Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Core Training For Squash

When I was younger I thought core training was just to get a 6 pack that you could show off at the beach. As I got older and learned more about squash, anatomy and the biomechanics of squash I realized how vital core strength and training that area of the body was. In fact, I'd say it's next to impossible to play squash at a high level without having done a lot of core training. Below is a pic of me from my late twenties and even at this point as an athlete you can still see some issues with my posture (rounded back and closeness to the ball) and this was partially due to a lack of core strength.


When I was a child and even as a teen I remember doing a lot of situps and crunches, but still my core was never strong enough. Over the past few years I worked with a personal trainer and I learned a lot of better exercises for improving my core strength which are also much safer for my back and neck. Let's take a look at some of these and discuss the importance of having a strong core for squash.


When I think about core strength it's not about if you have a 6 pack or not...it's about your ability for your core to provide stability and in the case of squash be able to hit a ball with accuracy and when appropriate to generate power. I have also learned that core strength is not just in the frontal plane so we need to spend time working our core in different planes, because the squash swing is rotational (which means it is not in the same frontal plane as a setup is). We also need to vary our exercises so that some our core is engaged for a long time (say doing a plank) while others we need to rapidly engage our core and relax it (for example doing a deadlift or a kettlebell swing).

 In the case of playing squash our core isn't engaged and producing maximum power throughout the entirety of the match or we'd be spent after a few rallies. It is however called upon at times to maintain our balance throughout our movement and swing, to produce additional force when hitting for power and it also provides us with a smoothness and high level of control when we aim for accuracy like when hitting drop shots. A strong core also means you can stay further from the ball. I often see people get very upright and close to the ball when they want to hit with power because they don't have the proper core and lower body strength to maintain the proper posture from a further distance to the ball.

Simply stated, having a sufficient amount of core strength in squash means you will also be able to maintain superior posture which equates to improved accuracy and it will keep you closer to the T area. People who have weak cores usually are moving as they hit and drop their heads. These people will also probably find it quite difficult to sit perfectly upright for more than a few seconds without a back rest.


So what type of core exercises are the best? I believe it's safest to start with exercises such as planks, side planks and bear crawls, but let's look at some of my favourite exercises. A couple of weeks ago I did an episode of Squash Shots where I demonstrated my 10 favourite core exercises. You can have a look at the episode here:


Here are some images of various exercises I have done over the past few years which all engage my core to her able top lift, swing, push, pull or balance the kettlebell, barbell, sled or band. 


 

When I worked with a trainer a lot of our work was with kettlebells and doing this means you are using more than 1 muscle group and almost every exercise will engage your core. Exercises like Russian getups, swings, carries, deadlifts, squats, split-squats, snatches and so on are all exercises that will require your core to be engaged to do them with proper form with any significant amount of weight.


A few months ago I saw a video of me playing from university and I noticed my posture wasn't great. Even though I was playing #1 on a top 8 team at that time I was lacking in the strength department. I know now that I spent too much time on aerobic fitness training and not enough on strength training, especially during the season. Hopefully you're reading this early enough on in your squash days so you can learn from my mistakes. I also highly recommend finding a good personal trainer to teach you how to do properly use equipment such as kettlebells and to train your core safely. If you have back problems, I encourage you to google Dr. McGill's 3 core exercises for back health.


Remember that proximal stability (your core) means superior distal control (of your limbs). If you're serious about your squash you have to dedicate time for off court training or you will never reach your potential. Just like the word implies, the core is the centre of being a superior athlete and an elite squash player.

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Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Maximizing The Dimensions Of The Court

The dimensions of a squash court are standard across the globe, but they are not used equally across all levels. The dimensions of a court are 32 feet long and 21 feet wide. The court boundary line at the front wall is 15 feet high. The square footage of the court is 1,207 and yet most of us don't come close to maximizing the full dimensions. Let's take a look into what shots make the court play biggest and how we can best practice this.


A drop shot can only land so short. Clearly a drop isn't going to land an inch from the front wall so we can't say we have 32 feet of length to hit int; it's probably more like 28-29 feet. If we think about the width of the court it is very difficult to optimize the courts width by hitting perfectly along the sidewall on our straight shots and superbly wide on our crosses. As we go up in levels this is something players are better able to do. Not only are you making your opponent do more work by having to get those few inches further from the T, but this can also mean a deeper lunge and less time or space allowed to play their next shot. 

For our first few years of playing most of our shots don't end up landing in either of the 4 corners. Many of our drives or loose, landing short or with poor width; we are also unable to keep the ball tight on a consistent basis. When we try and go short it takes unbelievable touch, especially as the ball gets warmer and bouncier and coming at you with some zip on it. This all being said if you can get your drops to land shorter, like Tarek Momen is so amazing at it does make the court play to its fullest dimensions. Below is a few attempts of me doing just this in a recent solo session. 



