Now that summer is upon us, many squash coaches are turning their attention towards planning their next squash season. Dedicated athletes are already logging 10-15 hours a week doing General Preparatory physical work such as low to medium intensity aerobic workouts and whole body strength-endurance exercises, and hopefully some fun activities like summer basketball, swimming, biking and roller-blading.
Most coaches do not feel as comfortable planning their team’s mental training as they do the physical and technical training aspects of squash. What exactly are the elements that need to be included in an effective program? Here they are in order of importance and priority:
- Establish a task (versus win) climate for your program.
- Assist athletes to develop a ‘Squash Focus Plan”.
- Implement regular match and Focus Plan evaluation procedures.
- Encourage your athletes to visualize regularly.
- Address individual athlete issues through a mental skills training program.
Each of these components takes considerable time to plan and implement, so depending on resource factors (assistant coaches, access to a consultant, number of athletes, other job responsibilities, etc.) you may or may not be able to complete all of these elements – which is why it is important to prioritize them in the order shown. Completion of higher priority components may obviate the need to deal with lower priority items. For example, research has shown that in a predominantly task environment, athletes tend to have fewer individual mental issues such as choking or lack of confidence.
Here is a link to an an excerpt from a 2005 research article which illustrates this latter point. To summarize, focusing on winning results in maladaptive behaviors such as anxiety and frustration, and focusing on the task or process of improving and performing encourages persistence, mental toughness and better play across a wide variety of situations.
There are several ways a coach can establish a task environment. The two simplest and most effective are through the use of goal setting and the development of a personal coaching philosophy that reinforces the importance of task over winning.
There are many excellent guides to setting goals available on the internet (here is one), the key point being to guide yourself and your athletes to set and emphasize mostly performance and process goals, and to set and use outcome goals wisely and sparingly. An excellent example of a suitable coaching philosophy can be found in ASEP’s “athletes first, winning second” credo.
Over the next few weeks we will examine the other elements of planning an effective mental training program for squash.