Thursday, December 24, 2015

Improve Your Focus, Improve Your Practice, Improve Your Game

Today I'm going to talk about the importance of focus and concentration while you practice. Being focused is generally about being present on the task at hand, in the current moment as opposed to thinking about the past or future. We all know how critical focus is during competition, but it's during practice where we influence the quality of our practices depending on the state of our mind. Two players could be doing the exact same practice routines with the same opponent, but one player could improve more from an identical session. Today I will give you some tips on how to enter this deeper focus level in practice more consistently so you make the most of every minute and every shot.

I've worked with a lot of kids and finding ways to get them all to be engaged for as much of practice as possible can prove to be challenging. As we get older and improve our ability to maintain our focus and also learn how to get into the zone quickly this becomes less of an issue. For some kids this can be quite a challenge. I find that this happens most when the kids are doing something quite simple or too difficult.

We need to be challenged to improve, but for a kid or someone new to the sport this can be a delicate balance. If we ask too much of someone or put them on court with someone much stronger or weaker there can easily be a loss of focus and effort is diminished.

On the other side of this issue is when the task is simple; let's say drop, drop or boast and drive. Many people even at a high level will just go through the motions and do the drill and are prone to lapses of focus. When someone is given a simple repetitive drill I find that the most coaching is usually required to reap the benefits of it. I will normally work on technique or use a goal and time them or give them a certain number of attempts to keep their concentration high. Again when you do this the number or reps allowed cannot be too high or the time too long or the player is prone to a lapse of focus; this is especially true f they get off to a slow start and know that they can't reach their goal.

It takes a lot of time to learn how to get certain players going and keep their practice quality high. I've designed many great practices designed specifically for what people need to work on, but if the kids aren't in the right mindset it ends up wasting everyone's time. When this happens it can be extremely frustrating as a coach, but I've learned that once in awhile you have to give the kids some leeway; they are just kids after all and don't always want to work on technique or something they struggle with. So being able to scrap a practice and do something fun is sometimes the best option. Even when I was playing competitively I would have the odd off day where you're just in a bad mood or not feeling it. When I had an off day I learned that I needed to do something different. Mixing it up might mean going to the gym, doing court sprints, playing 3 corner court, or even playing a nick game.

One method for making the most of each and every practice is by having a goal for each and every practice or for the week. Make a plan on what you want to do and work on before you even get to the squash club. You should even decide which drills or condition games you want to play before you get to the club. You should also keep your season and dream goals nearby in case you need that pick me up when you're a bit fatigued or a bit low on motivation. Keeping a journal or having some positive statements to remind yourself anytime you catch your focus drifting could be a big boost. You could also think back to that last match you lost in 5 or about those high ambitions you have for an upcoming tournament. Learning how to stay hungry will help with your work ethic and will keep you more focused during practice day in, day out.

Learning how to maintain focus at practice is an essential skill for excelling at squash. Not everyone enjoys just hitting straight drives or doing figure 8's; I always enjoyed this, but I have to realize that not everyone does. Being able to get into the zone for practice is for me the most important trait of an effective, high quality session. I feel that many kids now have difficulty focusing while training because they are always on their cellphones, watching television, surfing the web and often doing all 3 at once! Some off the court training methods for improving focus include yoga, floating or meditation. There is also a test I've seen where there are random numbers scattered throughout the page and you have to find out how many of a certain number are on the page. Puzzles like this one, crosswords or sudoku can all be beneficial for improving sustaining your concentration for a prolonged period of time.

There is also a maximum length of time that someone can stay focused for. Just like there is a set amount of physical work we can do at one time the same implies for our concentration. We all lose focus here or there and learning how to refocus is extremely critical, but if you're practicing mindlessly for any sustained period of time don't fight it, just take a break and grab a drink or snack or maybe it's time to change up the drill.

I always tell my athletes that the warmup is as much or more for your mental preparation as it is for your physical preparation. Most people skip warmups when they are practicing because they know they can ease their way into it. If you are taking a long time to find our zone in practice I recommend doing a warmup before your practice sessions. This is also why I like scoring in practice to keep it competitive and keep an edge to it.

If you find yourself losing focus, simply design a refocusing routine to get back on track. I prefer wiping my hand on the side wall and taking a deep mindful breath. If you focus on your breath you are automatically brought back to the present moment and I find it an effective method for getting my mind back on the right track. Find what works for you and be sure to use it, especially in your practices.

If you want to improve faster and make the most out of your practice sessions, learning how to become and stay focused is an essential skill. We all have heard about deliberate practice, so many of us are simply counting our hours until we get to 10,000 yet there are some people that improve faster with equal or less practice time. Practicing more if unfocused in my opinion will make you worse because you get mentally sloppy and lazy and this will influence your ability to stay focused in future practice and competitions.

Squash can be an incredibly physically and mentally draining game. Knowing when to take a day or week off, or even just when to mix up your training can ensure you are challenged and ultimately focused. Also understanding that practice doesn't have to always be maximum physical effort for you to benefit from it. Solo hitting is one of my favourite methods of training and I also find the most effective for improving.

If you want to improve faster, train smarter and learn how to stay completely engaged for the duration of your practices. If you have to practice less, alter practices, add goals, or just play some fun games you will enjoy practice more and in the end get more out of it. If you still struggle with focus try yoga, floating, meditation, or some puzzles to learn how to quiet your mind and improve your concentration. If you made it through this entire post in one read I'm betting that your focus is already pretty good. Maybe I should write a condensed post for those that need it most!

