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.
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Kinaesthetic Cues for Squash Coaching: Part II

December 9, 2010

Some learn about squash technique by seeing, some via listening, but most by doing – which means by the “feeling of doing”.  The sport science term for using “feelings” to help learn is “kinaesthetic cues”.  As discussed in my last post, I had two of my team’s recent tennis converts “throw” their racquets into netting to try and get that loose, whippy, snappy squash feel.  Here are Eunice and Jaimi giving it a go!

I actually learned this trick from former University of Toronto squash coach Don Fawcett – I saw him do it when working with one of his players who had good technique – but no power or snap.  He actually had her hurl her racquet into the tin!  His son Taylor was part of a cohort of Canadian players who dominated the Hardball Doubles game.


Coaching Squash with “Feeling”: Using Kinaesthetic Cues to Convert Tennis Players

November 17, 2010

One of the things I enjoy the most about my half-time coaching position (the other half is academic teaching in the ESS Department) at Smith College is the fact that I have to teach nearly all of my players from scratch, as most have never picked up a squash racquet before coming to college.  From time-to-time I am lucky enough to get some players who have played tennis – three of them this year!  I am actually pretty good at this type of coaching – we got to 12th place in the CSA rankings in both 1998 & 1999 with a team that had only one player with high school or junior squash – and our team has had three (we got “cheated” one year – should be four – but that’s another story:) Ann Wetzel Award (best player who started in college) winners – all converted tennis players:

  • 1999: Kanta Murali (Smith College)
  • 2000: Emily Soisson (Bates College)
  • 2001: Kate Lytle (Cornell University)
  • 2002: Selma Kikic (Williams College)
  • 2003: Susanna Burke (Amherst College)
  • 2004: Lila Lee (Wellesley College)
  • 2005: Ashley Kilgore (Smith College)
  • 2006: Jennifer Recht (Smith College)

But enough about me – here are the key points of today’s post:

  1. Kinaesthetic or “feeling” cues are the most effective in teaching racquet skills – showing and explaining work with some – but “feeling” cues work with everyone (hence the hundreds of dollars that the average golfer spends on golf teaching aids – they are all designed to help them “feel” the stroke);
  2. Tennis technique has become much more squash-like in the last 15-20 years – tennis “power” strokes are now “multi-segmented” the way that squash drives are – in “feeling” terms, much more a feeling of “hitting” versus “stroking”.

Unfortunately, the new tennis technique has not filtered down to the majority of tennis players who have joined my team – they exhibit too much “shoulder stroking” and not enough “loose hitting, leading with the elbow”.  And even the best modern multi-segmented tennis forehands tend to straighten the elbow joint much earlier in the swing than occurs in squash – with a resultant loss of power.

Here are the links to two video demonstrations that I am going to use at practice today to get this idea across to my tennis converts entering their third week of squash:  backhand “hitting”/throwing action; forehand “hitting”throwing action.  These videos are from  tennis coach Wayne Elderton (I have blogged on his stuff before) who uses Tennis Canada’s advanced coaching techniques, which I have adapted into my own squash coaching for the last 23 years.  You should definitely check out his site for great examples on tactics first coaching, teaching perception, and use of kinaesthetic cues.

In a future post I will get up some video of my players using three different “feelings” for the three types of drop shot we use in the front (the pros use a fourth feeling for their little topspin drops):  touch, push, stroke – my converted tennis players are quite good at these feelings.

Here is a good example of a “touch” (with a tiny bit of push since the player is not right up against the front wall) forehand drop in the front court:

http://www.youtube.com/v/9BuMbnBT2jw?fs=1&hl=en_US


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).

Why I Purchased a Ping Pong Robot but Won’t Buy a Squash Ball Machine!

September 7, 2010

I’ll preface my post by saying that I did in fact own a squash ball machine – the first one that came out (1989??).  I co-purchased it when I was the “squash director” at the now defunct Rockland Sport (actually there to train/mentor their squash pro Denis Favreau who was converting from tennis – little known fact – Jonathon Power got his start here with great junior coach Robby Cannot Recall his name now – will later…) with my buddy, Yvon Provencal, recently named Canadian National Squash Coach.  I don’t recall ever actually using it (Yvon kept it at his club!) since I had already been indoctrinated into a “tactics first” approach through my exposure to Tennis Canada’s “Methode des actions” (read “Tactics First”).

