Developing a Squash World Champion: Part 3

July 26, 2011

If you are just joining us for part three, you may want to check out my first 2008 post on this topic – and last week’s post.  To make a long story short (read the previous posts:), if all squash coaches (and squash countries) have access to the same information why do some countries (in this case the Egyptians) outperform others (in some cases with much greater resources?

In the interest of brevity, since this topic could consume an entire weekend coaching conference, I am going to make my points, some of them hypothetical of course, in bullet form.  Please feel free to leave a comment below!

I will just add that my comments are based not just on my personal observation of the Egyptian’s (and their opponents), but on my entire consulting and coaching experience which include not only a Men’s Squash World Champion (Jonathon Power), but an Olympic Gold Medalist (tennis’ Sebastien Lareau), and several other World Champions (Jr. tennis, Canadian National Racquetball Team, etc.).

  • As Jahangir Khan pointed out in his book, and I paraphrase, “It’s not what you know – it’s what you do” – so we have to look beyond what people are saying (in books, at conferences, etc.) and see what is happening on the ground level;
  • In the U.S., top juniors are getting trained primarily through daily private lessons, often on their own family’s private squash court.  then they are packed off to prep school for an important four years of their life, with very little exposure to a wide variety of styles and competition – and perhaps too much emphasis on winning: “don’t play those beautiful risky shots – just hit the ball to the back”.  There are two main repercussions of his situations.
  •  The private lessons given to U.S. juniors, are often given by English and Australian pros who favor an attritional, conservative style of play – not only do players developed like this not develop the very difficult hand-eye coordination to play difficult, deceptive shots – they have little chance to counter or react against these shots.  The attritional style favours early success – but severely limits the ceiling of future potential as an adult – I have seen this first hand over several generations of Canadians – very fit players who find it difficult to stay in the top 20, because at the top everyone is fit: Dale Styner, Jamie Crombie, Sabir Butt, Gary Waite (to some extent), Shahir Razik (very un-Egyptian:), and Graham Ryding (to some extent).
  • The numbers of junior players in England has dropped dramatically (reducing the number of clubs that hacve a great variety of players) and getting players together has always been problematic in Canada due to the geography (although we did have two Toronto National Training Centers up and running in the late 1980’s which supported a slew of players who went on to decent pro careers) – this has led to “isolation”, whereas the Egyptians have set up a centralized system where all the players congregate in one of two places:  Cairo or Alexandria:  a great variety of players and styles and opponents with young and old and boys and girls training together facilitates the development of great anticipation, reaction time, and a high level of tactical awareness – not available when playing the same opponents week in and week out, and not developed in private lessons.
  • Status Quo:  In the last 10 years I don’t believe I have seen a squash coaching conference in the U.S. with an Egyptian Coach as the headliner – nor have I seen a coaching conference where Liz Irving was the keynote speaker/coach????  It is difficult to pick up on current trends – but in all honesty we had four Egyptian girls as semi-finalists at the 2003 Jr. Worlds in Cairo – how long has Nicol David been #1?  It is nice to see that there are now quite a few Egyptian associated summer squash camps (including the PPS Squash camps I directed in 2009 & 2010). If you keep doing what you have always done….

I do believe that it is possible for other countries to catch the Egyptians, but it will not be with the current crop of adult players – it will have to be with those who are now 8-12 years old (a “golden” age of learning) with a revamped squash coaching philosophy – which probably means 2020:)

ps.  I do not think this is incongruous with the LTADs – on the contrary – an LTAD that integrates these notions will be very effective.

Application for Squash Coaches:

  1. Pay attention to “trends’ in international squash – often it is the juniors (and their squash coaches), not the current world number 1’s who will provide the path.
  2. Teach and reinforce risky shot-making (since these skills take a long time to develop and to learn how to play against) while players are young (8-12) – this often means putting winning aside as a main focus.
  3. Related to the above – stop the over-coaching! Playing games and matches against a wide variety of opponents and styles is just as important as developing good strokes and perfect length.
  4. Stop prioritizing winning and rankings with junior that are under 18 – if you want them to succeed at the world level (no college player is suddenly going to turn on the skills required to get into the top 10 (adults) so forget it!).
  5. It is difficult, but you must expose juniors to the widest possible variety of opponents.