Being able to maintain your focus in practice is a great start, but knowing what to focus on is where your coach can really help you with your game. Just having any focus will improve your concentration. A good bet is you could improve your racquet preparation or spacing so try thinking about either of those the next time you're doing drills and I bet you're focus will improve and you will be practicing smarter! Don't just whack the ball to an area, us a goal, target or focus on your technique to get the most out of your time on court. Improve your focus, improve your practice, improve your game.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Creativity vs. Discipline

I know it's been awhile since my last post, but it's been a busy time of year. I have a few interesting topics on the horizon, as I believe this one will be. I can't believe that today is my 200th post! I'm going to talk about the importance and challenges of both discipline and creativity in squash. In squash we have players that are very basic, but extremely effective. There are others that look as though they are creating poetry with their creativity and flare and are some of the most enjoyable people to watch. As a coach the challenge is knowing how much creativity to allow and foster in the development of an athlete. For some coaches it may be cut and dry, but I'm somewhere in the middle. You'll hear why shortly.

When it comes down to it, almost every player would perform better and will improve their chances of winning if they play disciplined and basic. Most kids like to play tricky shots, but are unable to play the basic and more effective shot, which makes their tricky shot even less effective! This is why that when I'm working with kids I like to ask them if they want to be Globetrotter or a professional NBA player? I don't know the stats, but I doubt there are many or any Globetrotters that would be able to make the NBA, but I'm certain they all would like to if they could. This is an analogy that I like to use because many kids like to play flashy and normally ineffective shots. But not the other side of this argument if we look at the NBA there are plenty of basketball players that are creative and do things that are beyond the basics of basketball. These moves were practiced more than likely on the street rather than in a team practice structure and have learned how to play them effectively at the highest level; so tricky and fancy shots can work. So how should you practice your squash game? Basic and disciplined or creative and fancy?

Although from the previous paragraph it may sound like the answer is quite simple, that discipline and hard work is the way to go, it isn't quite that straightforward to me. Both a basic disciplined player and a creative one can be equally effective and have a passion for squash. I believe the main issues with this have to do with individual differences. Although I feel that most kids likely need more discipline to become a top level competitive squash player. It takes a lot of time on court and repetition to be able to hit your targets consistently.

Also learned while working on your shot repetition and disciplined practice is the training of your concentration. Every squash player knows the importance yet challenge of maintaining their focus for the entirety of a match. I believe that players that have been well disciplined will be better able to maintain their focus during practices and matches. Being in the zone is something that any level of athlete can attain, but takes time to be able to learn how get into it quickly and stay in it for the duration of a match. Simply put, concentration and the zone are skills that have to be developed and I believe they are better learned through a disciplined practice structure.

So back to creativity. I think some kids are more engaged when they are allowed to be creative as they initiate more areas of the brain. If these same kids were forced to practice a basic repetitive drill it does not engage them as deeply and I find many will just go through the motions because they find this boring. Finding a balance of both is the key here. Nowadays with so many distractions and stimulation around us (video games, computers, tvs and cell phones) people crave constant stimuli. So I believe the key is to give the kids challenging goals/targets when they practice blocked drills to try and keep them engaged. At a certain skill level most kids will learn to enjoy the simple challenge of hitting 1 shot over and over again as they finely calibrate their swing. Also crucial is setting up practices which foster creativity. Even for the basic disciplined player, some extra thinking within a practice can help them practice out of their comfort zone; which can happen in competition.

As a coach I don't like to say 'don't do this or that.' I believe there is a time and place for any shot to be played. But I also realize that making the same mistakes over and over is Einstein's version of insanity! I like a balance of these two. Is the shot something that could become a weapon when it's executed better? Or is the shot just an extremely low percentage and the wrong play? It can be difficult to play creative and potentially risky shots in competition until they are very well rehearsed. Players like Jonathon Power and Ramy Ashour are some of the most iconic and exciting players to watch of all time; they were able to play creative squash, but also did the basics extremely well. What would have happened to Jonathon or Ramy if they had never been allowed to explore their creative sides of their squash game? I think player like Jonathon and Ramy had an understanding of the basics and also knew there was a part of squash that had not been explored before. If I had to guess I would say that they both liked creating a new style all their own as much as they did winning!

I think the best way for kids to explore new swings or shots is while they are solo hitting. This doesn't impact anyone else and will not upset the coach. Also, the athlete can attempt a certain shot as many times as they like trying to perfect it. Similar to a skateboarder trying to do a certain trick for the first time and failing over and over. Once the skateboarder gets it they spend hours, days, weeks, months or even years learning how to perfect it. It's one thing to be able to do something in practice and another to be able to do it in competition.

Squash is more than just serves, volleys, lengths, boasts and drops. Finding the balance of the basics and the creative ways you can make your own game unique is what makes squash so fun to play and to watch. If we all played the same and only played shot x from position y squash could get pretty boring! Even though shot x might be the right shot almost all of the time, knowing when to play shot z is what makes squash so dynamic and unpredictable. When I went to watch some international tournaments (Penang Junior Open and the Canadian Junior Open) I see a lot of similarities among the kids. Most of the top kids are fast and hit the ball hard, but I see very little variation of pace or deception and a general lack of volleying. I get that pace and speed are two of the biggest weapons in squash, but I'd still like to see more variety from different players. This makes me feel like most kids are being taught and trained the same way these days, but certainly this will only favour some players and not others.

I've always been one that's enjoyed finding alternative ways to do things. I also now understand that if your basics aren't top notch it won't matter how creative you can be because you will never have the time to express yourself. At least for people like me, I believe there is a balance between the two. As a coach it is our job to teach the fundamentals, but I believe it is also our job to give some slack and encourage our players to try new things while learning how to play the game. So are you practicing to become a squash Globetrotter or an NBA player?? Don't forget that a Globetrotter still has to be able to sink a free throw :)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Trapping Your Opponent At The Front of The Court

I am back! And today I'm going to talk about the importance of volleying when your opponent is in the front of the court. This is generally much more difficult than volleying when your opponent is behind you as you have less time to react. When your opponent is up at the front of the court there are a lot of factors that will determine if you will be able to volley their shot or not. First let's discuss why this is such an important strategy to employ.

As you improve in squash you get to a level where attacking shots to the front of the court are not often outright winners. Instead these attacking shots create pressure and this is where you should be looking to trap your opponent in the front of the court and follow up your attack with a volley. If you do and can hit a decent volley length you have a great shot at winning the point or at the very least keeping your opponent on the run.

