Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Delaying And Varying The Timing Of Your Shot

Today I'm going to talk about an advanced and rarely used skill set used by most players. Today I'm going to discuss varying the timing of your shot. There are a number of benefits to doing this, but first I'll get into some of the reasons why most people don't do this.

Most people just hit the ball when they get to the ball. This seems like an obvious way to play your shot. You get to it so you should hit it! A lot of the times people are happy just to get the ball back. You could do very well playing like this. Even some top players (more so women) do this. The difference when these top players set up to hit a shot is that they don't look rushed. They are balanced and look like they could hit a number of various shots. The reason I said above that more women just get to the ball and hit it is because to delay your shot it takes two things; first you have to be at the ball early and second you have to be able to delay your shot/swing. Some women are able to do this on the forehand side and it is equally challenging for anyone to do this on the backhand.

So what exactly is holding the ball? It's getting to the ball early and set up as if you were going to hit your shot before you actually do. Can you tell which shot Shabana (below) is about to hit and when exactly he is going to strike the ball? Is he going to just hit the ball normally or is he going to use a late rapid racquet head acceleration to flick the ball into a drive or a trickle boast? If you can do this well you will cause your opponent some  major headaches.

Why the headaches you ask? Holding the ball messes with a persons natural movement and split step at the T. If this person splits too early or has their weight shifted to one direction before you hit they are in a vulnerable state. In this fragile state their centre go gravity is not between their legs and slightly in front of them. The person may become flatfooted or leaning to one side and will have a lot of trouble if the ball is hit in the other direction. Basically you take the person out of their athletic stance and make them move like an amateur would with no anticipatory skills. That is if you do it well!

I started playing with the timing of my shots when I was a kid as I idolized Jonathan Power. I began to realize that there were a lot more options and ways to be creative and deceptive if I learned how to do this. Here are a few key points I leaned about this skill along over the years.

1) When you play a stronger player you don't have enough time to delay your shots
2) #1 leads to this points. That you need to hit high quality shots (namely length) to set up these opportunities
3) You can really tire out someones legs quickly with a few holds
4) You should take the ball early sometimes (like volleying a back wall boast) or a half volley as they call it in tennis (where the ball is rising) so that when you decide to delay your stroke it is deceptive
5) It takes a lot of solo hitting to strengthen up your forearm to be able to do this extremely well (shorter swing with greater power means more deceptive and possibilities).
6) You need to shape up like you are intending to hit the ball for a delay to be most effective
7) Most people who can hold the ball well do it too much and use the same hold(s) too often
8) A hold will work best when you've set your opponent up for it and when they are fatigued
9) A hold can make the court play much bigger for your opponent
10) It's a lot of fun to 'taxi' someone!

If you want to work on your holds and varying the timing you hit the ball here are some of my favourite drills and pointers.

- try changing the velocity of your swing (speed it up or slow it down part way). slowing it down I find to be much more challenging.
- learn to get onto loose shots at the front as quick as possible, shaped up and ready to hit
- be creative
- watch for this from some of the creative players on psasquashtv.com
- it's all in the timing
- try changing your pattern of when you step and hit (can you make them closer together and further apart)? This creates delay
- most people show tension in their arm when they intend to hit it hard as the approach a ball at the front. think about this tension and how you can minimize it so you can disguise when you want to drop.

1. boast and drive (players driving has the option to drop to themselves first and then drive)
2. Same as #1 but the back player has to retrieve the drop with a counter drop
3. Same as #1 but the players switch front to back when a drop has been played (so the back player plays a straight drive off the drop)
5. A boasts, b has the option to hit a straight drop of crosscourt drive, if B drops A crosscourts and you switch, if B hits crosscourt then you boast. You can also tweak this drill by adding a switch on a volley on the crosscourt drive to make it more challenging).
4. A game serving with a back wall boast/or a high boast from the back. You can play a whole game with one person starting in the front or switch so the winner starts in the front in the attacking position.
5. Solo hit from the front of the court to shorten your swing and strengthen your forearm.

That's it for today. This is one of my favourite subjects. You need to be patient with it, but it can be a big weapon if you master the art of the delay. Have fun changing the timing and rhythm of your swing; hit the ball early, other times delay it and you will be adding an advanced skill to your bag of tricks.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Improve Your Game By Making More Mistakes

Today I'm going to discuss why making errors are so important to improving. In a previous post I discussed a similar topic; I talked about 'Staying Positive After Errors.' If you're interested in reading it you can find the previous post here http://www.serioussquash.com/2014/12/staying-positive-after-errors.html. Today though I'm going to talk about why we have to make mistakes and how to view these on a more positive note.

We all get upset when we miss a shot, especially an easy shot, or even worse yet our favourite shot. This is all just percentages though. Nobody can execute a specific shot 100% of the time. Especially when you add in fatigue, shot selection and perhaps you're trying to hit it under a bit of pressure or your opponent is right on your heels. There are a lot of reasons why we can make an error. Sometimes we just slightly miss the shot. The ball changes temperature and most courts play slightly different depending on the number of people in the club and the weather outside. String tension also slightly changes over time and you aren't always 100% in the zone and focused. These are just a few examples of why we make errors. Of course the most obvious one I have yet to mention is that we are trying to execute a shot with a high degree of difficulty. If we are trying to play a crosscourt volley nick there is a smaller margin of error than a standard drive. There may also be that second voice in the back of your head almost catching you mid-strike, the coaching voice saying, 'who do you think you are? You're not Ramy?'

