Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Thinking Of The Tin As A Net

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 20, 2015

Advanced Skill Development For Elite Squash Players

Today I'm going to talk about some advanced skills that are required for playing at the highest possible level. Some of these are more vital than others and many take a high degree of skill and dedication to execute correctly and efficiently. If you have the basics down and are wondering what you can work on next, I've made this list just for you.

For me the basics include effective and efficient swing mechanics, early racquet preparation, a repeatable swing, control, shot selection, movement along with a moderate to high level of fitness. If you're still working on the basics you can bookmark this post and come back to it when you're ready. I will cover all areas of the game including some specific shots, tactics, sport psychology, training and other various tips.

Expand Your Volley Attacking Range: many amateurs get good at hitting a volley from their hip to shoulder height. Try and expand this so you can can the ball in short and attack even when the ball is higher, further or closer to you. Top players have a much larger window where they can attack from off the volley.

Learn to Adjust Your Grip: this can be choking up or down on the racquet as well as slightly adjusting the face (open or closed). I was taught never to rotate my grip side to side, which I agree shouldn't be done while learning how to play, but at a very high level it can help you hit the ball flatter when you want to really spank the ball. You can also give your opponent some different looks by trying something tricky. I think moving your grip up and down on the racquet is more important, but I still like exploring different types of shots and swings.

Changing Your Swing Path: learning to hit the ball flat or even hit with slight overspin as this can make the ball skip and also die off the back wall faster. Learning to be more severe with your attacking shots gives your opponent less time to receive the ball. With the lighter racquets and high quality strings a lot more options exist with what you can do with he ball. You should also focus on being able to put a good amount of slice on the ball, especially when you want to take the ball short. The challenge is on the volley when you don't have much time and you have to keep your follow through high to keep the ball above the tin. If you have watched top players hit drops in live you will see that they are excellent at taking the ball short, even with a hot and bouncy ball.

Work on Your Lob: most people practice their length and attacking skills a lot more then they do their defensive skills. Ramy Ashour has the best lob in the game and this is why he is rarely under pressure for a number of shots in a row. Ramy will play a lob and look to go on an attack on the very next shot if possible.

Work on Your Counter Drop: this shot seems easy, but it is extremely challenging. You're so close to the front wall, but many people are poor at this shot. You are running full speed and while you're decelerating you are trying to play a shot that requires a lot of fines and touch. If you get good at this shot your opponent will have second thoughts about bringing you short and they will likely make more mistakes trying to cut the margins to thin.

Improve The Efficiency Of Your Movement: repetition of the proper movement will allow you to move around easier and use less energy. This gets better as you stay further from the ball and closer to the T, but to do this require you to lunge deeper so it takes a number of years to develop the leg and core strength to keep proper space while being able to maintain your balance while swinging with a high velocity. Try and use your follow thru for your drives to assist with you getting your body weight moving back towards the T.

Learn To Adjust Your T Position: the actual T line is rarely used as the area for returning to. Learning when to shift your T position takes time, but is essential to playing at a high level. To learn more check out this previous post: http://www.serioussquash.com/2015/02/altering-your-t-position.html

Learn To Hit Open Stance (Especially On The Backhand): many of us play 90%+ of our shots on our dominant leg (right handed player = right leg dominant). Not only does this fatigue our one leg and can cause injury problems down the line, but often it's quicker to just hit off your back leg. When you watch the top players hit they can hit off either leg from anywhere on the court. The advantage to hitting off your back leg when the ball gets behind you is that you can still see/sense your opponent through your peripheral vision and sometimes you can still crosscourt the ball. If you just turn around and hit it, your back will be facing the back wall meaning it is nearly impossible to go crosscourt, you won't be able to see where you opponent is plus it will be more challenging to keep the ball tight to the side wall. Train and practice with both legs to become more well rounded.