Above you can see a picture of Mosaad hitting a backhand straight drive from the front. You can see Ramy hasn't left the T yet so Mosaad must have disguised his shot well. If Mosaad had not, Ramy would be right behind him hunting the volley. Ramy does have cat like reflexes so it is entirely possibly that he was still able to cut this ball off, but I would guess this is going to get by him if it was hit with enough pace.

When you're at the front of the court and your opponent is hunting to volley the ball you can feel trapped up there. Look at the picture below of Willstrop and Selby. In this situation Willstrop is under a moderate amount of pressure and I'm guessing was about to drop or lob because he has a short racquet preparation. It would be tough for Willstrop to drive the ball by Selby in this situation. The more pressure you are under the most challenging it will be to get the ball by your opponent. This is why in the above photo, Mosaad is at the front with plenty of time and not under any pressure making it difficult for Ramy to volley. If Mosaad was under more pressure he may be forced to lift the ball.t

Hopefully you can now have a better understanding as to why volleying when your opponent is in the front of the court creates so many problems. If you want to try to implement this into your game here are some things that will help you do so.

I believe there are a couple of essential things to being able to volley when your opponent is in front of you. The first is the ability to read your opponent and anticipate where they are going to hit. As someone is under more pressure they will be less likely to disguise their shot and are more vulnerable to you jumping on the volley behind them. This leads to the second essential factor, pressure. If you put your opponent under pressure as you bring them to the from you are more likely to get a weak reply and will make your volley far easier.

A third factor that will allow you to volley more around the middle is quick feet and good footwork moving laterally. This includes being able to hit open stance and having a quick racquet preparation. You also need to be able to hit a good snappy volley with a compact backswing. To hit a short snappy volley with accuracy you need to time it perfectly. This is again why putting your opponent under pressure and being able to read their postural set up is so key to early preparation. You can even adjust your T position up or sideways when the situation dictates. If you move up and take the ball even earlier you give your opponent even less time to get the next shot.

Key Note: If your opponent is under little pressure and disguises their shot or has good holds you will need to make sure your attacking shot is more accurate if you want to implement this tactic.

Here are some of my favourite drills, condition games and exercises for working on volleying the ball while your opponent is in the front of the court.

1) Boast, crosscourt length, straight drive

2) A hits straight or court length, B tries to volley drive to self and then boast, if B is unable to volley drive then they boast

3) A plays straight or crosscourt lob, if B can volley drive they switch, if B cannot volley they boasts

4) Short vs. deep and switch on a volley drive

5) Boast, straight or crosscourt drive, straight drive

6) Straight or court length, straight or crosscourt length, anything short

7) Length game with the option to boast, must hit deep off the boast

8) 3 corner court while I attempt to not let any balls being hit from the front get into the back corner.

9) Quick mid-court volleys in pairs side to side. This is a great exercise for getting on your toes, having your racquet up while learning to react quickly to the ball.

10) Work on your lateral court movement. Try 1 person posting to either side or shadow ghosting a partner to make this movement more challenging and specific. Be sure to shape up with your racquet quickly while ghosting to prepare yourself properly.

11) Learn to hit open stance volleys with some snap on them. Try doing solo mid-court volley drives on your back foot. Most people can generate adequate pace when they have time, but when you have to shorten your backswing can you still generate enough pop to execute the desired result?

Many people are aware that especially from the front of the court on their forehand side most people have a tendency to hit the ball crosscourt. If you pick up on this shot pattern try and take advantage of it and cut the ball off. This is why you see the pros play many shots down the middle and extra wide crosscourts. They've played so much squash and have to use the entire court height and width to get their opponent of the volley.

Learning to bring your opponent to the front and then follow it with a volley is what I like to call a shot combination. Try and see if you can find one that will work and if they don't adjust keep taking advantage of their predictability or lack of precision.

This post could be written entirely backwards about how to keep your opponent off the volley when you are at the front. If you practice some of the drills above you will also be learning how to do this. This is why there isn't always a set perfect width; because this depends on your and your opponents court position. But I digress. That's enough. I know it's been awhile since my last post, so I hope this was interesting and worth the wait! Remember that taking the ball early increase your area to attack and decreases the time allowed for your opponent. The less time you allow your opponent the weaker their response will be.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Drop It Like Shabana

Today I'm going to talk about furniture, a clock and Amr Shabana. I know strange combo, right? Well I'm going to use pictures of Shabana to demonstrate how to vary your swing path for different types of drop shots. The furniture and clock parts are things that I like to use for visualizing the swing paths of various drop shots. As you learn to do this your swing path will stay on line and your drops will become more consistent; perhaps even resembling the great Maestro!

Shabana hitting a forehand counter drop
The height you receive the ball is the main determining factor for your swing path.  The distance off the sidewall and pace of the ball are all factors as well, but today I will only get into the receiving height and how this influences your swing path. Let's get right into and use some examples for you.

Dropping From The Height You Want To Hit On The Front Wall
Below we have a low coffee table. I like to use this as an image when explaining how to hit drops that are hit just above the tin. You are hitting the ball at a height that is already at the target you want to hit on the front wall, so you simply swing right across the low coffee table. I find many people drop their follow through or start with their racquet to high for this shot. The length of the swing can greatly vary even at the highest level.
We can also look at this picture of Shabana and visualize how his swing would have been right along the above low coffee table. Basically the height of the ball is just about where he is aiming on the front wall so we will be swinging parallel to the floor and following through on this same line. Considering I don't see his opponent in sight, I think it's safe to assume he won this point!

