Sunday, August 30, 2015

Developing a Game Plan

Today I'm going to talk about tactics. Do you know what your style of play is? It is what suits you best or is it just how you've been taught to play? What do you do well when you play your best? Do you always play the same way versus or do you vary your game depending on your opponent? And most importantly do you have a game plan each and every time you step onto the court? 

I find tactics are often overlooked in squash. Most coaches and players at least in North America seem to promote a traditional style of squash, keep the ball in play and wait for a good opening. To me it seems strange to coach everyone to play the same style of squash. I believe many of us would benefit from finding our own personal style. Also if we can learn to slightly adjust our game plan depending on who we're playing and what's happening it can make the difference between winning and losing. Below is a questionnaire I asked some of the kids I coach to fill out a recent camp. This questionnaire is designed to help them come up with a game plan. 

I got this idea from reading Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants. Gladwell talks about how we incorrectly view giants. This happens in sport as well. Often before we step on court we already have a good idea of what will happen. This is especially troublesome when we think we can't win. We may feel that our opponent is so fast, is so mentally tough, or has such good length that we have no chance to defeat them. We can easily point out our opponent's strengths and have difficulty seeing their weaknesses as well as our own strengths. The questionnaire below can help you find out what areas you may be stronger than your opponent and can be used to come up with a game plan to counter your opponent's perceived unbeatable strengths! 

If you've read Gladwell's book you'll know that just because someone has an overwhelmingly obvious strength, it doesn't mean they cannot be beaten. There is a style that is most effective against people that hit hard, are left handed, are shooters, and so on. I'll get into some of these topics in future articles, but today I'll just focus on learning more about tactics and coming up with a game plan. 

You vs. Opponent: A Self-Analysis (opportunities and threats) – play to your strengths, exploit your opponents weaknesses and learn to minimize your own weaknesses
Who Has The Upper Hand? - answer the following questions with either 'me' or 'my opponent'


Aerobic fitness:


Attacking/short game:



Confidence/belief in winning:

Will to win/who wants it more:

Can change pace/ use height on the front wall:

Movement is more efficient:

Decision making/shot selection:


The above areas are what I would consider the most vital for developing a game plan and winning squash. Even if your opponent is stronger than you in a number of the above areas you can still find another way to improve your odds of winning by playing to your strengths, exploiting your opponents weaknesses while learning how to avoid their strengths as much as possible. 

I've said it before and I'll say it again. If you're interested in tactics you should also read Brad Gilbert's book called Winning Ugly. Gilbert talks about how he used tactics and really thought his way to the top 10 of the tennis world. Gilbert wouldn't just go in and play the same traditional style of tennis because he knew he didn't match up against people with superior talents (the perceived giants!). When there's a will there's a way and Gilbert discusses all the little details that made him one of the toughest and most frustrating players to play on tour. 

The challenge with changing tactics during a match is when we become to analytical and overthink. This is where the often heard motto of KISS (keep it simple stupid) comes to mind. If we overcomplicate things we normally won't perform. This is where coaching can make a big difference. It's also extremely challenging to have an objective view while performing. We are often too concerned about the scoreboard and use this to judge how we are playing. If you focus on the process and game plan you are more likely to play in the zone and your best squash. Find your balance of strategizing and playing instinctively. This is why various styles and adjustments needs to be practiced over and over so they become automatic and instinctual. 

Maybe your strengths will suit an attacking and deceptive style of play. If so then you should come up with a game plan that fosters that style of play. If we coaches and parents try and get everyone to play the same, conservative style of play we have little chance of succeeding. If we play the same way as our opponent, but they are better at it, doesn't it make sense to have an alternative? Sometimes you need to take the path less traveled because that is what suits your game. There are a lot of ways to win and finding the way that works best for you is part of the journey. Hopefully the above questionnaire will give you some guidance on becoming the best you can possibly be. 

