Avoid Overtraining Your College Squash Team!

March 26, 2011

My college squash team at Smith College is currently the only U.S. College Squash team practicing and training. According to NCAA Rules (after August 1st squash will no longer be an NCAA sport) each team is allowed an official season of 19 weeks, with 15 days of competition (the rules do vary slightly for Division I and Division III teams), and with careful planning (paying attention to overtraining) college coaches can increase the time period in which they are able to  influence their athletes’ training.  Unbelievably, the NCAA forbids coaches from conducting developmental activities with athletes outside of the official 19-week season – especially difficult to comprehend in the many sports (like squash) where athletes do not attain their optimal performances until their late 20’s.

With the U.S. College squash season just ending (for most:) at the Individual Championships on March 6 – now is the time that College squash coaches should be turning their attention to planning out the 2011-12 season. Hopefully coaches will be mindful of longterm planning considerations and use a periodization planning approach to structuring their annual or seasonal plan.  Here is a copy of our Smith College Squash Team Four-Year Plan (we get a lot of novices and very few experienced players) and also an example of an annual periodized plan.

One of the primary purposes of a periodized squash plan – in addition to assuring a peak at the most important competition of the year – is to avoid overtraining (other related terms include staleness, overreaching or unexpected underperformance syndrome).

Although training volume and intensity are the most important factors to control in avoiding overtraining, a college coach must also take into account a student-athlete’s academic schedule and their related academic stress.

I have observed three periods of academic stress on my squash team:

  • beginning of the semester as students struggle to transition to school and sort out their choice of courses;
  • mid-semester due to heavier workloads and midterm evaluations;
  • end of semester papers and exams.

Lack of sleep due to studying, and poor nutrition (rushed eating, missed meals, unhealthy snacking and excessive caffeine consumption) are also contributing factors to the “psychological” load of academic work.  This contributes to the imbalance in the training-recovery cycle.

Here are three main planning strategies we use at Smith College college to help avoid overtraining:

1) Build periods (days and weeks off) of recovery and regeneration into the team’s competitive schedule. If there is a college holiday (e.g. MLK day) we take the day off and do not practice.  If there is a college holiday of a few days – we take the entire week off and add the “extra” week either to the start or end of our schedule (this year it was the end – next year it will be the beginning).  Ideally, we try and construct our macro-cycles (planning units of 4-6 weeks), so that we build volume and or intensity for three weeks – then have an easier “unloading” week (e.g., Bompa, 2009; Sleamaker, 1989).  Here is the draft of our season schedule next year showing weeks of built around the Smith College academic calendar.

2) Build regeneration activities into every practice.  For the last two years we have been following the CorePerformance training philosophy closely in planning the strength and conditioning part of our squash practices.  Every Core Performance workout ends with several regeneration and recovery activities.  Here is an example workout (Core Performance – Sun. feb. 20) and a short video of some example activities:

3) The last strategy simply involves closely observing the team for signs of fatigue, injury and attention, and watching their response to training exercises and being ready to modify practice plans or a week’s schedule (including giving unplanned days off) on short notice.

Application for Squash Coaches:

1.  Plan rest and recovery into your season schedule.

2. Monitor your athletes for signs of overtraining.

3. Be aware of the additive effects of academic stress to the overall training load.


Season Long Mental Training for Your Squash Team!

January 29, 2011

With 123 posts now published on this blog (440,000 views and top Google search result of “squash coaching”) it can be a little daunting to organize all of this information.  Luckily, blogging tools can help out.  Here is how readers can organize information on this blog:

Use the “Search” Function

Most squash coaches need help in the area of “squash psychology” .  Enter these terms into the search box, and your result with feature most of the posts on this topic, sorted according to reverse chronological order.  Here is a link to the result of that search.

Use the “Categories” Function

If you are looking for a fairly broad category of posts, clicking on the “Categories” link to the appropriate topic in the sidebar with produce all of the blog posts that I have assigned to that category, in reverse chronological order.  Often the same post might be assigned to two categories – for example a post of focus plans might be assigned to both “Mental-Psychology” and “Tactics” since focus plans are composed of both tactical and mental reminders.  Here is a link to the result of hitting the “Mental-Psychology” category link.

