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).


College & High School Squash Periodization: The Transition Phase starts now!

March 24, 2015

Periodization Chart

Periodization for a college or high school squash coach involves dividing the training and competitive year into four periods (hence the name periodization or periodisation in the Commonwealth and French-speaking countries) in order to make planning easier easier to understand and implement. The short official seasons – about 18 weeks from mid-October to March 1st – of U.S. colleges and high school present some unique challenges in seeking to optimize athlete performance.  The basics of periodization are outlined in some of my previous posts – if you want an overview of what the content of an annual squash periodized plan would look like you can check out this link..  The purpose of this article is to focus on the final period of the annual plan – the transition phase. Before North American squash coaches learned about periodization, this time of year was called the off-season – it started after the National Championships and ended in the fall a few weeks before the start of the next season’s squash tournaments.  In the U.S., many squash players would play tennis in the summer. The disadvantage of this old fashioned approach was that a player would lose nearly all of their squash-specific conditioning, and recommence the next season back at the same level as the prior season.  I have adapted current periodization theory (e.g., Bompa, 2009) and have developed several key recommendations for squash coaches for the Transition Period – the new functional term for “off-season”. Focus X2i iPad My first recommendations center around doing a thorough analysis of athlete performance:

  • Do a thorough evaluation of your players technical, tactical, physical and mental performance at the end of the season – preferably during key matches and final practices leading up to the final competition of the year.
  • A comprehensive technical-tactical analysis of your players is perhaps the most important thing you can do, as this evaluation will form the foundation of their goal-setting for the next season.  This is best done by analyzing match video using a good game analysis software such as FocusX2i for iPad and a logical tactical framework such as the Zone or Egg Model that I use for my analyses.  If you have not done this before, I offer a consulting service where you can send me your player’s video file and I will do the analysis for you – including improvement recommendations and player goals based on the statistics from the analysis.  Alternatively I can train coaches in the use of the software and show you or your assistants how to do your own analysis.
  • An analysis of your player’s mental performance can be done by examining their post-match evaluation forms (if you have used them) for the last few crucial matches of the season, or via paper and pencil tests such as the TOPS (I can provide questionnaires and scoring instructions).
  • An evaluation of your players’ fitness can be done by using their last few fitness test results (ideally one test for each of the three energy systems) and also by simply asking the players to assess each of the physical qualities essential for squash.  The other way is simply to note their performance level during the last few workouts of the season (before the peaking or unloading phase).

Egg Model for Squash Tactics My second set of recommendations concern general advice for the Transition Phase (adapted from Bompa, 2012):

  • Have your players take 4-6 weeks where they do not play squash, but instead do fun and cross-training activities (ultimate frisbee, swimming, etc.) about three times a week, that allow them to maintain their aerobic fitness and slow down the loss of speed and strength gains.
  • This is the period where they should try and rehab any injuries acquired during the season.
  • There should be limited, formal strength training sessions – and if there are any they should be of lower intensity (think strength-endurance: lighter weights 12-15 reps) and feature a high proportion of complementary exercises.  For example the types of exercises found in Exos’ prehabilitation and movement preparation.  One to two sessions a week should be sufficient to serious significant detraining.
  • Especially in the two weeks following the major competition, 15-20 minutes on an exercise bike followed by foam rolling, tennis ball myofascial release and use of a stretching rope 3-4 times a week will aid in regeneration.
  • If athletes set their goals for the next season in the week after the major competition, there is no need to do any formal technical, tactical, or mental training during the transition phase – they can just chill and relax.
  • After 4-6 weeks of the above, players can start their preparation for the next season by starting on their Preparatory Period training activities – a topic I will address in the coming weeks.

 Application for Squash Coaches

  1. Make sure to plan and schedule a 4-6 week “transition” period following your major squash championship in order to allow your players to fully regenerate for the next season.
  2. Do a thorough evaluation, including match video analysis, in order to set effective and meaningful goals with your players at the end of the season.

Squash Coaches: A New Tagging App for Iphone!

