Visualizing Squash Tactics

February 1, 2017

How old are the best squash players in the world?  The PSA released the latest rankings today so let’s calculate the average age of the best of the best – the men’s top 5  (in the interest of gender equity we will look at the women’s top 5 in another post):  29.8 years old.

men-feb-2015-top-5-psa

Why – in the “world’s fittest sport” (except for Nordic Skiing) are the athletes so old? Or put another way – how can these “old” athletes beat younger fitter athletes in their late teens and early 20’s?  The answer lies in the older players’ “tactical expertise”, in other words their better decision-making and choice of shots – average shots per squash game is 200 – so up to 1000 tactical decisions where to play the ball per match.

Let’s look at the example of an 18-22 year old college player who does not want to wait another 7-8 years to play their best – how can they accelerate their “tactical expertise”?

  • limit closed mindless “blocked practice” drills like boast/drive to less than 20% of practice;  these drills let an athlete “get in a groove” and “feel good” but research shows this type of drilling has fewer benefits in actual match play.
  • use a high proportion of conditioned games (Games Approach), and variable (at least two different skills) and random drills that force a player to make match like choices.
  • play and practice with a variety of opponents/partners – court rotations (winner up and loser down) are a great way to do this.
  • encourage players to critically reflect on each match (Squash Match Evaluation Form) and allow them access to video of their matches to help them assess their performance.
  • develop or adopt a model of tactics which can serve as a reference point to speed up acquisition of tactical expertise – at Wesleyan University we use the Egg Model that I developed and refined.

olympians-use-imagery

Lastly use visualization (imagery) to speed up memory and learning of “good” tactics. According to recent sport psychology research more than 95% of Olympic Medalists and World Champions use visualization regularly to prepare for competition. Visualization procedures are very easy to learn and consist of finding a quiet place and focusing on breathing for 3-5 minutes to get into a state of relaxation – and then simply imagining the situation you want to achieve – 10-15 minutes a day is sufficient: before or after practice as part of warm-up or cool-down, before sleep or right after waking up are usually convenient times.

Here is a list of specific visualization topics that we have asked the Wesleyan Squash Teams to visualize this week:

  • straight volley drops off harder hit balls that pass though the “Yolk” – slower moving balls are killed or volleyed to dying length.
  • quick straight drops off harder, lower boasts from the back-court – hold and snap (to dying length) slower moving boasts – ideally show drop (deception) to drag the opponent forward.
  • lifting the ball higher from outside the Egg especially in the back court and when stretched – avoid “blasting your way out of trouble”.
  • insert “bursts or flurries” of 3-5 rallies of change of pace (slower/faster) or game style (hard hitter/retriever/shot-maker) to disrupt an opponent’s play in a relatively low-risk way.
  • finishing games and matches (when the score reaches about 8-8) with tough percentage play – focusing on hitting good aggressive length and using kills (12″-15″ above the tin) instead of drops and avoiding going short from the back-court when the opponent is on the T – being patient and forcing the opponent to take high risk shots and make mistakes first.

Don’t wait until you are old to play your best squash – change your practice habits, adopt a tactical model, and visualize to speed up the process of being a “smart” player.


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).


Basics of Ubersense Video Technique Analysis Workshop

January 31, 2014

Ubersense Logo

What would make this workshop a success from your point of view?

What – specifically – do you want to get out of this workshop?

How have you used video? How would you like to use video?

—————————————————————————————

I  Conceptual Background: Performance Analysis (using video)

The Coaching Process

  • Notational Analysis (Tactical Analysis/Analytics)
  • Technical (Biomechanical Analysis) – we are here today (Ubsersense)

Performance Analysis:  Future Directions

II Ubersense Basics (simple to complex)

  • Download the app
  • Open App and record an athlete’s technique
  • Show the athlete their performance (also in slow motion or frame by frame)
  • Email the video to the athlete
  • Compare the athlete’s technique to an “expert’s” (side-by-side)
  • Use Drawing Tools

Let’s Try it!  in pairs film a squat from the side and go through the workflow above (do each of the “bullet” steps above) – 15 minutes!