Shorten Your Swing: solo hitting helps this a lot. For me hitting with a shorter swing means you are disguise your shot. It is easier to hit deep or short from this shorter compact swing. A shorter set position also means that you are faster to contact once your swing starts. Most amateurs can't do this because they cannot generate enough racquet head speed (and pace). As people improve they are generally good at doing this on the forehand, but have difficulty doing this on the backhand. If you can have a short compact swing and still get power you will cause your opponents all kinds of problems from all over the court.

Put Conditions On Yourself In Practice Matches: instead of just going out and playing when you practice against a familiar opponent try and play some new shots. Maybe you need to focus on hitting it deeper, higher, straighter, volley more, etc. Whatever it is you are working on try and have a focus when you play. You need to practice the stuff your working on in math situations before you will likely execute it successfully in competition. Maybe you want to work on your deception or getting on the ball early. Maybe you want to play more lobs or counter drops. If you really want to improve a specific shot play it more in your practice matches.

Improve Your Crosscourts: if you've been reading my posts for a while you may recall this one: http://www.serioussquash.com/2014/07/crosscourt-talk.html Many people work so much on their straight drives (and for good reason) but don't know when or how or what a good crosscourt is. A good crosscourt depends on a number of variables (see post link). In summary, an effective crosscourt to most to least: it is unreturned, they have to boast, they can boast or hit straight drive but are under pressure and an ineffective crosscourt is one that they can return back to you crosscourt. The less options they have the more effective your crosscourt was.

Polish Your Finishing Shots: you have to be able to put the ball away or apply a lot of pressure eon your opponent every chance you get. You have to be able to do this without thinking, it's instinct. To develop great touch you need to constantly work on your short game. Also spend time working on your nicks. Nicks don't happen by accident. Nicks are all about angles. Nicks can be hit with a high level of accuracy if you really work on them. Also as I mentioned above it takes a lot of practice to be able to put a lot of cut on a drop when the ball is hot and bouncy.

Use Targets: I believe targets is an effective way to monitor your improvements and it also keeps yu focused on the task at hand. If you want to know where you need to improve try and set up a variety of targets for different shots and see how many you can hit in a minute or 2. You can also use targets in your condition games, drills and practice matches to see just how accurate your shots are. If you want to know more about targets have a look back to this prior post: http://www.serioussquash.com/2014/07/target-practice.html

Solo Hitting: some people actually get to a high level without solo hitting, but I feel it so important to your progress. Solo hitting is a good way to strengthen your forearm, work on your accuracy, consistency, spin, swing plane, racquet prep and pace. If you want to know some of my favourite solo hitting exercise you can check out this previous post: http://www.serioussquash.com/2014/06/solo-hitting-drills.html

Watch Video: of top players and yourself. How do you envision yourself playing as you develop and your game matures.

Always Have a Plan: I have been guilty of this and find that most people go on court and just play. Even having a simple game plan can be quite effective. Having a plan is a way to help you refocus and gives you something to concentrate on during the match. If you don't know your opponents game go and have a plan to feel them out and play towards your strengths. As you get to know your opponent better you can adapt and adjust your strategy as necessary. Always go in with a plan when you step on court and learn to make notes about your matches.

Keep a Journal: I always encourage my students to keep a journal. Sometimes we use journals for writing down goals, tracking training and progress and also as I discuss above, writing notes about specific opponents and matches. You may learn something that worked well or didn't and you can make a new and superior game plan when you get a rematch. Keeping a journal is a good way to monitor your nutrition, sleep, rest days and organize your thoughts. If you want to know more about this topic click on the following link: http://www.serioussquash.com/2014/06/keeping-journal.html

Get To The Ball Early: this will likely tire out many of you when yo'r first trying it, but your body will adjust as your fitness increases. Getting on the ball mean early means you have options, you can hit it right away or delay your shot. This makes life extremely tough on your opponent.

Deception: and disguising your shots is crucial as you improve. Skilled players can anticipate a regular struck shot extremely well if there is no disguise or deception. If you can keep your opponent uncertain about where you are going to hit the ball until as late as possible (to contact) they will have less time to react (rather than anticipate) to your shot. This tires out your opponents legs faster and is often the only consistent way to win rallies at a high level. If you telegraph your shot it has to be struck with extremely high precision or it will be returned with interest. If you want to learn more about deception have a look back at this previous post: http://www.serioussquash.com/2014/07/how-why-to-disguise-your-shots.html

Mental Skills Training: I believe that working with a sport psychologist can make a big difference for your game. This can be expensive and is not always possible. So if you want to know what else you can do I suggest reading books about focus, the zone, mental performance and sport psychology. As you improve I believe the mind is the most important tool you posses. You need to be able to stay confident after disappointing losses and stay humble after having success. Getting into and staying in the zone is a unique experience that allows you to play your best squash. It's about not listening to the negative thoughts that we all hear when things get tough or when the finish line is within reach. Learning to stay in the moment is the challenge. Learning how to manage your nervous energy is another important area for playing your best squash. Goal setting is also an important skill that we all know about, but any don't utilize properly. While staying positive after an injury is always a major challenge. The number of ways our mind can impact our long term development is just about endless. You need to have a strong and positive mindset to endure all of the challenges and countless hours of training, that allows your body to continue pushing itself even when your body wants you to ease up. If you're interested to learn more in this subject you can check out this previous post http://www.serioussquash.com/2014/12/dont-think-do.html

Get The Right Team In Place: you can't reach your potential on your own. Find opponents, training partners, coaches, trainers, sport psychologists, phsyiotherapists and so on to keep you motivated and help you achieve your goals. Your environment has a lot to do with your success. Often as coaches we don't like to admit that maybe one of our players is better suited for another program or coach. Sometimes changing a coach isn't even that the coach is better, but about stirring things up and getting a fresh perspective. I know anytime I haven't watched someone play in a month or more I always notice different things as opposed to when I'm working with them on a regular basis.

Try Different Serves: I know this seems like a small thing, but even most top players hit the same serve every time. Some opponents will have more difficulty with one serve over another and sometimes you can catch an opponent napping and set up a quick and easy point by varying the type of your serve.

Experience: there is no substitute for experience. You need to play a variety of opponents under various conditions (courts, humidity, round of tournament, ref, crowd, ball, etc).

Take Care of The Little Things: many people overlook the little things that they can do to keep their body and mind fresh, fit and healthy. They train and play hard, but that's where their training end. If you want to play at the highest level this will not cut it. Be sure to make time for a proper cool down, warm up, rest, nutrition and hydration (regardless of the outcome). Are you refuelling properly? Do you get enough carbs and protein? Oh and of course don't forget to read my blog ;)

Training Like a Pro: this is a tricky one. Everyone is different and it takes years to build up your fitness to a point where you can train as frequently and as rigorous as top professionals do. There is a more than 1 way to train. I like to mix it up but here are a few things you can try: spinning, running/wind sprints, circuit training, yoga, court movement/ghosting and court sprints. You can do boot camps or find a personal trainer that can help asses where you need to become more strong or flexible or maybe it's your endurance, agility or speed that need a boost. This is something that you will have to discuss with your coach and/or trainer. It's no secret that you need to be in top physical shape to play this game at the highest level. Plus squash is a lot more enjoyable when you're not exhausted. Here's some ideas for some off court offseason training http://www.serioussquash.com/2014/07/off-season-training.html

I know this is a pretty comprehensive list. Some of the things (like a journal or having a cool down) are simple to implement into your training plan, while others take months or even years of practice to learn and refine. I suggest making a checklist of which areas you would feel improve your game the most; maybe the top 3 to start. Work on these areas and then resist this post later on when you want to add a little something extra to your game. One concern for coaches is overreaching, which is possible if you try and focus on all of the areas above. If you want to be successful in each task you need to dedicate a proper amount of time for each area. I very well could have (and may one day) write a post about each and every subject I've discussed here today. Have fun with this, enjoy the challenge and good luck!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Cultural Differences That Influence Our Squash Game

Today I was once again thinking about my trip to Asia and the Penang Junior Open. I've already discussed some differences in how the kids are raised and the style of play. Anyone who's been to a busy city in Asia and seen the aggressive drivers and scooters know what I'm talking about. This goes well beyond the squash court.

