Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Rebounding After Losing The First Game

Today I'm going to talk about tactics and the mental game. In particular I'm going to talk about what to do and not do after you lose the first game. Some of us are naturally slow starters and take awhile to find our length or adjust to our opponent's style of play; perhaps our brain is still thinking about work or school. Regardless of why you end up losing the first game the match is a long ways from over.

With the scoring system now using point a rally to 11 the better player doesn't always win the first game. This is a smaller sample of points compared to playing to 15 or hand out scoring. This is why the warm up is crucial. You want to get off to a good start. If you don't you start thinking negatively and trying to do something special to turn things around. Nerves can also play a big factor in how you play the first game. If you are a bit nervous the first part of the game you may make a few mistakes or read the game slower than normal and make a few poor choices. This is alright, no need to panic. This is again why a good warm up and some relaxation or visualization can help you get off to a more consistent start to your matches. But this post isn't about how to get off to a better start, this is about coming back from losing the first game. So let's get to it.

After losing the first game generally we are upset. We probably feel that we just didn't play well. Of course this may be true some of the time, but we have to give credit to where it's due. This is where having a coach can help you. Coming off after losing the first game one can feel emotional and have trouble dissecting what has gone wrong out there. As you become more experienced you will get better at reading this for yourself.

When you come off the court after losing the first game, start off by asking what was going well for you. We tend to always pick on all the things we did poorly, which rarely help us. If you can't think of anything you did well, come up with a basic and positive strategy for game 2. A couple of good ideas are trying to get your opponent to the back of the court, visualizing some targets for your drives (behind the service box or just getting the ball to the back glass can help). Maybe you need to focus on extending some rallies and this can help you relax and change the momentum of the match.

When dissecting what happened in the first game you want to know a few important points. Even if you lost the game if your opponent did more work than you, this can be very positive for game 2 and the rest of the match. If this happens you may not need to change a thing. Stick to your plan and eventually their game will slow down and you will keep playing at the same level. If you did most of the work and still lost the game you may just be up against some stiff competition. Unless you're a lot fitter than your opponent you need to try and change this. Start giving yourself more time between shots; get your opponent off the volley; step up and volley to take time away from them, etc.

The psychology of winning and losing can be very damaging to your game. You may play a great game and just because you don't win it you are dissatisfied and feel like you need to change something. Losing a game by just 2 or 3 points doesn't imply you did anything wrong. Perhaps your opponent is just slightly more accurate or experienced. In this case do you really need to drastically change your strategy or just do a slightly better job executing it?

If you feel you need to change your style of play to be more successful, how can you do this? Are you comfortable upping the pace? Slowing it down? Can you push up on the T and try to volley more? Can you play straighter? Or perhaps more boasts and crosscourts? Can you try and extend or shorten the points? If there is a certain style that will increase your odds of winning you should try it. Of course this means you have to be able to execute this new strategy. So you should practice playing different ways. But remember you don't always need to make drastic changes to turn the game around. Maybe you were being too passive or forcing the ball short too quickly. But if you come up against someone who does what you do but better, do you have an option B? If not you're not going to have any luck.

Whatever happens in the first gam try and keep your emotions out of it. If you lose the game, it's over with. You have 90 seconds to refocus. Don't waste that entire time thinking about that past game and how awful you played. By the time you step back on court you want to have a clear picture of how you want to start and finish the next game. Sometimes I will just try and get off to a better start. I will try and get to 5 points first. Other times I know I need to execute the basics more accurately to open up the rest of the court.

The one area I would caution you with is overloading information between games. Keep the instructions simple, yet clear. I've made the mistake of giving too much information to someone and you should always err on the side of less information. First thing I do is make sure to get the person feeling more upbeat and then refocused on the next game and the strategy. If you can do this well you will give yourself the best chance of turning things around and tying things up.