College Squash Coaches: If you are going to recruit: Dan Tudor is Your Man

March 15, 2011

If you read my previous post – you will have discerned that I do not believe  in recruiting junior squash players to play for a college team.

I just want to explain my rationale a bit further – and give you a great lead if you are hell bent on establishing a great team through recruiting.

First, some background.  Where I come from (Canada), “losers” go to the states to play Division I sports! If you are any good in racquet sports you go straight out onto the tour.  When I arrived at Smith College in 1994 for a part-time (.25FTE – so $9,000 to coach a 15 week season) Head Squash Coaching position I could not believe how win-oriented everyone was. At such a low-level of competition – since 1987 I had been doing mental training consulting with three different National Team Programs:  Squash Canada, Tennis Canada, and Racquetball Canada.  The teams and athletes I was with had a lot of success:

  • in 1989 Sebastien Lareau and  Leblanc won the Sunshine Cup (world champs Jr. Tennis) and the Jr. doubles at the French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open (Lareau went on to a successful pro career and win Olympic Gold a few years later) – most of the other kids in the Quebec Elite training groups tried the satellite tour – and when it became clear they were not going to make it, they went to top Division I college programs in the states;
  • I coached the Canadian Jr. National Squash Team and consulted at the Toronto National Training Center – Jonathon Power went on to be World #1 – Graham Ryding top 15 on the pro tour – the ones with lesser ability went off to college.  Note: on the women’s side some of the top Canadian women were able to successfully combine University with the pro tour:  notably Melanie Jans (#25) and Marnie Baizley (#30).  Again those top juniors unable to play pro often went to the states (Chris Stevens played #1 for Princeton, Jeremy Fraiberg played #1 for Harvard, etc.);
  • Racquetball was a bit different – we had quite a few world champions during the time I worked with the team – they all went to University in Canada:  Ross Harvey (and played #1 for the University of Guelph Squash Team while attending Vet School – at the OUAA squash champs I played racquetball with him as he had the world championships a week later); Heather Stupp went to McGill; Sherman Greenfield (who attributed his mid-career success as an unheard of “defensive style” to his squash playing – he was a solid “A” player.

So I do not think I can be blamed for thinking “what is all this fuss about college squash”.  Although the level of play has improved, due in part to both the growth in U.S. Junior Squash and an influx of foreign players to the “recruited” ranks, very few college players have gone on to play in the upper echelons of the pro tour – Demer Holleran had a good career on the women’s side and Julian Illingworth is still giving it a go on the men’s.

Note on the use of the term “loser”: I support any person at any level of athletic ability giving their all to improve in their sport of choice – this includes all levels of university and college competition.  What bothers me is the often “cuthroat” decisions made by self-important coaches and sport administrators concerning sportsmanship issues (including recruiting violations and athlete sport injuries ).

I really do believe that high school squash players should chose a college based on its academic suitability, and that squash coaches should work with the players they are presented with.

However, if you want to recruit, I highly recommend the approach of  Dan Tudor, and his company Tudor Collegiate Strategies.

Our AD, Lynn Oberbillig (a former Div. I coach – so big on recruiting) invited Dan in to run a workshop for our Smith College coaches.  What I took away from Dan’s workshop was two very simple strategies:

  1. Develop a team blog with video and photos so that recruits can see what your program has to offer;
  2. Be very clear on what you are “selling” – and consistently sell those “themes”.
  3. I addition to the workshop, if you follow Dan on Twitter and subscribe to his website and e-mails, you get regular information for free!

Two years after Dan’s workshop, I have had our best recruiting year ever – more than a dozen applications (our best previous year was 3), two ED recruits admitted, one regular decision admitted (we are still waiting to here if she accepts our offer), and one more top prospect still a possibility.  I am attributing all of this success to Dan’s approach since I have made no cold calls, written zero letters, and not attended a single junior tournament.

What I have done is simply make regular posts about our team’s activities and approach to squash – simply as Dan puts it (below), “trying to help the student determine if Smith College is the “right fit”.  If you Google “college squash” our Smith College Squash team site has come up as #2 – right behind the College Squash Association official website (the old site SquashTalk.com still sticks around at #2 occasionally???).


Squash Psychology: Children’s Motivation to Play Squash – the Big Picture

November 8, 2010

I have already written about the importance that enjoyment plays in a young squash player’s motivation to play squash.  A very simple approach for squash coaches is to make sure that their junior players enjoy lessons, training and competing!

