Friday, June 10, 2016

Mandating Annual Training Plans In Junior Squash

Today I should warn you I am going to go on a bit of a rant and it's a long post. I'm a true believer that squash should be fun and also that you get out what you put into it. If you love squash and want to get better you simply need to put in the time and effort and you will get to where you want to be eventually. If you don't have that drive you won't get to where others should think you should be. It's kind of like Matt Damon in the movie Good Will Hunting. I get the sense in squash that many of us are pressing our kids for results and unfortunately some of these kids end up dropping out of our great sport for this reason. I see this all of the time after kids finish grinding away their four years at college.

I feel that junior squash has become so competitive that it has zapped out a lot of fun from the game. Many countries have these robot type children all playing the same style of squash. Coaches feel pressure to produce top kids and often disregard the reasons the kids they have play squash. A big problem is that a major objective for governing bodies is to have elite high performance programs with elite and high standard kids they can stand from afar and admire and be proud of. Many kids themselves on doubt feel pressure to make certain teams or get accepted to a good university with a squash team. I have to admit that I'm guilty of this at times too. I have talented athletes that could achieve so much more, but in the end I have to remember that what they do with squash isn't my decision it is theirs. Squash can certainly open up a lot of doors for you and the higher the level you become, generally the more opportunities it will present to you. This is where I believe that motivation is the most important trait a coach can have. It doesn't matter how well you understand the game or teach the squash swing if a kid isn't intrinsically motivated to practice and get better.

When I was a kid I wanted to be a world champion. Yes I'm aware that didn't happen, but this can make it challenging to work with kids that have lower goals for their own squash games; especially when they have the skills and resources available to them. This is where I have to take a step back and listen to what the kids want out of squash and to how good they want to be. It's been an interesting challenge working at a school and starting up many of the kids from scratch. Most just come to practice and play for fun and enjoy competing while along the way have become pretty decent players. But these kids started playing just because we offered it at their school and they happened to be good at it or have fun playing. After 5 years running this program we do have some pretty strong players now and a few are keen to do independent training to become one of the best in Canada. 

At a school sometimes kids are just registered in a specific program and have the skills to be in a specific group. So even though there are different levels of kids within our system, there are many various motivating factors and aspirations for their squash careers. I feel this variety has given me a better perspective on junior squash as a whole. Not every kid is going to be a provincial or national champion, but that doesn't mean the kids can't all enjoy squash and play it for the rest of their lives. And for a select few of these kids that do have the potential and drive to become a top caliber player that we then have the ability to provide the guidance and program to facilitate this. Let's get back to our topic! 

I know this is a roundabout way to get to this point, but I wanted to give a clear personal perspective before I got into this topic. I hear that Squash BC and Squash Canada will soon be mandating that their recognized targeted athletes (as in being on a provincial squad) must have an annual training plan. At first I thought, well okay that seems reasonable for our top juniors. Then I started to think about this a little further. As soon as we have a policy that states a kid 'must' do anything the motivation moves from intrinsic to extrinsic. You can see how I immediately started worrying about this new policy and started to think it over further. 

I also began to think about if an actual yearly training plan is always appropriate for all kids just because their good at squash? Are the being kids identified in British Columbia and Canada talented and dedicated enough to all benefit from being on an annual training plan? Are we going to be pushing them at too young of an age because of the pressure WE feel for them to play at a higher national or international standard? When I was a kid I would have loved this, but only if it was optional and I had this option available to me because I was a top player. If I was told I had to do this or that I don't think it would have gone over too well. 

From my coaching perspective at the school the program has grown every season, but even for some of our top kids we're still working on getting them to want to train without saying they must do it. One of our biggest steps was helping the tops kids develop their own off season training program for this summer. But even this summer training program was made optional. I gave them suggestions and said it would greatly benefit for their games, but I realize not all of them are super keen to focus on training for squash year round. They are kids after all so who can blame them.

Without a doubt if these kids were on an annual training plan and stuck to them they would become better squash players in the short term. If the kids continued on this plan for a long period of time they would definitely benefit from it, but is this reason enough to implement a mandatory annual training program?