Shabana swinging across the low coffee table with a relatively flat racquet face on this forehand drop.
Dropping From Above The Height Of The Tin
If you are going to hit a drop from higher on the bounce or the volley you want to aim down, meaning you will have to swing high to low. The amount you swing from high to low depends on the angle you have. The higher the ball is at contact the more severely you can cut down on the ball. You can either lift the back part of the coffee table, or think of a the hands on a clock as an example. For example if using the clock, you can swing from 2:00 to 8:00. In the example below you would swing from approximately 2:00 (high) to 8:00 (low). 
Shabana about to slot this into the nick swinging from high (2:00) to low (8:00) with an open racquet face.
Also important to note here is the angle of the racquet face. If your racquet face is closed and your swing path is from high to low you have a good chance of hitting the ball into the floor or the tin, or at least hitting the ball too hard. So having an open racquet is an important characteristic of a drop when making contact from higher than your target on the front wall. I don't want to get too complex here, but very skilled players will actually swing from high to low (like the clock above) and will finish up again, close to the height they initiated their swing from. This means their swing path is high to low, straightening up through contact and then back to high again. This allows them to put a lot of slice on the ball and also keep the ball above the tin as the follow through has a major influence over the direction of the shot.

Dropping From Below The Height Of The Tin
If we look at a drop which is struck from under the height of the tin it is easy to visualize how we need to start our swing low (under the ball) and finish higher then we started (see another great example of Shabana doing this below). You can tell Shabana had struck the ball below the height of the tin and because of this the ball is rising on the way to the front wall. This is how he can get the ball over the tin. The problem with this is that we are hitting up on the ball and that once the ball hits the front wall it is almost surely to still be rising slightly. If you also include that the swing preparation for hitting a drop lacks deception, you can tell why it isn't hit very often from below the height of the tin. If done it is almost only done so well from the very front of the court as counter attacks where deception doesn't matter and we are hitting the ball so softly it won't rise much (or at all) after contacting the front wall. 

Shabana swinging with an open racquet from low to high on a forehand counter drop.

Shabana playing an overspin forehand counter drop off of a low and tight receiving ball.
In the above picture you will see that Shabana has received a tight ball and it was pretty low to the floor. To get under the ball and keep it tight, Shabana used a slight overspin/topspin shot. You'll see the pros do this most of the time when the ball is really tight and once in a while from mid-court if they are really feeling it! It's a much easier to play on the forehand side.

I felt like it was fitting to pay some homage to the recently retired Maestro, Amr Shabana. I normally wouldn't use a lefty for examples, but he is one of the very few lefties that I've ever seen with an exceptionally smooth swing. If you want to have a smooth swing path and drop it like the Maestro, try visualizing a clock,  low coffee table, or some other piece of furniture you have in your house. It goes back to what an earlier post I wrote about the follow through. The ball 'usually' goes where our swing is aiming. If you want to ensure you hit your target, make sure that just prior and just after contact your swing is going towards your target and you will increase your accuracy. 

You can visualize different objects to help you with all types of shots. For some people the clock works, others like to use items. You could for example hit a lob from below your hip to above your head. Or to a kid you could say you want them to swing up along a slide. There are lots of ways that people learn. Find one that works for you. If you're good at billiards or geometry you will probably enjoy squash. If you've played any net game you should also have a decent understanding about angles and when the best opportunities are to attack vs. defend based on the reception height of your shot. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

Ease Your Way Back Into It

Alright, I'm back after a busy start to the season. I know that some people play and train all season while others haven't touched a racquet in months. If you're the latter group, this post is for you. If you trained and played all summer, then you're probably already feeling fit and playing at a high standard and you can come back and read this post for after you have a long break.

Over my years of playing squash I've played year round, and I've also taken a few months off. As we get older taking time off makes it tougher to get back. When I was a kid I could miss a month and within a week be back to where I left off. Nowadays I think it's more about doubles the time I miss to get back to where I was. When I was in my early 20's and didn't play for the summer it would take me 3 or 4 months to feel like I was back playing well and fit again. This is why I learned to always keep playing over the summer, even if it's just once a week.

If you're one of those people that have take the summer off and are all ready and set to get back into full swing I have a few tips for you. (and no, that picture above is not me, lol)

1) Ease your way back into t - almost all of us will overdo it and this can lead to injuries.

2) Don't play a hard match your first time back on court.

3) When you play your first match, make the next day an easy one.

4) A cool down/stretch can save you a lot of pain the first few times back on the court.

5) Have realistic expectations. Don't expect to be right back where you were when you stopped playing. Sure, some people you were close to before may be ahead of you now. Just focus on yourself and the long term goals. Write them out and set time lines.

6) Don't play any tournaments until you've been back for at least a month or your asking for trouble. At least if you play at a high level.

7) Use your first 2 or 3 tournaments of the season as training tools. Have lower expectations and just go see where your game and fitness is, while remembering that your bigger goals are focused on more important tournaments later in the season.

8) Remember that especially in these situations, less is more!

If you follow these steps you are more likely to get back to where you left off and stay healthy. Sometimes the hardest step to take is the first one after a layoff. This is why I suggest not getting right back into matchplay.

Squash is such a tough sport if you've taken a layoff. You'll likely get squash butt and hurt in places you haven't felt in months or years! That's why it's important to ease your way back into it. Maybe you start with a solo hit, some easy drills; a few days later maybe get up to a single game at the end of your drill session. You can also do some ghosting or movement drills to get your body prepared for the squash specific movements that your body will about to endure.

Easing back into squash is extremely difficult. We want to work hard and get back to where we think we should be and often do too much too soon. Knowing when to say enough is enough for right now and I'm not quite ready for that is key. Normally we never want to admit we can't do something or that we're too exhausted, especially to do well in squash. Give yourself some slack the first month 2 back and you're body will thank you for it later in the season!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Developing a Game Plan

Today I'm going to talk about tactics. Do you know what your style of play is? It is what suits you best or is it just how you've been taught to play? What do you do well when you play your best? Do you always play the same way versus or do you vary your game depending on your opponent? And most importantly do you have a game plan each and every time you step onto the court? 