This will be a little receptive for some of you, but I feel is an important point. In North America generally children are babied and coddled too much. We are always worried about people getting sick or injured. We try and do everything within reason to prevent these unnecessary situations from arising. But the real issue is when is too much? How often do we actually live our lives instead of just get comfortable simply being alive? There is a difference between the two. In some of the countries I visited kids are working at their parents shops and driving scooters around without helmets, swerving in between gridlocked cars. Avoiding dangerous situations seems smart to us, but it can also make us avoid living and enjoying our lives. We think too far ahead to a potential consequence and in turn avoid the action altogether.

Let's get back to squash. You may be wondering how coddling our children and protecting them from the dangers of the world influences their squash game. I have a couple of beliefs about this. The first one is about the style of play. As coaches here in North America we hate seeing unforced errors. Keep the ball in play; hit it deep; wait for mistakes. Just like how we drive here. We're very careful and yes, we probably have fewer accidents (just guessing), but that doesn't make us become better drives, does it? I witnessed some amazing driving overseas. Certain curves and maneuvers I would never dream to try. And yet these people do it all the time and have gotten good at it. I believe the same can go with attacking and learning to attack from all over the court. I know length sets everything up, but this is definitely something that got me thinking about how we play vs. what I saw some of the other kids play like.

My second point here is about the psychological aspect of our societies. Here in Canada the pedestrians have the right away, cars let other cars in and so forth. That just isn't the same in Penang or Bangkok. You have to be focused and be smart about crossing a busy street. Over here people are picky and are generally unhappy with their jobs, but in many situations I witnessed people were just happy to have a job and worked very long hours. They don't finish at 5pm and get weekends off, their work was their life. I'm sure it wasn't that long ago that things were like that here in Canada, and of course there are still some places and people that fall outside of this middle-class territory and struggle each and every day. So you're probably asking again, how does this relate to squash?

I feel that people from tougher upbringings generally are used to working harder and can more adapt at handling unpleasant conditions (such as fatigue). Squash generally isn't a low income sport, but that is changing slightly with the creation of the Urban Squash Programs around North America over the past 10-15 years. But in some countries this is the way of life for a lot of people. I don't feel this applies to everyone, but I do think most people from cushiony upbringing don't like to get their hands dirty. And if you want to become a top player in squash you have to be incredibly determined and will have to overcome a number of physical and psychological barriers; so yes, you will have to get your hands very dirty to become a professional squash player.

I should also mention that I read in a book recently about how Kenyan runners walked 5 or 10 miles (can't remember the exact number) each way to school and this was a major factor to why they were gifted runners. How many kids do that these days?

So odds are most of my readers are feeling bummed out now. I doubt I have my followers from low income countries or families. So the big question is what can you do to change this? Here a few ideas.

- travel and see for yourself
- anyone can gain mental muscle. step back and give an honest opinion on your lifestyle.
- walk more, drive less
- play attacking squash and make make more errors http://www.serioussquash.com/2015/05/improve-your-game-by-making-more.html
- hard yards in the gym or the track. not only does this strengthen your body, but your mind. when the going gets tough on the squash court you have to be comfortable with your body feeling uncomfortable (and learn how to deal with those negative self-destructive thoughts)

When I was in Thailand I was driven around on a scooter a few times without a helmet. It was pretty scary at first. I obviously can't suggest people do this or anything dangerous. If you have the option to use a helmet of course I would highly recommend it. This is more food for thought.