But things are a little more complex than just making sure that kids “have fun”.  Sport psychology researchers have adapted one of Developmental Psychologist Susan Harter’s Models to come up with a complete picture of how young athletes’ motivation to play sport is determined.  Here is a simplified slide from Weinberg & Gould’s textbook (about to publish their 5th edition – but with completely acceptable earlier editions available on Amazon for under $10):

Weinberg & Gould (2007)

So while “enjoyment” is included (under “affect” which is a synonym for “emotion”) in this model, it is easy to see that the overall picture to developing motivation in children is in fact more complex.  What does this model describe?

  • In brief, the feedback a child receives from coaches, parents and peers partially determines their sense of “perceived competence” (how good they think they are at sport) and “self-esteem”;
  • The “type” of motivation a child has (“motivational orientation”), their anxiety level,  and the level of success they have (at squash for example), also contribute to competence and self-esteem.  To make a long story short, a win-oriented, extrinsically motivated outlook can result in low self-esteem and perceived competence and a process (improvement)-oriented, intrinsically motivated outlook usually results in higher perceived competence and self-esteem.
  • Both feedback and motivational orientation affect self-esteem and perceived competence – which then in turn influence “affect” (the emotions a child experiences) – which in turn influence the child’s motivation to a) choose to participate and b) how much effort they will expend in participating.

Harter’s original model (see below) from which the above slide was adapted, clearly shows two paths a child (and their parents & coach) may follow:

Harter (1981)

  • Stating in the center of the diagram (“mastery attempts, i.e., playing squash), the path to the right depicts failure (opponent or drill too difficult) and lack of reinforcement leading to anxiety and low perceived competence which leads to reduced motivation to participate.
  • The path to the left depicts mastery attempts followed by success (an opponent or drill of appropriate challenge) and positive reinforcement leading to intrinsic pleasure and increased perceived competence which increases motivation to participate and continue in sport (e.g., squash).

And you thought you were just giving a squash lesson:)

In 1992 I presented this model at the Tennis Canada Coaches Conference and subsequently wrote a chapter on the model in their Under 11 Coaching manual, making these key recommendations for coaches:

  1. Make sure you are a good coach who actually improves their athletes quickly – i.e., make sure they are successful.
  2. Related to the above, ensure optimal task difficulty (competition and practice) – a good practical guide being to make sure they succeed 50-80% of the time before making things more difficult (or get them to stop comparing themselves to others).
  3. Discourage a focus on winning and increase focus on improving (or make sure your students always win – good luck with that over a 10-year period which includes puberty and moving up in the age groups every two years :).
  4. Make sure parents are on board with the components of Harter’s model – otherwise they can unknowingly sabotage your efforts (more on parents in future posts).

Squash Psychology: Helping Your Child Enjoy Squash (Sport)

November 7, 2010

Yesterday was World Squash Day 2010! We were challenged by the World Squash Federation to introduce new players – including 20 children – to our sport.  Now our challenge is to keep them involved in a modern world with literally hundreds of alternative activities – how can we do this?

Actually – it is not that easy.  Parents, athletes, administrators and even squash coaches tend to view sport in an overly simplistic fashion.  That is not surprising given that most have very little academic background and direct professional practice experience with large numbers of children – what they have is their own subjective experiences: their own childhood memories or interaction with their own children.  In addition to having taken academic courses in the area (e.g., Developmental Psychology) I have been doing summer camps with kids for the past 37 years (yikes!) and written materials for coaching programs on how to best coach children from a psychological standpoint (e.g., the Tennis Canada Under 11 Coaching Program).

Most people tend to interact with children in a simplistic “stimulus-response” fashion – “if I/we do this – the child with do that”; “this is bad for the child – that is good”, discounting the fact that children are in fact thinking, feeling, acting beings.  Fortunately, there is a small group of researchers that seek to explain how children interpret and think about the feedback and interactions they receive around their sport and physical activity experiences.

One of the simplest yet useful models we can use to understand our children’s participation is the Sport Enjoyment Model originally developed by Scanlon and Lewthwaite in 1986.  As illustrated in the figure below, the factors that determine a child’s participation (e.g., parent’s support, alternative choice of activities, etc.) first affect a child’s enjoyment, which in turn determines their motivation to participate in sport (i.e., their sport commitment).