“E-Book”- Like Sorting

This is something that both the reader or I could do (although I have not done this yet):  sort the posts in a particular topic area into a thematic order – for example the sort from the most simple to complex, or perhaps most useful for coaches in the area of psychology – the order in which you would present the topics to your athlete over a season (e.g. a periodization of mental training of blog posts:).  A reader could do this in Word using hyperlinks, or I could simply blog a post that looks like this:

General Preparation Phase

Meeting #1:  Ideal Performance State for Squash.

Meeting #2:  Mental Training for Beginning Squash Players

Meeting #3:  Goal-Setting for Squash

Meeting #4: Establishing a Positive Squash Training & Competition Environment

Meeting #5:  Visualization for Squash

Specific Preparation Phase

Meeting #6: On-Court Mental Skills for Squash

Meeting # 7 : Positive Self-Talk During Practice

Competition Phase

Meeting # 8:  Staying Focused Between Points

Meeting #9 : Squash Focus Plan = Psychology + Tactics

Meeting #10: Squash Match Mental Evaluations

Meeting #11: Simulations to Prepare for Major Championships

Meeting #12: Diagnosing & Improving Performance Problems

Check the Squash Science YouTube Channel

I often try and include video in most posts – but sometimes I have videos on the Squash Science YouTube Channel which are not mentioned on this blog – so sometimes another source for squash science information for squash coaches.


Squash Psychology: Not always in a textbook!

December 13, 2010

I did not learn everything I know about squash psychology from a text book during my M.A. at the University of Western Ontario and Ph.D. studies at L’Universite de Montreal.  I was reminded of this last week when one of my co-captains, Elizabeth Guyman, on the Smith College Squash Team that I coach had to rest an injured wrist for the entire week.  In addition to reading several chapters from several different sport psychology books, visualizing, doing her CorePerformance workout, doing bike intervals, and playing left-handed, I had her read two chapters from Geoff Hunt’s book.  I consider his two chapters “Match Play” and “Tempo and Temperment” to be two of the finest sources of “squash psychology” related to match play. (Note: I suspect we will have to switch Guyman over to being a “left-handed” player when she returns to Smith College on January 3rd – something we have done before with a previous Smith captain Becky Spalding:  she started her season as a right-hander with a field hockey injured wrist, playing one match for us at #4 before we had to switch her over due to a too long predicted healing time – she won her last match as a left-hander at #4 for us at our nationals at #4:)

The above slide shows that squash coaches can obtain useful knowledge of squash psychology (MT = mental training) from three sources – the information in Hunt’s book falling into the “subjective experience as a player” category since he had not done any significant coaching at that point in his career.  “Professional practice experience” would be that knowledge picked up as a squash coach or sport psychology consultant through observation and practical experience working with players and other coaches. This latter component can be critical in integrating the other two aspects of squash psychology knowledge.  Continued involvement in teaching academic sport psychology has helped me to critically reflect on my consulting experiences outline in the slide below.

Application for Squash Coaches:

  1. “Regular” squash books written by former top players can be a great sources of sport psychology knowledge – a great supplement or adjunct to sport psychology books and a squash coach’s own subjective experiences as a player and professional practice experience as a coach.

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:


Diagnosing & Improving Squash Psychological Performance Problems

July 6, 2010

New AASP Logo

In my 24 years of sport psychology consulting I have found a very simple framework for diagnosing and correcting on-court mental problems encountered by squash players (note that I am referring to on-court, squash performance problems – if you as a coach suspect a problem of a more “clinical” nature (e.g., eating disorder, serious depression or generalized anxiety, etc.) you should encourage your athlete to see appropriate help:

  • Simply setting a psychological goal targeting the mental problem (e.g., choking at the end of a match) is often enough to “cure” the problem.  In reviewing hundreds of goal-setting studies in business and sport, researches found an across the board 15% improvement in participants who set specific goals versus those who simply “tried their best”.  There is a very good “self-interview” form in earlier editions of Terry Orlick’s book “In Pursuit of Excellence”, and an excellent goal-setting form in his book “Psyching for Sport”.  If you drop me a line of can send you a squash-specific, adapted, version of these forms (yes – for free:).
  • Since most squash performance problems revolve around anxiety (e.g., “I am afraid to lose”) and confidence (e.g., “I don’t think I can win”), understanding the link between anxiety/confidence and attention (see the slide of Nideffer’s simple explanation of choking) makes solving the problem relatively simple – 3-4 weeks work on relaxation and self-talk skills (as in the video below). 