Why did I just purchase a Newgy Robo-Pong when I will not buy a squash ball machine?

Reasons not to use a ball machine:

  • squash is an open sport, where anticipation (reliance on pre-impact cues – mostly from reading the opponent’s shoulder and arm position according to Abernethy) is critical (as is tactical awareness – or game sense:  knowledge of the effect of your previous shot, opponent’s position and tactical tendencies, etc.) – none of these cues are available when using the squash ball machine;
  • without supervision (in which case a ball machine could be redundant) most players for not respect the shot-cycle (every shot in squash involves four steps:  1. watching 2. movement to the ball 3. striking the ball 4. recovery to the appropriate spot on the court) and could easily (as in the video example above) practice in a way that is not game-like at all – thereby actually hurting performance;

Reasons Why I Bought a Pong Robot

  • Demonstration purposes – as the only decent player around my college (except for a Japanese woman who apparently is very good, so I have been avoiding;) it is the only way (except for self-feed or shadowing) to adequately demonstrate ping pong strokes in my upcoming Introduction to Racquet Sports course at Smith College;
  • Although we do not get pre-impact cues with the Robot – we must read the spin of the ball – so we are actually working a critical component of anticipation not important (or available) in squash;
  • The Squash court is ideal for solo practice – you can simulate a wide variety of shots – not possible with many ping pong tables – and only possible in a limited way in those that can convert one half to a backboard.

Having said all this, I will be publishing 2-3 videos/posts on using a squash ball machine for tactical drills.  My Racketlon partner Shona Kerr is preparing for a WISPA event in Arizona, and we will be training/reinforcing several tactical patterns that she will be using in that event.  Each drill using the ball machine will have a tactical theme (e.g., deception in the front court), and will involve the entire shot cycle as I will be providing the feed for the follow-up shot (that the machine will be unable to provide).  For example the machine will boast, Shona will straight drop, and I will re-drop or drive cross – and she will respond appropriately (having to make a perception and decision, which is what makes this tactical and not just technical training).  Shona and I will come up with 4-5 commonly used patterns of play that require either a third training partner – or a ball machine.  Unfortunately, many squash drills are dictated by convenience (i.e., what two players can do without stopping the drill) rather than solid tactics – perhaps an explanation as to why squash players peak so late compared to other sports:)

Application for Squash Coaches:

  1. Be wary of potential bad technical (not observing the shot cycle) habits developing with squash ball machines.
  2. Be sure to give your player a tactical context or at least a basic tactical explanation for the shots they practice with a ball machine.
  3. Play ping pong!

Teaching Squash Beginner’s (and other raquet sports too)!

August 27, 2010

As September rolls around most of us squash coaches, whether club or college, are going to be put in the position of introducing groups of new players to squash (and perhaps other racquet sports).  To make a long story short, most of the mainstream coaching world has finally caught up with a pedagogy that has been around for 30 years – unfortunately it takes several generations for new knowledge to filter down to the average coach whose primary choice of pedagogy (teaching methods) is to “teach the way that they were taught”.

In this series of videos from my Squash Science YouTube Channel I explain the rationale behind a progressive approach to teaching beginning racquet sports.  The “old” method of demonstrating and explaining the whole, complete final skill – and then working by “correction” (instead of progression) only works with “talented” learners (and demotivates and discourages untalented learners).  Obviously the costly (and inefficient in terms of developing a nation of players) private lesson coach has more latitude to use old-style methods.  These principles of learning apply to all racquet sports, something I learned as Head Instructor of the Toronto JCC Racquet Sports Camps in the summers of 1978 & 1979 – and as a recent racketlon player. I have embedded the first video, and provide links to the others.

Introduction to Teaching Racquet Sports to Large Groups of Beginners – Part 1

Teaching Racquet Sports to Large Groups of Beginners – Part 2

Teaching Racquet Sports to Large Groups of Beginners – Part 3

Teaching Racquet Sports to Large Groups of Beginners – Part 4

Teaching Racquet Sports to Large Groups of Beginners – Part 5

Finally, here is the recent ITF rationale for a progressive approach to teaching racquet sports:


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.