I feel most of these kids are not ready for this level of commitment. I will likely have 2-4 kids that must have an annual training plan for next season. I feel this is a sign of the sport becoming more professional at the junior level. If we want our kids to get a variety scholarship or make a national team a training plan would be great, but how many of these athletes have these goals? Would it not be worth finding out their goals and motivation first?

From a sporting government body I get it completely. We want to do better at the world stage at both the junior and senior level. As adults we know what's best for our kids, right? So mandating annual training plans is clearly a necessary requirement to producing stronger high performance pathway? Maybe they should listen to some of the coaches and athletes before they go ahead and implement this policy. 

I always like to think about things from different perspectives and creative angles. I've already discussed a few of the issues I have with this protocol, but here are a few of my pros and cons of mandating our top kids to annual training plans. 

Pros To Forcing Kids To Have Annual Training Plans
- the kids will be fitter, faster, stronger
- the governing bodies will meet their funding requirements
- scheduled rest time in the year 
- emphasis is placed on peaking for larger tournaments 
- you have a plan and goals and feel in control of your development
- it keeps you on track by helping you get into a routine
- this helps you stay on track over the season
- our kids will get a glimpse of what a professional squash player's life is like
- this is an effective way to guide a highly motivated athlete 

Cons Of Forcing Kids To Have Annual Training Plans
- makes playing competitively more serious and less fun
- increased dropout of sport
- you can become overwhelmed and immersed by the quantity of data and your training load and lose focus on what is most important, which is the quality of your training on that particular day
- motivation for playing and training can becomes extrinsic
- putting a focus on fitness means kids will develop their shots and tactics slower and could be prone to playing less attacking squash (which I feel is the current and future of the game)
- I feel like the biggest improvement most kids can make in squash is by improving their tactics and skill set. I bet there are some top world class players that never had an annual training plan when they were kids and instead of spending time in the gym lifting weights they were on court hitting the ball! 
- not every kids is mentally or physically ready for an annual training plan
- some kids are fine physically and need to focus more on learning the squash part of the game (technical and tactical) and annual training plans in my opinion should be more geared toward physical training
- I believe that increasing importance of specific competitions puts extra pressure on the kids. I believe in continually improving your own game regardless on the time of the season
- training plans generally call for less technical focus prior to competitions, but there are so many competitions for kids that unless it's a few days before a tournament I will always take an opportunity to improve someone's knowledge or swing. My first couple of years coaching I would avoid changing things before competing, but the kids are constantly competing so that didn't work
- isn't the best way for someone to get better to either play a match or solo hit? I know other things are key, but for me I'm always wanting a kid to do these things first before any other additional off court training is scheduled 
- If a kid does want to start an annual training plan shouldn't certified personal trainers set up these routines? Seriously, aren't they more qualified than the squash coaches?
- I've seen some pretty detailed and outrageous annual training plans that I know were not adhered to whatsoever. So really, what's the point of designing some amazing plan if it isn't going to be followed?
- how do you follow a kids plan when they train as part of a larger group who may've different training objectives? 
- promotes early specialization. I believe a lot of these kids that would be on this program would be better off just playing a 2nd or 3rd sport of cross training and for fun. This isn't just geared towards the junior national team players and trickles much further down the rankings and age groups

Okay, you get the point. You can see I can think of many more cons than pros for this argument. But clearly we are following the lead of other counties or even other sports. Why don't we come up with our own intelligent and creative way to assist our kids? Of course if you're a rower or in a purely endurance based sport a training plan and pure athleticism is key to success, but in squash there is so much to learn and know and just by playing we get fitter, stronger and faster and I think it should be treated differently. 

I'm sure I will get some criticism for my points here. I have to say that I am not against training programs at all, just against forcing teenagers to have them simply because of their provincial or national ranking. When I've worked with some professional players we would work month by month and adjust as necessary. If someone need more work in a certain area we keeping working on it. How often are people with annual training plans adjusting them based on how they're developing? At least for most of the kids I work with, I've been concentrating on getting them to understand different types of training, how it benefits them and most importantly to motivate them to want to do it and see the benefits of training. 

It will be interesting to see how things develop. It reminds me of my interview with Wee Wern Low and how she said she felt forced to go work with a 'better' coach, but she trusted her instinct and did what she felt was best for her and she kept the coach she had since she was 12. There are also similar rules stating that someone has to have a certain qualification to coach an athlete that they already work with at a provincial or national event and of course the Olympics. These rules are meant to help the athletes and get the coaches to spend time working on their certifications, but this system doesn't always work. 