So whatever the reason is we make an error is not the issue we're talking about today. Today I want to talk about why we needs to make mistakes. I feel players begin to plateau in their game mostly because they become more consistent with their shot selection and execution. They don't beat themselves, but they also don't try do do new things when they play because they have had those poor shot selections and errors weeded out of their game. Of course you can do this and play at the highest level. There is no argument there. But I believe there is always more you can learn and improve in your game. If you limit yourself to say, never attacking from the back or always hitting a straight drive return of serve it doesn't mean your game will suffer. You will probably do extremely well because tactically these are excellent choices. But you are also probably limiting yourself by using the terms always or never.

If we continue making the same mistake over and over do we give up on the shot or is this just a sign that shot is extremely difficult? Like some ridiculously challenging skateboarding flip? If it's a trick a skateboarder can land every time there isn't really any new learning taking place; there is no new speeding up of the myelin connectors. Same goes for a basketball player. If they never practice shots they have trouble with they will never tend their range. We get to a point in squash where we can become very consistent and precise at our squash skill, but there is always something more we should be playing around with and experimenting with. Even if this is only in practice.

So as you can tell I like people making mistakes. Mistakes equals learning. As long as they aren't making mistakes because they lost their focus. I feel most coaches limit squash players into a style where they play not to loose and limit what they could do on a court.

Obviously the thing here is that making mistake after mistake can be very damaging to some peoples confidence. This is why only some people become creative squash players. They aren't afraid or trying new things and failing from time to time. These new shots or skills are like trying to solve complex puzzles. Maybe it's a puzzle that nobody has a solved yet, but that doesn't mean there isn't a possible solution.

If you want to become great you have to take great risks and never stop trying to improve your game. I hope this post has shed some light onto the importance of mistakes, even if we can't stand them. We need to make mistakes to expand our game otherwise we are limiting our potential. I've brought up this fact in a previous post; how many tins do you think Ramy has hit in his life? I bet it's a lot more than probably anyone else on tour. Just like young Mazen Hesham, he too has surely made un uncountable number of errors. He still plays like a junior and is beating top 10 players. I'm sure he'll find the right amount of discipline to compete and eventually make his way to the top of the ranks. I'm not so sure the same would have happened without him hitting millions of tins along the way! You can tell the top players don't like playing him because he doesn't allow them to play in a rhythm.

That's it for today. Hope you can see the bright side of your errors. If you aren't happy with giving away so many free points on a specific shot you just need to keep practicing it. It definitely won't get any better by shying away from it. So go ahead and make some more errors! If you can handle it mentally in the short term it will be good for your game in the long run.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

If I Coached Nicol David Part 2

Today I'm going to talk about Nicol Davd yet again. In my last post I discussed what I would work on if I were coaching this current legend of our game. And for the record, I know this isn't going to happen! It's just fun to discuss. Nicol is only human after all and can still get better at her craft. 

My last post got me thinking further about all of the things that I would learn from Nicol if I did happen to coach her. I also started making a list of  many questions I would like to ash her. Without a doubt getting to work with a top player like Nicol would be extremely motivating and inspiring for a coach. Certainly she would be teaching the coach as much or more than we would in return. So here's a little list of what I would love to find out about Nicol.

Her training schedule: I think everyone wants to know the ingredients for the top players. What are they doing that allows them to become so great? How much of what is she doing and how has this changes throughout the years? How does Nicol stay fresh and hungry day in and day out?

Her mental training program and ability: without a doubt Nicol is one of the most mentally tough and consistent players. It seems like she never loses her focus and doesn't get involved with the ref. her psychological skill set is as good or better than any other area of her game. So how did she get to this point? Was it how she was brought up by her parents or coaching? How much time does she spend working on these areas of her game nowadays?

Solo hitting routine: anyone who watches Nicol in the knock up for one of her matches can tell that she has done a lot of solo hitting. She is so strong on the volley and hits such a clean ball. I think solo hitting is essential to becoming a great player. How much does Nicol do and what area does she focus on when she's doing this?

How has she been able to stay healthy: having a run like Nicol is at the top of the women's game is amazing. Not only because of her ability to stay so consistent with her form, but also because she's been able to stay healthy and on court. We all know the troubles that Ramy and many other top pros have dealt with. Does Nicol play through small nagging injuries or does she have an unbelievable physio and conditioning team to keep her on court and raking up ranking points?

What drives her: all top players have had long stretches of time where they were very motivated, but things change over time. It appears that Nicol has stayed hungry (and extremely hungry) and had an insatiable appetite for success. How has she dealt with low motivation? What keeps her working hard and wanting to be the best? Maybe if she writes a book when she retires we'll get to learn more about this side of her.

Her future goals and aspirations: what does someone want that had already done everything? If squash gets into the Olympics there's no doubt that would be her #1 goal, but what else does Nicol want to do on tour? And I'm also curious how much better she thinks she can get.

Her plans for post professional squash life: I'm sure Nicol will continue being involved with squash in some way after she retires. Does she know I'm what capacity yet? Does she already have some offers on the table? Maybe we'll all just have to wait until this day comes to find out. Hopefully it won't be anytime soon!

Her most memorable tournament and match: even someone as decorated as Nicol must have a favourite squash memory and a best performance. When did Nicole fee she played her most
complete match? What was her best victory? What is her favourite court? How much does Nicol feel her game fluctuates tournament to tournament?

What was your support like as a child: growing up a small girl there must be times when adults were trying to keep your dreams in check. What was her support like? Did people ever tell Nicol that she was too small? That she couldn't do what she's done?