From Weiss, M.R., Kimmel, L.A., & Smith, A.L. (2001)

The numbers in the diagram are “coefficients” that range from zero to one (0.000 to 1.0).  The closer the number is to 1.0 – the stronger the relationship between the items (i.e., variables) in the diagram.  You can see that the coefficient (.959) on the line between Enjoyment and Tennis Commitment is almost 1.00 – so a child’s motivation to participate in a particular sport is highly related to their enjoyment! Here is one academic description (ignore it!) of the term “coefficient” “the size of the coefficient for each independent variable gives you the size of the effect that variable is having on your dependent variable, and the sign on the coefficient (positive or negative) gives you the direction of the effect (e.g., notice the number on the line between “Attractive Alternatives” and Enjoyment is negative – so the more attractive the alternatives to squash are – the less the child will enjoy squash.”)

In future posts I will present other models we can use to plan our interventions with children – in the meantime you may want to get a copy of this book:


Finally – A Blueprint to Develop a Squash World Champion!

July 28, 2010

One of my Smith College Squash Team Alums, Sarah Devotion Garner (“Devo”), writes from Vietnam – “I have three kids (boys & girls) aged 4-8 – when should I start them off in squash?”

The great news is that we now have a carefully crafted, precise, document (an LTAD) that incorporates all of the most recent sport science information to guide squash coaches and parents in how to introduce children to squash – and how to ensure their optimal development.  The slightly sobering news (for squash) is that this document has been produced by a tennis, not squash organization – Tennis Canada.

My first coaching certification was actually for tennis – I received my Tennis Canada Level 1 Certificate way back in 1976 (one year before I started playing squash).  In 1987, I moved to Montreal  do a Ph.D. in Sport Psychology at the Universite de Montreal and within a few weeks designed and implemented the mental training program for Andre Lemaire’s Elite Tennis Junior Training Group – most of his athletes were enrolled in the Boucherville Sport Etudes program at the local high school.  It was a talented group of athletes, with two of them “Les Deux Sebastiens” winning Jr. Wimbledon, French, and U.S. Open Doubles the next year – as well as being members of the 1989 Sunshine Cup championship team.  Sebastien Lareau went on to be ranked #1 in the world in doubles and an Olympic Gold Medal in Sydney (beating beat the Woodies).  My work with this group led to further work (and a Level III Technical Certification) with Tennis Canada including the writing of several chapters in coaching manuals, coaching conference presentations, and the training of some of their national coaches in sport science (including Davis Cup Coach Louis Cayer who has been stolen away by the British LTA to head up their coaching programs).  I am including this trivia as support for my main point ,which is that Tennis Canada runs the most effective and efficient coaching programs in the world – due mostly to a small, dynamic group of people led by Ari Novick with minimal interference  from the Association’s volunteer executive.  Keep in mind that Canada is now the #1 sporting nation in the world (winter sports:).

The Tennis Canada LTAD can be downloaded here, and in my opinion, the recommendations and guidelines can be wholly applied to the development of squash players.  Currently, no nation has developed a comprehensive LTAD for squash – although a few very rough ones do exist.  Here are a few keys slides and points from the document:

  • These shortcomings apply to nearly all of the major squash nations.

  • An overemphasis on technique and early specialization – at the expense of developing physical literacy (overall athleticism) – is the downfall of most junior coaching (and the current demise of U.S. tennis).  This chart clearly delineates the time frame for optimal development – and the important responsibility of parents.

  • This slide provides very specific advice for my alum, and other squash parents about when to start and how much to play.

The Tennis Canada LTAD is a great starting point for those national squash organizations interested in systematically and optimally developing their squash juniors – and it is free!  Parents have a responsibility to play catch and ball games with their kids several times a week from the earliest possible age (3, 4, 5, etc.), and to make sure they have a lot of opportunities for FUN sports participation in a wide variety of activities – not just squash.  Realistically, junior tennis programs (since they are now starting to be good thanks to ITF initiatives) are probably one of the most viable options for squash parents in most parts of the world, gradually switching kids over to squash as they start to approach the age of 10.


