Thursday, December 18, 2014

Playing The Big Points Well

I've been busy the past week at the Canadian Junior Open but I am getting back on track with my posts. Today I'm going to talk about playing the big points well. I consider a big point near the end of games and matches. A big point can be at 6 all or 9-7. Playing a point a rally scoring method makes a single rally at the late stages of a game extremely important. You can go from leading by 3 with game ball to being up just 1 point. Almost as important as the score differential is the momentum gained or lost. Sometimes a big rally is a really long and physically gruelling point. if you win one of these tough rallies it can crack your opponent and turn the match around.

The mental game is such an important factor in winning the big points and eventually the match. I've done a previous post on Gaultier's mental collapse This doesn't happen to everyone and at all levels. In the World semi's Gaultier was physically taxed which played a big part of his mental collapse. Although we may not be as physically damaged as Gaultier was during this match we can still suffer from the same heart breaking loss he felt. There are very few people that can lose a close game that they should have or could have won and don't let it affect them one bit the following game. 

So what qualities enable someone to play points well? Is it something that you are born with or nurtured to do well? If you don't play the big points well there are a couple of questions you have to ask yourself. Here they are.
1) Are you fit enough? Are you getting tired at the end of games and giving up cheap points? Do you have trouble keeping up the same level of play throughout the match? 
2) Do you get nervous near the end of a game? 
3) Do you get ahead of yourself? Do you think the game is over before it is? 
4) Do you try to rush to finish off the game? 

I believe these are the biggest issues facing people that fail to play well at the end of games. What should you be doing and thinking instead? Do you play the same throughout the entire game or do you change your tactics slightly towards the end of the game? This is what we're going to talk about now.

1) Fitness
If you're tired and not fit enough you can still play big points well. This takes a lot of mental strength and discipline. I find this easier if you believe and know you can beat this person. You are able to push harder and you can overlook the physical fatigue and pain. Somehow when you're on court with someone you think is fitter and/or at a higher standard we can mentally cave in slightly easier. I can't say that this happens for everyone, but I do believe this to be true for most people. Those that can play at a high standard through physical distress are extremely difficult to beat. This is why I feel that psychological strength is such a crucial skill to be a top competitive squash player. 

Clearly preparing properly for competition is important not only for your physical fitness but as well for your confidence and psychological strength when things get tough. Training hard also makes you a little mentally stronger. You improve your ability at pushing though the pain barrier. You don't stop your session when you feel tired. How long can you keep pushing through the discomfort? Can you learn to enjoy this painful sensation? This reminds me of another quote, 'when you think you cannot go on any longer, you are on the verge of doing something special.' This builds your mental strength and confidence in your ability to play long and hard matches. 

2, 3, 4) Nerves, Thinking Ahead and Rushing
Many people get nervous at the start of a match. We then settle down until it gets to a late stage of a match. Getting nervous has to do with thinking ahead and rushing to finish things off. Here the big problem is that we begin thinking. Our focus shifts from just playing (the process) to winning (the outcome). When we start thinking about the future we are no longer in the zone. When this happens our actions are delayed as they involve thought and reaction opposed to instinctive play. 

I find it fascinating that to have the best chance of winning you can't focus on it. If you try too hard and think about just trying to win the game you won't be playing the same you did throughout the rest of the game. You'll notice that most people get down game ball and start hitting everything as hard as possible. And other times people think they are going to lose and often play better because they relax and stop focusing on winning. If we can focus on the process all the way through a game we improve our chances of winning. When you try and finish off a game when you're ahead you are prone to rush things. If you begin thinking 'I may actually win this game,' or 'I can't believe I might beat him,' you are setting yourself up for disappointment. If this situation presents itself you may feel you need to play low percentage shots to try and squeak the game from the stronger opponent instead of just playing the same way that got you into this winning position. 

What happens when you get to a tight part of the game? Do you keep playing the same shots? Do you play slightly more conservative when you get to the end of the game? What can you do if you want to play the big points better? 

The first thing is deciding if you want to play the same way regardless of the score. This is what many of the Egyptians are able to do and is why it so challenging to play them. They play without any hesitation or fear. This can be a tricky thing to do when you get to a big point or after a few errors. If you play one way all of the time you don't have to worry much about playing the big points well; you will likely have 1 tactic and stick with it no matter what (attacking or defensive).

Many of us would benefit more from formulating a plan for these situations before getting into competition. If it's 10-9, 9-10, 9 or 10 all what do you do? If you're nervous you should try and sow thing down between points. Take a deep breath, stick to your routine and use positive self-talk. As for the tactics at this stage of a game. Depending on how confident you feel at that moment you would benefit from picking the right time to attack short. If you can feel the nervous tension in your body you will have to be a bit more cautious. I believe you have to go for your shots when they're on, but you won't be as accurate when you're body is tight and your mind is racing. If you don't have a good attacking game or have much confidence in your short game you will have to keep the rally deep and try to win in the back or hope you're opponent makes a mistake. In my opinion this isn't the best strategy for long term success in the big points. I feel that you are better learning to control your nerves and maintain your focus on the present and on the process. 

You can see there are a few ways you can play the big points. If you wait to get into this situation to decide what you should do you may make a decision based on your fatigue along with yours and your opponents perceived abilities. What is your strength and your opponents weakness? This is always a good way to play a higher percentage point. 

Some people have a history of winning or losing tight games. If you're one of the people that's notorious for losing close games you have to ask yourself a few questions. Is your fitness to blame? Do you get ahead of yourself? Are you nervous and tight? Do you lose your focus and think ahead to what may or may not happen? If you know what is happening you will have a better chance of being able to change your underachieving history. 

The best method for playing the big points well is to be fit, stay in the present, focus on the processed and planning ahead for these situations. Know your strengths and your opponents weaknesses. Focus on what you can control. Plus winning breads confidence. When you win a couple of tight games your confidence will increases and you will be more likely to win big points down the road.

I've seen a few people that enjoy big moments in matches. Some naturally get tight and don't play well, while others appear to stay more relaxed and enjoy these situations. Clearly if you an enjoy thee moments you will play them with a clearer head and less tension in your body. Learning how to enjoy these and stay calm is easier said than done. 

I can't finish this conversation without noting how often I hear people blame 1 instance near the end of the game for losing. This may be a bad call or a lucky shot. Whatever it is, I don't like making excuses and pointing the blame. If you haven't read this previous post you can do so here One point is never the reason for losing an entire match. Even though it may be a big point, it is just 1 of the many rallies you play. If you let a match come down to extra points in the 5th game anything can and will happen. You don't want to end up in a situation where the referee or 1 lucky or unlucky bounce is the difference between winning and losing. It's what got you to that point in the match that has put you into the current predicament. The last rally or 2 is a small sample of a large number of rallies. Every point is important so play them all as such.

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