When did she realize she could become a world champion: what age or at what poky did Nicol realize she could become world #1? Did she always believe this as she was growing up or is this something she only realized after she began getting some results? I'm sure she didn't get to where she is by accident!

Who is her favourite player to watch (past or current): who does Nicol learn from watching play? Or who did she grow up idolizing? I wonder if this person plays or played at all like Nicol does.
How has her game progressed since she was a junior: how did Nicol play as a junior compare to now. Mess she always so disciplined? Did she always win? Was she always so in control of her emotions?

Who is her favourite player to compete against: Nicol has a few good rivalries in the sport. Which player does she enjoy playing against the most? And which is the most challenging to play?

How does she keep balance in her life off the court: what does Nicol do outside of squats training and tournaments? Does she have any balance in her life? Does she play other sports? How much time off does she take to keep her fresh?

How long does it take for her to get over a loss: Nicol doesn't lose often, but when she does how long does it take for her to get over it? Does she dissect the matches she loses more than the others?

I'd also be curious about how many matches Nicol plays outside of completions? And does Nicol play men or strictly women since that's who she competes against? What are her favourite drills and condition games? What shot is she working on most these days?

As I mentioned above it would great if Nicol could just write a biography and answer a lot of these questions. She's such an asset to our sport that I hope she isn't going to give up her squash racquet for book writing for a long time to come.

To become the best in the world at anything requires a complete dedication. Certainly Nicol doesn't have some unbelievable genetic athletic quality to explain her success. It's more about her drive and what's between her ears. This is why Nicol is an excellent role model for all of us. If we really want something and commit to it fully we can do anything we want and be successful. There will always be tough times where we doubt our own ability or desire. I'm sure Nicol has had to deal with these challenges along the way. Yet somehow Nicol has managed to overcome the odds and become the most successful player of all time.

It's easy to tell that Nicol would be the ultimate athlete to coach. She always gives 100%, is extremely driven, mentally tough, and of course has all the skills to be able to do anything you
ask. Undoubtably her supporting cast is extremely important to her success, but I'm sure Nicol is in control of her daily training routine. It also appears that Nicol is humble and grateful which is a unique trait for someone that's had so much success; this is likely why Nicol David has so many fans all over the world. 

I think the biggest thing if you got to work with someone like Nicol David is that she would make you better at what you do. It's not often you get to work with an athlete who is as or even more driven than the coach! Besides all of the questions I'd have about her training it would be her daily routine and personality that would be the most fascinating. Just as I've learned from other top coaches, it's by being around them on a daily basis that you pick up little tidbits here and there that set them apart from the pack; I think there would be a lot of these moments in Nicol's camp. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

If I Coached Nicol David

Today I am going to discuss what I would work on if I coached Nicol David. It seems like a fitting topic since I'm heading to Malaysia soon. Obviously she is doing almost everything at the absolute highest quality, but even for one of the greatest players there are things that can be improved. I'm sure this is what keeps her motivated year after year. Many people want to find out just how good they can be? Not very many of us actually achieve our true potential. It takes not just many years of hard work, but a dedication to your craft for a major potion of your life.

I could go on and on about what Nicol David does so well. Her consistency, focus, mental toughness, work ethic, determination, her length and fitness are the major qualities that I really admire. Not to mention that she is a brilliant role model not just for young girls, but any squash player. She also appears to be extremely humble and has a great smile :-) It makes you wonder where her will and determination come from. David is proof that you can be small and succeed in squash. But this post is heading in a different direction. It's time to talk about how David can become an even better squash player.

David has been on the tour for a long time and is getting near the twilight of her career, but has yet to shows signs of slowing down. I believe that David can continue improving her game for years to come. When you get to an elite level as David has, what she can improve is much less obvious than any amateur, but after watching most of her matches at the recent British Open you could see some of her opponents were able to really work her around the court. I don't remember her opponents looking so comfortable against her a few years ago. I guess this is naturally what happens when you're on the top. Everyone has a team strategizing on how to take you down.

Although David is extremely fit and fast, she is still relatively small in stature. So when someone holds the ball or attacks well with a boast she has trouble covering. I thought Laura Massaro had a lot of success with her forehand attacking boast on David. I think David is well aware of this fact and is why she really concentrates on keeping her opponent behind her until she has a golden opening. If her opponents are stuck in the back they won't be hitting many winners from there. David has such great length on the glass court that this almost always works, but if her opponents equal her great length she's normally in trouble (yes, as we all are!). I think that David will never be easy to beat because she has such a solid base to her game. She makes very few mistakes and hits good width and length. But I do feel that she could be more aggressive and clinical on her volleys.

During the British Open I thought David let her opponents off the hook numerous occasions on the volley. There were plenty of times where her opponent was stuck behind her and she just hit it deep again. David appeared to be set up and in position to bring the ball in short. Of course if she goes short and the shot isn't high quality she puts herself in trouble as she again is not that big and many of the top women are deceptive when given time from the front. Obviously this isn't her style, but I'd like to see her play more aggressive on the volley. Not be afraid of making a couple of errors. This brings me to my next point.

Watching David play I feel that her opponents can read her very well. It's just a matter of wether David's shot execution is precise enough or not. If your opponent always knows where the ball is going you're looking at very long rallies. She does have a deceptive backhand trickle boast and I would like to see her work on one on the forehand side. I'd also like to see her try some more drives down the middle of the court. She hits such immaculate length that this is definitely something that would make her even tougher to play.

I think David could also improve her attacking boast. Some of the top women shape up and look like they are going to drive and then play a 2-wall boast. Some of these women have excellent delay on their swings. Since David has such great length and hits deep almost every time she's in the back if this shot was at all deceptive she would set herself up for a lot of easy points. But of course this leaves her exposed at the front and is a bit more risky than the style she normally plays.