That's it for today. I hope you think a bit more about your style of play and what suits you best. Even a bad game plan is a plan. Go out and try and to execute your game plan and then if it isn't working have a plan B. After a game or match (or even quicker as you gain experience) you can ask yourself whether the game plan was correct and if so did you execute it to the best of your ability. Then it really comes down to trial and error. You learn how to play different ways against different opponents and ideally this will give you the best chance of being successful against a variety of opponents. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Three's Company: 3 Person Squash Drills

Today I'm going to talk about some 3 person drills you can do. Most of us know a lot of drills we can do with 2 people, but are unsure of what we can do with that 3rd wheel. Some of the drills are repetitive, others 1 or 2 players will have options and some will be conditions games and really make you think. I enjoy doing a combination of them. Find which ones work for you and try and implement them the next time you are training in a group of 3. What you're capable of doing will depend on your skill levels.

Three Person Drills
  1. Three person boast and drive (1 in the front, 2 in the back). You can do 1 shot or 2 shots (which means 1 shot to yourself).
  2. A hits straight drive, B hits volley drop, C hits straight drive, B hits straight volley drive.
  3. A and B hit drives on one side of the court. They both have the option to hit a volley crosscourt drive to player C. If they hit a volley crosscourt drive, player C hits a straight drive and then the person that hit it to this side goes over and continues the rally.
    1. A and B can hit straight drive or boast. If A boasts, B has to return it with a straight drive to C's side. 
    2. and can hit straight drive or boast. If boasts, has to return it with a straight drive or straight drop to C's side.
    3. and can hit straight drive or boast. If boasts, has to return it with a straight drive to C or can hit crosscourt back to player A (keeps them from being lazy after playing a boast)
    4. A and B play a straight game on one half of the court. A and B both also have the option to boast. When one of them boasts the other has to get it and hit a straight drive or drop to C's side.
  4. A drives straight, B volleys crosscourt drop/kill, C hits crosscourt, B hits volley drive, repeat
  5. A hits straight drives, B hits straight drive or boast, C hits straight drive

    a. A hits straight drive, B hits straight drive or boast, C hits straight drive off drive and can hit straight drive or court lob off boast.
  6. A hits short mid-court drive/feed, B drives, A hits another short mid-court drive feed, C drives

    a. A hits short drive feed, B drives and then ghosts laterally, repeat 5 times and C goes.
  7. Chase the hole/rotating boast and drive. A boasts, B drives, C boasts, A drives, B boasts, C drives.
  8. A drives, B drives, A boasts, B drives, C drives, B boasts, C drives, A drives, C boasts.
  9. A boasts, B drops, C drops, B drives, C boasts, B drops, A drops, B drives, repeat.
  10. A drops (from back of the court), B drops, C drive
    1. A drops (from back of the court), B drops, C drops, B drives
    2. A drops or boasts (from back of the court), B drops, C drives
    3. A drops or boasts (from back of the court), B drops straight or cross, C drives or crosscourts
  11. A hits boast, B hits straight drive or crosscourt drive, C volleys to straight length and if cannot volley they let the ball go back to A and they drop or boast again (as demonstrated in diagrams below).
    1. If C isn't able to they have to get the ball off the back wall and drive it.
12. A boasts, B hits straight or crosscourt drop, C hits straight drive (as diagramed below).

13. Three person rotating drives (no volleys allowed)
           a. each player has the option to boast or drive, off the boast the next player just hit straight drive

14. A hits a straight drop, B drives, A hits a straight drive, B straight drives, A hits straight drop, C hits straight drive, A hits straight drive, C hits straight drive, repeat
            a. A can straight drop or straight drive, B hits straight drive (go until they cannot get the ball back then C's turn)

15. A boasts, B drives, A drives, B drives, A boasts, C drives, A drives, C drives

16. A boasts or hits a straight drop, B hits straight or crosscourt drive, A drives, B drives, A boasts, C hits straight or crosscourt drive, A drives, C drives, repeat

17. A drives, B drive, A boasts, B hits straight drop, C hits straight drop, B hits crosscourt (or crosscourt lob)

With 3 people I often do king of the court 2 person drills or condition games and rotate after each rally. I enjoy making these types of drills competitive. For example you could do drive, drive boast with 2 people and then then winner of the rally stays in and gets a point. You could also do the drill until someone hits a target and/or wins the point. You can do this for any drill and with the odd breather you'l find that you can work harder and that keeping score will help the intensity and focus stay high.