I really enjoy people that think like Wee Wern Low as they kind of beat the system and show us that we shouldn't be so focused on say, how hard a pitcher throws a baseball or a squash player hits a ball or the certification or experience a coach has. Because really a squash player isn't going to get very far without the tactical, mental and technical skills. All of these other 3 skills are things that I am always talking about and working on with kids, regardless of the time of season. 

This topic also reminds me of a book I recently read titled 'How Bad Do You Want It' by Matt Fitzgerald. He made an interesting point about the best endurance runners. Fitzgerald discussed evidence that the top runners were comprised of a mixture of slightly lower V02max and more efficient running styles while others had a higher V02max, but because of this they always had less efficient running styles. This hits home for me in squash about how retrievers fail to develop shots or attacking tactics while those that have to because they are not as fast or fit do so. So I do think there is something to be said for learning how to play squash and developing your shots and tactics before becoming too fast, strong and fit and just winning because your run everything down. If a kid wins simply because he or she overhits or outruns their peers they are most likely to have a setback in their development of the tactics and shot making skills that their peers must have. Do you agree? 

For elite and experienced players, squash is an art form. Do you think famous artists were ever on a training plan? And did that ever stop them from being their best? Of course not! If an artist is getting ready for a show they may implicitly know they have to do a bit more to prepare and get ready for this. If a squash player is playing a big international event the more they will practice without us telling them they have too. We already know all of this implicitly and do what it takes to prepare properly. If we get to the event not as prepared as we would like we learn from it and try and do better the next time. Isn't this how preparation for squash competitions should be like, more like artists that put in the hours preparing because they are working at perfecting their craft, not because they are told too? 

What do you guys think? Can you think of anymore pros and cons I missed out on? Are annual training plans necessary for kids? If we were a stronger squash country at the junior level I may agree with these terms for a select few of the top kids, but in my opinion we're just not there and I actually think we have some very athletic kids already. We don't have enough kids competing and doing well at the international events in any age group. I think we should concentrate on being more competitive with our younger kids and hopefully they will be physically and mentally prepared to have a training plan when and if they are ready to do so. Some kids may be mature enough to go on a plan at 14 or 15 well others maybe not until they are in their 20's. And really if a kid never wants to go on a training plan, but loves squash and plays it all his life what is wrong with that? 

Currently I don't see many (if any) Canadian juniors that are going to make a living playing squash. I still feel my biggest beef is that wouldn't an annual training plan be better suited to a kid that wanted to do it, but didn't necessarily have too? Shouldn't we simply have access to the best trainer in the country that can set up an annual plan for those targeted that ask for it?  Wouldn't this be more progressive and keep the motivation for those on a plan more intrinsic? Maybe we should try and simply monitor how much of what our athletes are doing? I bet many are being pushed into doing too much for how little of years they have been training. Clearly if I was given a vote on this I would vote 'no.' I've played a high junior level and coached all different levels of kids so I feel I have a good set of experience to make my decision. I know that if I had a son or daughter playing and they were on one of these squads I would never force them to train and be on an annual program if they didn't want to do it. Sorry for the lengthy post, hope it was interesting to you! I'm guessing if you made it all the way to here it was :)


  1. I'm with you Chris. A ludicrous and almost disgusting idea. How does an annual plan incorporate a kid's other sports? Or even more his informal training?
    July 7 Bike to woods with friends. 6 hours messing around rock climbing tree climbing. Bike home. Shoot hoops till midnight.
    July 8. Go to beach. Bodysurf 4 hours, play sand soccer 4 hours until tide comes back. Bodysurf till dark.
    July 9 Head out for canoe trip with family. Spend 10 days paddling and portaging.

    When I was 12 and 13 I used to skate to school on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa from November to March (about 4k each way). How does a squash program incorporate that? It's not that far, but at minus 40 with the wind chill it has certain physical toughening aspects that can't be measured.
    Kids need to be kids. If anything you're giving to much credit to the pro side of the argument. A fifteen year-old may lose interest in squash for six months but come back to it with far more passion. Grind kids and only a very few will continue to love the sport.
    Sasha Cooke

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