The last area I think Nicol David could improve is her serve from the right service box. She does get the ball nice and high with her lob serve, but rarely hits the sidewall. If she hit the sidewall consistently on the 4-wall glad court this would set her up for a lot more quick points. Again, this may appear like a minor-adjustment, but I do think it would make a pretty significant impact to her game.

Nicole David is one of the greatest of all time. I almost feel unworthy to write an article about how she could improve. But I thought it would be a fascinating topic. I know one could ask, 'why fix what isn't broke?' And yes I get it and agree. But I believe this is how the greatest athletes think. Elite athletes are never satisfied with where they are and are constantly looking for ways to improve and add new dimensions to their craft. Nicol David isn't going to transform her game into an Egyptian stye. But if we look at Nick Matthew the past few years he has become much more attacking and clinical with his short game. As the competition get stronger I think you need to get them off court sooner so you can be fresher for the later rounds.

It would be interesting to know exactly what Nicol David thought of her own game at the moment and what she is currently working on. If she keeps on doing the same thing she should continue to do it slightly better and better. There is no doubt about her work ethic. But with everyone nipping at her heels I'm sure she is thinking of subtle adjustments she needs to continue to make so she can continue to stay at the top. As we saw at the British Open there are a number of women that are capable of beating Nicol on any given day. If feels like the tides are slowing changing. How much longer will David be able to be world #1? I think the one thing she has going for her is that there isn't another dominant person on tour. I think there are a few that are very strong, but the don't get the consistent results that David does. Until one of them do David should be safe at the top of the heap.

If I was coaching Nicol David it's safe to say that I would learn a lot more from her than she would from me.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Who's The Best Squash Player Of All Time?

Today I'm going to talk about a hypothetical situations. After watching the British Open and seeing Jahangir Khan in attendance it gets me thinking. Every sport tries to compare their current stars with previous legends of the game. Tiger Woods has always been compared to Jack Nicklaus and is chasing his total majors and now that same spotlight is shining on Rory Mcilroy. While people in baseball are often compared to the likes Ted Williams or Babe Ruth. In hockey many compare Bobby Orr or Wayne Gretzky to current top stars. How would these record holds stack up against the current crop of stars? Certainly to be mentioned and compared to one of the all time greats in your sport you are doing something right.

Today I want to talk about two of the best when I was young; well Jahangir (pictured below) was at the end of his career when I was beginning to play and Jansher was just beginning to dominate. Both Khans were very steady and made very few unforced errors. They were extremely fit and I've heard that Jahangir just walloped the ball. Clearly the equipment advances and the glass courts with the lowered tins have changed the style of play that is successful at the highest level. But even now we see top players that are very traditional and conservative while others are much more attacking and aggressive. How would the Khan's have played in the modern game against the current crop of stars?

Who wouldn't like to see a healthy Ramy against either one of them?

It's hard to guess how the Khan's would develop as squash stars in today's game, but the one thing that wouldn't change is that thy would be two of the fittest and mentally toughest of any era. I'm sure they would still have immaculate length, but would they be more attacking? Would the Khan's have been able to dominate in today's game as they did back in the day? I can't think of any reason to think why they wouldn't.

Jansher Khan

I'm more curious as to how the Khan's would play. I assume the success of these players had a big part in how future generations of people were taught and played. We learn by watching the top players and see what makes them successful. But as equipment changed allowing the players to be ore deceptive, have a shorter swing and hit the ball harder it's interesting to think how these legends would play with them.

I do have a couple of old school small frame squash racquets that I use once in a while. What I notice when I use these racquets is that they provide excellent training tools for your swing. You need to have your racquet prepared early to hit it to the back, while the racquets nowadays you can flick your wrist and hit it down the wall if the ball is warm. Another thing I notice right away is that you cannot be as attacking. With the older racquets you learn when a shot is really on and when you may get away with forcing it a bit with modern equipment. I feel that most top players think they can attack almost anything from anywhere which of course may be true, but there are still better times and situations to attack short. I think it is more clear cut with the older frames. If you try and force it when it's not on with a heavy, small head frame you are going to make an error or pop it out loose more times than not.

From everything I heard it was the Khan's discipline and work ethic which enabled them to be so successful. I have no doubt that they would adapt and still be the best in today's game. Ramy in recent years went an entire year without losing a match, but that doesn't come close to the 5+ years that Jahanagir did the same. You could always argue that the depth of the competition is stiffer now, but I think that would only have made them even stronger.

So I haven't really answered my proposed question yet. I don't really know, but I'll take a few guess. I think the Khan's would play very attritional as well. Jansher was so efficient with his movement that he could play long matches without slowing down unlike any of his competitors. I don't think this would change. I think Jansher would still have extremely long rallies and wouldn't shoot from behind his opponent, or if he did it would be so random that it would almost always work. It's been awhile since I've seen Jansher play, but I also remember how well he volleyed and counter attacked. I think this style would still win today. So I guess I don't think either of them would play like the top attacking Egyptian players.

I could also speculate about how Ramy would have matched up 20 or 30 years ago with the old equipment on the standard court with the standard height tin? Maybe the game wouldn't have caught the interest of a young Ramy if he grew up with a small wooden racquet. I don't know. All we can do is speculate. But one thing I know for sure, is that I at least find it way more enjoyable to watch attacking and open squash. So although this sorts some players game more than others, you can attacking or neutralizing if your length, fitness and mental toughness is top quality.

