Monday, December 1, 2014

Staying Positive After Errors

Today I'm going to back up what I discussed yesterday. My last post was about believing in yourself. I had a section in this post about how this is even more important for an attacking player as this style of squash is prone to having a few more unforced errors to go along with it. I notice that unless people have to play an attacking style of squash, for example if they are unfit, injured or elderly, most people don't. This has a lot to do with how we respond and interpret to risky or low percentage shots and unforced errors; we're just limiting ourselves because of a few short term blunders. Today I'm going to discuss how to stay positive and what I think after I make a mistake. Regardless if you are an attacking player or not being able to stay confident after making a mistake is an important trait for playing consistent squash.

At most levels of squash whoever hits less mistakes generally wins. But at least for me this isn't an enjoyable way to play squash. I know I always praise Ramy, but this is what makes hims so special. Not only does Ramy attack better than those that can't or don't want to run, but he has proven that you can play this style successfully at the highest level. For Ramy or anyone else that wants to play a successful attacking brand of squash they need to know how to quickly forget mistakes, accept them, stay positive, keep firing and stay confident. Ramy would't have become who he is today if he got cautious and defensive after making a couple of mistakes.

I enjoy playing an attacking style of squash and came up with my own system for responding to my mistakes. This is how it goes. If I hit a forced error I say or think 'good shot.' Sometimes there is nothing you can do about it. This doesn't bother me at all. Sometimes I know my shot previously had to be better, that's all. It gets trickier when you hit an unforced error. When I do I think, 'was this the right shot?' If my answer is 'yes,' I tell myself good. I may reinforce how I constructed the rally correctly, to stay attacking, aggressive and to keep going for it. Basically I can let this type of unforced error slide and I am able to stay positive when I make this type of mistake. This reminds me of a baseball scenario. When a fielder makes an error on a play, some don't want the ball hit to them again. But the good ones do, they have confidence that they can make that same play next time. They stay positive, shrug off the mistake and believe they can do it next time. This is the same when I miss a shot that was on.

If I hit an unforced error and I forced it a little and it wasn't on, this is when the learning takes place. Any attacking player has a fine line between attacking too much and being a tad reluctant. There are so many shots played within a rally, game and match that we are bound to make a few poor decisions. When I force the ball a bit and make an unforced error I'm not too hard on myself, because to become a top good attacking player you have to err on the side of being a little too aggressive versus being a little too passive. At least this is my perspective. I've played in matches where I made a few errors and stopped going short. Then I get away from the style I enjoy playing and over the long term would be more successful. So even though I force a shot and make a mistake, I'll just tell myself it wasn't on and I'll ideally this means I won't try that same shot again. Of course when someone hits a very risky shot but it works out for them, they should count their blessings and be thankful that they got away with it.

I've found that reflecting on my errors in a systematic formation helps me refocus faster. As I began doing this more frequently I would be able to shrug off an error almost instantly and stay confident and positive. I've also found that this helps me focus on the process as opposed to the outcome. I'm trying to play the way I want to play. I won't sacrifice this at possibly the expense of losing a rally, game or match. I didn't always think this way though. I wish I had as I think this is a great method for continually improving your tactics and your shot selection. If you do this you will find there are less times where you show indecision and frustration after making an error. Learn from it, stay positive and move on.

This philosophy sounds simple and easy, but at times it can be quite challenging. We all have a day where we are not quite squaring up the ball or make a few poor decisions in a row or hit a couple of bad unforced errors one after another. This is when it is a true test of your confidence. Normally this is a lack of confidence but it also happens randomly simply because of chance and statistics. If you realize it's a lack of focus you need to have a good between rally routine to get you regrouped. It's like hitting a reset button. What has happened in the past doesn't matter. Move on and start from right now. If you want to become more consistent learn how to refocus. Everyone loses their focus from time to time, but experienced players will catch this and will be able to get their mind back on track quicker than most amateurs.

So how does this approach apply to you if you're not an attacking player. The main thing is to just make good decisions. If you make a mistake but it was the right decisions, don't get upset about it. Everyone misses shots. Getting angry about it only makes it worse and can negatively impact the next time you're in a similar position. This is when you get indecision, some funky swings and some tightly held grips. You have to committed and confident before you play a short ball. When we concentrate on such short term products and let them bother us, such as a 1 or 2 tins we are limiting our potential to grow.