I find tactics are often overlooked in squash. Most coaches and players at least in North America seem to promote a traditional style of squash, keep the ball in play and wait for a good opening. To me it seems strange to coach everyone to play the same style of squash. I believe many of us would benefit from finding our own personal style. Also if we can learn to slightly adjust our game plan depending on who we're playing and what's happening it can make the difference between winning and losing. Below is a questionnaire I asked some of the kids I coach to fill out a recent camp. This questionnaire is designed to help them come up with a game plan. 

I got this idea from reading Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants. Gladwell talks about how we incorrectly view giants. This happens in sport as well. Often before we step on court we already have a good idea of what will happen. This is especially troublesome when we think we can't win. We may feel that our opponent is so fast, is so mentally tough, or has such good length that we have no chance to defeat them. We can easily point out our opponent's strengths and have difficulty seeing their weaknesses as well as our own strengths. The questionnaire below can help you find out what areas you may be stronger than your opponent and can be used to come up with a game plan to counter your opponent's perceived unbeatable strengths! 

If you've read Gladwell's book you'll know that just because someone has an overwhelmingly obvious strength, it doesn't mean they cannot be beaten. There is a style that is most effective against people that hit hard, are left handed, are shooters, and so on. I'll get into some of these topics in future articles, but today I'll just focus on learning more about tactics and coming up with a game plan. 

You vs. Opponent: A Self-Analysis (opportunities and threats) – play to your strengths, exploit your opponents weaknesses and learn to minimize your own weaknesses
Who Has The Upper Hand? - answer the following questions with either 'me' or 'my opponent'


Aerobic fitness:


Attacking/short game:



Confidence/belief in winning:

Will to win/who wants it more:

Can change pace/ use height on the front wall:

Movement is more efficient:

Decision making/shot selection:


The above areas are what I would consider the most vital for developing a game plan and winning squash. Even if your opponent is stronger than you in a number of the above areas you can still find another way to improve your odds of winning by playing to your strengths, exploiting your opponents weaknesses while learning how to avoid their strengths as much as possible. 

I've said it before and I'll say it again. If you're interested in tactics you should also read Brad Gilbert's book called Winning Ugly. Gilbert talks about how he used tactics and really thought his way to the top 10 of the tennis world. Gilbert wouldn't just go in and play the same traditional style of tennis because he knew he didn't match up against people with superior talents (the perceived giants!). When there's a will there's a way and Gilbert discusses all the little details that made him one of the toughest and most frustrating players to play on tour. 

The challenge with changing tactics during a match is when we become to analytical and overthink. This is where the often heard motto of KISS (keep it simple stupid) comes to mind. If we overcomplicate things we normally won't perform. This is where coaching can make a big difference. It's also extremely challenging to have an objective view while performing. We are often too concerned about the scoreboard and use this to judge how we are playing. If you focus on the process and game plan you are more likely to play in the zone and your best squash. Find your balance of strategizing and playing instinctively. This is why various styles and adjustments needs to be practiced over and over so they become automatic and instinctual. 

Maybe your strengths will suit an attacking and deceptive style of play. If so then you should come up with a game plan that fosters that style of play. If we coaches and parents try and get everyone to play the same, conservative style of play we have little chance of succeeding. If we play the same way as our opponent, but they are better at it, doesn't it make sense to have an alternative? Sometimes you need to take the path less traveled because that is what suits your game. There are a lot of ways to win and finding the way that works best for you is part of the journey. Hopefully the above questionnaire will give you some guidance on becoming the best you can possibly be. 

That's it for today. I hope you think a bit more about your style of play and what suits you best. Even a bad game plan is a plan. Go out and try and to execute your game plan and then if it isn't working have a plan B. After a game or match (or even quicker as you gain experience) you can ask yourself whether the game plan was correct and if so did you execute it to the best of your ability. Then it really comes down to trial and error. You learn how to play different ways against different opponents and ideally this will give you the best chance of being successful against a variety of opponents. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Three's Company: 3 Person Squash Drills

Today I'm going to talk about some 3 person drills you can do. Most of us know a lot of drills we can do with 2 people, but are unsure of what we can do with that 3rd wheel. Some of the drills are repetitive, others 1 or 2 players will have options and some will be conditions games and really make you think. I enjoy doing a combination of them. Find which ones work for you and try and implement them the next time you are training in a group of 3. What you're capable of doing will depend on your skill levels.

Three Person Drills
  1. Three person boast and drive (1 in the front, 2 in the back). You can do 1 shot or 2 shots (which means 1 shot to yourself).
  2. A hits straight drive, B hits volley drop, C hits straight drive, B hits straight volley drive.
  3. A and B hit drives on one side of the court. They both have the option to hit a volley crosscourt drive to player C. If they hit a volley crosscourt drive, player C hits a straight drive and then the person that hit it to this side goes over and continues the rally.
    1. A and B can hit straight drive or boast. If A boasts, B has to return it with a straight drive to C's side. 
    2. and can hit straight drive or boast. If boasts, has to return it with a straight drive or straight drop to C's side.
    3. and can hit straight drive or boast. If boasts, has to return it with a straight drive to C or can hit crosscourt back to player A (keeps them from being lazy after playing a boast)
    4. A and B play a straight game on one half of the court. A and B both also have the option to boast. When one of them boasts the other has to get it and hit a straight drive or drop to C's side.
  4. A drives straight, B volleys crosscourt drop/kill, C hits crosscourt, B hits volley drive, repeat
  5. A hits straight drives, B hits straight drive or boast, C hits straight drive

    a. A hits straight drive, B hits straight drive or boast, C hits straight drive off drive and can hit straight drive or court lob off boast.
  6. A hits short mid-court drive/feed, B drives, A hits another short mid-court drive feed, C drives

    a. A hits short drive feed, B drives and then ghosts laterally, repeat 5 times and C goes.
  7. Chase the hole/rotating boast and drive. A boasts, B drives, C boasts, A drives, B boasts, C drives.
  8. A drives, B drives, A boasts, B drives, C drives, B boasts, C drives, A drives, C boasts.
  9. A boasts, B drops, C drops, B drives, C boasts, B drops, A drops, B drives, repeat.
  10. A drops (from back of the court), B drops, C drive
    1. A drops (from back of the court), B drops, C drops, B drives
    2. A drops or boasts (from back of the court), B drops, C drives
    3. A drops or boasts (from back of the court), B drops straight or cross, C drives or crosscourts
  11. A hits boast, B hits straight drive or crosscourt drive, C volleys to straight length and if cannot volley they let the ball go back to A and they drop or boast again (as demonstrated in diagrams below).
    1. If C isn't able to they have to get the ball off the back wall and drive it.
12. A boasts, B hits straight or crosscourt drop, C hits straight drive (as diagramed below).

