Periodization of Squash Training – The Key to Coaching Success!

March 30, 2011

I was lucky enough to be part of  small group of Canadian squash coaches were amongst the first coaches (in all sports) in Canada to become certified as NCCP Level 4 Coaches (1989).  In Canada’s five-level Coaching Certification program, the Level 4/5 program targeted National and Jr. National team coaches (it is now a requirement to coach a Canadian National Team).

At the time, a coach needed to accomplish 12/20 tasks to be certified at Level 4. The passing of the 8/20 remaining tasks, mostly “administrative” or “supplementary” (e.g., Sport Systems) would lead to a Level 5 certification.  The program has since been revamped somewhat, moving away from the 20 Tasks format:

Each task consisted of a day or day and a half workshop lead by a sport scientist with expertise both in squash and the academic area of the task. Evaluation consisted of submitting a practical project demonstrating competence in the area, graded by the sport scientist presenter.

I have been a Squash Canada Level 4 presenter for three tasks:

  • Task 8:  Psychological Preparation for Athletes
  • Task 13: Performance Analysis
  • Task 11: Advanced Squash Tactics (co-presented with Mike Way)

I have also presented Task 7: Psychological Preparation for Coaches, at several National Coaching Conferences (in both English and French:).

The key Level 4 Task was Task 12: Periodized Annual Plan!

Periodization is a comprehensive (technical, tactical, physical, mental) system of planning sports training based on theoretical principles and empirical findings that originated in the eastern Bloc countries in the 1960’s, but is now used as a planning tool in all developed countries and sports.

Unfortunately, if you Google the term, you will likely only find strength training and bodybuilding programs and studies that are limited to the “physical” domain – a classic example of “experts” trying to exploit the popularity of a new term, without fully understanding the “big picture”.

Our 1987 Level 4 course was conducted by then Jr. Men’s National Coach Rene Denis, who had been working closely with periodization guru Tudor Bompa to develop a “periodized” coach’s training diary.  The importance of this task was that the squash coach was forced to integrate all of their training knowledge into one harmonious plan where all of the different parts where “perfectly” coordinated to assure maximum benefit for the athlete.  There is almost no published work (except on this blog) on the periodization of squash training, and very few coaches use periodized plans.  Here is an example plan I presented at the 2007 WSF Coaching Conference:

In Canada, periodization was also taught to coaches of all sports as part of both the NCCP Level II (season plan) and Level III (annual plan) theory programs. To be fully certified a coach had to take this theory component along with a Technical and Practical component that was organized by their national sport federation.  So for ten years (1992-2002) I taught periodization to thousands of coaches from all sports.  Following each course, the coach had to submit their seasonal or annual plan for grading, along with examples of smaller planning units (macro-cycle and micro-cycle plans).  I also taught periodization of squash training to several generations of coaches though the Princeton Squash Coaches Academy – something we do not do anymore.

Due to this lack of resources, if you want to learn how use periodization to organize your squash training, your best bet is to access the International Tennis Federation’s publications on periodization of tennis (Just remember to spell “periodization” as “periodisation” – they have a Spanish head of Coaching:).  Although the ITF has been a latecomer to periodization, they have an excellent Education Department, and their resources are practical and easy to read – here is a good available download:  Periodization for Advanced Players (ITF, downloaded March, 2011).

Here is a poster of my presentation at the last ITF Coaching Conference in 2009 – periodization of mental training for each stage of an LTAD:

 

Application for Squash Coaches:

1.  Use a periodized approach to planning your squash training year.

2.  Adapt tennis resources to squash if there are no suitable squash resources.



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.

Squash Deception: Knowledge into Reality!

December 9, 2010

Knowing something about squash does not necessarily translate into being able to do it – squash deception is a good example of this.  A good squash coach is able to turn knowledge into reality with a solid pedagogical approach.

Knowledge + Appropriate Pedagogy = Action

I have always been interested (being an attritional grinder myself) in the topic of how to teach squash deception, since most people consider it to be an innate talent (which it definitely is not!). Back in the early 1990’s, I hired a young, low-ranked,  18-year old Jonathon Power (one of the most deceptive male players ever) to come to my club in Montreal to give a workshop (I think we paid him $300?) on “Deception” to my “C” and “B” teams (only 4-5 of them signed up!?!).

Last summer I had a chance to coach alongside Karim Darwish – another former world #1 and and very deceptive player.  At our PPS Squash Camp I got Karim to demonstrate the use of a “deceptive wrist” to our campers and videotaped him doing it:

A year earlier, I had videotaped an example of the Games Approach pedagogical method of teaching deception – through the use of conditioned games.  One of the “models” in this video example is Wesleyan University’s Head Men’s and Women’s Coach Shona Kerr – she benefited from early coaching by Hiddy Jahan in the use of the “Pakistani” wrist.  I trained and competed alongside Shona during a period (2006-08) where she went undefeated through six straight women’s national championships (Howe Cup Teams, U.S. Nationals, etc.), defeating several members of the U.S. National Squad along the way – she has a great wrist – a rare attribute in the women’s game.

The main point here is that a squash coach needs to use a systematic approach in order to get his or her player to implement deception effectively in a game situation.  It is the rare athlete that can simply be told or shown what to do, and put it into practice immediately.  And deception is not just for the best players, as you can see in this video taken at the PPS Camp (that is Engy Kheirallah coaching).


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!