I should also note here how much the change in the scoring has changed how the game is played. Up until about 9 or 10 years ago we used hand in, hand out scoring to 9. This means you had to be serving to be able to get a point. It made matches much longer and physical which likely played into the strengths of both Khans.

What matchup would you have liked to seen? Maybe Goeff Hunt, the late Hashim Khan, Jonah Barrington or Chris Dittmar versus Gaultier, Elshorbagy or Matthew? Or more recently Peter Nicol or Jonathan Power? Who would be the best of all of them at their peak? Does your winner change depending on the scoring, court or equipment they used? Who's the best of all time?

For those that haven't seen either Khan play here's a link of them playing one another https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GtzhAcmgVvY, but this is near the end of Jahangir's career. You can see that here the scoring was actually point a rally to 15 and the 2 are actually playing on a glass court. When looking back on footage of them the first thing you notice is the extremely poor quality of the video. It's hard to follow the ball. I remember back in the early 90's having to wait months after a tournament to finish to get a copy of the finals and it would be on VHS and the quality extremely low.

This also gets me thinking what squash will look like in 20 or 30 years time. Will it continue evolving as quickly as it has? What style will the top players play? What will the equipment be like? Will the racquets become heavier again or even lighter? I feel that string and grip shape may change the most. Will the scoring method change again? Will the tin be lowered even further? Is there a kid out there now who will transcend our sport? Will it be a version of one of the Khan's? Or more like Power? Ramy? Or perhaps a mix or something completely altogether?

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Squash Lacks Controversy For Olympic Inclusion

It's amazing how much more active I am on my blog when I'm home sick! Anyways, today will be one of my more subjective topics to date. I'm going to talk about the Olympics and a major reason why squash is not included. This reasoning will never be verbally acknowledged by the International Olympic Committee, but the more I think about it the more I agree.

Growing up watching the Olympics there are a few things that have stood out; Jamaica sent a bobsled team, the figure skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan story, while Canadian figure skating pairs Jamie Sale and Davide Pelletier were temporarily robbed of gold medals by a corrupt French judge; who can forget the Ben Johnson (pictured below) scandal or more recently the American runner Tyson Gay who just got his entire teams relay race silver medals taken away because he was later found to be doping. Furthermore, I recall a Chinese gymnast lost her medal because they lied about her age and was too young to compete. While I also remember badminton teams being kicked out for not playing to their ability. I also remember some controversy with the Canadian women's soccer team, but of course there is controversy in soccer. Could that be why it's so popular?

These are just a few of the stories, and like for most of you, these are the most memorable Olympic moments of my lifetime. Of course there are always other controversies when you have judging involved. And I can't go on without saying that I do recall Canada winning a couple of gold medals in hockey, but that was just because I'm Canadian. I'm sure globally those accomplishments have long been forgotten.

So what is the point of all this? Well where does squash fit in? I don't remember hearing any controversy in squash since Jonathon Power retired. Not that I condone how Power carried himself on court, but he definitely spiced things up a bit. In tennis there was controversy about Nikolay Davydenko potentially gambling on tennis. Not that this makes the sport better for tennis players, but it sure does shine the spotlight on a sport in the American culture. Same when Serena verbally abused a line judged who called her for a foot fault. And I'm sure many of you have seen the video clip of Mikhail Youzhny who smashed his racquet on his head repeatedly until he started bleeding.

For people not involved in squash, nobody cares who wins and what country they are from. Maybe if there was someone having an affair it would make a sportscenter. The video of Cameron Pilley hitting his brother in the back with a squash ball probably garnered more interest from those outside the squash community than any single accomplishment from a player on tour. Beyond that squash doesn't have a bad rap for cheating or controversy. As a squash player this wouldn't make me enjoy the sport more, I certainly am not hoping for it. But this does make me wonder how this would grow the game we all love.

How badly do you want squash to become more popular and make it into the Olympics? Do we need corrupt officials and people caught doping to get capture a bit of the spotlight and gain some public interest? Honestly, this would probably all do wonder. For those that have never played or heard of squash, watching a few rallies of the top players in the world likely wouldn't impress them. The same goes for if I watched biathlon, figure skating, gymnastics, diving or so on. But when we hear that a judge was paid off or someone cheated somehow we all want to watch and see what happened. We want to see for ourselves how someone was corrupted, likely by money or fame. This allows us to think about how much better of a person we are. Of course we would never do that type of thing, which is exactly why we want to watch it. Just like a good action movie or book, the more laws and rules broken the more entertaining the story.

So do we need to sell out the sport we love somehow so it gets the recognition it needs? Or would this just be unwarranted attention? I know in Canada there would be a lot more funding for players and coaching if squash made the Olympics. It's hard to argue against that being a good thing.

Well there you have it. I'm sure one day squash will have someone or a few that will stir up the pot. Will we have a Josh Hamilton that constantly relapses? Will we have someone tamper with equipment like the Patriots did? Will someone bribe an official like in the figure skating scandal? Will someone have an affair like Tiger Woods? Will a player gamble large sums on squash like maybe Davydenko in tennis or Pete Rose in baseball? In North America most of the MBL season discussions have revolved around Alex Rodriguez. Who doesn't want to watch know? Probably most hoping he fails.

Will a top squash player get caught doping like Ben Johnson or a zillion other baseball and football players? Will someone date a celebrity like most of the pro sporting athletes? Is the reason this isn't already happening because there is no money in professional squash? Or is some of it already happening and it just doesn't get investigated and reported on a mainstream media outlet like all of the other scenarios I've just mentioned? So do we need ore money in the sport to have more scandal? It feels like the chicken and egg dilemma.