May 12, 2012

You cannot be a “Tactics First” squash coach without having the ability to easily tag video to examine the tactics (i.e., shot choices) that your players use in their matches.  The video tagging procedure involves using computer software to watch a squash video, and then touching a key or button to indicate to the software that you would like to record the action that you are interested in. Performance Analysis and Notational Analysis are the formal terms associated with tagging.  Here is a great link for more info:  The Video Analyst.

Without tagging software, a specific (versus just randomly watching match video with your team or player) tactical analysis that  involves assembling multiple examples of shot choices is very time consuming.  For example with my Smith College squash team, it would take me five hours to assemble 10 examples (five good, five bad) of mid-court attacking tactics (30 min. per 10 players to watch, then edit, then email or post to YouTube) following a match.

For example in this video, I used the Tagging Module of the Dartfish software to capture examples of squash shots played in the front court zone by top female players. I was interested in both the choice of shot (i.e, tactics), and the way the shot was played (i.e., technique).

As a member of the Faculty in the Smith College Department of Exercise & Sport Studies I have access to Dartfish via the five licenses our department has purchased – we were early adopters having used the software since 2004.  Even earlier than that, 1987, I was using tagging elite junior tennis players as part of my Doctoral research using the CompuTennis Software (no longer in business?).

The problem with Dartfish (Windows platform) and GameBreaker (Apple platform), the other popular software used for tagging is the cost – both cost several thousand dollars – so not easily accessible for the average squash professional working alone in a club.  The Video Replay App is $2.99! I have been wondering when an app would come out!

Touchstat Highlight is another more costly option ($24.99) which has greater “potential” as it can be used in conjunction with their desktop software.

Dartfish has an iPhone app, EasyTag (free), that while not actually recording video, can later synch your tagging with the desktop Dartfish software.  In a future post I will go over a more work intensive but “free” way to use EasyTag results with a free video software like Quicktime.

Note that there are a lot of free or low cost apps for both the iPhone and Android software that allow a coach to analyse the technique of a single shot – the sole advantage over simple video replay is the access to drawing tools, and an easier ability to view two actions side-by-side (I just open two Quicktime Windows on my laptop:).

As soon as I finish grading my 64 Introduction to Sport Coaching class assignments (Biomechanical Analysis, Strength Training Program, Skill Coaching Report) I am going to give Video Replay a try!


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).


Squash Focus Plan: Adjust for Opponents?

December 2, 2011

The final product (concise practical tool) of an organized and effective season long mental training program for squash players is the Squash Focus Plan.  New visitors to this site (still the #1 squash coaching site in the world according to Google:) can check out this link for an overview of focus plans, and here for an overview of  annual mental training programs for squash.

At the start of the Pre-Competition Phase of the year (which is where I am now with my Smith College Squash Team), squash players should have a “workable” focus plan that they are using and evaluating in match play.  One of the reasons that my team improves more than “similar” teams, is that using and evaluating focus plans forces a critical reflection and self-analysis – something which most players at any level do not do.  Our first opponent in the Wesleyan Invitational this weekend beat us 5-4 two weekends ago – with the same line-ups we are going to reverse that decision and beat them 6-3 – due in large part to my players’ use of focus plans (obviously if we don’t I am going to return to this post and edit this part out;).  You can download the current squash focus plan form we are using here:  Squash Focus Plan Form.

In the video below, I explain the relationship between a player’s Squash Focus Plan and the three levels of familiarity with an opponent:

  1. Know opponent and have played them before;
  2. Know opponent but have not played them before;
  3. Do not know opponent.

Basically, I suggest that in the first two situations where the opponent is known, additional specific goals (tactics) may be set as part of the game plan.  I note however that for some players, the best performances come when they follow a set focus plan (e.g., they get anxious and confused if they think too much, or they are “feel”/intuitive style players). Hopefully, this situation would be a short term, intermediate step to being able to make tactical adjustments based on knowledge of the opponent so some mental training or tactical education may be required for this player).


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”).


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: