I know it's been awhile since my last post, but it's been a busy time of year. I have a few interesting topics on the horizon, as I believe this one will be. I can't believe that today is my 200th post! I'm going to talk about the importance and challenges of both discipline and creativity in squash. In squash we have players that are very basic, but extremely effective. There are others that look as though they are creating poetry with their creativity and flare and are some of the most enjoyable people to watch. As a coach the challenge is knowing how much creativity to allow and foster in the development of an athlete. For some coaches it may be cut and dry, but I'm somewhere in the middle. You'll hear why shortly.
When it comes down to it, almost every player would perform better and will improve their chances of winning if they play disciplined and basic. Most kids like to play tricky shots, but are unable to play the basic and more effective shot, which makes their tricky shot even less effective! This is why that when I'm working with kids I like to ask them if they want to be Globetrotter or a professional NBA player? I don't know the stats, but I doubt there are many or any Globetrotters that would be able to make the NBA, but I'm certain they all would like to if they could. This is an analogy that I like to use because many kids like to play flashy and normally ineffective shots. But not the other side of this argument if we look at the NBA there are plenty of basketball players that are creative and do things that are beyond the basics of basketball. These moves were practiced more than likely on the street rather than in a team practice structure and have learned how to play them effectively at the highest level; so tricky and fancy shots can work. So how should you practice your squash game? Basic and disciplined or creative and fancy?
Although from the previous paragraph it may sound like the answer is quite simple, that discipline and hard work is the way to go, it isn't quite that straightforward to me. Both a basic disciplined player and a creative one can be equally effective and have a passion for squash. I believe the main issues with this have to do with individual differences. Although I feel that most kids likely need more discipline to become a top level competitive squash player. It takes a lot of time on court and repetition to be able to hit your targets consistently.
Also learned while working on your shot repetition and disciplined practice is the training of your concentration. Every squash player knows the importance yet challenge of maintaining their focus for the entirety of a match. I believe that players that have been well disciplined will be better able to maintain their focus during practices and matches. Being in the zone is something that any level of athlete can attain, but takes time to be able to learn how get into it quickly and stay in it for the duration of a match. Simply put, concentration and the zone are skills that have to be developed and I believe they are better learned through a disciplined practice structure.
So back to creativity. I think some kids are more engaged when they are allowed to be creative as they initiate more areas of the brain. If these same kids were forced to practice a basic repetitive drill it does not engage them as deeply and I find many will just go through the motions because they find this boring. Finding a balance of both is the key here. Nowadays with so many distractions and stimulation around us (video games, computers, tvs and cell phones) people crave constant stimuli. So I believe the key is to give the kids challenging goals/targets when they practice blocked drills to try and keep them engaged. At a certain skill level most kids will learn to enjoy the simple challenge of hitting 1 shot over and over again as they finely calibrate their swing. Also crucial is setting up practices which foster creativity. Even for the basic disciplined player, some extra thinking within a practice can help them practice out of their comfort zone; which can happen in competition.
As a coach I don't like to say 'don't do this or that.' I believe there is a time and place for any shot to be played. But I also realize that making the same mistakes over and over is Einstein's version of insanity! I like a balance of these two. Is the shot something that could become a weapon when it's executed better? Or is the shot just an extremely low percentage and the wrong play? It can be difficult to play creative and potentially risky shots in competition until they are very well rehearsed. Players like Jonathon Power and Ramy Ashour are some of the most iconic and exciting players to watch of all time; they were able to play creative squash, but also did the basics extremely well. What would have happened to Jonathon or Ramy if they had never been allowed to explore their creative sides of their squash game? I think player like Jonathon and Ramy had an understanding of the basics and also knew there was a part of squash that had not been explored before. If I had to guess I would say that they both liked creating a new style all their own as much as they did winning!
I think the best way for kids to explore new swings or shots is while they are solo hitting. This doesn't impact anyone else and will not upset the coach. Also, the athlete can attempt a certain shot as many times as they like trying to perfect it. Similar to a skateboarder trying to do a certain trick for the first time and failing over and over. Once the skateboarder gets it they spend hours, days, weeks, months or even years learning how to perfect it. It's one thing to be able to do something in practice and another to be able to do it in competition.
Squash is more than just serves, volleys, lengths, boasts and drops. Finding the balance of the basics and the creative ways you can make your own game unique is what makes squash so fun to play and to watch. If we all played the same and only played shot x from position y squash could get pretty boring! Even though shot x might be the right shot almost all of the time, knowing when to play shot z is what makes squash so dynamic and unpredictable. When I went to watch some international tournaments (Penang Junior Open and the Canadian Junior Open) I see a lot of similarities among the kids. Most of the top kids are fast and hit the ball hard, but I see very little variation of pace or deception and a general lack of volleying. I get that pace and speed are two of the biggest weapons in squash, but I'd still like to see more variety from different players. This makes me feel like most kids are being taught and trained the same way these days, but certainly this will only favour some players and not others.
I've always been one that's enjoyed finding alternative ways to do things. I also now understand that if your basics aren't top notch it won't matter how creative you can be because you will never have the time to express yourself. At least for people like me, I believe there is a balance between the two. As a coach it is our job to teach the fundamentals, but I believe it is also our job to give some slack and encourage our players to try new things while learning how to play the game. So are you practicing to become a squash Globetrotter or an NBA player?? Don't forget that a Globetrotter still has to be able to sink a free throw :)