive and hit it lower and harder. Most people hit this shot landing before the short line and if you do this it better be a winner, otherwise your opponent will be hitting the ball before you have time to get back to the T. If this happens to you try and hit the ball a little higher still with pace, but getting it to bounce for the 2nd time near the back corner. This will give you a bit of extra time to get back to the T and your opponent will still be under pressure if you hit the correct width.

If you are mid-court and your opponent is stuck behind you, a good crosscourt to play would be the hard low kill. You don't need to worry about time to get back to the T because you're only a step away. For this shot you don't want to hit as wide as the side wall will slow the ball down and give your opponent more time to retrieve your shot. This is a very effective shot, the problem is that people try and hit this when they are further away from the middle of the court which exposes their positioning.

Lets talk about crosscourts from the back corners. This is where a lot of players get in trouble, not just amateurs. I have a rule for hitting a good crosscourt here, your opponent should not be able to hit a crosscourt by you off of your crosscourt. An effective crosscourt should limit your opponents options. If you hit your target they should have to boast and if you just miss your target they will be able to dig the ball out straight down the wall. So you can see how a crosscourt can be a great shot. It limits what your opponent can do and most top players look to follow up a good width with an attacking shot. It's important to remember that a good crosscourt needs to get to the back corner. The width you hit should be around the back of the service box, which is likely across from your opponent. The softer you hit it the higher up on the side wall it needs to hit to get to the back of the court. If you hit the ball too wide it comes back towards the middle of the court and is almost as poor as just hitting it right to your opponent.

When I play against most amateurs they normally get into patterns. They want to crosscourt from the forehand and play straight on the backhand. This is why it is so easy to volley against them. It is also much more difficult to hit a good width on the backhand side. And if you are unable to hit a good width from the backhand side your opponent can cheat and pick off your straight drives. So this is a very important shot to learn and it can be very effective. If the ball is too tight or it gets slightly behind you on the backhand it is extremely difficult to hit crosscourt. Don't try and force it crosscourt. Just hit it tight and a bit higher. So if your  opponent is waiting to cut it off it's a bit higher in the air and you have a fraction of a second longer to move up and get ready to retrieve if your shot isn't running parallel to the sidewall and they decide to attack.

An effective width is a subtle thing that I feel is unappreciated at a high level. As a coach we always tell people to hit it straight and I feel a lot of that is because people don't know what their target is on a crosscourt. It's also because we practice hitting straight drives more than crosscourt drives. If you're solo hitting or doing boast drive or if you're doing a lesson, you hit many more straight shots than crosscourt ones. No wonder most people don't know how to hit a good width.

2 Person Drills To Practice Your Crosscourt Drives
1. Boast, crosscourt drive
2. Boast, crosscourt drive, straight drive
3. Boast, crosscourt drive, straight drive, straight drive
4. Straight drive, straight drive, crosscourt drive
5. Straight drive, straight drive, boast or crosscourt drive
6. A boasts, B can hit straight drop or crosscourt drive, A tries and volley drives the crosscourt to switch or they can counter drop of crosscourt drive off the drop.
7. Short vs. deep
8. Short vs. deep but they switch front and back whenever the person in the back can volley drive the front players shot
9. Boast, straight or crosscourt drive, straight drive
10. Boast, straight or crosscourt drive, straight or crosscourt drive (if you can volley this shot you can drop instead of boasting)

Condition Games To Practice Your Crosscourt Drives
1. Length game
2. Rotating drives, if you hit a crosscourt drive and it gets by your opponent you win the rally, if they cut if off and are able to hit a straight volley drive they win the point
3. Length game, if you volley off the crosscourt you can do anything
4. Every shot goes crosscourt (short or deep). For different levels of players you can let them set themselves up before hitting crosscourt.
5. opposite 2 corner court (e.g., front left and back right corner)
6. 3 corner court. practice crosscourts
7. Everything has to be straight (short or deep)  + you get 1 crosscourt each per rally
8. 1 player can hit anything, the other has to hit everything to one side of the court (short or deep)

That's it for today. Remember that you need to know your target and that they change depending on the court position of you and your opponent. Are you hitting to many crosscourts or are they just not hit accurately? An effective crosscourt drive limits what your opponent can hit. For an advanced player they need to not only hit their target on their crosscourt drives, but they must disguise them to be effective, especially when their opponent is on the T.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

How Accurate Is Your Length?