I like the fact that our sport is about the love of the game and that we haven't had people like Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire or Jose Canseco (pictured below). These people are famous for the wrong reasons and while chasing bigger paycheques tarnished their reputations. I believe that in doing so these athletes have helped increase interest in their sport. If some of these things do begin happening in squash, it would likely increase our exposure and improve our chances of getting into the Olympics.

Do you want to see this type of behaviour and scenarios on the PSA tour? If we have unbelievable ambassadors like Ramy Ashour and Nicol David at this time and still can't get into the Olympics, what chance to have with future generations?

Would cheaters and controversy taint our sport? Of course. But would this grow our sport? Without a doubt. Would this give squash the drama piece that many other sports have? Likely. Perhaps this would give people on sporting shows something to debate and potentially get squash into the Olympics. In closing it leaves me with a difficult question; how badly do we want squash to increase in popularity and be included in the Olympic Games?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Analysis Of The British Open: Glass Court Issues

Watching the British Open this week, I've decided that today I'm going to discuss some of the great parts and not so great parts of the 4-wall glass show court. The glass court is much superior for viewing, both on TV and live. It is also incredibly unforgiving if you are missing your targets. While on the flip-side it can be equally rewarding for well executed shots.

As I've been watching the British Open this week, it's evident to see the difference of people with more experience on glass courts. Of course there have been a number of upsets on the women's side, but most of those have been on the traditional courts. I've watched at least parts of 5 or 6 women's matches on the glass court and this is what I've decided to discuss today.

As I mentioned above, the glass court is not very forgiving. If you're not hitting your targets the ball will be squirting out loose. And I've noticed that for the most part in the women's game that this has happened very early in the rallies; often after 2 or 3 shots. The challenge here is that once the court is opened up I find that in the women's game the rally is rarely ever reset. The women are too good at finishing off the points and in general the women aren't as explosive as the top men to make up for a poor shot. So I've found a number of the women's matches thus far to be one sided. I've felt embarrassed for some of the women out there. They are top 20 or 30 in the world and losing games in 5 minutes or less. It must be quite frustrating and a blow to their confidence.

In one first round match between Nicol David and Tesni Evans this trend seemed to be continuing, at least for the first 2 games. As Evans adjusted to the court she really played some excellent squash and pushed David to 4 games and it was highly entertaining. It demonstrated that the slightly lower ranked women can adjust and compete with the top ranked women and in the end entertain us; which of course is the objective for us watching. We don't care if it's men or women if we see good, hard fought rallies.

So how can the WSA improve the quality of their glass court matches? Obviously the biggest thing is experience. The women that are lower ranked have to battle through qualifying and rarely get a match on the glass court. I'd estimate under 10 matches on a glass court per year for women out of the top 15 or 20. If you compare that to David, she probably gets 50+ annually and also gets more practice on one back in Malaysia. Imagine if Evans has the same luxury? Imagine if all the women had that luxury? Certainly that's part of the experience that is so valuable on tour. The game is much different on a 4-wall glass show court.

In the end, the WSA, (well now joined with the PSA) is a business. If they want to improve their product they need to make glass courts more common place for all the women. This may mean making a push to have glass courts in countries where all the top women are from. This may mean not overlapping men's and women's events so that all of the matches (including qualifying) are played on glass courts. This could at least be done for major events. They could also have 2 glass courts at major events. I know it's getting expensive now. But I feel some of the matches so far on the glass courts have been pretty poor quality. I know the women are super talented, but they aren't able to play to the best of their abilities on the biggest stage (excluding the top few). It's a shame really.

You see this with the men as well. Canadian legend Shahier Razik is a perfect example of someone that as always struggled adapting his game on the glass court. The difference is that Razik can at least get more balls back and have some rallies even if he does go down.

I think glass courts are the future of the game. Hopefully we get more permanently built into squash clubs in the world. Surely if someone wanted to play professional, they would benefit from spending extra time on these types of courts. But of course they first have to make it through smaller tournaments to get a high enough ranking to play in the big events which have the glass courts setup.

I'd like to think the better player will win regardless of the court, but we can see from the first round upsets in the women's draw that the court does make a bid difference. I highly doubt there would have been as many upsets in the first round if all the matches were played on the glass court.

I think as we get further into the tournament the caliber of the women's matches not the glass court will dramatically increase. David and any top Egyptian is always an entertaining spectacle. I want pro squash to look like pro squash. I know it will improve with time and experience, I just hope it doesn't do more damage than good for some of the women that have been steamrolled thus far.

Monday, May 11, 2015

What Top Players Can Learn From Amateurs & Hackers

Today I'm going to talk about what elite squash players can learn from the duffers and hackers. This may seem like an outrageous concept at first, but after coaching for a number of years there are a few key things that most hackers do better or at least more effectively than the top club or even professional players do.

Even the hacker with an ugly swing can teach good payers a thing or two. Of course the average amateur can learn much from top players, but this does go both ways. Here is a short list of what top players can learn from their lower ranked peers.

1. Hitting shots into unusual areas of the court can work at even the highest level if done at the right time. Amateurs likely don't hit these shots on purpose, but take note they can be extremely effective. I think all top players enjoy playing in a rhythm and knowing which shot will come next; it's just a matter if the quality is high or not. If you hit a variety of shots that keep your opponent out of or break up their rhythm it can be extremely effective. This is why the shot down the middle is now in the pro game. You can also try some of these rarely used, but highly effective shots: reverse boast, aussie boast, a trickle boast, a drop or hard low kill shot from the back. Even slight changes in your length and width can be effective. This could include hitting it looser, overhitting or under-hitting it or slowing the pace down. I believe there is a time and a place for any shot in the game; you just have to experiment with them all to figure out how and when each one will be most effective.