Winning and losing is quite psychological. We want to blame the ref or some lucky shots, but in the end it's just a small sample and it's only 1 game. Sometimes the best thing to do is to be able to forget what happened, kind of reset yourself and go out focused, positive and with a clear strategy for the next game. This is why the mental game and tactics are so interesting. We see it at every level. With young kids (and some adults) we can easily read the self-detructive thoughts that they are thinking and feeling. We also see this at the very highest level. Some players are better at coming back from losing the first game than others. Especially if you feel like you left it all on the court, played well and it was a long physical game. Staying positive under the most daunting conditions is a skill that only some players possess, but is not a quality that can only be found at the professional level; losing the first game, regardless of how or why is simply an opportunity for you to showcase this ability.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Tactical Talk: Meat and Potatoes With A Side Of Gravy

Today I'm going to talk about tactics. In particular a simple and effective strategy for playing a solid game of squash. You need to have the basics, which I refer to as the meat and potatoes. The basics are the length, width, serve and return of serve. If you do the basics well you will beat most people. The basics is the area that most kids don't enjoy practicing because they don't understand the importance of what exactly defines good length and width; they prefer practicing hitting winners. The fancy finishing shots is the gravy, but without the meat and potatoes to go with the gravy it will just sit unused in the gravy boat.

I like to play and coach an attacking style of squash, but this doesn't always suit everyone's game. Personally I never enjoyed just keeping the ball in play until the opponent made a mistake. This may make sense in a few tactical situations (e.g., your opponent is exhausted or self-destructing). If you hit a good length and force a loose ball, do something with it! This is the gravy part that takes a lot of practice to refine and this territory comes with a few mistakes, especially as you are learning and refining these shots. Many people make mistakes and shy away from the front of the court altogether. While some shooters don't have the basics down and force the ball short and make lots of unforced errors. If you can try and stick to a basic strategy of going for what you've set up, you'll improve and reduce your unforced errors. If you create a good opening go for it. This is what the purpose of good length is cause at a high level you won't win a bunch of points hitting everything to the back.

If you do the basics exceptionally well you may be able to go on the attack very early in the rally and roll over someone quite quickly. If you aren't applying any pressure with your serve, return or length you likely won't get many chances to attack the front of the court from a good position. I see strong attacking players completely give up on their length when they are unable to apply any pressure with their length against a stronger opponent. This will vey rarely ever work. Attacking from the back on occasion can be done quite successfully, but only if you can consistently get the ball by your opponent and have them struggle in the back corners. When this happens they will tend to start hanging back to cover the corners as this is where you've been hitting most of your shots into anyways.

I should also mention the positioning of you and your opponent when you go on the attack. If you're opponent is so far out of the picture you don't need to hit an inch above the tin. Hit the ball with conviction, but with a few extra inches for margin of error. Aim to hit it tight just in case your opponent makes a heroic effort and gets the ball back. You don't need to hit an outright winner, keep the pressure on without giving up cheap points on unforced errors from attacking positions. If you want to have a great attacking game (the gravy) you need to relentlessly work at it. For a lot of kids this isn't a problem; they love playing the nick game, but most adults don't spend time doing drills or getting the reps on short shots. So of course when they make an error or two they don't have the confidence to go for the next one and if they do it will probably be a couple of feet over the tin. Practice your gravy shots, but they are generally not what will win or loose you matches. This brings me to my next point.

I see people hit a great attacking shot and stand and admire it. All of the sudden their opponent gets it back and either wins the rally or you are struggling to get back a mediocre reply. Always expect the ball to come back until it's bounced twice. Get back into position as you're watching your shot and the play develop. Be ready for the next one and if your opponent is under pressure you should be expecting a certain reply. If you go short you have to cover your shot which is why many people don't like to drop right up at the front of the court. They are too far from the T and if their opponent hits it deep they will be under lots of pressure if they can get the ball back at all. This can also be an issue if you're mobility is limited or you're playing a very fast opponent. If you don't move well or your opponent is fast you'll have to really practice those attacking shots so they apply more pressure of be more selective about when to attack short.

So what's the best part of your game? The meat and potatoes or the gravy? The gravy is more fun of course, but you need the meat and potatoes first. But also don't neglect the gravy or you'll be stuck playing long arduous rallies. The earlier you begin incorporating some attacking shots as you develop and learn the game the better off you'll be down the road. Set it up, attack and cover!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Why It's Easy To Beat An 'A' Player

Today I'm going to talk about tactics once again. Today I'm going to discuss how to easily beat an 'A' player. If you play in the U.S. I think it's a 5.0 level.