You can have a lot of fun and really mix things up with 3 people on the court. I've given you 17 drills, many with slight variations which will make the drill different and in many cases much more challenging. Enjoy!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Video Analysis #3

Yes, finally a 3rd person has taken me up on the offer to analyze their squash game. If you want to take a look at the video the link is here:
If you post it online I assume it's open for the world to see so I hope you don't mind me posting the link. I'm analyzing the man in the green shirt and I have a few comments for him. 

The Good
1) You're a good retriever. Your quick on your feet. You have very light feet and get around the court pretty efficiently. 

2) You're consistent. You don't make many unforced errors which is a good combination with being quick. This means you will be hard for someone to beat because you'll never beat yourself. 

3) You move the ball around and with #2 don't make many mistakes while doing so. I've seen many fit people just hit everything deep and wait for mistakes so it's good to see you using the whole court. 

Areas To Improve
1) Be more aggressive. You wait for the ball to come to you. When you get a loose ball, move forwards and take the ball a bit early, this is also a more confident and assertive way to go on the attack. Try and practice taking more balls before the back wall in general. You look like a good athlete and should be fit enough to pick up the intensity a bit!

2) Get your racquet up higher for your drives. You have a very late racquet preparation and have an extremely short backswing. You could hit the ball with more pace if you got your elbow up, and quickly! Early racquet prep is sooo important!

3) Get lower/stay further from the ball. You're a tall guy and you could make the court play a lot smaller if you worked on getting your hips down by bending your knees. Currently you are too upright when hitting the ball on the bounce which brings you further from the T and means your swing has to go upwards to get the ball over the T. If you get lower you can hit the ball flatter and be more aggressive with your shots. I recommend taping a dotted line around the court with masking tape. Go along the inside of the service box up to about 2 or 3 feet away from the front wall. You should very rarely have to get both of your feet within this taped area when you strike the ball. Currently you do this frequently.  

4) Here's a bonus one. I don't want to give too much feedback, but I think you would greatly improve by learning to use your body to help you get power and transfer your weight into the ball. You currently swing with just your arm. Learning to rotate your shoulders, use your torso, core and legs will allow you to do # 1 better. Basically all 4 of my tips are to get you to be more aggressive and hit the ball with more power. You have the tools (athleticism and consistency) to become a much stronger player. 

I've worked with a number of players such as yourself. It takes a change in mindset to become more aggressive. You may make a few mistakes, but this is the only way to apply pressure on a stronger player. Thanks for being brave enough to have your game analyzed online! Good luck David!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Why The Follow Through Is Key

Today I'm going to talk about the follow through. You may notice in golf that when a professional hits a good drive they almost always hold their follow through and some twirl their club, while the wayward shots see a much different abbreviated follow through. Can't these golfers just keep their follow through in check to ensure they swing correctly? Clearly once you've made contact you can't control the ball anymore, but the follow through does reveal an awful lot about what just happened in your swing.

Today I'm going to discuss what exactly the follow through tells us in squash and why it can help us hit better shots when we focus on having the correct mechanics on our follow through. After all, if your follow through is correct there is a very good chance that what happened before that was good too!

1) Direction Of Follow Through
Follow through to the target: this determines how accurate the shot will be. The height and angle of the trajectory is determined by your swing path and you should finish your shot towards your target.  This holds true for any projectile sport. Things like wind or spin can interfere with where you are aiming and where you want the ball/object to finish up so in these instances you're follow through is not directly at where you envision the ball or object finishing up. This isn't a factor in squash so time to move on.

If you want to hit the ball high, such as a lob you should follow through high; whereas if you want to hit the ball low you want to keep your racquet low. What makes is challenging to keep your follow through low is that you want to keep the ball over the tin and if you're slicing a drop shot you're swing will be high to low, but you will have to flatten the swing out (when the ball is received low) at or just after contact to maximize slice, but keeping the ball over the tin.

In the picture below, Diego will continue his swing running right along the sidewall to ensure his drop stays on target, tight to the sidewall. The ball is low Diego is hitting the ball flatter, but if the ball was higher and tighter he would swing high to low as discussed above.

If you were balanced or not during your swing: if you were balanced and had a good base of support under you swing you should be able to hold your finish towards your target. If your follow through is too short or finishes low (even while aiming high) it can be caused by being off balanced while swinging. Maybe your spacing was incorrect, you could be under a lot of pressure of perhaps you were trying to swing too hard for the position you're in. You may also need to improve your strength endurance as your arm and shoulder could fatigue causing your racquet to drop at the end of your swing. 

Use your follow through to deceive your opponent: there is an exception to this rule and this is when we don't follow through to our target on purpose to deceive our opponent. Sometimes using shoulder fakes with a follow through in one direction can catch your opponent flat footed or even going the wrong way. Have fun trying to do this in practice and see if you can a swing path that is deceptive. You can see Amr Shabana below how he finishes quite open while his hips and his follow through is further towards the middle of the court. Shabana can use his wrist and forearm to adjust the racquet head to keep the ball straight even though the rest of his body looks as though he is going to hit the ball crosscourt. This also happens when someone plays a deceptive trickle boast.

2) Length and Path Of Follow Through
What type of shot you hit: each shot will have a different follow through. Your full drive should be a bigger swing then your volley drop and your counter drop will be shorter still.

The amount of spin (or lack of) put on the ball: the angle of your racquet face during and at the completion of your follow through tells you how much spin you put on the ball. If you want to cut the ball you will finish with your racquet face open; if you want to hit the ball flat you should finish with the same flat racquet face. Doing this means less variation of racquet angle during the contact phase and more consistent shots.

If you're spacing was correct: if you crowd the ball (as most of us do) when you hit a shot it will change your swing and also the length of your follow through. The circumference of your follow through will be shorter when you're too tight to the ball which means you will have to make contact with your elbow still bent or your shoulders open early to compensate. You can also tell if someone transferred their kinetic energy by extending their elbow or not. If you finish your drive and your elbow is still bent you were too close to the ball.

If your swing was excessive and dangerous: For many beginners this is known as the 'helicopter' swing. When someone tries to over swing and has no feel for where their opponent some people will continue spinning after contact, even doing a full 360 degree spin!

You'll notice watching the professional men play that on the forehand they have a very compact racquet preparation and follow through. In the warm up they take full swings and then during their matches they become much more compact. This compact swing is to maximize deception, consistency (shorter swing circumference) without giving up on power. They are strong enough that on the forehand side most top men can hit very hard with an extremely short swing. This wasn't possible 20+ years ago when the racquets were twice the weight.

3) Speed and Tempo Of Follow Through
Swing Speed/Acceleration and Deceleration: keep your swing speed up/consistent through contact. Some people decelerate or almost completely stop their swing as they make contact with the ball. This happens the most during drop shots. It's important to keep your swing speed and the momentum up through the contact and follow through towards your target.

The pace you want to hit should match your swing tempo: just as different shots have different lengths of swings, softer shots should have a slower swing and follow through. Examples of these are lobs and drops. As I just mentioned above you need to keep the swing speed steady through contact. If you're hitting a softer shot it should be steady at a slower speed. Although this will not be the case when someone wants to put a lot of slice on the ball. In this instance they will swing faster then the ball will travel because the backspin is slowing the ball down.

Using Your Follow Through To Clear: while on the topic of follow throughs it's important to discuss the balance of swinging through towards your target to be accurate and taking too long to clear your shot.  When you take a full swing you want to use your follow through to help you clear back towards the middle of the court. Clearing too early after contact will make your ball spray out into the middle. While standing over your shot and clearing too late will make you late back to the T and more susceptible to strokes. Learning to keep your follow through on target just long after after hitting the ball before you begin clearing will allow for the best combination of shot consistency with quick and efficient clearing.