III Practical Use of Ubersense

  • immediate video feedback in a practice or game
  • save time – video and email same day – analyze next day
  • save time – no asst. athletes can film selves
  • enhance athlete learning – if they have the app…self-analyze
  • compare to ideal/expert
  • track athlete progress (last year-this year?)
  • other uses?

III  Ubersense Advanced Skills

  • import video from other sources
  • make written notes
  • use voice over
  • create a “video report” for the athlete

IV What’s Next?

  • Keep up to date with Ubersense advances: subscribe to their YouTube Channel or Blog; follow them on Twitter
  • Come to the Advanced Ubersense Workshop
  • Improve your analysis – take a Sport Biomechanics or Kinesiology course to become a better analyzer.
  • Learn and use a Tactical (Notational Analysis) Smartphone App:

– Touchstat Highlight (now Singulus) (limited file size)

– Dartfish EasyTag (need to video separately)

– Focus X2i (for iPad)


Basic Squash Drills vs. “Games Approach” – Which is Better?

March 25, 2012

My ESS110 Introduction to Sport Coaching that I teach at Smith College is built around the ASEP (since I am in the U.S. – in Canada it would be built around the NCCP) Coaching Principles Course.  The target audience for the ASEP course is the high school coach.  In a sophisticated sporting country the course would be linked to LTADs – perhaps the “Train to Train” phase – but we are in the U.S. where the  focus is on short term results versus long term development – except for the rare exception.

One of the strengths of Coaching Principles course materials are very well and simply written.  The other major strength, especially useful for squash coaches, is that the course introduces the pedagogical approach know as the Games Approach.  I have blogged on this before, usually using the term ‘Tactics First”.

Unfortunately, most of the squash world, meaning players and coaches are entrenched in an overly technical approach to the game, with a focus on teaching strokes, often stereotypical strokes (e.g., the forehand drive) unrelated to any tactical situation.  For example most squash pros introduce new players with a “forehand” lesson where they feed players a very easy ball and ask the student to hit it straight back to them – progressively moving the player on to “mindless” straight length or boast-drive drills, focusing on the technique of “hitting better length”, in situations where we ingrain the instinct to hit the ball back to our opponents.  My hypothesis is that most squash players do not peak until the age of 27 or 28 since it takes that long to become a smart squash player and undo the effects of stupid drilling!

The problem of course is that squash is a decision-making game, where the choice of shot is of key importance, as a well hit shot directed back to the opponent is of little use. The Games Approach advocated by ASEP is basically the equivalent of the squash “conditioned game” (e.g. a game where is the opponent drops you must redrop or hit a cross-court) , the big difference being that the Games Approach coaching sessions starts with the conditioned game, and all coaching and drilling for the rest of the session targets student  improvement at that particular game tactic.

This preference for simplistic, not thinking drills is somewhat comically reflected in the statistics on my Squash Science YouTube Channel.  My video with the most views is “Basic Squash technical Drills” with 7,865 drills?!? The only reason I posted this video is that I was coming back from my total hip replacement and needed to do some easy moving drills that involved no uncertainty or decision-making.

Two of my better tactical training videos have only got 2,500 and 1,800 views???

In the first video we start the session with a conditioned game that forces player A to make a choice in the front-court. This was the third video session that looked at tactics in the front court, the first being drop or cross-court, and the second being drop or lob. This is classic Games Approach

A key part of winning a point is not only playing a good attacking shot, but also playing the correct follow-up or second shot, a notion that I thought we captured very well with our ball machine video – often difficult to do repetitively in a one-on-one coaching session.

Ball Machine: 

  • “Why did you keep playing that shot instead of ______”,
  • “You had to do a better job adjusting”,
  • “Why did you go for that winner then? ,
  • “You needed to attack more instead of just hitting it to the back”.These are all comments that squash coaches make to players who have been trained with an over emphasis on traditional technical drills.  We cannot expect our players to become smart players if we don’t give them a chance to make decisions in our coaching sessions.


