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!