When I was a kid I hated that I had to work so hard to beat hackers. I couldn't wait until the day I could beat them without any effort. Now obviously an 'A' or 5.0 level player is much stronger than the average hacker. An 'A' player has learned how to be more consistent, get the ball out of the back corners and hit somewhat accurately into the back backhand corner. After giving lots of lessons and playing many 'A' players over the years it is pretty simple to beat this level of players now. There are variations on how they play, but I've found many similar traits from one to the next. This is what I'm going to talk about now, along with how I take advantage of this patterns of play and limitations.

Most A Players Typically
- always hit deep from the back corners
- don't hunt the volley
- want to play up and down the backhand wall
- hang too far back on the T
- can be deceived very easily
- are uncomfortable playing against different styles of play
- are easy to anticipate their shot
- overhit their length on the backhand and under-hit it on the forehand side
- fatigue very quickly if you cut off a lot of shots and bring them short often
- have a sound aerobic base, it's not the duration of a match that tires them out, it's the intensity
- move their T to volley only off of straight drives, rarely off of crosscourt drives
- move before you hit, therefore they don't split step properly

How To Beat An 'A' Player
- volley as much as possible
- don't be afraid to bring them to the front, you'll learn to read what they hit from the front and it's usually predictable and with very limited options
- anticipate them always wanting to play the backhand side deep and cut the ball off and boast them around
- hit good wide crosscourts, these are rarely volleyed from my experience and it's easy to force them to boast
- move your T up and take the ball early, even if you get tired, your body will adapt to this style of play, while your opponents will not be accustomed to it
- work on holds from the front of the court; get on the ball early and sometimes hit it early, other times delay your shot. If you hold someone on the T it takes a lot out of their legs to wait until after you hit the ball to react.
- vary your serve. Most 'A' players don't volley a hard serve and have trouble with a good lob serve. This is especially true for men, as less men tend to play lobs serves and therefore they are normally pretty weak at returning it.

If You're An 'A' Player, How Do You Avoid Falling Into This Trap?
- play condition games that allow you to experiment with new shots and shot combinations
- try some of the changes in shot selection and court positioning noted above
- solo hit and improve your volley and forearm strength (which will increase your ability to be deceptive)
- move your T positioning up. Place a piece of masking tape near the T that you have to get up to on each shot
- learn to hit a good crosscourt from the backhand side, don't just avoid them
- learn to cover (volley) your opponent hitting crosscourts
- try some different serves, especially the lob serve
- work on some speed and anaerobic training
- work on your lateral movement around the T so you can volley more shots (fast reactions and racquet prep is also crucial around midcourt)
- work on your 2-wall attacking boast
- practice hitting your forehand drives deeper and not as hard
- practice hitting dying length on your backhand side. There's a time to overhit your length, but just being tight doesn't put much pressure on a good player. You need to limit their options from the back by hitting well weighted drives.
- work on your split step; being in a more neutral and athletic stance, prepared for any shot
- learn to anticipate; practice drills and condition with options against a variety of players so you learn to read your earlier

It obviously takes a long time to be able to do some of these things on the list. But this is how I've gotten to the point where I can easily beat an 'A' player. It usually only takes half of a game or so to really tire out an 'A' player if you volley a lot and move them around the court. I don't even try and hit winners, just hit to the open court and take the ball early. After playing at a high level you see the play develop earlier and it becomes easier to volley more and more. I find this the biggest difference. I force my opponent to hit a great shot to get me off the T while they usually give up the positioning far easier.

So, what do you think? If you're an 'A' player and wonder why stronger players can easily beat you, it probably has something to do with the above lists. If you can easily beat an 'A' player you likely know what I'm talking about, while if you're still on your journey of becoming an 'A' player, you can come back to this post once you reach that standard!