If you want to play professional squash you are going to have to not care about money so much. But this is a planned topic for a future post titled, 'So You Want To Go Pro.' I see less emotion from Canadian squash players then I did overseas. Do they want to win more, or are we afraid of expressing ourselves because of what others may think? If anyone has read Jonah Barrington's book, Murder In The Squash Court you will know he gave up being the chair of some committee because he felt he had to behave a certain way that was detrimental to his development.

A similar thing is discussed in a current book I'm reading called, 'David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants' by Malcolm Gladwell (pictured below). Gladwell claims that kids who lost at least 1 parent when they were young held a large portion of head political jobs in the U.S. and the U.K. throughout the course of history, but that also a higher than average degree of these children end up in prison. A kid can go either way; the death of a parent can motivate you and lead to greatness or you can struggle and never move on. Gladwell asks who would wish this upon a child, knowing this could improve their chance of becoming more successful? The answer is obvious, but it gets you thinking. It's an interesting read.

That's it for today. I hope this has got you thinning a bit about how you live and how you play squash.  I think it's important to think for yourself and not just do what everyone else does just to fit in. Watch good players and learn from each of them. If you're able travel and watch or play some international tournaments I'm sure you will learn lots from the experience.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Six Strengths For Winning Squash

When talking about sports there are always certain qualities that stand out for the top performers. We were amazed by Tiger Woods' focus on driving distance. The iconic college basketball coach, John Wooden stated that he loved to work with speed because it never went in slumps. And Wooden liked to push the tempo and press in basketball.

When I was in Malaysia for the Penang Junior Open it was evident that pace was a major factor for each of the age groups. When someone is young they normally struggle with pace as their racquet coordination and court coverage (speed, strength and anticipation) aren't fully developed. Clearly pace is an important asset which got me thinking about what are the other strengths in our game. Not everyone is built or has the ability to overhit their opponent. So today I will get into the 6 greatest strengths a squash player can posses. If you want to improve your game spend some time working on one or more of these areas.

Pace: Eventually pace will not be enough to win at the highest level. Everyone can hit it hard and handle pace. It makes a big difference in the speed of the game and the bounce of the ball. I can't think of any other sport that the bounce of the ball is so dependent on how hard and frequently the ball is struck. The reason I don't like coaching people to hit everything hard is that it creates tension in their arm and normally this style of player has a poor short game. Hitting everything hard also means you have less time to get back to the T and physically it takes a lot out of you. So I prefer picking my spots to inject pace, but that's what works for my game, it could be completely different for you. Plus how often does Cameron Pilley hit the ball as hard as he possible can? Probably very rarely if ever (unless there is a radar gun nearby).

Speed: just as Wooden exclaimed about basketball, I agree that speed is a major asset in squash. Certainly you look at players like Miguel Rodriguez and you know this is a huge factor in his success. Speed allows you to get on the ball early and retrieve more shots. Of course you need to have the aerobic stamina to keep your speed up throughout the duration of a match.

Attacking/'Hands': someone that can attack well from anywhere in the court can be extremely difficult to play against. Even after serving you are uncomfortable. There is little rhythm and you are repeatedly having to be on guard while on the T and having to make hard lunges into the front corners. Some people have superb racquet skills. If you're not one of them you can always improve this area of your game, but you will likely never become a shooter.

Consistent: if you aren't especially quick, or hit it hard or have A+ attacking skills you almost certainly have to be consistent and grind out your wins. I always think of Peter Nicol (pictured below) when I talk abut this. Of course Nicol had good shots and was smart, but he was so consistent. A big part of doing this well is containing your opponents, hitting the ball tight, taking away angles and being fit and mentally tough. If you're not a supreme athlete you will likely have the most success playing this style; taking minimal risks and making very few unforced errors. If you are a consistent player you will need to have a high level of aerobic fitness because you will like have to have long points and wait for easy openings and errors from your opponent to get your points.

