Understanding Aerobic Training for Squash

February 12, 2012

Unless you have a sport science degree the complexities of squash training can be somewhat difficult to comprehend.  Squash is a difficult sport to coach as squash athletes need to use all three energy systems, and almost all of the physical qualities also play an important role in squash performance. Many sports only need to emphasize one or two qualities: for example strength and power are primordial for an American Football lineman – whereas aerobic qualities have minimal importance – on the other hand aerobic performance is everything to a 10,000 meter specialist, with power and speed (as commonly defined – not referring to “speed-endurance”) of little significance.  The “Energy Systems Chart (ITF, 2007)” is a commonly used, over simplistic representation of sport physiology, as in most team, dual and combat sports, all three energy systems come into play, often simultaneously, during a competition.

Most squash coaches are aware that the aerobic system can be trained using continuous (e.g., a 3-mile run) or interval methods (e.g., ghosting one minute on and one minute off), but behind the scenes the physiological picture is a bit more complicated.  Here is a chart adapted from Sleamaker & Browning (1996) which provides an excellent picture of the different aspects of aerobic training:

Keeping in mind this is only one of several ways to organize or think about aerobic training, note that the aerobic training levels (I to IV) can be defined by the intensity of effort (percentage of maximum heart rate or percentage of VO2max – the HR method being the most practical one to use for squash coaches), and that at each level there are different physiological adaptations going on behind the scenes.

Translating the levels and related intensities into squash terms can be done by adapting the Borg (nothing to do with the tennis player:) Perceived Effort Scale (Rating of Perceived Exertion).  I prefer the older, simpler 10-point scale (although most physiologists now use the new scale) as the exertion ratings can quickly be converted to approximate hear rate (for an average 20-year old) – so a “4” , somewhat hard, would be equivalent to a HR of 140, a “7”, “very hard”, a heart rate of 170, etc. So for a squash coach to understand Sleamaker & Browning’s chart:

  • Level 1 = Borg 2 = HR 120, fairly light rally (e.g., exchanging high, slow lengths from the back);
  • Level 2 = Borg 3 = HR 130, moderate rally (e.g., length only game, medium pace);
  • Level 3 = Borg 4/5 = HR 140-150, tough rally (e.g., length only emphasizing volleys, cutting ball off);
  • Level 4 = Borg 7 = HR 170, very tough rally (e.g., retrieving against a shot-maker)
  • Level 5 = Borg 10 = HR 190-200, this is that last ditch effort, in the last couple of rallies – you are toast (due to high lactic acid accumulation:).

What to do with this information?  When I helped organize the College Squash Association’s Coaching Conference a few years ago (2006??) I asked John Power (Jonathon Power’s dad – a Squash Canada Level 4 Squash Coach, coaching at Dartmouth College at the time) to do an on-court presentation of squash drills and conditioned games to train each of the aerobic levels in order to show college squash coaches a) that aerobic training can be done effectively on court mixed in with “traditional” drills and games; and b) how the same drill or game can be used to train multiple aerobic levels by simply changing a few parameters.  Here is a summary of the organization John used for his presentation.  Note that there is an ideal progression for developing aerobic qualities, basically less intense to more intense as you move through the season, so we have added in the phase of an annual periodized plan to indicate when the training should be emphasized.

Can you demonstrate your understanding by thinking of an appropriate drill or game for each of the physical qualities listed in column 3 of the chart?

GP = general preparation phase; SP = specific prep.; PC = precompetition.

Application for Squash Coaches:

  1. Aerobic training can be done on court to save time, using standard squash drills and games.
  2. To get specific physiological adaptations important for the aerobic system, certain drill parameters (e.g., HR) must be followed.
  3. “Complicated” physiological measures of intensity (i.e., HR, % of VO2 max) can be replaced with easier, more subjective measures.

Squash Detraining: A College Example

December 29, 2011

**Here is a 2017 update on detraining – everything in this blog post is still current!  https://sci-fit.net/detraining-retraining/

It is holiday time in most of the world, and for most squash players, so getting out of squash shape (or staying in good squash shape) is a concern for most committed players – no matter what level they play at.  To help squash coaches understand detraining (click this link for a concise summary) I am going to go over a real example from former Smith College Squash Team.

Our last team practice was on Thursday, December 15 – and we start up again practicing twice a day on Monday, January 9th – so a break of 24 days!  I don’t in fact use the term “break” – I use the periodization term “transition”, which is actually more descriptive of what should occur during this period – activities that bridge the gap from one part of our season to another (here is the link to our team’s periodized annual plan).  The short transition period that occurs between two halves of a season does differ from the end-of-season transition period of 4-6 weeks where primarily cross-training activities should occur.