Developing Top Juniors: 3 Keys for Squash Coaches

May 8, 2010

I have already blogged on the specific elements to the Egyptian’s current success at the world level in squash – here are three general keys to systematically developing top players:

  1. Start with the big picture;
  2. Ignore early results;
  3. Focus on developing a wide repertoire of attacking skills and tactics.

Start with the Big Picture

Unfortunately there is no clear overview of the path to developing a top world class squash players.  Although several countries (e.g., England) have initiated long term athlete development plans (LTAD), they are short on specifics to the point that the average squash coach does not receive meaningful direction from them. And of course the plans are not even available to the club coach!  Jindrich Hohm’s 1987 book Tennis: Play to Win the Czech Way shows the exact detail to which squash coaches must go to develop world class players – any of the German Tennis Federation books are also excellent prompts for squash coaches.

Ignore Early Results

Early maturers can win at the junior level with fitness and defensive, conservative tactics – something that is often reinforced by adults in their environment (i.e., parents, coaches).  Once juniors reach the adult ranks everyone is fit and possesses excellent basic tactics.  Most top juniors end up languishing for years ranked 40-100 on the pro tour, never quite able to break through.  This unrealized potential can be traced back to being sidetracked by early success (“I have a good ranking so I must be doing the right thing”), instead of a longterm focus on developing a wide variety of athletic abilities and the ability to play an attacking, pressuring style (with considerable deception).  The average (exceptions to this are more prevalent in squash than say tennis due to the lack of depth in both the men’s and women’s game) age of peaking in squash is about 27-28 for both women and men – therefore squash is a late-development sport.

Focus on develop a wide repertoire of attacking skills and tactics.

I have already written a few articles on the importance of systematically developing deception and an attacking (currently Egyptian) style from an early age.  It is simply common sense that at the age of 20, when confronted with the situation that all opponents are fit and fast (with improvements and training highly accessible – you just have to increase effort), a player will find it very difficult to make the drastic changes in game style and technique required to set themselves apart from their opponents.  The time for juniors to learn these skills and tactics is during the Golden Age of motor skill learning – so 8-12ish – or in the year or two after starting for those joining the sport late.  It is also important to focus on the development of general (i.,e., not practicing shots on a squash court) as is outlined inn this video by Tennis Canada.


Tim Bacon, M.A., CSCS is the world’s leading expert on racquet sport science and coaching development having taught all areas of sport science as both a Lecturer at Smith College and as a Coach Developer for the Coaching Association of Canada while actively coaching (Squash Canada Level 4 Coach) and sport psychology consulting (25+ World Champions).  He currently runs his consulting practice out of Northampton, MA and maintains his active coaching as the Assistant Squash Coach at Wesleyan University during the CSA squash season (Nov. 1 – Mar. 1).


A Progressive Approach to Teaching Racquet Sports – Part 3

September 7, 2009

In parts one and two of our three part series on Teaching Racquet Sports (such as squash) to Large Groups we covered the rationale for using adapted or modified (“mini”) racquets, balls and court size to enhance the learning of the very young or non-athletic adults or youths.  We also covered the importance of using a “Rallying” versus “instructor feed” program so that the learning is relatively “open” and realistic so that players can fruitfully practice with each other outside of clinics and lessons (not possible if their only experience is a perfect coach-fed ball).

We suggested that early learning could be split into three units based on the distance from the wall or partner: 6′, 12′ and 18′ – the objective being for the student to be able to consistently rally 10 in a row with a partner at each distance before moving on to the next.  In our last post we covered Unit 1 from 6′ – and here are Unit 2 (12′) and Unit 3 (18′ ) explained in video.

Unit 2 – Rallying From 12 feet

Unit 3 – Rallying from 18 Feet

Summary for Coaches

  1. The learning of a correct grip is a fundamental that cannot be overlooked – a progressive program starting with minimal rallying distance is the only approach that quickly stabilizes a correct grip with large groups of unathletic learners.  If the grip is not correct then it is impossible for the learner to develop other  fundamentals (such as balance, correct swing paths, etc.).
  2. Optimal learning occurs when tasks are challenging (success ratio between 50-90% – made more difficult once 10 in a row is attained) and students learn by progression not correction (starting full court with a regular ball and racquet having to make frequent corrections to an “ideal’ swing).
  3. All of the most advanced tennis countries have now made the progressive approach their official pedagogy – it is time for squash (and other racquet sport) coaches to do the same.