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.
Related to this I find that it seems to take me at least 2 games to get into a match; often by that time I'm in serious risk of losing .. and often do. I used to think it was simply that I was very fit and as the other player tired my fitness came through but I am 62 going on 63 , a better squash player technically but certainly nowhere near as fast and fit so that's not it. There is never a chance to go on court as match nights have all courts in use all the time. I try to warm up physically (strides, jogs, lunges etc.) but nothing seems to work. Is this all mental? Every time I lose a "friendly" best of 5, I always win the next match - it's like I am a different player .. that's not so bad for friendlies but it's hopeless on a match night!
Any ideas anyone?
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