Also worthy to note here is your margin for error on your attacking shots above the tin. Some people give so much margin and don't technically make any unforced errors, but if you leave a lollipop at the front for your opponent you are asking for trouble. Though my coaching courses I was always told that drop shots are 'pressure shots' not 'winners.' Sometimes a pressure shot may result in a winner, but the main goal is to work your opponent, get your drop tight and maybe you can force a stroke a a loose crosscourt and cut it off. But when I watch Ramy play I see that he tries to hit winners. He has a small margin of error but is always very close to his target. He has such good touch and feel that his racquet is an extension of his arm. If your technique is good and your timing is spot on you can have a smaller margin. If you're a mid amateur player and your technically not very strong on your drop shot you will probably avoid it or play them with a large margin for error. If you're making to many unforced errors is your margin too small for your ability and the pressure you're under? This is an important point when interpreting your unforced errors. If you make 3+ unforced errors per game on the same shot it needs some extra practice.

How do you play the big points in a match? Do you play more defensive? Stay aggressive? Do you simply give more margin of error when you go short? Most people play a bit more conservative which is fine. I like to continue playing my game. Again though, this is where you may need to do a nerve check. If you can stay relaxed in this moment you'll be fine. If you're in the zone just keep doing what you're doing. But if you are a bit nervous and you can feel some tension in your body, namely your arm, you should probably be more cautious. This is why it was awesome to see Ramy in extra points in the 5th game of the World Championships. Ramy was down a match point and hit some amazing shots. You could tell he was still relaxed somehow. He was able to stay positive and not think what most of us would be, 'I can't believe I just blew 5 match balls and now I may lose this.' And then when Ramy got another chance to close it out he hit a great backhand volley drop that was too good for Shorbagy. Being so relaxed on the biggest stage in a pressure situation was cool to watch. Ramy showed us once again (through vicarious learning) that staying calm, relaxed, aggressive and focused during the biggest points on the biggest stage is possible.

For Ramy to play best he needs to keep his mind out of the way. We all play better when we play instinctively. When we are playing our best it is our mind that is at peace; when this is happening we are in what has been phrased the zone. When an athlete is in the zone time appears to slow down. We see the squash ball earlier, it looks bigger and we make good decisions and consistently square up the ball. Why can't we always play in this mental zone? We can't force our mind into this state and often it is our overthinking and judgement that gets in the way. We all judge and are very critical about our performance as we're playing. We also think too often about what has just happened and what may next. Shut up brain! This is destructive to your next point and will not allow you to be in the optimal mindset for playing your best squash, in the present and in the zone.

As I mentioned above, I thought it was amazing that Ramy could stay in the zone in such a pressure situation. How can he play like he doesn't know what's at stake if he clips the tin one more time? If he started thinking about this it would show on his body language. It rarely happens to Ramy though. I do think he looked a little shaky out of the gate though. At the start of the match is one area where I think it's important to settle your nerves before you start firing it in short. Ramy is notorious for being a slow starter. Even if we're focused at the start of our match, we can't be in the zone until we begin playing. If you're mind is wandering about and you feel some tension in your body you should flush this out of your system first.

This is why a prematch and between point routine is so effective at getting our mind into a consistent state to perform at our best. Take a deep breath between points and try and slow things down. I find most people rush when they are nervous or edgy. If you can try and slow things down and keep it simple at the start of the match you can slowly find your range and eventually your attacking shots. As I've heard before, the most important drop you play is the first one. Hit a poor one and you start thinking about it and doubting yourself; hit a good one and you fuel your confidence.

There is less margin for error attacking short and if you haven't found your range at the start of the match you are at risk of handing your opponent some free points. Even worse is that you allow them to relax and settle down while your anxiety increases with your poor start. As I discussed above, the same thing goes for playing the big points. If you feel a little uneasy play more conservative. So yes, this is how I would coach Ramy to improve his first game performances. But he is human after all! I would also advise him to do some imagery before his matches to try and get him not just focused but as close to being in his zone as possible from the first point of the match.

How do you react to your mistakes? How long does it take you to forget and move on after making an unforced error? What if you hit 2 or 3 in a row? Remember that squash is a game. Squash has a major psychological component to it. Is how you're handling errors helping or hindering your performance? Improve this area of your game and focus on the process and you'll make better decisions and play more consistent squash.

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