13. Three person rotating drives (no volleys allowed)
           a. each player has the option to boast or drive, off the boast the next player just hit straight drive

14. A hits a straight drop, B drives, A hits a straight drive, B straight drives, A hits straight drop, C hits straight drive, A hits straight drive, C hits straight drive, repeat
            a. A can straight drop or straight drive, B hits straight drive (go until they cannot get the ball back then C's turn)

15. A boasts, B drives, A drives, B drives, A boasts, C drives, A drives, C drives

16. A boasts or hits a straight drop, B hits straight or crosscourt drive, A drives, B drives, A boasts, C hits straight or crosscourt drive, A drives, C drives, repeat

17. A drives, B drive, A boasts, B hits straight drop, C hits straight drop, B hits crosscourt (or crosscourt lob)

With 3 people I often do king of the court 2 person drills or condition games and rotate after each rally. I enjoy making these types of drills competitive. For example you could do drive, drive boast with 2 people and then then winner of the rally stays in and gets a point. You could also do the drill until someone hits a target and/or wins the point. You can do this for any drill and with the odd breather you'l find that you can work harder and that keeping score will help the intensity and focus stay high.

You can have a lot of fun and really mix things up with 3 people on the court. I've given you 17 drills, many with slight variations which will make the drill different and in many cases much more challenging. Enjoy!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Video Analysis #3

Yes, finally a 3rd person has taken me up on the offer to analyze their squash game. If you want to take a look at the video the link is here:
If you post it online I assume it's open for the world to see so I hope you don't mind me posting the link. I'm analyzing the man in the green shirt and I have a few comments for him. 

The Good
1) You're a good retriever. Your quick on your feet. You have very light feet and get around the court pretty efficiently. 

2) You're consistent. You don't make many unforced errors which is a good combination with being quick. This means you will be hard for someone to beat because you'll never beat yourself. 

3) You move the ball around and with #2 don't make many mistakes while doing so. I've seen many fit people just hit everything deep and wait for mistakes so it's good to see you using the whole court. 

Areas To Improve
1) Be more aggressive. You wait for the ball to come to you. When you get a loose ball, move forwards and take the ball a bit early, this is also a more confident and assertive way to go on the attack. Try and practice taking more balls before the back wall in general. You look like a good athlete and should be fit enough to pick up the intensity a bit!

2) Get your racquet up higher for your drives. You have a very late racquet preparation and have an extremely short backswing. You could hit the ball with more pace if you got your elbow up, and quickly! Early racquet prep is sooo important!

3) Get lower/stay further from the ball. You're a tall guy and you could make the court play a lot smaller if you worked on getting your hips down by bending your knees. Currently you are too upright when hitting the ball on the bounce which brings you further from the T and means your swing has to go upwards to get the ball over the T. If you get lower you can hit the ball flatter and be more aggressive with your shots. I recommend taping a dotted line around the court with masking tape. Go along the inside of the service box up to about 2 or 3 feet away from the front wall. You should very rarely have to get both of your feet within this taped area when you strike the ball. Currently you do this frequently.  

4) Here's a bonus one. I don't want to give too much feedback, but I think you would greatly improve by learning to use your body to help you get power and transfer your weight into the ball. You currently swing with just your arm. Learning to rotate your shoulders, use your torso, core and legs will allow you to do # 1 better. Basically all 4 of my tips are to get you to be more aggressive and hit the ball with more power. You have the tools (athleticism and consistency) to become a much stronger player. 

I've worked with a number of players such as yourself. It takes a change in mindset to become more aggressive. You may make a few mistakes, but this is the only way to apply pressure on a stronger player. Thanks for being brave enough to have your game analyzed online! Good luck David!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Why The Follow Through Is Key

Today I'm going to talk about the follow through. You may notice in golf that when a professional hits a good drive they almost always hold their follow through and some twirl their club, while the wayward shots see a much different abbreviated follow through. Can't these golfers just keep their follow through in check to ensure they swing correctly? Clearly once you've made contact you can't control the ball anymore, but the follow through does reveal an awful lot about what just happened in your swing.

Today I'm going to discuss what exactly the follow through tells us in squash and why it can help us hit better shots when we focus on having the correct mechanics on our follow through. After all, if your follow through is correct there is a very good chance that what happened before that was good too!

1) Direction Of Follow Through
Follow through to the target: this determines how accurate the shot will be. The height and angle of the trajectory is determined by your swing path and you should finish your shot towards your target.  This holds true for any projectile sport. Things like wind or spin can interfere with where you are aiming and where you want the ball/object to finish up so in these instances you're follow through is not directly at where you envision the ball or object finishing up. This isn't a factor in squash so time to move on.

If you want to hit the ball high, such as a lob you should follow through high; whereas if you want to hit the ball low you want to keep your racquet low. What makes is challenging to keep your follow through low is that you want to keep the ball over the tin and if you're slicing a drop shot you're swing will be high to low, but you will have to flatten the swing out (when the ball is received low) at or just after contact to maximize slice, but keeping the ball over the tin.

In the picture below, Diego will continue his swing running right along the sidewall to ensure his drop stays on target, tight to the sidewall. The ball is low Diego is hitting the ball flatter, but if the ball was higher and tighter he would swing high to low as discussed above.