The transition period for a college squash team involves more than simply “staying in shape physically” and presents a number of challenges to be met – here is a summary of the objectives for my college team:

  • De-stress to prevent burnout and staleness.  For a college athlete it is difficult to completely separate athletic and academic stress.  Although squash can be a source of relaxation during a busy semester (remember squash in the U.S. is played a highly challenging academic schools – Smith College being right up there with the Ivy’s), training and playing 12-16 hours a week must be taken into account when calculating the overall stress load.  My team started practicing before any other college team in the U.S. (Sept.12) and the five tennis players on my team were practicing tennis two weeks prior to that (they joined us in the last week of October) – and this year, exams went right up until December 22.
  • Maintain squash skills and tactical memory with no access to squash courts. Most of the players on my team learned their squash at Smith, and so are not usually from “squash communities” – only one actually has access to courts through a family membership – and two are international students staying on campus (gym is closed??).
  • Maintain physical shape to prevent performance loss and injury upon resuming practice.  January is actually our training period (Competition Period in periodization lingo) with our highest training volume – 20-30 hours a week during the no-classes interterm period.
  • NCAA Rules state that all “out-of-season” training must be voluntary, with no coach supervision (e.g., training logs, etc.) allowed – another example of how NCAA rules negatively effect athlete well-being (read more about that here).

Since squash physical performance involves both “endurance” qualities (aerobic and anaerobic endurance) and “strength” related qualities (power, agility, strength-endurance), the minimization of detraining for both must be taken into account. The Pfitzinger chart summarizes the endurance detraining process and here is a great link that discusses losses in strength – along with a graph of squat training/detraining – somewhat relevant to squash.

Recommendations for College Squash Athletes

Despite the fact that loss in both endurance and strength performance can range from 10-20% , the good news is that physical losses can be minimized and physical shape substantially maintained with two, high intensity workouts a week.  This means two very tough squash matches against an opponent of equal ability – or, two 20-minute high intensity aerobic workouts (at least 80-85% of HR max – preferably a variety of  short intervals with a 1:1 or 1:1/2 work:rest ratio to mimic the requirements of squash – for example “ghost” 15s :rest 15s or ghost 30s : rest 30s) and preferably on separate days (or prior to the aerobic workouts) to minimize “physiological interference” (I just coined this term:) two strength workouts (of the same type and level of intensity that was being performed prior to the “break”).

Without access to squash courts, squash technique and tactics can be maintained through 2-3 visualization sessions of 15-20 minutes a week.  A similar amount of watching squash videos on YouTube should help as well without overloading the college athlete on their Winter Break.

Please feel free to download and use a summary of my Using Imagery to Support Advanced Squash Tactics presentation at the 2005 Squash Canada Coaching Conference:  Squash Tactics Visualization (Bacon, 2005).  It contains some imagery worksheets.


Core Performance & TRX: A New Strength Training Paradigm for College Coaches

December 1, 2011

On November 4th, I gave a two-hour workshop to 22 local coaches and graduate students at Smith College in Northampton, MA- the outline is here:

Workshop Outline

   I.   Overview of the Core Performance (CP) Training System

  • Training Philosophy – rehab & strength specialist designed “functional” programs:  “Train Movements not Muscles”
  • “The medium is the message” – CP integrated system resources:  books, video, web, social media, home fitness (GoFIT)
  • Advantages of CP (and TRX): time, $, professionalism (improved coach knowledge, enhanced communication & athlete autonomy)
  • The CP workout design – five basic parts.

II.   Key Background Concepts/Terms a Coach Should Know

  • Periodization – annual plan & phases: general, specific, competition, transition (and related training exercises)
  • Energy systems and muscle fiber types
  • Principles of Training

III.  Practicum 1 – Prehabilitation & Movement Prep

  • Exercises from CP L1, L2, L3

IV  Core Performance Sport-Specific “Individualized” Programs

  • CP vs. “traditional” (e.g., Bompa, 2010) periodization

V.   Practicum 2 – CP Workout via iPhone/iPad/Laptop

  • In pairs (athlete/coach) or trios (athlete/coach/observer) complete the workout

VI.   TRX – Fitness Anywhere!

  • Training philosophy and marketing highly similar to Core Performance
  • Brief description of TRX apparatus and installation

VII.  Practicum 3 – TRX

  • TRX alternatives to traditional exercises
  • TRX progressions and adaptations

VIII.   Practical Tips

  • Challenge stability – don’t pile on the weight!
  • Implementation for every budget: free, cheap, reasonable
  • Try it yourself for your own fitness
  • Become independent and self-sufficient with CP & TRX
  • Fitness Builder iPhone app (and web version) highly recommended

IX. Questions & Discussion

X.   References

Baechle, T.R. & Earle, R.W. (Eds.) (2000). Essentials of strength & conditioning.  Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics

Bompa, T. (1999). Periodization:  Theory & methodology of training.  Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

TRX (http://www.trxtraining.com/)

Verstegen, M., & williams, P.  (2004). Core performance.  Rodale.  (http://www.coreperformance.com/)


