Coaching Front-Court Squash Tactics – Where to Start?

Squash is one of the most tactical of the dual-combat category of sports – with up to 1000 tactical decisions needed per match (1000 shots = 1000 decisions).  Most squash coaches seem to approach squash tactics as an afterthought, focusing most of their efforts on teaching and drilling technique, and increasing the fitness of their players.  Most tactical input and feedback is given verbally right before, during, and right after a match.

If tactics are so important, why do most squash coaches approach tactical training in such a haphazard fashion? In a sport where university degrees in sport science and physical education are a rarity, most squash coaches rely on coaching “the way they were coached” – which means a lot of emphasis on “how to hit the ball” as opposed to “developing smart players”.

I have already written extensively on the importance of a “tactics first” approach to squash training – the purpose of this article is to give a concrete practical example of how to plan tactical training.  Here is an example of the steps a squash coach could use when training tactics n the front of the court:

Step 1.  Develop or adopt a model of squash tactics that can provide a framework for planning training.  In this case we will use a “zone model” where we categorize tactics based on where the action is taking place: front, mid- or backcourt.  The principle behind a zone model is that the location of your position on the court is the primary (of course there will be other factors such as speed of opponent, fatigue level, etc.) determinant of your shot selection. We developed a highly evolved zone model of squash (System 3) which we used at the Princeton Squash camps in the 1990’s and early 2000’s (more on that in the upcoming weeks).

To keep things simple, according to my zone model, in the front of the court you are either attacking (includes counter-attacking) or defending – there is no real “rallying” (simply hitting the ball deep with little pressure).

Step 2. Make a list of all of the tactical situations that need to be covered.  Your list could be developed in several ways:

  • list the most frequently occurring situations, the most common first (e.g., responding to a straight drop) – the least common last (responding to a reverse angle);
  • list the situations in order of difficulty, the easiest first (e.g., responding to a high 3-wall defensive boast) and the most difficult last (responding to a ball in the nick);
  • list the situations most pertinent to your athlete‘s needs, so for example if they are very strong on the forehand side, you may only need to work on situations on the backhand side of the court.

Step 3. Prepare a list of coaching points for each of the tactical situations in your list.  So several key points for each of the elements of the shot cycle:

  • Anticipation/watching – what does your player need to “read” or notice in this particular situation (e.g., size of opponent’s backswing?)
  • Movement to the ball – straight in or shaping required? Prepare racquet or use arms to move explosively?
  • Stroke – key elements for each of the five parts of a swing, including kinaesthetic cues for the learner (“touch”, “stroke”, “snap”, etc.)
  • Recovery – correct movement to the best court position from which to cover the most likely responses from the opponent – should include training the most likely next shot(s) if possible (e.g., look to volley a cross-court or re-drop after playing a tight straight drop in the front).

Step 4. Plan the training session.  Ideally the session should start (Games Approach) with a conditioned game that targets the desired tactical situation(s) and responses.  This allows the coach to assess the player’s decision-making and technical skills in a more game-like (versus closed drill) situation.  For example, the coach or player A could start the game with a boast (high or low; or defensive vs. working) from the back of the court, an player B (the one being coached) must respond with a straight drop or cross-court (drive or lob).  After evaluating the performance in the conditioned game, the coach can train/drill/teach the player, and then finish the session with the same conditioned game so that the both the student and coach can observe the player’s improvement/progress.

Here is an example of a plan to develop the front court tactics and skills of a 5.0 player.  The plan is to train the player’s most likely responses to 3-wall boasts – a complete plan would include a similar progression in responding to 2-wall working or attacking boasts, straight drops and cross-court drops (since movement to the ball, choice of shots, and recovery would differ slightly from the 3-wall scenarios):

Obviously the number of situations trained is highly dependent on time available.  I would cover most of these with my college team in their 19-week season – but perhaps only a few (or most, but with less depth) with a twice a month private lesson client. Using a zone model of tactics as a planning framework, a coach would need to go through a similar process for both the mid-court and back-court.  The outcome should be a smarter, better squash player in a much short period of time!

Here is an example of how a session like this might look: 

And a video of some professional play in the front court where you will see examples of most of these situations: 

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