Adapting Your Swing: I'd like to finish off by talking about how professional players can be out of position and still be accurate with their shots. Let's take a look at the below photo of Thierry Lincou. What shot is he going to hit? His hips and shoulders are open well before he's about to hit the ball so you would think a crosscourt drive, but he could decide to straighten up his swing path and follow through straight and hit a straight drive. Lincou could also hold the ball and play a little trickle boast. I would guess with the angle of his racquet face that a drop is now out of the question. Good players need to be able to adapt their swing even when their body is slightly out of position. Sometimes this will be because they are disguising their shots, while other times they do it because they are under pressure and don't have enough time to get set in an ideal position beside the ball. Luckily the racquets are so light now that they can adjust their swing speed and angle late, just prior to contact.

Even professional players aren't as accurate when they have to make so many adjustments because of poor positioning, so try your best to have good mechanics and a balanced swing/follow through as often as possible. 

Summary of the 3 Main Follow Through Tips
1. Following through to your target.
2. Shorter shots (e.g., drops) will have a shorter follow through.
3. Swing speed should match the pace you want to hit and keep this speed consistent through contact.

Focus on your follow through next time in practice and you'll start to hit the ball more accurately. You may just find that having a full, balanced follow through might clean up your swing!

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Lost Art of Coaching in Pro Team Sports

Today I'm going to talk about the difference between squash and other professional team sports. As a Blue Jays fan I should be happy that they went out and traded/bought some big name ball players which will greatly increase their chances of making the playoffs. When I was a kid I remember vividly watching the Jays win the World Series in back to back years. I've been a big fan and watch a lot of the games ever since. What's happening now is very reminiscent to the glory days. So what's the problem?

Now looking at how pro sport teams try and buy their way to a championship it really takes the coaching out of the sport. It feels like the Jays (and most teams) will give up on a player having a slightly down season instead of trying to do what we as coaches focus on, doing some coaching and helping the athlete work through it. So I'm a bit torn here. Of course I want to see my favourite team win, but at what cost? This is why I never liked the Yankees; they just bought their Championships! Now the Jays are doing the same thing.

When you catch squash you don't just trade a player to another coach if things aren't working. As a coach you are motivated to help that athlete the best you can. If pro sport teams were more motivated to help their athletes improve rather than just find the best trade value, maybe they would have a superior team dynamic and maybe, just maybe the team would improve. I know their current GM talks about the importance of character when he's looking to make a deal, but isn't he also forgetting the importance of team chemistry?

In squash and other individual sports, when someone is underperforming we help them get back on track. Clearly these pro sport teams wanted this athlete in the first place, so what's made them give up on them so quickly? I've never told an athlete that I couldn't help them and they shouldn't bother taking a lesson, or to go see another coach. Of course as we get older we aren't physical able to do the same we once could, but there is always something to learn and improve in everyone's game. That's what hooks us in the first place; we always know we can do a little better if we just spend a bit of time on it.

So how would I feel if the Jays made the playoffs? I'll admit it, I'd watch and root for them. But it just wouldn't be the same as if they turned things around on their own and just became a better TEAM! Instead of complaining about having no pitching, maybe there's something the coaching staff and pitching staff in particular can do to help remedy their issues. Of course this problem is confounded by the fact that the media and fans show a lot more interest now that we have big names and have made some blockbuster trades. That fills the seats and gets the buzz on the street; a mediocre team doesn't do either of this.  So what's the solution? Is there one?

The only idea I can think of is marketing your team as a homegrown team. Tampa Bay has been great at this and they've been much more successful than the Jays the past decade. I also believe that if we focused on winning Championships at the minor league level this would eventually have a ripple effect at the big league level. If you have a group of players that are used to playing and winning together then they will continue doing this at the next level if we give them some time.

I've heard that many soccer teams in Europe (yes football for those of you outside North America) have their top coaches working with kids while and then more managers and sport psychologists on to coach at the pro level. This is the strange dynamic of professional team sports. It definitely makes me appreciate individual sports and titles these athletes win that much more. In pro sports there is big money to be made and all the city wants is a winning team. I don't know many (or any) teams that sell out their home games when their having a poor season.

Sorry to any Blue Jays fans I may have upset, but remember that I am one too! As a fan I'm happy about the moves, as a coach I'm disappointed.