If you were balanced or not during your swing: if you were balanced and had a good base of support under you swing you should be able to hold your finish towards your target. If your follow through is too short or finishes low (even while aiming high) it can be caused by being off balanced while swinging. Maybe your spacing was incorrect, you could be under a lot of pressure of perhaps you were trying to swing too hard for the position you're in. You may also need to improve your strength endurance as your arm and shoulder could fatigue causing your racquet to drop at the end of your swing. 

Use your follow through to deceive your opponent: there is an exception to this rule and this is when we don't follow through to our target on purpose to deceive our opponent. Sometimes using shoulder fakes with a follow through in one direction can catch your opponent flat footed or even going the wrong way. Have fun trying to do this in practice and see if you can a swing path that is deceptive. You can see Amr Shabana below how he finishes quite open while his hips and his follow through is further towards the middle of the court. Shabana can use his wrist and forearm to adjust the racquet head to keep the ball straight even though the rest of his body looks as though he is going to hit the ball crosscourt. This also happens when someone plays a deceptive trickle boast.

2) Length and Path Of Follow Through
What type of shot you hit: each shot will have a different follow through. Your full drive should be a bigger swing then your volley drop and your counter drop will be shorter still.

The amount of spin (or lack of) put on the ball: the angle of your racquet face during and at the completion of your follow through tells you how much spin you put on the ball. If you want to cut the ball you will finish with your racquet face open; if you want to hit the ball flat you should finish with the same flat racquet face. Doing this means less variation of racquet angle during the contact phase and more consistent shots.

If you're spacing was correct: if you crowd the ball (as most of us do) when you hit a shot it will change your swing and also the length of your follow through. The circumference of your follow through will be shorter when you're too tight to the ball which means you will have to make contact with your elbow still bent or your shoulders open early to compensate. You can also tell if someone transferred their kinetic energy by extending their elbow or not. If you finish your drive and your elbow is still bent you were too close to the ball.

If your swing was excessive and dangerous: For many beginners this is known as the 'helicopter' swing. When someone tries to over swing and has no feel for where their opponent some people will continue spinning after contact, even doing a full 360 degree spin!

You'll notice watching the professional men play that on the forehand they have a very compact racquet preparation and follow through. In the warm up they take full swings and then during their matches they become much more compact. This compact swing is to maximize deception, consistency (shorter swing circumference) without giving up on power. They are strong enough that on the forehand side most top men can hit very hard with an extremely short swing. This wasn't possible 20+ years ago when the racquets were twice the weight.

3) Speed and Tempo Of Follow Through
Swing Speed/Acceleration and Deceleration: keep your swing speed up/consistent through contact. Some people decelerate or almost completely stop their swing as they make contact with the ball. This happens the most during drop shots. It's important to keep your swing speed and the momentum up through the contact and follow through towards your target.

The pace you want to hit should match your swing tempo: just as different shots have different lengths of swings, softer shots should have a slower swing and follow through. Examples of these are lobs and drops. As I just mentioned above you need to keep the swing speed steady through contact. If you're hitting a softer shot it should be steady at a slower speed. Although this will not be the case when someone wants to put a lot of slice on the ball. In this instance they will swing faster then the ball will travel because the backspin is slowing the ball down.

Using Your Follow Through To Clear: while on the topic of follow throughs it's important to discuss the balance of swinging through towards your target to be accurate and taking too long to clear your shot.  When you take a full swing you want to use your follow through to help you clear back towards the middle of the court. Clearing too early after contact will make your ball spray out into the middle. While standing over your shot and clearing too late will make you late back to the T and more susceptible to strokes. Learning to keep your follow through on target just long after after hitting the ball before you begin clearing will allow for the best combination of shot consistency with quick and efficient clearing.

Adapting Your Swing: I'd like to finish off by talking about how professional players can be out of position and still be accurate with their shots. Let's take a look at the below photo of Thierry Lincou. What shot is he going to hit? His hips and shoulders are open well before he's about to hit the ball so you would think a crosscourt drive, but he could decide to straighten up his swing path and follow through straight and hit a straight drive. Lincou could also hold the ball and play a little trickle boast. I would guess with the angle of his racquet face that a drop is now out of the question. Good players need to be able to adapt their swing even when their body is slightly out of position. Sometimes this will be because they are disguising their shots, while other times they do it because they are under pressure and don't have enough time to get set in an ideal position beside the ball. Luckily the racquets are so light now that they can adjust their swing speed and angle late, just prior to contact.

Even professional players aren't as accurate when they have to make so many adjustments because of poor positioning, so try your best to have good mechanics and a balanced swing/follow through as often as possible. 

Summary of the 3 Main Follow Through Tips
1. Following through to your target.
2. Shorter shots (e.g., drops) will have a shorter follow through.
3. Swing speed should match the pace you want to hit and keep this speed consistent through contact.

Focus on your follow through next time in practice and you'll start to hit the ball more accurately. You may just find that having a full, balanced follow through might clean up your swing!

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Lost Art of Coaching in Pro Team Sports

Today I'm going to talk about the difference between squash and other professional team sports. As a Blue Jays fan I should be happy that they went out and traded/bought some big name ball players which will greatly increase their chances of making the playoffs. When I was a kid I remember vividly watching the Jays win the World Series in back to back years. I've been a big fan and watch a lot of the games ever since. What's happening now is very reminiscent to the glory days. So what's the problem?

Now looking at how pro sport teams try and buy their way to a championship it really takes the coaching out of the sport. It feels like the Jays (and most teams) will give up on a player having a slightly down season instead of trying to do what we as coaches focus on, doing some coaching and helping the athlete work through it. So I'm a bit torn here. Of course I want to see my favourite team win, but at what cost? This is why I never liked the Yankees; they just bought their Championships! Now the Jays are doing the same thing.