Smart/Experienced: we have all played someone that just makes more good decisions then other opponents. Some people get stuck playing in a receptive pattern and hope this is enough to win. If you've read Brad Gilbert's Winning Ugly (pictured below), you will know that tactics are underused in racquet sports and are essential to becoming a champion. If you watched Canadian tennis player Vasek Pospisil at Wimbledon recently you would have noticed him looking over notes during his match about his opponent. He may have a plan B or C, or maybe this is to refocus his thoughts on his strategy if it was starting to wander. I'm surprised more players don't do this. Especially seeing that they are not allowed to receive coaching during a match.

Some people have a natural instincts and are very tough to play against. A smart player will know how to expose your weaknesses and play into theirs. They will be able to play a variety of styles and are always a tough opponent. This style of play is encouraged through decision making practice. If you're interested more in this you should check our Dr. Joan Vickers book Perception, Cognition, and Decision Training (pictured below). When reading this book I really thought all practices should be open and random, but have since learned the importance for blocked practice and repetition which allow you to acquire new skills, groove a swing path and boost your confidence. Finding the right balance here is what's crucial.

Mental Strength: some of the toughest matches I've played have been against mentally tough opponents. They may not have the smoothest technique, but they are super competitive. These players are normally consistent, but there are exceptions. Playing a mentally strong opponent means they never give up, no matter what the score. This style of player runs down every ball and gives max effort. This type of person plays better in competition then they do in practice. It's hard to measure someone's mental toughness and compare to another person, but this skill is necessary to become a successful pro. I always think of Tiger Woods (in his prime) and Rafa Nadal when I talk about mental strength. In squash I feel that Nick Matthew, Nicol David, and Mohamed Elshorbagy are the most mentally tough on the circuit these days.

So which area is your strength? If you don't fit into any I suggest you focus on becoming consistent. It's hard to beat someone that doesn't beat themselves. This depends on not only your current skill set and levels, but on how you enjoy playing. How do you envision yourself playing in the future? If you hit it hard and this is your strength, what happens when you come up against someone that hits it harder or can handle your pace? Same goes for speed. This is why at the highest level most players will be highly skilled in all 6 areas.

There are other areas that are important for competing at a high level, but I feel these are the most crucial. Aerobic fitness is right up there, and unless you are a shooter or extremely smart I think that's just a necessary skill, but without something else it will never be enough to win on its own.

Lastly, just because you are really strong in 1 category this doesn't mean you shouldn't try and expand your strengths and improve in another. We can all improve our pace, shot selection, mental toughness, attacking skills, consistency and to some extent our speed. Good luck!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Egyptian Aura

Everyone knows there is something special and different about top Egyptian squash players. What exactly is it? Most are very attacking and appear extremely confident in their ability. It can certainly be intimidating, especially if you are a young junior. When I was in Malaysia recently for the Penang Junior Open there were a number of talented Egyptian players there and I made a few notes about their style of play and the reasons for its effectiveness.

What Egyptians Do
- they are confident and often win without doing anything because they intimidate their opponents. this begins in the knock up
- they hit it hard. this is part of what intimates their opponents
- they play to win and play aggressively. they have a plan and are ready to go from the first point
- they are passionate and fiery when they play and can be extremely verbal and fist pump after winning every point. they are very emotional and show it while they are playing
- retrieve well and are willing to dive. they give it everything to win each point and each match

What We Can Learn From Egyptians
- confidence and body language matters
- be ready to go for the 1st point
- go in believing you can win and fight for every point, right out of the gates. never give up on a ball or a point
- pace doesn't mean someone can beat you, but it is a weapon. work on hitting it harder
- have a plan, play to win
- showing emotion and expressing yourself can be a positive thing, but can also be draining over the long run
- the knock up matters. focus on yourself and not on how good your opponent looks!