If  the points above do not solve the squash psychological problem, it is likely that understanding  and working on two, slightly deeper, more complex phenomona will help:  a) importance of a task orientation and motivational climate and b) Albert Ellis’s model of “Rational Thinking.  Both are usually related to how a squash player was brought up – in other words how they were socialized into competition by  their parents (primarily), peers, sporting organizations and coaches.

  • If goal-setting and basic mental skills training do not address common squash psychological problems, often the reason is that the athlete has what is termed a “win” orientation instead of the more productive “task” orientation.  Here is a link to the background reading.  If an athlete does have a “win” orientation and their social environment is also “win’ oriented, it takes a fair bit of time (several weeks to months) to get them (and their entourage) to adopt “task” goals.
  • Another common reason that basic mental skills training does not work is that an athlete holds one or more “irrational beliefs” that hinder them from changing their behavior.  We all possess these irrational beliefs “(I must be liked and approved of by “everyone”; “I must be perfect”, etc.) to some extent – the key is to recognize them, and not let them interfere unduly with our pursuit of excellence in sport.  Luckily, Albert Ellis (considered by some to be the Father of modern cognitive behavior therapy – the current dominant paradigm in psychology counseling) has clearly outlined (in many books and articles) the procedure for disputing the irrational thoughts that cause the unproductive beliefs.  My recommendation is to read and work through the ‘Refuting Irrational Ideas” chapter in the Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook – very simple language and lots useful, practical forms and exercises – I have used it with great success when teaching Stress Management to College students.

Application for Squash Coaches

  1. When encountering a on-court mental problems with a player – set a specific goal to improve it – it should help.
  2. Most squash mental problems are related to anxiety and confidence – try a basic mental skills program with your athlete – it should help in most cases.
  3. If goal-setting and basic mental skills training do not work, the culprit is often a “win” orientation and climate (versus “task”) or irrational beliefs – “self-help” books can be of benefit if this is the case.
  4. If necessary seek the help of a qualified sport psychology consultant – here is a link to the AASP consultant finder (I am not a member as I qualified for and was registered with the Canadian Mental Training Registry which predates the AASP Certification).
  5. You can click on the “Mental-Psychology” link in the categories section of this blog’s sidebar for more info and squash and psychology.

Squash Psychology: Focus Plan = Psychology + Tactics

February 26, 2010

How can a squash coach best help their player to play well and get into their Ideal Performance State?  One of the best ways is to coach their players to write down a plan that includes three parts:

  • Pre-match plan – to help them get focused and warmed up before play;
  • Match Plan – reminders about their tactical game plan, perhaps a few key technical points, and some general reminders (psychological or motivational).
  • Refocus or Distraction Control Plan – a list of potential distractions and solutions.

The idea for a Focus Plan was initiated by Canadian Sport Psychologist Terry Orlick based on his work and research with Olympic athletes.  Since 1986, I have continued to adapt the idea to make plans for squash, tennis and racquetball players – with pretty good success since many went on to become world champions and successful professional players.  This idea of preparing written plans formed the basis for the Coaching Association of Canada’s Level 4 Coaching Certification – the steps are outlined in detail in two of Orlick’s books – Psyching for Sport and Coach’s Guide to Psyching for Sport – now out of print but available on Amazon.

I have used many different forms for the plan with the thousands of athletes I have worked with since then – here is the latest version for you to download – Focus Plan 2010 – I have added two new sections in the last few years:

  • Competition Philosophy Statement:  A brief statement by the athlete about why they compete – it can help keep the pressure off (e.g., I always go and give my best – win or lose”)
  • Communication Preferences:  What the athlete likes to hear from teammates and coaches before, during and after competition.

This will help your squash players to avoid the “fainting goat” syndrome when faced with competitive pressure:

Application for Squash Coaches:

  1. Help your squash players perform consistently by getting them to develop and use a written down game plan.
  2. Discuss communication preferences with your athletes to improve your on site coaching.
  3. Help your athletes develop and use a competition philosophy that fires them up, but also helps keeps the nervousness away.