2. Many hackers aren't afraid to hit attacking shots and go for winners. This doesn't always have to be perfectly set up and can include attacking off a poor service.

3. Don't take squash too serious. This doesn't go for all amateurs or hackers, but in general the general population is more relaxed and enjoys playing squash. Top players have put pressure on themselves and built up an ego and in turn begin working instead of just playing the game. This is what makes it difficult to play a game for work. Having balance, perspective and focusing on personal improvement should be core values. So I believe that pros need to learn how to play they way they enjoy playing effectively. Don't think you need to completely overhaul your game and play like some other successful person. If you focus solely on immediate results you may end up playing just to win and not how you enjoy playing.

4. Many of us end up with limited mobility either due to age or injury and because of this 'some' of us learn how to avoid having to scramble. This may mean changing your tactics as listed above in # 1 & 2 aren't afraid to go for riskier shots because this how they have to play. They also have to go for less margin on their short shots as they can't cover the next shot as well. This does generally mean a lot more errors, but this isn't a deterrent as it shortens the rallies anyways. You'll see most pros will rarely force a shot, but it is this line that you need to tinker with to really improve your game; being too conservative and overly aggressive. Some people's game suit the more conservative approach, but I think the slightly overly aggressive approach is better for a person's long term development. You don't learn how to hit winners by hitting everything deep and a foot over the tin.

5. Amateurs will play weaker players. This again doesn't hold true for everyone, but I've found most open and pro players don't enjoy playing against perceived weaker opponents. Of course this still does happen with amateurs too. I find it extremely important in a person's development to be able to dictate a rally and control the game. If you only play stronger opponents you will be practicing your defensive and retrieving skills, but this leaves a major gap in your training. Of course winning and controlling rallies is also crucial for a players confidence. I feel that most professional players (at least that I've come across) have a bit of an ego about their level and don't enjoy playing a friendly challenge match against a weaker player. Of course if they are far weaker this doesn't apply.

I've noticed from doing lessons that some of the kids I coach get very good under pressure and handling tight shots, but then play someone their own level and really struggle against loose, under-hit and overhit shots. I've also noticed that some people are very comfortable being fed and their swing looks very smooth. But when that same person plays someone that hits unusual shots, like boasting a lot, hard low drives that land in front of the short line or go through the middle of the court the well grooved technique doesn't matter anymore. This is where people need to work their way through the hackers and play different style of players. Anticipation, quick reactions and good racquet preparation are all helpful for playing against an unorthodox player.  Really you just have to get out there and keep playing with them until you get it. You need to be on your toes and really focused and ready for anything. This can even go different serves. Some people have no trouble returning a good serve that hits the sidewall at shoulder level, but when hit right at them or low and hard they end of making poor shot selections or simply are unable to take their regular swing and pop out a loose shot.

I remember the feeling of being a top junior and being so frustrated about losing to hackers. I swore I was better and couldn't understand it. You can't skip this level. So don't get frustrated. You may even pick up a few tips from playing these hackers. In the end there are countless ways to win points, maybe you'll learn some new methods from playing them.

If you're one of those top players and you have been plateauing for some time now maybe it's time to take some notes from one of your club amateurs or the list above. The best players from all sports are always open to learning, regardless of the source...which means yes, even if they don't hold the racquet properly you may still be able to learn something from your weekly hacker; just don't try copying their technique! And finally, is a bad shot really bad, or is it how it's packaged; that it has not been played intentionally? So does this mean a bad shot played intentionally at the correct moment can be considered clever and indeed a good shot? I'd like to think so.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Swing Within Yourself

Today is going to be a short post, but an important topic. This will especially be so for most amateur males in particular. Today I'm going to discuss the importance of swinging within yourself. Most of us really enjoy hitting the ball as hard as we can, but pay close attention to the pros game and you'll find this is rarely done. It is not an efficient way to play over a long period of time. It also leaves you off-balanced and slow recovering to the T. At the amateur level it can also be quite dangerous.

When you get stuck playing bang ball type of squash you are not really thinking anymore. You are gripping the racquet tightly and this will make it very challenging to ever develop soft hands and a good drop shot. Another big issue with swinging at maximum power is that most people's technique starts getting sloppy. When this happens the ball is hit late and the depth is also way off as well. Hitting out of trouble may work against some people at your level, but players a bit better won't have any trouble exploiting this weakness. If you aren't accurate you will be doing all of the running.

If I play someone wild and overhits I just lob the ball and hit it deep to their backhand until they pop out a loose one. Then I hit short and they will be under pressure and this is where they begin doing their court sprints. You know they want to hit it hard and the ball is going to come back deep, so I wait for it and hit the next shot back down the wall. After a few rallies or a game, they eventually punch themselves out.

If you want to learn how to hit it harder, you should focus on improving your biomechanics. This includes transferring your weight into the ball, getting your racquet set in time and having the proper spacing when you make contact. If you use your core, torso and legs you will get much more pace on your shots and more efficient power than when you swing for the fences. This is why I titled this post, 'swing within yourself.' As soon as you begin taking an excessive swing to hit it harder most amateurs technique really falls apart. Then both players are at an increased risk of injury! And we already discussed the other issues with trying to overswing.