Also if you can hit dying length (second bounce in the very corner) this will make your opponent play the ball as far back into the court as possible. Below you can see a short clip where I was working on this in a recent session. I put my business card in the very corner and I was trying to hit it on the second bounce. It was quite challenging to hit, but it was very effective way to hone in your focus on the weight and angle of your drive. 


An area that we rarely hit and use on the court is the top portion. Most people don't use the top 5 feet of the front wall. If you think if the court as a 3 dimensional area there is a lot of unused space up there. That is also dangerous territory because good players are lethal on the volley so you when you do use height it has to be incredibly accurate. You see a lot of the top pros using the crosscourt lob from the back of the court nowadays which is an effective way of using the full dimension of the court and keeping their opponent off balanced. 

Having your drops and boasts land short, drives stay tight and die in the back corner with your widths unvolleyable and your lobs a perfect height, you will be maximizing the full dimensions of the court. How can you practice making the court play big?

Solo Drills
1) Use a target in the back corner for the second bounce for your attacking drives
2) Use a target for drops which is a couple of floorboards off of the sidewall so you focus on angling in your drops so it gets tighter after the first bounce
3) For your drop targets put them further up towards the front wall (around 2 racquets lengths) which will help you work on your floater drop (Tarek Momen special)

Condition Games
1. Use targets the same as above 
2.With masking tape section out the 4 corners and all shots must land within these 4 areas or the rally is over (as pictured below).



3. With masking tape section out the middle area of the court (front of the service box and 5 feet forwards) and ball aren't allowed to land in this area (as pictured below). 


4. All shots in the rally must be hit over the service line to get you to focus on using height effectively. You can also try and focus on hitting the panel (on panel courts) when under pressure. 


Of course there are shots that don't lie in the marked off areas above which can be quite effective, this is not the point of today's post. Today's post is to try and use the absolute edges of the court boundaries. Hitting our lobs higher, our crosses wider, our drive tighter without bouncing off the back wall. 

The angling in of drop shot is one that I'm going to have to really work at. I have a good short game, but my natural swing which is fluid and without thought angles is aiming for the nick and not angling in for tightness. You would think that this is simply a small adjustment of the target, but when you've practiced a certain swing so much it's quite difficult to adjust your posture and target to a point where it is a new and ingrained swing that will show itself in a match instead of my older more natural swing. I also find it quite difficult to get the ball to land super short, especially with a bouncy ball. I can take the ball short by cutting the ball and I rarely make unforced errors on this shot, but relaxing the arm and shortening the swing to let the ball stay further up the court is extremely challenging and takes unbelievable skill. 

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Sunday, February 2, 2020

Increasing The Popularity Of Squash

Why is it that other sports have become more popular and made it onto tv? Do you really need to have played the sport to watch and enjoy it? I bet there's a lot of Americans who have never played football, but are die hard NFL fans. The same could be said for Canadians and their hockey teams. Why has our culture made some sports and athletes famous, but squash is not one of them? Why are no squash pros a household name? How come we don't get mentioned on sport highlight shows? I've never met someone who follows squash who doesn't play squash (outside of the parents of kids who play) and that's simply isn't good for the health of our game. Today I'm going to discuss bunch of reasons why that might be and mention some ways how we could begin to change this.

One area I think is missing from squash is a stand out in the statistical category. In baseball there's a lots of number chasing and following; batting average, era, strike outs, home runs and so on. In hockey they track plus-minus, goals against average, penalty minutes, goals and points. The top are given major awards for leading their respective leagues in these statistical categories. The same is true for a a lot of other mainstream sports. These stats also attract a lot of people to wager on the outcomes and take part in fantasy sport leagues.


In squash I can't think of any stats that are tracked which seem critical or exciting to me, let alone an outsider. As a player and coach I realize and respect a top pro for making just a few unforced errors in an entire match and having a 60+ minute match, but a non-squash fan could care less about what a player didn't do for over an hour. I believe what the PSA is doing by publishing shots of the month is a good idea, but still something more is missing. Could it just be more difficult for finding important stats in an individual sport?

Golf is a sport which also tracks numbers. How many shots under par a player is, how far someone drives the ball, percentage of times a player hit the green or fairway in regulation and how frequently each player makes the cut. Doing this we can all easily understand and appreciate the players who are the best at each area of the game and we also tend to marvel at those that are the best of the best.