How To Play Against An Egyptian
- for me the main thing is to expect some or all of the things above to happen
- play your game and control your emotions (unless you are also an emotional player then it's ok to express yourself in a positive manner)
- focus on your game, not on theirs
- they may appear confident, but that doesn't mean they don't have the same doubts we all do. they just hide it better then most of us do
- never expect a game is over. you have to win every point and expect them to fight for every rally
- have a game plan. what is your strength? can you execute it? can you contain the Egyptians attacking game and pace? Can you attack them before they attack you? Or can you force them into long rallies and making mistakes as they lose their patience? 
- don't give them too much respect. there seems to be an aura around playing Egyptian player. although they have many amazing players, so do other countries. if you're going to win you need to believe in yourself and that you can and will win. 
- don't get involved with the ref if they stall, block, ask for cheap lets or begin talking with their coach between rallies. At least I wouldn't. I feel this distracts your attention and once it gets under your skin it's very hard to let go of it. 

As I just mentioned you also have to prepare for things such as in this example here https://twitter.com/ChrisHanebury/status/606454996129869824
This just doesn't happen in Canada. There are some benefits for the Egyptian girl in this situation. It's like the coach telling her what to do during the match when things get tough and emotional. Her coach can calm her down and is playing a major role in the match. If you played someone like this what would you do? Do you say something to the ref or just accept that this could happen and let it go? It's hard to say which is the right answer. The ref in this situation wasn't getting involved with this and let this go. It was pretty shocking. It was evident that there is some bad blood between the Egyptians and Malaysians. This may have increased because of the incident at match ball in final of the girls under 15 British Open last year. The Egyptian coach was very outwardly expressive and passionate. We see coaches like this in American sports like football or hockey, but we aren't accustomed to this in squash. 

I should also mention that I saw one Egyptian boy in Penang in the under 15 who looked very calm and relaxed (his score card below). Maybe it's because I didn't see him in any tough matches, but he was smiling and really appeared to be enjoying his squash. I don't know if this can be taught. It must be difficult as an opponent to play someone like this. You can tell they are just so relaxed and confident. I don't think this is something you can fake either. At the end of the day, squash is a game and it was refreshing to see someone at that level so relaxed and happy.

Here's a game I filmed of the girls under 13 semifinals. It's a very high caliber for 12 year old girls. The Egyptian actually lost this one in straight games. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suDYdJ0FU6c

The Egyptians are doing a lot right. Are they taking advantage of the rules or are the rest of us just not passionate and expressive enough about squash and winning? There's an argument for both sides and the ideal solution is probably somewhere in between the two. It's definitely more entertaining watching a talented Egyptian play. 

Hopefully the next time you play an Egyptian you don't give them too much respect and let them win. If their going to win, make them beat you; make them play their best squash and use as many fist pumps and stalling tactics as possible. Believe in yourself and you have a chance; believe in your opponent and you don't.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

2015 Penang Junior Open

I'm finally back and ready to write a bunch of new posts. I know it's been a long time since my last one. In fact while I was away Serious Squash surpassed 100,000 views! Cool, glad people are reading, even if they disagree with some of my remarks.

I was in Malaysia for the Penang Junior Open at the beginning of June and then took a 3 week vacation in Thailand. I figured my first post should be about my impression of the tournament and compare it to what I see back here in Canada. So let's get right into it..

Straight away I realized how difficult it would be for anyone from here to go to this event and do well. Not that we don't have some players here that are of a similar standard, but because of hot and humid the weather was and the courts were. I was sweating just walking around the city, even when sitting in the squash club. Yes, they had an air conditioner, but this thing (pictured below) did nothing to cool down the place. It must have been 30+ degrees in the club.

The hot weather and humidity made the ball super bouncy and it's certainly a major advantage for the kids from hot areas that are use to playing in these conditions. I talked to some people from Hong Kong and they said there court are kept extremely cold so although the climate is hot and humid, the playing conditions are not similar at all.

The other thing I noticed early was how difficult it would be for people from Canada to eat similar food that they do back home. Many people I know in Canada (some would include myself in this category) are quite picky eaters. Here the ingredients are clearly lined out. In Penang, not so much. There are also many people back here in Canada that are vegans, gluten free or have food allergies. If you are one of these people you will have great difficulty finding something to eat in Malaysia. I began my trip wondering what I could possibly eat, until I finally changed my mindset and just ate whatever they were selling. But again if you're body isn't use to digesting noodles for every meal you may not feel the same on the court.

And of course this doesn't mention the 30+ hours of travel it took me to reach Penang. I felt pretty jet legged; light headed and dizzy for a few days. It definitely made me appreciate how tough it must be being a professional athlete travelling the globe.

Alright, time to get to the squash side of things. The draws for all of the ages were much very big. The tournament ran over the course of 6 days! You can see from an example of the boys under 11 draw why a facility with 12 courts needed 6 days to finish their tournament.

I tried to watch all the top kids in each division. I felt that overall there were a couple of noticeable differences in style and ability. I thought that the kids at this event generally hit the ball much harder then the kids here do and the girls and a very deceptive attacking boast from the back of the court. I didn't see much volleying which the warm courts may have attributed to. But even with the bouncy ball I thought the top kids were extremely precise at finishing off loose balls at the front of the court. Basically I think that most of the kids I watched have just played more squash then our kids have. On top of that they get the benefit of more high quality opponents. Here in Canada we have some strong kids, but they live too far apart to benefit from one another. Even if 2 or 3 strong kids are at the same club or school, it's just not the same. In Penang there were lots of different styles of play and so many strong competitors.

So if there was one thing I would recommend for juniors here it would be to get some international exposure at a young age if possible. You need to get a consistent high level of competition to become the best you can be. As for the game itself, it's simply about repetition and hitting more balls. The more squash balls you hit the more grooved your swing becomes which means you will become more accurate and you will also learn to hit with more power.

Overall I thought my trip to Penang was an excellent learning experience. I filmed a bunch of games to show some of the kids I coach. It also gave me some ideas on preparing kids to play overseas. If I took a group to this event in the future I would crank the heat up in the courts while we practice here at home and use a bouncier ball. I would also have team dinners where we would eat something similar to what we expect to eat overseas. Generally I feel we baby and overprotect our children here (like animals in a zoo) and they would have great difficulty adapting to the wild. Still I think the more we do ahead of time to prepare our bodies for what's in store the better we'll perform. But I also believe that nothing will help prepare you better than experience. I don't expect many (or any) kids would do well in their first tournament overseas. For all of the reasons I've stated, plus you would likely have no ranking and a tough draw.

I remember when I was 12 I went to the British and Scottish Junior Open. At the time I was the defending national champion back here in Canada. But when I got there I was one of many great players. I wasn't prepared for having a tough match each and every round. Although I came 5th at the Scottish I didn't do well in the British. Since I'm on the topic of Malaysia I have to take this opportunity to mention that yes, when I was 12 I beat Iskandar in the cons finals! I still reminder trading shirts with him after. I gave him a Bellville Junior Open shirt while I got some cool Malaysian team shirt. Afterwards he went one way (to the top 10 in the world) and I went another. Makes me wonder how much of that has to do with ones environment.

The week after at the BJO I lost first round, won a few matches and then lost another. But when you normally win every tournament here (and you're a kid), you're not exactly pumped up to play the consolation matches. It's something all top young juniors should experience. How they handle it will help prepare them for future tournaments and is crucial for their long term success.

It's a big world out there. There are lots of strong juniors all over the world. Don't measure yourself on a small scale within your province or even your country. If you really want to be great you need to experience squash on a  global scale.

That's it for today, but I've made lots of notes and have plenty of ideas for future posts. Glad to be back and hope you enjoyed today's post!