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 http://www.serioussquash.com/2014/09/why-egyptians-are-ruling-squash-court.html, 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 least..so 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.