Prematch Routine - often when we walk on court we already have a mindset which will foster or inhibit the odds of playing within this zone. If we are having destructive poisonous thoughts like 'this person is too good' or 'this will be easy' or if we are simply not feeling like playing a tough match we are inbox trouble. Having a routine to prepare yourself mentally before you even step out on court can prepare your mind as much as your body for playing it's best possible game of squash. Our physical skills don't deteriorate from day to day, it's our mindset, our emotions, our motivation and our energy levels which fluctuate.
Between Rally Routines - what we do and say to ourselves to get back on track to help regulate our thoughts and emotions between rallies is so important. Often we will have thoughts about what we could have done better or how upset we are for a call or missing a shot. We can easily get caught in the past and play a poor next point. If we're doing this we will not be playing in the present or the zone. Saying something positive and simple like 'focus' or 'win this point' can help you play the next point at your highest standard.
Simple Tactics - either before a match, between rallies or between games we may need a reminder of a simple tactic that enables us to play our best, most effective style of squash. If we are playing 'mindless squash' and not how we want, a little reminder can go a long ways to bringing you back into your best squash which can also enable you to get into a state of flow. For some reason it's easier to get into a state of flow when we are winning more points than we are losing.
Play More Of The Shots That Are Working That Day (tactics part 2): I don't know why we constantly like to point out what we or others are doing wrong, but that doesn't normally help people play in the zone. Your opponent, the court, ball and various other conditions vary from day to day and some days certain shots are going to work better than others. On those special days everything is working and that's when squash is the most fun. But if something is off, instead of getting upset and continually making the same mistake perhaps abandoning that shot for awhile and playing more of the shots that are on that day will help you find this zone. Once you establish this zone there is a better chance that some of your other shots will begin to fall into place.
Our notes from discussing the zone at the start of practice
Focus on the Process - this is something I am a big believer of. There is theoretically no reason you cannot experience the zone if you are losing. That being said most people get so caught up in winning that they lose the zone as soon as they lose a few points in a row. This is where a routine between rallies, maybe a longer more pronounced one can help get you mentally back on track, or simply stay on track. You may be doing everything right, but this doesn't always mean instant short term gratification. When I'm playing I only give feedback to myself on shot selection and not execution because if I lose playing the right shots I simply need to improve my shots, but if I am losing playing the wrong shots I'm holding myself back. The acronym I refer to with the kids I coach is KISS, keep it simple stupid.
Self Regulation - part of routines are being able to recognize when you're outside of your zone. Thinking of your zone as a range can be helpful. I also like to think of this as a plant. When destructive, poisonous thoughts enter our minds it is easiest to get rid of them when they are new, before they have rooted. Once we have focused on these for a longer period of time they will have take root and become too big to simply remove with a cue word/power phrase.
The Bigger The Challenge the Greater The Opportunity - when are backs are up against the wall we often reveal our true character. When we are winning and everything is going according to plan it's easy to be a good sport and play well. When things aren't going our way we can either cave and not give our best effort or we can look at this as a chance to show what we are made of; a great challenge that we are up for. With this type of mindset we can still play the next point focused and with great effort regardless of what's happened previously.
Superstitions - this is an odd one, but I really believe that superstitions can be helpful in sport. At the World Juniors this summer we had a boy on our team who would change his preserve routine every time he lost a ray, but if he won the point he would stick with it. Sometimes something so simple can help keep the mind out of the way from over thinking.
Pretend to Play Like A Top Player - whenever I step out on court after watching one of my favourite pro players I always play better. Someone without knowing exactly what I'm mimicking, I normally play better, with more confidence when I pretend to hit the ball, move and play like a top player. I think a lot of this has to do with the confidence top players display with the way they play and strike the ball. If you play pretending to be Paul Coll it's amazing how much harder you try to get every single ball back! When I play and pretend to be like Greg Gaultier I start playing much more patient and my spacing between the ball always improves.
Match Preparation/Confidence - If you are playing a tournament and you didn't train properly for it you're going to suffer physically at some point and this in of itself can keep you from being in the zone. If we go into an event prepared and feeling good about our game there is a far greater chance of playing our best squash and experiencing this state of flow.
Do you have any other ways that have helped you enter the zone when you weren't at first feeling it? I love this side of squash. It's really fascinating to me and when I play it isn't always the same thing that gets me into the zone. Sometimes it's about shaking off mistakes quickly, other times it's about playing a simple game, while others it's about just playing whatever shots feel right and another time it may be singing a tune in my head. There A routine can definitely assist you with this process as this is what most pro players have developed over the years. Many will include some imagery in their prematch routine to see themselves playing well and being successful prior to event stepping on court.
Most of us will also play better squash when we are having fun as opposed to being too serious or hard on ourselves. Learning how to laugh off mistakes and not take the so personally can help you be more relaxed and enjoy your squash which can assist with the state of flow. Get your mind and ego out of the way and just play!
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