Today I'm going to talk about shot accuracy, in particular your straight drives. But first I have to mention how Max Lee did it again against Gawad. I like how Max stuck to his tactics the whole match. He kept moving Gawad around put him in the front right as much as possible. I think he was doing this because of Gawad's lazy style of swing. Max could easily anticipate which shot was coming next and didn't get hurt even when he hit a poor boast into this area. In the 5th game this is where Gawad second guessed himself a few times and gave up a couple of strokes and made some mistakes. I think Max exposed an area that Gawad needs to improve. If you watch this match you'll notice how much more compact and deceptive Max's forehand swing is. I think this was a big reason Max came out on top. Anyways, back to today's post.

Just how consistently do you hit your target on your straight drives? To find this out I like to do some testing every once in a while to find out. Sometimes I'll give the kids 2 minutes to see how many times they can hit within a given target. This is also an effective method for monitoring improvement and for designing some goals. We improve little by little and if we don't do tests like these we don't actually notice that we are getting better. Especially in juniors when all the other kids are also improving, it's important to show kids that they are getting better.

Tonight at practice I'm going to have all the kids do some technical testing on straight drives and straight volley drives. I use the ball machine to feed and I'll keep track of the shots and point totals. I find most of the kids are more focused when they are being tested and compared to their peers so I expect a good practice. Also if someone doesn't do as well as they would like they will be more motivated to get out and do some solo hitting or take out the ball machine and work on this area.

You'll see in the sheet I posted below that I'm testing the accuracy of their forehand and backhand straight drives, both off the bounce and on the volley. They will get 20 shots for each shot and they can earn 1, 2, 3, or 5 points depending on where their shot bounces. Therefore the highest they could possibly score is 100 points, although I don't expect any scores near that as to get a 5 pointer they have to hit behind the service box and within 1 floorboard. I bet even some of the top pros wouldn't get 100 points.

So they start off doing 20 drives on the bounce and then 20 on the run/moving around. I find most of us are not as accurate when we start moving around so for this I'll have them touch the other side wall between shots. I'll set the timing on the ball machine to make them have to move quickly, but not a full out sprint. It will be interesting to see what their shots are like in the last few of this set.

So after doing 20 forehand drives and 20 forehand drives on the run, I do 20 forehand volley drives off a straight drive feed and that is followed by 20 forehand straight volley drives off a crosscourt drive feed (not hitting the sidewall, about shoulder height and medium pace). I find that hitting a forehand straight volley drive off of a crosscourt feed is very tricky to get consistently tight and running parallel to the sidewall. I expect the lowest scores on this shot.

After completing the 4 forehand shots we switch sides and do the backhand. I'll test 2 kids at a time and I guess it will probably take around 15-20 minutes per pair. There are 10 in each group so we should get through them all tonight. We will then talk about what areas they need to work on and retest in a couple of months after they've worked on and improved some or all of these shots.

You want to see how you stack up against some of the kids I coach? The situations may vary slightly as the feeder is very crucial to the success. Take this test with a friend and compete against one another. It's a good way to get some feedback on the most basic and fundamental shots in squash, the straight drive and straight volley drive. You can also design your own test for drops, volley drops, serves, return of serves, boasts and so on. Testing for crosscourts would be very beneficial as most people hit too many poor crosscourts, but designing a test for this shot would take a bit of extra preparation. I'll probably be discussing crosscourt in a post later this week.

If you're going to use the test I put below here is a tip on how to count up the 20 shots and the points at the same time. I write down the points awarded for each shot in a row of 5 shots so it's easy to add both. For example, 3,2,1,5,0 and then I would give some space and do the next 5. I find this the simplest way to do both.

Hope you enjoyed today's post. If you do the following test let me know your results. Enjoy the rest of the World Championships! Who do you think is going to be the 2014 world champion?

Name:                                                                            Date:

20 Shots Each

Drives On The Bounce

Drives On The Bounce On The Run

Volley Drives Off Straight Drives

Volley Drives Off Crosscourt Drives

Scoring: in service box = 1 point, behind service box and within service box width = 2 points, behind service box within 5 floorboards = 3 points, behind the service box within 1 floorboard = 5 points

Monday, November 17, 2014

Ramy's Back!

I know they're already into the round of 16 at the World Championships so I'm a little late getting around to it. I was away during the weekend and didn't have a chance to watch any of the games until last night. Of course I had to pick Ramy's 2nd round match against Adrian Grant. Ramy is the most exciting player in the game and it's glad to see him back on court. Is he 100% healthy? I don't know, but I sure hope so.