When you catch squash you don't just trade a player to another coach if things aren't working. As a coach you are motivated to help that athlete the best you can. If pro sport teams were more motivated to help their athletes improve rather than just find the best trade value, maybe they would have a superior team dynamic and maybe, just maybe the team would improve. I know their current GM talks about the importance of character when he's looking to make a deal, but isn't he also forgetting the importance of team chemistry?

In squash and other individual sports, when someone is underperforming we help them get back on track. Clearly these pro sport teams wanted this athlete in the first place, so what's made them give up on them so quickly? I've never told an athlete that I couldn't help them and they shouldn't bother taking a lesson, or to go see another coach. Of course as we get older we aren't physical able to do the same we once could, but there is always something to learn and improve in everyone's game. That's what hooks us in the first place; we always know we can do a little better if we just spend a bit of time on it.

So how would I feel if the Jays made the playoffs? I'll admit it, I'd watch and root for them. But it just wouldn't be the same as if they turned things around on their own and just became a better TEAM! Instead of complaining about having no pitching, maybe there's something the coaching staff and pitching staff in particular can do to help remedy their issues. Of course this problem is confounded by the fact that the media and fans show a lot more interest now that we have big names and have made some blockbuster trades. That fills the seats and gets the buzz on the street; a mediocre team doesn't do either of this.  So what's the solution? Is there one?

The only idea I can think of is marketing your team as a homegrown team. Tampa Bay has been great at this and they've been much more successful than the Jays the past decade. I also believe that if we focused on winning Championships at the minor league level this would eventually have a ripple effect at the big league level. If you have a group of players that are used to playing and winning together then they will continue doing this at the next level if we give them some time.

I've heard that many soccer teams in Europe (yes football for those of you outside North America) have their top coaches working with kids while and then more managers and sport psychologists on to coach at the pro level. This is the strange dynamic of professional team sports. It definitely makes me appreciate individual sports and titles these athletes win that much more. In pro sports there is big money to be made and all the city wants is a winning team. I don't know many (or any) teams that sell out their home games when their having a poor season.

Sorry to any Blue Jays fans I may have upset, but remember that I am one too! As a fan I'm happy about the moves, as a coach I'm disappointed.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Thinking Of The Tin As A Net

It's a busy couple of weeks with summer camps here in Victoria, but have found some free time today to write a new post. Today I'm going to talk about the tin. The height of the tin on a standard court is 19 inches or 48 centimetres. The men on the pro tour have played with a lower tin at 17 inches or 43 centimetres for a number of years now. They made this change to make the game more exciting and to reward attacking play. Clearly a more attacking game makes squash more exciting to watch. I've heard that lowering the tin by 2" makes the court play a few feet longer. The drops come up shorter and the court plays longer. If you've played on a lower tin you'll know how much of a difference tin height makes.

I find most amateurs don't understand the concept of the height of the ball and where their target should be. I find the visual of thinking of the tin as a net is useful in this approach. We can then compare the tin to a net in badminton or volleyball. When the ball is below the net in badminton or volleyball you cannot smash the ball and have to lift the ball to get it over the net. Whereas the higher (within reach and ability) the ball is the more serenely you can attack at a severe angle and spike the ball or shuttlecock. Even without knowing much about these other sports this paints a nice visual image of when to attack or defend in these sports. Now let's take a look at how this applies in squash.

If you're good at math and angles or have played a lot of squash you'll understand that you have a better angle to attack when the ball is higher. This is the same as the other sports I discussed earlier. If the ball is below the height of the tin we cannot hit the ball downward or it will be an error. This is why it's so important to attack short when the ball is at the peak or the bounce. Of course this depends on your racquet skill and reach. If you try and attack a volley short well over your head you may struggle as this is a highly advanced skill. The higher you can attack the ball the shorter the ball can land on the floor. If you're cutting the ball it is also the easiest way to cut the ball and follow through to your target with an aggressive swing. When the ball is lower this becomes much more challenging. 

Another reason people struggle when he ball is below the tin ('net') is that they have difficulty getting low enough with the right form. Most people simply drop their racquet head to reach the ball instead of bending their knees and lowering their hips to get their hand and racquet lower. This takes a lot of lower body strength and balance to be able to do this. When the ball is very low the best approach is to hit the ball upwards and play a defensive attack. Of course if your opponent is completely out of position and you have superior dexterity in your hands you may choose otherwise. While if the ball is high and you are set and your opponent is behind you use the angle and height to hit down on the ball and attack short. If you want to improve your drops and nicks spend time solo hitting and learn the angles. 

Now let's talk about how changing the height of the tin impacts the game. The women are going to be testing out playing with a lower tin shortly; how will this influence their game? Who will this favour? And most importantly is it a good or bad thing for the women's game? Above we see a picture of a tin; half is at the standard 19" tin while the other is lowered to 17". I much prefer playing and watching attacking squash, so I like this move for the women. It clearly favours the Egyptians in my opinion, but many of the top women have very deceptive boasts. I think on standard panel courts the lower tin is a good move, but I'm not as certain about on the glass courts. The glass courts are slower already and plays bigger. I've seen a lot of top ranked women get picked part on the glass court simply because they lack exposure on the court. Now in major events when a lower ranked women plays a top 10 or 20 ranked player on the 4 wall glass show court the match will be over even faster. It's not that the lower ranked women can't adjust, they just don't receive enough hours on the court to adjust properly. So I feel that a 4 month trial is not long enough. The women should either make the move permanently or try it only on the standard courts which are normally quite a bit warmer and bouncier. But time will be the judge. I know the tournament organizers will be happy that they don't have to adjust the tin height between matches.

That's it for today. I hope to be back with a new post next sometime. Next time you play think of the tin as a net and be aggressive when you have the ball high. Spike it into the nick! Good luck!

If you want to check out some more videos from the 2015 Penang Junior Open I went to in June check out my Youtube channel @ cchsquashpro. I put up a couple of games from the boys and girls U19 semis.