In tennis things are a bit different. Most people (including myself) only seem to track the majors. How many majors someone has won and what spot they are on the all time major championship list. There are a few stats that tennis uses within matches, but I don't think they stand out like a basketball or baseball players do. In tennis they can show first serve percentage, aces, winners, errors, double faults and they can also track the areas on the court a player has hit.

At this point you might be thinking that tennis and golf has the advantage of being under the Olympic umbrella. Golf and tennis were popular well before they were added as an Olympic sport. And even still I bet ratings are far higher at the majors for these sports than they are during the Olympics. I also would be willing to bet that any of these athletes would rather win a major title over an Olympic gold medal.

Can squash use some of the advanced technologies from other sports to increase our popularity? Does the tour need to set an official 4 majors (British Open, World Championships and??) and make them the pinnacles? Who has won the most squash majors of all time? How far away are the current players? I'm serious about squash and I don't even know the answers to these questions, so I couldn't expect any non playing squash person to get into and enjoy watching squash based on the race for squash major championships.


I realize that PSA Squash and Squash TV has a limited budget so maybe a few of the stats and slow motion replays we see in other sports aren't possible at the moment. But if they did have unlimited resources what could they do to further increase and engage their audience? Here's a few ideas that I've come up with which could be helpful:
- clearly identify and set 4 majors and place priority and post records for the all time greats
- show percentage of time a player makes it to each round
- have odds for players to win major championships and start a fantasy league for prizes and money
- track the number of nicks per match
- track the number of immaculate winners per match
- track the number of average shots per rally
- allow people to pick the winner of each match on social media (I think I saw this recently on Facebook)
- find a way to post the speed of shots played during matches
- calories burned
- let the fans in the stands or watching live on Squash TV electronically vote for the let decisions (even if they're not used this would be more interactive for the fans)
- let the Squash TV announcers be the judges for video replays
- track the number of dives
- have season ending awards for leaders of some of the above mentioned stats
- interview the coaches before matches and after games to talk about game plans and adjustments or at least have them mic'd up and translated if not in English
- offer free trials for Squash TV and offer it for free for anyone who says they cannot afford it


How else could squash spice things up and draw some interest from the general public? What about more team events or pro softball doubles? What if more countries were guaranteed at least 1 entry into the biggest events? I know in Canada there's rarely anyone to watch or cheer for in the big tournaments and if they are they rarely reach the glass court.


A lot of sport viewership is also increased by having a villain and someone to root against. Squash is generally a gentlemen's game so you don't see a lot of bad losers and temper tantrums. Players aren't even allowed to open the door to talk with the ref. I hate to say it, but perhaps a Nick Kyrgios would bring a spotlight onto our sport. I know that's a not the type of attention most of us want or think we need, but like they say 'any publicity is good publicity.' People love to hate certain sport teams or players for a variety of reasons and often tune in to root against them. I'm not saying squash should allow fighting like in hockey, but the last time I remember squash in the media it was for the young man at Trinity who taunted his much smaller opponent after defeating him.

I'm okay with squash not being as popular as other sports, but I also don't want to see it dissipate and fade into the sunset. Should the PSA need to allow a timeout during a match where a player can come out and receive coaching? If this was a rule Elshorbagy wouldn't have had to fake a non-cramping injury in the finals of the TOC!

Squash TV has started posting heart rates for some players and they show the time of games and sometimes the distance covered. These stats are a start, but they aren't up to the standard of the other sports and after watching a couple of matches they all tend to blend together and not reveal anything too exciting. I think we have to create some new and more important stats that we can all follow and understand. In baseball they seem to come up with a new stat almost every year like launch angle, WAR (wins against replacement), exit velocity and OBPS (on base percentage plus slugging). They also have players that are capable of breaking a record or do something spectacular within a single game (a no hitter, perfect game, strike out 10+ batters, an immaculate inning, a 100+ mph pitch, 5+ hits, hit for the cycle or launch multiple homers). In squash all I can think of is a bagel. Beating another top pro 11-0 is a tough feat, but when a player gets down 5 or 6 points you often see them ease up anyways so it's not really the most telling stat.


I don't think baseball, basketball or any other sport is better than squash, but it makes sense why these other sports are so much more popular and closely followed. Even if squash has to change the rules or court dimensions in some crazy way it could be for the long term benefit and health of our game. This is why I applaud the RAM scoring system. I like the idea, but the fact that 2 people can't easily do this on their own (because you have to stop time between points and add time back on if there's a rally over 1 minute) it isn't the final solution in my opinion. Ramy is definitely onto something though and he knows we have a superior product that just isn't getting the exposure it deserves. Perhaps if we can figure out a better way to showcase our sport with the use of some new stats, a fantasy league or some other new ideas we can increase the exposure of our amazing sport.

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