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 (Certified Squash, Tennis & Badminton 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).


Decision Training for Squash Coaches: Part I

August 1, 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you coach squash, and have not read and applied the knowledge from Joan Vicker’s (2007) book “Perception, Cognition and Decision Training”, you are missing a great opportunity to improve your squash coaching – and therefore the performance of your squash athletes.  Vickers teaches and conducts research at the University of Calgary, and since I have seen absolutely no reference to her book in any of the racquet sport or recent motor learning literature, I think we can safely assume that her book is only being used by a relatively small sample of Canadian coaches and athletes.

I first encountered Vickers’ Decision Training (DT) concept in an article she wrote for the Canadian Journal for Women in Coaching.  I was intrigued because her model of how sport skills and strategies should be taught was highly similar to 3-4 other models that I had already been exploring and using (for 24 years:)  in my squash coaching and consulting.  As one of the few sport scientists who is a  “generalist” and not just a “specialist in one discipline” (and also an active coach 20-30 on-court hours a week in the winter season who actively seeks ways to apply sport science knowledge), I was again struck by the phenomenon of several different researchers arriving at the same conclusion – all of them either unaware of each others’ work or unwilling to acknowledge it.

Here are the four sources (along with the current best web reference) of these similar models – I think “Tactics First” is the best term – and honestly I think the act researchers need to get their act in gear and organize their domain if they really want sport coaches to embrace and use their concepts!

  • Teaching Games for Understanding (TGFu)
  • Games Approach
  • Method des Actions (“Action Method” being the poor English translation) – originally conceived by the Swiss sport pedagogue Jean Brechbuhl and the official coaching method of Tennis Canada since 1985 (Squash Canada since 1998?), the best example of current application is AceCoach.
  • Decision Training

All four of these sources postulate that the initial point for teaching or coaching sport skills is to start with the tactical or game context or situation (i.e., have the athletes start with a conditioned (modified) game or a game with a specific tactical goal (e.g., win as many points with drop shots as possible) before teaching technique.

Vickers provides the perfect summary of research evidence to support this “Tactics First” approach in visual graphic form:

In the graph, the term “behavioural training” means the traditional “technique first” approach to coaching.  Basically the graph shows that those who learn “technique first” do better in practices and early in the season, and those who learn “tactics first” improve more slowly at the start (obviously the material is more complex) but perform much better later on in the season – when it counts!

Ever wonder why your athletes are great at practice but just can’t perform under pressure when it counts?

In a series of articles over the next few months I will go over the different parts of the DT model and explain exactly how to apply it to coaching squash, so that your squash players perform at their highest level when they need to. Note that if you are thinking of purchasing the book, it is divided into three parts, with DT covered in the third part (I am not that crazy about the first two parts relate)d to “gaze”).


New Coaching Site: Squash Hero

March 12, 2011

Squash Hero is a new commercial site whose primary business is to sell racquets – BUT – they also seem to have an interesting Squash Tips section.  I stumbled across a YouTube video first – which led me to the site.  Coincidentally I received an e-mail the next day [promising me a free t-shirt if I blogged on the new site (full disclosure – I like new t-shirts – although it is tough to get one that fits my muscular, slim frame properly:).

Their Tip Section is a compilation of tips and videos from other squash sources – but it is nice to have them listed in an orderly fashion (although the list could be improved with a “tactical framework” categorization.

On the racquets side of their site they have an innovative “racquet selector” which at the very least is a competent listing of available racquets from mainstream manufacturers. (although I think full functionality will come with the “official” opening of the site in the near future).  So a promising new site for both choosing a racquet and coaching tips – if they are able to sustain their current momentum!

 

 


Squash Coach Training & Education Must be “Context-Specific”

February 2, 2011
  • There are squash coaches who are excellent coaches at an elite level – but who are incompetent teaching beginners.
  • There are squash coaches who are excellent coaches with beginning young children but not very good with adult beginners or advanced players.
  • There are squash coaches who are well meaning but ineffective at all levels.
  • There are squash coaches who are excellent coaches at both the beginning and elite levels.