Periodization of Squash Training: College Squash Team

November 11, 2011

I have been developing and teaching coaches (in all sports – not just squash) about periodized annual training plans since 1987.  Back in the 1990s, there was a very small group of  us, Master Course Conductors (give courses and train others to give coaching education courses) for the Coaching Association of Canada’s National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP), who taught thousands of coaches how do develop a periodized plan for a “season” (Level 2 Theory) and an entire year (Level 3 Theory).  Our teaching according to periodization principles (every coach had to submit a periodized plan with supporting documentation as part of their course evaluation) went well beyond any periodization books (e.g.,. Bompa) published at the time. Current conceptions of periodization are very limited in scope.  Most current authors restrict their view of periodization to the “periodization of strength” or physical training – we went well beyond that.  My article on the Periodization of Mental Training provides a short, concise overview for those who have not read Bompa’s book:  Bacon (1989). Periodization of Mental Training.

The annual plan is one of the few ways to integrate all the different aspects of squash training – squash is one of the most difficult sports to plan since we need to train all of the training factors to a high level (as opposed to sprinters or long distance runners who emphasize only one aspect).

Here are a few “up to date – 2012” comments on the annual periodized plan for a college squash team I have posted above:

  • I have changed the traditional periodization of technique and tactics to reflect the recent research on the superiority of a “tactics first” approach over traditional methods;
  • Planning for academic stress is an essential component of a college plan – ignore this aspect at your peril:)
  • I need to modify the “physical” lines of the plan to reflect what I have changed in my approach the last three years:  the Core Performance approach to longer term training is quite different than the traditional approach – plyometrics and power exercises are introduced much earlier in the season (still progressively) – I will publish a post in which I “reverse engineer” their periodization and contrast it with the traditional approach.
  • With the change in squash scoring, matches, especially at the college level are much shorter, so much less emphasis on lower intensity aerobic conditioning and much more on interval type squash-specific training.

That’s it for now.  Keep in mind that a squash coach needs to prepare or obtain two other longer term planning documents – and LTAD and a Quadrenniel Plan (4 Years) similar to the one I have posted below for my team at Smith College (dates back to 1995 – so could do with an update): 


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.



Developing a World Squash Champion: Part II

July 21, 2011

I have already written on the “cultural” aspects of developing a world squash champion in a previous post, and the recent results from the Men’s Junior World Championships and the Spanish Davis Cup victory over the U.S.A. are motivating me to update my thoughts on the topic.

I see the recent success of both Egyptian Squash and Spanish Tennis as highly similar – countries outperforming their peers who have the same or greater resources.  My interest in the topic was first piqued when I attended and presented (with co-Presenter Shona Kerr from Wesleyan University) at the 2003 WSF Coaching Conference in Cairo that was being held alongside the Jr. Women’s World Squash Championships – all semifinalists were Egyptian girls.  Here are the observations I made at the time which contributed to my curiosity:

  • Egyptian coaching information was “outdated” – for example their sport psychologist was presenting information from the Coaching Association of Canada that I have developed 15 years earlier (if their available information is the same or older than the rest of the squash world – why are they more successful? The only conclusion is that the key factor must be something other than the information itself!) 
  • The England Squash presenters seemed more interested in “taking the piss” and making inside jokes during their presentation than actually communicating with their audience (most non-native English language speakers).  In other words, they did not seem to be “reading the situation” very well or appreciating its seriousness – they were being thumped by a much poorer country with relatively limited resources. (Absolute resources such as money, number of coaches, number of courts and players do not appear to be the determining factor in world success – what are the key factors then?);
  • In an Egyptian presentation on Deception, an English coach interrupted (after having been invited out on court to join the presenters) to say:  “there is no deception in the back-court” – apparently not true according to a recent video of an English player competing against an Egyptian:

As coaching director of the PPS Squash Camps, I had the opportunity to coach alongside two top Egyptian players, Karim Darwish and Engy Kheirollah for two weeks the last two summers.  I subtly bombarded them with questions, concluding that the type of drills they do, and the technical information they know is not different from the rest of the coaching world – what are the key factors then in developing a squash world champion (Karim was world #1 at the time)?

I also follow tennis very closely, and have been intrigued with the success of the Spanish players, particularly the men.  The head of the ITF Sport Science and Coaching is Miguel Crespo, a Spaniard, and all of their publications are published simultaneously in Spanish and English – I subscribe to all of their sport science and coaching publications.  In addition, I attended and presented at the ITF 2008 World Coaching Conference in Valencia, Spain and had ample opportunity to hear a variety of Spanish tennis coaches and sport scientists attempt to explain the key factors in their success.  Here is an interview with the players themselves:

Since it appears all of the content of the Spanish coaching and sport science programs have been readily and publicly available (i.e., any country is free to use the information), then the information alone cannot be the primary reason for their success – what are the key factors then?

In Part III of this series I will hypothesize about what these key factors are.


Coaching Front-Court Squash Tactics – Where to Start?

April 23, 2011

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: