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!

4 comments:

  1. For your advice on hitting open stance, I'm curious for your thoughts on whether it is worth teaching mid level players (getting coaching for the first time, but plays at a ~B level) a closed stance forehand at all, or whether you should start with knowing the open stance forehand. I'm a righty and honestly when I first got coaching and I was told to lunge with my left foot on the forehand side it felt so awkward compared to what i was used to and I never see pro's doing it in matches either. Open vs closed stance backhand i can see the clear advantages of but forehand the difference seems negligible.

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  2. Edit: I mean I can see the clear tradeoffs/situations where a closed stance or an open stance backhand might be a better shot, but it seems like open stance forehand trumps a closed stance forehand in 95% of all scenarios. It seems weird then that traditional coaching still teaches closed stance forehand as the correct technique.

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  3. Open stance on the forehand is usually better. The only issue with teaching people to do that initially is that they have difficulty squaring up to the sidewall when they hit of their back foot. So I may have them try some on their front foot to get the feeling of being beside the ball and squaring up properly. Also, if you are moving forwards to hit a forehand volley I would often use my front leg. It's awkward moving forward more than a few inches to hit the ball open stance. Generally open stance is when the ball is beside or behind you.

    Another big factor is just being comfortable hitting on both legs. Many people play over every single shot on their dominant leg and this can lead to wear and tear and injury problems down the road. So I do like get people to hit off both legs. But situationally I think open stance on the forehand is most effective unless moving forwards to get the ball. Hope that helps!

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