Coaching Squash Deception: A Practical Example with Karim Darwish

June 30, 2010

I have just got back from the PPS Squash camp at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania – I designed the camp based on a Tactics First approach – every session started with a conditioned game so that we could assess the campers in a “live” and meaningful game situation.  After observing the squash campers, we bring them together to ask questions and demonstrate the key skills involved.  We work for about 20 minutes to improve their skills – always at least two skills since tactics involves decision-making – therefore a choice amongst at least two alternatives.  Here is a brief example of this approach featuring deception in the front court with last year’s world #1 Karim Darwish.

Tactical Situation: Attacking a weak defensive boast in the front court with deception – showing a drop and then either dropping or flicking cross-court.

Technical Skills: Straight drop or cross-court flick from a “short backswing position”.

Progression (there are five steps):

  1. Campers play conditioned game – A serves with higher defensive boast – B returns with drop or cross-court flick from short backswing position.
  2. Campers brought together and questioned on “how the game went”:  “Did you win more points with drops or cross-courts?” “What were better – your forehand or backhand drops?  Flicks?”  The questioning approach is designed to get the campers to critically reflect on their game, instead of boring them with a lecture.
  3. Demonstration of skills involved by an expert – in this case Egyptian Karim Darwish – last year’s #1 and currently ranked 4th in the world.
  4. About 15-20 minutes of drilling – first the drops, then the flicks, then alternating them to make sure racquet preparation is similar, then some time where the camper mixes up the shots in a random pattern – again to test deception.
  5. Return to the conditioned game to assess the squash campers improvement – we often did this with a court rotation tournament to inject some competitive pressure and fun.

It takes a many year’s to learn effective deception – it is important to start early in a squash player’s development, as evidenced by the style of the top Egyptians.


Squash Psychology: Focus Plan = Psychology + Tactics

February 26, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Application for Squash Coaches:

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

Front-Court Squash Tactics: WISPA Grinham-Grainger Examples

January 17, 2010

There is very little published on squash tactics – and even less on differences between men’s and women’s squash tactics.  The purpose of this post is to use brief (about 10 points) notational analysis of a pro squash video to examine tactics and movement in the front court at a top world level (Grinham-Grainger Semi-Final 2006 Worlds).

The video analyzed was purchased at the WISPA website, and loaded into Dartfish for analysis with its “tagging module”. : every time the players being analyzed played a shot in the front court zone, I hit a “button” on the tagging panel I designed (based on the “Zone” model), which saved and labelled (e.g., backhand drop winner) a short video clip for later analysis.

Currently, most tactical information is given in a fairly general manner – for example Geoff Hunt’s famous “10 Commandments”.  For the past twenty years I have been using a zone model of squash (developed and tested with the assistance of my Princeton University friends Gail Ramsay and Bob Callahan) to add a high degree of precision and objectivity to any tactical analysis.  By focusing in on one zone at a time (front, mid, back),  the difficulty of the ball received (easy, medium, difficult) and categorizing shots according to the player’s tactical intent (attack, rally, defend) it is possible to develop quite specific tactical guidelines.

What can we learn by focusing our analysis on two of the world’s top players?  Here are a few of the observations and conclusions an analyst might make from this small sample of point seen in the clip below.  This is a great clip to analyze the front-court as we have a classic, defensive retriever (Grinham) playing an opponent with great attacking skills (Grainger) – so lots of play in the front of the court.

  • Grinham’s movement to the front on defence does not really resemble our classic squash ghosting drills – she moves in on a straight path to the ball, even leaning up against the backhand wall to maintain and regain her balance; the racquet work on her defensive lob is a flick with the hand/wrist – not at all like the demonstrations of lobbing from the front that we see in numerous squash books (stroking action from the slow-moving shoulder joint).  Grinham’s return to the “T” in the first front-court example features an about face which I have never seen a squash coach demonstrate in a practice or clinic (yet it obviously occurs and there must be a reason for it).
  • Under pressure in the front, we see that straight drives can result in a stroke against the striker (twice from Grainger in this clip), with cross-court drives being the most successful choice of both players.  This seems to contradict the current squash coaching practice of prescribing lots of “boast-straight drive” drills.  Although practicing straight drives from the front may have a technical and fitness purpose (more physically demanding and allows for “offensive” positioning), coaches should be wary of reinforcing tactical patterns that occur infrequently or are “poor tactical choices”.
  • There does not appear to be a “rally” phase in the front-court – the players are either defending or attacking (whereas in the mid-court we see many exchanges of length shots (“rallying”).
  • On Grainger’s tightest and most difficult shots, Grinham makes at least three racquet errors trying to lob.  I coach my team to redrop or hit a defensive, tight drop since the biomechanics of this action (push-touch with no backswing) are more simple than a lob (wrist snap or flick), a strategy that should result in fewer errors.  My observation of female American players (college/pro) is that they have not been trained sufficiently (too much grooving of ground strokes from mid- and back-courts) in the use of the hand, wrist and touch (certainly compared to the Egyptians and some of the English players).
  • We do not observe the use of the cross-court drop and very little use of deception (once from Grainger?) from these two players – which may be a male-female tactical difference due to men’s greater speed to and in the front-court ( time for deception and ability to cover the cross-court drop if it is not a winner).

Obviously, this tiny “research” needs to be extended with an analysis including entire matches featuring more female players.

Application for Squash Coaches:

  1. Findings from notational analysis of current top players can contradict current practice and published knowledge of squash coaching.
  2. We cannot take it for granted that men and women “play the same game” – something to keep in mind when planning summer camps.