Friday, February 6, 2015

My Not So Secret Formula For Excelling At Squash

Today I'm going to talk about my recipe for success on the squash court. Many people think there is some secret formula to becoming a great squash player; that the pros must be doing some special drills, training routine or know something that we don't! I bet if there was a poll done among all the top pros their would be plenty of differences in training methods.We can clearly see different tactics and techniques, so there isn't only a single method to becoming a great player. So how did they do it? How did they become so good?

In a dynamic sport such as squash there are plenty of things that are vital to success, but there are some things that all top players have in common. All top players have spent the time on court perfecting their craft. I'm sure many of you are familiar with the term 'deliberate practice.' Let's take a look at this in further detail.

I'm in the midst of reading The Sports Gene (pictured below) at the moment and they discuss a study of the differences between grandmaster chess players and the master chess players (1 step below) and city champions (a few steps below). They wanted to determine why these other people couldn't become grandmasters. There was another similar study that looked at the difference in musicians. Sorry kids, I don't mean Justin Bieber or Katy Perry! I'm talking about those that play an instrument. What makes the best the best? Basically these studies found the difference was that the top in their field spent a significant amount of time practicing independently. After a few years of this additional daily practicing these top musicians and chess players had spent thousands of hours more engaging in deliberate practice. So if you want to know how to improve, I've said it before and I'll say it again, get out and solo hit! Get into a routine and make it part of your weekly training plan. You can look at a previous post here if you want to know some solo drills you can do (

When I asked Nicole Bunyan (who I did a profile on here what was the one thing she wished did more of when she was training in high school, her answer was 'solo hitting.' This is how I became the best in Canada when I was young boy. I was very motivated and spent time almost every day hitting by myself. So if you're really keen and want to improve this is my #1 tip.

You may be asking yourself why solo hitting is so important? It grooves your swing (and muscle memory) so you begin making small refinements to improve your preparation, power and accuracy. You'll notice pretty quickly how fatigued your forearm gets from doing some of the solo drills I listed in my previous post. As you build up strength you can have a shorter swing and still generate power. This is used a lot in the men's game for deception and disguising their swing. You don't see the top pros take huge swings when they hit drives from the front right corner or else they would be too slow to clear. I also find that being able to control the volley takes a lot of repetition. Volleying is such an essential skill at any level of the game.

Of course solo hitting isn't in itself enough. We need to have relatively efficient mechanics and a sound understanding of the game. Again, going back to the chess study in The Sports Gene they discussed what made grandmasters so special. What they did was flash a chess board to different levels of chess players. The grandmasters were able to almost perfectly recall the exact setup of the board while all the others levels of players made more errors in recall. But when they repeated the same study with chess pieces in random sequences that would never occur in a game of chess the grandmasters were no better than the average chess player at recalling the board setup. This study demonstrated the importance of playing the game and learning the tactics. The book called this phenomena chunking information. The grandmasters quickly recognize the board setup from previous games. They simply have more experience seeing a variety of games.

The example of chunking is why most people sightly struggle against opponents that are unorthodox or play without any structure to their game. We simply haven't had enough match time against people that play this way and we are slow to reposed and frequently make poor decisions. If you keep making the same mistake over and over and expecting different results it reminds me of Einstein's definition of insanity. So you have to know if it's the right choice and the execution just needs to be better or if it was an incorrect decision.

So, now you know 2 of my not so secret secrets, solo hitting and learn the game. What else is there? As a coach it's easy to see the people that have been taught how to hit and move properly progress faster. This is something that is much easier to learn early in your development. It becomes much more challenging to change once your've spent thousands of hours engraining improper and inefficient muscle memory. After this I would say the most important areas to work on are the psychological skills and physical fitness. Physical fitness is often though of as the most important trait, but I've seen many physically gifted squash players that would be better off training their mental skills. Clearly you need both of these to be a great player, just don't underestimate the power of mental training.

The last thing that I think is invaluable to becoming a top player is consistent measurable improvement. We need to know we are getting better; that all of our hard work is paying off. This is why I like findings areas to measure. This could be your ranking, but that doesn't always move up. So fitness testing, shot accuracy testing or something similar can be useful for this. As we change from kids to adolescents and adults things come up. Our priorities can change. Some people loose interest as they focus on significant others, families, school or work.

I feel that a lot of these people would continue playing if they stayed motivated to improve. If you can see yourself improving it can be externally satisfying. You are mastering a craft. If you struggle in a match or a tournament things can go south and you may not like these low feelings. In times like this you have to remember that its' a game. Likely your livelihood does not depend on your results. We all need to have some balance in our lives. All work can be stressful while all squash can be too! Becoming a great player takes time and persistence. You need to put in a steady number of hours over a long period of time. As a coach it's about keeping some motivated, seeing their progress along this path.

That's it for today. Hope you enjoyed this post. I find it quite interesting as I have experience being the best for my age and being injured and not sure if I could compete anymore. Life is all about balance, even for us squash coaches!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Altering Your T Position

I know it's been over a week, but I'm back with another post. Today I'm going to talk about how to change your T position. I find most men's and women's A and Open players hang pretty far back on the T. Most good players have been taught to hit the ball deep from the back of the court. Then all of the sudden they will play someone who attacks well from the back of the court and they will have trouble adjusting their T position. I also find that most B and C players hang far back on the T because they simply struggle getting the ball out of the back corners. While many beginners don't get to the T at all, they just sit and admire their previous shot.

At an advanced level the T floats. When you hit a pressuring shot your opponent will be limited to what they can do next and you should poach your T positioning accordingly. But before you get to this point you need to just learn to get back to the T as well as where on the T you should be trying to get to. For me, I can get to any corner in 3 steps (4 if my opponent hits a great shot) from the midline and the middle of the depth of the service boxes. You'll see in my picture below that this spot would actually be just below the circled T outline. So the centre of the court if you move properly to the ball is not exactly the T line.

So why do I have tape higher on the T than one would normally want? For a few reasons. I simply took a racquet from the T line and rotated it around in a circle and put a little piece of masking tape to outline the diameter of the circle. I was having trouble with kids getting back to the T after they hit, especially from the front of the court. They kept dropping from the front and standing over it. So we played rallies where if they didn't get back into the circle by the time their opponent hit the ball they lost the rally. I had never seen them move so fast! Of course I realized quite early that this could also be dangerous. If a kid hits the ball into the middle and they are trying to run there anyways. Therefore I had to make sure they called their lets and gave up the point if they hit the ball back through the middle.

Ok, so what else does this taped area do? Well for one I noticed that the kids had to change their shot selections to make sure they could get to the T in time. If they boasted or dropped they had to get to the T even quicker than normal. The nice thing about this is they made that change without me telling them to do so. The kids generally hit the ball deeper and higher to give themselves time to get back to the T. I want them to stay aggressive when the opportunities right and go short, but they need to be able to cover the next shot if their opponent gets it back into play.

Ok, so who else would benefit from doing this? The people I talked about first in my introduction. People that hang too far back on the T. You may get away with this against most of your opponents, but when you come up against someone that is more attacking you will likely struggle to move your T up if you haven't practiced doing so. An added bonus of moving your T position up is that if you volley you are taking the ball earlier and your opponent will be further from the T. You're also closer to the front wall and your volley should be more accurate. When people hang around the back of the service box for their T positioning and step across to volley, most of the time their opponent will be back in front of them by the time they hit their volley. This puts a lots more pressure on the shot and normally means you are better hitting the volley deep once again.

This is just one example of how you can mark the T area and make games more fun and challenging. You can also just look for a little marking on the floor as your targeted T positioning and check every so often to make sure you aren't getting deeper and deeper. If you get used to playing a bit higher up on the T you'll be faster to the from of the court, hit better volleys and you're footwork and speed into the back corners will improve. You will also likely try and volley more to maintain this advantageous court positioning.

In closing, this is something you can play with. You can make the area larger or smaller. You can have different markers depending on which shot is played. In a future post I'll talk about learning to move your T positioning based on your previous shot and your opponents options. Also in the near future will be some posts on tactics. I'm going to talk about what strategies you should implement when you're playing someone that is faster, hits it harder, is a stronger or weaker player in general.