If these statements are true, and you believe that people learn how to become competent at a particular profession (e.g., you are not “born” to be a plumber), then there must exist a different skill set (i.e., knowledge, skills,values) for squash coaching at both the beginner and elite level – and also other varied settings:  college, high school, club, urban youth, etc.

This means then, that squash coaching education courses must be designed around a  particular context.  This also means that the standard approach to setting up Coaching Conferences – inviting the coach of the current world champion or the number 1 team – is in fact not the best method of “educating” coaches – the majority of whom are not coaching players in the top 40 (acknowledging here that there is a considerable amount of thoughtful athlete development (other than simply playing tour events) that must occur to move someone from #40 to #10 in the world.

As an aside, I have noted that most squash coaching conferences are set up by administrators, who may have subjective experience as a participant and observer, but who have no formal training in Sport Pedagogy or Coach Education – or even a P.E. degree.  The same weakness is evident in U.S. College sport where again major decisions in sport policy, coach hiring and evaluation,  are being made by people who have no formal training in the appropriate area – I am referring here to Athletic Directors and the NCAA.

One country with a thoughtful approach to this area is Canada.  I have been fortunate enough to have been involved in two major overhauls of their coaching system (generally acknowledge to be the best non-academic system in the world) – the most recent one being based on training coaches according to a specific context.

If you want to “concretize” (a great French word meaning to make “concrete” or “practical”) this long-winded post you can go to the Coaching Association of Canada’s online consultant “Amanda” to find out what specific context – or contexts, as most squash coaches work in more than one – you need to be trained in.


Coaching Squash Front-Court Tactics with a Ball Machine

December 19, 2010

Most squash coaches use a squash ball machine solely for technical training – often working with their players to groove one particular shot – or hitting several shots from the same, identical feed.  This training, although it can be valuable, is “closed” training and does not improve a player’s “squash intelligence”.

Ideally, we should try and improve our player’s technique within a  “tactical context” – where our player is forced to “read” the situation and make a decision – preferably training a) their movement to the ball to play the shot; b) the shot (s) itself – hopefully the most frequent or common tactical response(s); c) their recovery and the next (or follow-up) shot.  This is an example of a  “tactics first” approach to squash training.

Nearly all of “normal” squash drilling is “non-tactical” – there are no decisions to be made, and often the patterns being drilled may get you into trouble in a real game – the boast-drive drill (and variations) being a perfect example of this.  Rarely will either male or female pro players drive straight from the front off an opponent’s boast (especially from the front right) due to the danger of a stroke being called if their drive is loose. They usually will play a cross-court drive or lob, or a straight drop.  I put together the a few “front-court” points from the last five minutes of a WISPA Grainger-Grinham match – they only drive straight from the front twice in the entire five minutes – twice a stroke against Grainger (at :20 and 1:58), and once against Grinham (forehand side).

Even some of the world’s smartest players insist on this type of closed, boast-drive drill, as we see in this Jonathon Power video clip example below. Admittedly there are constraints when drilling in pairs (you have to hit to a known, convenient location for the drill to continue), and this type of non-tactical drilling can be great physical training (versus doing your aerobic training on a bike).

A squash ball machine, in combination with a drilling partner can overcome the drawbacks of the two types of “closed” training described above – allowing both tactical improvement along with continuous, game-like physical efforts.  Wesleyan’s University’s Shona Kerr and I put together a video demonstrating another approach to training drops and drives in the front court with the ball machine as an example of a “tactics first” approach.  Here are the six steps (we see the first four involving the ball machine in the video):

  1. Train the most common tactical situation.
  2. Train the second most likely tactical choice.
  3. Alternate the two shot choices.
  4. Randomize the two choices.
  5. Train the two choices in a conditioned game (where the game “rules” force the tactical patterns to occur more frequently than n a real match)
  6. Use and evaluate the tactics and shots in a real match.