This doesn't mean you can't hit it hard. Just don't put 100% effort into any of your shots. Try maybe 90 or 95% even and you'll find yourself having more control and your shoulder and elbow won't be sore. You may even make it through an entire match without getting completely exhausted.

Some people get nervous and overhit early in a match. It's a macho thing. We want to hit it harder than our opponent. This isn't what wins matches at a high level. Power is a weapon, but not the most important one and it certainly isn't an advantage if your swing becomes too big and loopy and you can't control your shot.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

King Of The Jungle Using Associative Imagery

Today I'm going to talk about how using imagery can improve your confidence, body language and demeanour and overall performance on the squash court. I've previously discussed the importance of imagery for visualizing yourself playing high quality and winning squash as well as handling challenging situations successfully. Today however I'm going to talk about a completely different use and type of imagery and for a separate purpose.

I was generaly a pretty quiet and polite person; yes being polite and a good person are Canadian qualities that can interfere with us playing our best squash. Many people (myself included) have been psyched out and our focus too external before and during a match. We think about how good our opponent is instead of focusing on our own game and what we can control. Sometimes in the match we go well out of our way to avoid contact with our opponent and apologize for hitting a good shot. There are many examples of these types of gestures that go on unnoticed. Most people if they do notice, would just say that it's good sportsmanship being displayed. Although this may be true, for me the issue is too much respect on general focus is displayed onto your opponent. I see many people (especially juniors) with their shoulders slumped and head down. You can read their negative body language and low self-efficacy a mile away.

I want to be clear here that I am not condoning arrogance or poor sportsmanships. But there is a line in between and I believe that most Canadians lie heavily on being overly polite and proper which hurts their squash game. In sports such as basketball we see, well hear trash talk from top players. This isn't what I'm condoning either, just an example of their outwardly competitive nature. My point is that this type of confidence and self-assurance goes along way towards playing to win and shows that you're not intimidated by your opponent.

In squash and tennis this doesn't happen. We say 'good shot' and apologize for hitting nicks, plus we give away strokes and hand outs lets if there is the slightest bit of interference. We almost feel bad for winning if we do and certainly don't want to bagel anyone. There is clearly a lack of aggression and confidence reflected with this type of behaviour.

So I bet you're wondering, how to draw that line and become more assertive, while still being a good sport? It can be done. Tiger Woods doesn't cheat, well not in golf anyways. And Tiger is ferociously competitive. The same can be said about Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan who were both known to talk a little trash; the greater their opponent the more they loved the challenged and wanted to go one on one with that person. They were well respected and didn't do it to show up their opponents, this is just their competitive nature which is what drove them to become legends. I would say the same goes for Ashour and Shorbagy as well as many of the top players, they just don't verbalize their thoughts and emotions but they certainly go on court with positive body language. This isn't always an easy thing to have if you have lost to someone before or after you lose a few points.

So how can you improve this part of your game? I like using associative imagery along with positive self-talk statements. It may sound silly to some of you, but try it and you'll feel bigger than your body and more confident going onto court. Here are a few images that you can visualize before or during your match.

Don't be afraid to express your emotions and play fearless. Nobody dares mess with a black bear. 

King Kong thumping on his chest is a very powerful image. Try doing this or imagine yourself doing this before you go on court. It can dramatically change how you think and feel about yourself and your game. Get your tail up, shoulders back, chest out and head up. Exude positive and winning body language.  

The king of the jungle takes no prisoners and doesn't back down to anyone no matter what. Even if you have to take on someone that is way out of your league the lion would never go down without giving it his all.

These are a few examples that I find quite powerful. Do you play like a lion? Or are you more like a turtle hiding its head in it's shell when the going gets tough? This is what normally happens to juniors. If you normally play like a dog with its tail between its legs maybe you need to be more ferocious and look to see what really lies inside of you. Do you want to win? How badly? Do you want to be the best you can be? Why do you train so hard and put in all that work? Just to hope you will win or to go out there and make it happen? If you want to play your best and exude confidence play like a giant and you'll feel like one.
If you are a quiet or introverted type of person this approach may be extremely beneficial to your game. Meanwhile if you are already an overconfident, arrogant person maybe you need to imagine yourself as some cool, easy going cat or person. For most people I've seen and coached I think getting more amped up and confident, getting your tail up type of imagery and self-talk would do them the most good.

Try and picture your primal instincts. Are you a fight or flight type of person? How do you instinctively react in challenging situations? If your instinctive response is flight you will likely need to work at this to get comfortable on court. I think this is something that can be learned and trained. So for those that feel uncomfortable in competition there is hope. Try using associative imagery and recite powerful statements about yourself. When I found myself doubting my ability I would think back to all of the years of hard work and hitting balls. I would tell myself that I had been preparing for this moment and to play squash my entire life. You can try this or something similar. At the very least going out and having a plan or just getting out of your own head and letting your natural ability take over is your best chance.

Again, I feel like I have to reassure people that there is a line here. You aren't doing this to intimidate, just to focus on your own game and that you are playing to win. Most of us are more concerned about our opponent and we get psyched out and don't let our true emotions show. Of course you have to be able to control your emotions and still play smart. Find a balance and find what works for you. You don't need to behave like John Mcenroe to be successful. Don't expect your opponent to give you the game, go out and win it. Take no prisoners.

Wanting to be the best is normal and a healthy way to think and has driven many to the top of their field; they didn't become the best by accident or by hoping they would, they knew they would. They had the desire, belief and confidence in their ability. You have to believe that you can and will win to become a champion. Play within the rules, play fair, play with confidence, back down to no one, play to win, play fearless and play like a beast!