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

March 25, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ball Machine: 

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


Tim Bacon, M.A., CSCS is the world’s leading expert on racquet sport science and coaching development having taught all areas of sport science as both a Lecturer at Smith College and as a Coach Developer for the Coaching Association of Canada while actively coaching (Certified Squash, Tennis & Badminton Coach) and sport psychology consulting (25+ World Champions).  He currently runs his consulting practice out of Northampton, MA and maintains his active coaching as the Assistant Squash Coach at Wesleyan University during the CSA squash season (Nov. 1 – Mar. 1).


Decision Training for Squash Coaches: Part I

August 1, 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


30% Discount Code for Squash Anatomy Book for Squash Coaches!

July 14, 2011

Ok – if you have been following out Squash Science blog for the last few years you will be aware that there are very few (if any) published sport science resources for squash coaches – the cost of doing business in a tiny, elitist sport (of course all that may change if we get into the Olympics).

The good news is that with the changes that have taken place in tennis over the last 30 years, an intelligent squash coach can adapt the numerous tennis sport science publications for their use in squash coaching.  The two major changes that have taken place that allow this adaptation are: a) the now  multi-segmented tennis forehand  – a “hitting” action similar to the full squash drive, versus the “stroking” action of the 70’s tennis forehand; and b) the physiological profile of elite tennis – especially on clay now approximates the duration and explosiveness (especially on the men’s side) of the average squash rally (with squash moving to PAR scoring and a lower tin, at least on the men’s side).

I just finished purchasing my first E-Book, Tennis Anatomy by Paul Roetert and Mark Kovacs a few minutes ago – I used a Human Kinetics 30% off discount code, so the total cost of my purchase was $15.36 – the code is B770.  I met Paul back in the late 1980’s when the USTA head office was in Princeton – coach Bob Callahan took me out to say “hello” – and I ran into Mark Kovacs in a hotel elevator at the ITF coaching conference in Valencia two years ago – he said to get in touch about doing some work with the USTA (but I prefer to specialize in squash:).  You can download the Adobe Digital Edition reader (to read the E-Book) here.

Although I haven’t read the book yet – here are a few adaptations that the squash coach should note in order to apply the information:

  • the squash forehand is biomechanically similar to the flat tennis serve (it just takes place in a different plane – overhead versus at the side of the body);
  • most of the volley information will apply to squash, as the tennis continental grip, similar to the squash grip, is used for most (but not all tennis volleys);
  • the tennis slice approach shots are similar to the squash mid-court squash drop shot (both feature a stroking action primarily from the shoulder).

Here is Roetert discussing the book:

In conclusion, this is a great resource for squash coaches willing to do a little bit of “mental work”:)


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: 


Squash Coach Uses Tape to Change Grip!

January 12, 2011

I had my doubts, but after (during a discussion of John White’s technique while watching a match video) I told my team that Geoff Hunt had tried to get John to cock his wrist with the correct grip with tape – my #3 Helen Queenan asked me to do it for her.

It is really difficult to change that floppy, uncocked wrist (cause by a “tennisy” forehand-like grip) on the backhand side, once it is ingrained.  At Princeton Squash camps we had tried molded grips and taping hands – with mixed success.  What did seem to work was identifying all of the “bad grip/bad wrist” kids on the first evening – then giving them a special “progressive grip education morning” while the rest of the camp trained according to our zone tactical model (“System 3”).  Two things to note:  often half of the camp had bad grips/wrists (shame on their first coach!), and except for our top coaches, our average “young coach” was not that adept at picking out grips that needed work (I always had 7-8 more on my list than they had on theirs).

BTW, Geoff gave up on John, hence his “loose” backhand drives and frequent use of angle in backhand front instead of straight drop (sorry John:) – I will back this up with a notational analysis of one of his matches in the coming weeks!

It is Helen’s first year on our team and she has played some in high school.  I did not work with her on her grip in the fall, but we decided to give it a shot during our Smith College 3-week Interterm (no classes and two a day practices).  Here is what we are doing with her:

  1. Supination/pronation forearm exercises (squash grip, holding a hammer) mostly to develop kinaesthetic awareness (versus strengthening).  Reverse wrist curls – again to get her to be able to recognize her wrist position in space (since we rarely supinate with a cocked wrist during our daily activities). 
  2. Two 20-minute private lessons – the first on the basic mid-court drive; for the second I had her hit 10-20 shots for each possible type of backhand: volleys, mid-court drops, front-court drops, defensive boast, mid-court working boast, etc.
  3. Solo work where she alternates hitting forehand and backhands since it is the grip “slippage” when she flattens the face by changing her grip slightly on the forehand which has created the problem (i.e., she will always show the the correct grip when asked, but it slips when she plays).
  4. Shadow swinging with correct form.
  5. Explanation that  four things need to change when making a grip modification:

a) grip (and wrist of course)

b) distance from ball

c) impact point (front-back)

d) swing path

Hence my doubts about simply taping her hand to her grip.  The tape of course could simply work as an “attentional device”, maintaining her attention on her technique. Anyway here she is trying it out – I will report back in a week or so with video of her playing in a match without the tape!

And here is a great simple explanation (with which I totally agree for the drives) from Ray from SquashGame.info!


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).