Ramy has been out for 6 months and before that he had to pull out of a few events because of his hamstring. They said last night that it had something to do with weak glutes. The way that Ramy plays is tough on the body, even though makes it look so effortless clearly it isn't. Ramy is never out of a rally and plays more back wall boast than anyone on tour. He reads his opponent so early and can run over top players very quickly. I think Ramy has the best finishing shots of all time. Even after missing 6 months of competitive play he hit a number of roll out straight volley drop nicks against Adrian. Nobody else plays this short with such precision. Ramy hits his drop just millimeters above the tin and hits his minuscule target consistently.

Will Ramy will the tournament? I don't think so (but I hope so!) just because I don't believe he's 100% fit and healthy. When he's healthy I would never bet against him. Sorry Shorbagy, I know you're technically #1 in the world, but not until you beat a healthy Ramy!

Even Ramy not at his best, I still give Ramy a shot just because of his incredible racquet skill. I would guess that Ramy has spent considerably more time solo hitting than any other pro on tour. His drops are inch perfect, his length is as good as anyones, he has great touch on his lob, he looks to volley everything, he has an unlimited number of shots he can play plus he has the most deception and pace from such a short backswing. It's almost like Ramy doesn't have a backswing on his forehand from the front corner. Ramy also has the mental game and confidence to go with his exceptional skill set. He can make an error at a crucial stage of the game and has no hesitation about going for a nick of the next serve..of course the difference with most other players is that he'll make the next shot.

What can we learn from watching Ramy? I think the biggest thing is the importance of learning to play attacking squash at an early age. I don't see many or any of the top players change their style of play once they are already established professionals. Nick Matthew as done this somewhat but is not nearly as attacking of a player as Ramy, but who is? Ramy didn't be able to hit all of these shots without making a bunch of mistakes. I'm sure it was trial and error and watching other top players that got him to where he is now. I don't know many kids that spend enough time solo hitting to develop the touch, accuracy and strength that Ramy has. He has such a quick wrist and sends top players the wrong way and guessing all of the time. The way he plays makes senses to me and I feel it's like watching a master at work.

We may think now that there will be no other Ramy, but someone will come around again at some point and change the game and dominate it. There is always room for improvement. Clearly one way to improve upon Ramy's game is by being physically healthy and taking the proper steps to ensure he is fit and his body holds up. I also like to think how would Ramy do against himself? What would his strategy be? Can someone do what he does better? Not at the moment, but at some point someone will.

I believe in having a vision for the athletes I work with. I try and have a clear image of who they will become and what type of squash will suit their body type, style and personality. So I wouldn't try and coach everyone to play like Ramy or most kids wouldn't have any success or rallies. But if someone showed exceptional hands, was creative and had the speed to cover attacking shots than this is a player I may begin to shape and shift into someone like Ramy. This type of strategy is almost easier to coach and play. It's a go strategy. You attack from the first point at every opening. You don't let mistakes shy you away and you accuracy will improve with time. As a coach we spend most of our time working on the fundamentals. Does this mean that Ramy has spent less time working on length than the rest of the top pros? Possibly, but his control is so pin point that he can hit his targets regardless of the shot. So instead of hitting drive after drive I would have them practice more volleys and drops where the accuracy has to be even more exact than a length.

I always believe that if someone wanted to play professional squash from a  young age should they not grow up and play on a 4 wall glass court with a lowered tin? Of course if they have the opportunity to do so. Wouldn't that be a bug advantage when they become a pro and play on these courts? Surely there would be some benefits to doing this. Even just getting a glass court once per week from a young age would be helpful for a future pro.

So where does the game go from here? What will the next top player be like? Will they be fitter, faster, stronger, more or less attacking? Will they be a lefty version of Ramy? I can't wait to find out. We have players like Jonathan Power and Ramy Ashour to thank for making the game so exciting. That's what I love about the game. Now let's hope that Ramy stays healthy now for a number of years. Ramy is the most entertaining player in the history of the game and when he's in a draw he makes every tournament more exciting. Let's go Ramy!!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

How To Prepare For Morning Matches

Today I'm going to talk about how to prepare for morning matches. Most of us don't play squash early in the morning, so when we get to a tournament and have an early match many of us have difficult waking up and playing at the same level. This can also be a major challenge when traveling and competing in different time zones. Not all of us are morning people so what can we do to play better in the morning? At the tournament I'm at this morning there were 8am matches each day and some of these were the semifinals. Early matches are not always for younger kids and lower levels so we all should be prepared to play in the morning.

I have a few suggestions that can help you get awake and play better regardless of the time of day. My first recommendation is to practice playing once a week in the morning. If you can't get on court or set up a game then have at least one day per week that you get in a good hard workout. Our body takes time wake up and get going. Most of us get better as we get into a routine of exercising early in the day. What, when and how much to eat are all important factors going with going to sleep at a decent time. If you can find time before school or work at least once per week to get in a workout or squash game you will have a huge advantage over your opponent the next time this happens at a tournament.

Besides practicing playing early in the morning, I have some other ideas on how to wake yourself up and get going. Before Nadal's matches he has a cold shower after his warmup. You don't necessarily have to have a cold shower, but some cold water in your face can help wake you up. If you're really tired a cold shower could help.

Sometime the hardest part is just getting out of bed when your alarm goes off. I always use my phone and place it far from my bed and make sure the volume is up. You can also ask for a wake up call if you want to make sure you don't sleep through your alarm. If you end up going to sleep late are you better to get an extra 30 minutes or hour of sleep and skip your breakfast? That depends on the person and the difficulty of the match. I always like having at least a small breakfast such as yogurt and a banana and some water so I have some fuel for my match.

So you have 30 minutes before your match and you're really tired. What else can you do? Having a tough warmup and getting the blood flowing helps wake you up. If you can get out and get some fresh air that is another way that helps. The last suggestion I have is to hold your breathe for 15 seconds. The lack of oxygen increases your hear rate and breathing rate which helps wake you up.

When you get out on court and you're still feeling flat or fatigued get up on your toes for the warm up. Fake it till you make it..which basically means to look the part and put on your game face even if you're not feeling great. It's easy to play well when you're feeling well..but we aren't always feeling our best. Here's a clip about the mental toughness we need when we aren't feeling our best

In the above clip the coach talks about why they train every day regardless of the weather. It isn't because if they missed a day they wouldn't be as good, but because of the mental strength they are building by pushing themselves and training day in and day out. Maybe when you get to the biggest tournament you aren't up to par, but if you're used to trying your best regardless of the situation you'll play well more consistently in variable conditions. As I've mentioned before when I'm feeling low on energy is when I push myself the hardest which isn't always easy to do. I find just getting on a treadmill and not getting off until I get my normal time and pace. There are times where you want to quit and don't think you can go any further, but you can. And the more often you do this the better able you will be able to when you are in tough matches, being from fatigue, sick, or slightly injured. Squash is a very mental game and this never quit attitude is essential for reaching your potential and becoming a top player.

How do you prepare for early morning matches? Do you eat a special breakfast? Avoid caffeine? How do you get yourself going? Do you think your ability to do this is more of a physical or mental skill?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

What Is Good Length?

Today I'm going to discuss a topic that was suggested to me by a reader. I'm going to talk about what makes good length, drives, lines or rails. I think everyone know that hitting the ball tight is important, but what other qualities make up good length? Length is the base of the game and whoever hits better length will normally win the match. They normally win because they will spend more tim in front of their opponent meaning they will be able to volley more and hit more attacking shots off loose boasts or drives.

When I was a kid I didn't value length. I basically only hit length when I couldn't attack short. I didn't realize the pressure you can create with length and that it helps to set up a better opportunity to go short. So yes, I understand that length is essential to playing a high level of squash, but what exactly defines it? Good length can be hit straight or crosscourt. The qualities of a good straight drive are different than a crosscourt obviously. With either shot the main objective is to get your opponent off the T. Depending on the caliber and location of your opponent will dictate how tight your drive or wide your width has to be.

So you get your opponent off the T with your length, that's great. But when you get to an even higher level giving your opponent too much space and time even from the back is dangerous. My second objective with length is to limit the number of options my opponent can hit. If I hit a great length they should not be able to hit crosscourt and if I hit a near perfect length they may be limited to a boast. You can see how this is a huge advantage. Now I can shift my T position and cover only 1 or 2 possible shots. I would also anticipate a looser reply and look to attack and stay on the T. If you can consistently get your opponent off the T and limit their shot options you are going to do well. But that's not all that defines someone that hits good length.

We can't always hit dying length and we shouldn't always try to. When we are out of position, under pressure, or your opponent hits a tight shot we need to play more defensive and hit a rallying drive. A rallying drive is meant to come off of the back wall and gives you more time to get back to the T. If we try to hit an attacking drive when we are in a defensive position and we don't hit our target our opponent will have an opening to attack and we won't have time to get to the T. So being able to overhit your drives when under pressure is an important quality. There are many ways in which you may have to play a length under pressure. This can be off your back foot (open stance), choking up on your racquet and shortening your backswing in the back corner when you have limited space, or trying to return a shot that is running right on the side wall. Great players can consistently hit high quality shots under pressure. Having good footwork, balance and strength is important for hitting high quality length under pressure.

So we have a good idea about what makes someone good at hitting length. Knowing when you want to hit the ball low and hard, medium pace and medium height, or high and soft are al important qualities. Many people never lift the ball from the back corners, but this is a shot I really like. Shaman is one of the best at lifting the ball from the back and getting his opponent off the T. I believe this change of pace and height is an important, but not an essential quality for being great at hitting length. People that hit everything one pace are more predictable and are prone to make mistakes when they are under pressure.

Most of what I've discussed so far as only applied to straight drives. Crosscourt drives aren't that much different. The main problem with most people is that they hit crosscourt too often and not wide enough. If you hit it too wide you may ed up with a let or even getting drilled by your opponent. This is still better than hitting it too loose and they cut it off. If your opponent knows a crosscourt is coming it has to be hit so precise or it can get your in trouble. That's why I feel that disguising your crosscourt length is essential. This is another trait of someone that hits good length. Not only are they pinpoint accurate, but they also don't become too predictable and they can disguise their shot.

A good width depends on where your opponent is standing around the T and how long their reach is. You'll even see a few of the pros play crosscourt drives through the middle to keep their opponent on edge. If you hit a great width they should have to boast. They should definitely not be able to hit a good width in response to your width.

There are a few other qualities that I haven't mentioned yet. To be top notch at length you need to be able to adapt to different courts, opponents, and balls. When a court is slow or a ball is lively it dramatically changes the game. Footwork into and out of the back corners are also extremely important to hitting good length. Also I feel that the efficiency of the movement into the corners is important. Whoever can do this smoother and expend less energy will have a better chance of winning. The backhand side (for righties) is of particular importance. This is where many rallies take place and if you hit the ball tighter than your opponent here you can always play this side when you need a point. To be a high level player you should be able to keep it very tight here all day long. Personally it's about getting your racquet head squared and running parallel to the sidewall at the point of contact. I've hit so many of these drives that I can feel the slight tension in my forearm at the point of contact and it allows me to be very consistent with my timing.

The other thing I haven't mentioned yet is another advanced skill, spin. People generally hit the ball with a slightly open racquet face on the backhand side and higher on the front wall. When you have time and space I like closing the racquet face and hitting the ball flatter and with more pace. You will see some pros hit with a slight topspin or flat racquet face quite often.

The last quality of good length is something similar I talked about earlier, disguising and being less predictable. Top players can attack well from the back corners and this makes their length more effective because their opponent has to play a higher T and cover the front as well. Although this isn't hitting length, it's a subtle thing that improves the quality of their length hitting.

Knowing when to hit which type of length takes practice. So does being able to hit the ball parallel to the side wall like Shabana. Solo practice is great and so it doing rotating drives and length games. I like using targets for different types of lengths. I also recommend doing some technical testing to see just how accurate you are. Now I'll finish off with some conditions games you can practice and an overview of the most common errors on peoples length game.

Length Based Condition Games 
1) You get 1 short shot each per rally, everything else is length
2) If the ball lands short int he service box you can hit anything, otherwise you have to hit length
3) Length game, if you volley you can go short
4) Rotating drives on one side of the court (e.g., the left side). A player gets a point if they hit a crosscourt width that gets by you to the right side of the court. If you cut it off and can hit a straight drive you get a point
5) Straight game (short or deep). 5B) You can add in a crosscourt or trickle boast from the front to keep them honest
6) Straight (short or deep) vs. anything
7) Deep, deep, short 7B) deep, deep, short, shot
8) Rotating drives with option to boast for 1 player. If they get the boast back they they now have the option to boast. If they don't the other player gets the point and still has the boast
9) Everything over the service line except 1 shot per rally can be hit under
10) The player the won the last rally can only hit length, the other person can hit anything

Common Length Errors 
1) Too many crosscourts
2) Crosscourts are not wide enough
3) Length is too short (especially on the forehand side)
4) Overhitting all of their drives, which doesn't create as much pressure
5) Hang too far back on the T
6) Don't use disguise
7) Unable to shorten their backswing and dig out tough balls
8) Failure to use height and vary the pace
9) Unable to play off their back foot (open stance), especially when under pressure
10) Drives are it too late and hit into the sidewall and slow the ball down

That's it for today. I hope you enjoyed the post. Thanks again to the reader who suggested the topic! I'm always open to suggestions if you have one. I'm leaving soon for another tournament with the kids so I may not have a post for a few day. The World Championships are starting today, so I should have lots to talk about. I saw a post on Twitter about how little the players make. The winner gets a little less than $50,000. After tax, maybe that's around $40,000 to be a world champion. If you make it to the quarters and lose you get a little under $10,000. Crazy low and it shows that all professional squash players do it for the love of the game. And that they will all need a job after they finish playing professionally!