Kinaesthetic Cues for Squash Coaching: Part II

December 9, 2010

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

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

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

September 7, 2010

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

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

Reasons not to use a ball machine:

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

Reasons Why I Bought a Pong Robot

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

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

Application for Squash Coaches:

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

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

August 27, 2010

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

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

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

Teaching Racquet Sports to Large Groups of Beginners – Part 2

Teaching Racquet Sports to Large Groups of Beginners – Part 3

Teaching Racquet Sports to Large Groups of Beginners – Part 4

Teaching Racquet Sports to Large Groups of Beginners – Part 5

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


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.


Aerobic “Tactical-Technical” Ghosting for Squash

January 11, 2010

If you are similar to most coaches, you have limited time during squash practice to work on multiple objectives – often with a fairly large group of athletes.  Here is an example of a ghosting (movement without hitting the ball)  exercise I developed for my Smith College team this morning that integrates aerobic training (physical), with “tactical” court movement (technique).

Ghosting = Aerobic + Tactical Movement + Technique

We use a “zone” tactical model of squash to guide our team’s training (System 3), so today I divided our court into three zones (front, mid, back)  for our aerobic training, and related the movement in each zone to the tactics often found in each zone:

front: defence or attack;

mid: attack/pressure except if ball is tight on wall;

back: rally.

I am doing this since I want the players to “think” about what they are doing, so that even their physical training encourages them to be smart players.  There are three players per court since we had 12 at practice today. Four courts of three, are easier to supervise than five courts and the athletes can feed off each other’s energy.

Physical (Aerobic) Aspect of Ghosting

Depending on the author, there are at least five aerobic “zones” we need to train in squash, ranging in intensity from a low 60-65% effort, up to a high 85-90% (dependent on anaerobic threshold).  Each zone  features a particular physiological adaptation, so the intensity of work should be planned and communicated to the athletes.  The intended intensity of today’s exercise was about 75%, so we asked the players to check their heart rate for ten seconds every five minutes to make sure they were in the correct training zone.  Fifteen minutes is a good amount of time for this type of interval training (where other aerobic training is also being done on the same day). A timer on each court was set for 20 seconds, at which point each player would switch zones, so the work:rest ration was about 3:1, with 15 seconds work and 5 seconds rest (as the player moves to the next zone).

Tactical-Technical Aspects of Ghosting

The movement required is related to the tactical objective of the shot practiced (defensive shot – move straight to ball; rallying or offensive shot – “curved” path to ball to create space when the difficulty of the ball received allows for this).

  1. Backcourt – players move to back to ghost a straight drive with arced movement, so “rallying”.
  2. Mid-Court – players ghost two volleys (pressuring/attacking), and two lunging “gets” of low, tight, drives from opponents (defending) – both movement straight to ball.
  3. Front-court – player ghosts two drives using “banana” movement to ball (attack), and then two “defensive” counter-drops with movement straight to ball (defence or counter=attack depending on how you interpret this shot)

By explaining the tactical context of the physical movement and ghosting, it is hoped the players will better integrate this training into their game.

Player Feedback

You can see in each of the two clips (shot and uploaded to YouTube via my iPhone 3Gs) that there was at least one player who was not doing the movement correctly because they did not understand my verbal description and demonstration of the drill.  This will happen frequently with your players who “learn by doing” rather than seeing or hearing.  Rather than waste time seeking total comprehension from all of my players, I chose to move them into action quickly and correct where necessary once the training was underway.

Application for Squash Coaches:

  1. Use exercises with multiple objectives to save time.
  2. Where possible, relate all training to tactics or a tactical model so your players can develop into “smart” players.
  3. Provide explanations and feedback that match the learning style of your squash players(auditory, visual, kinaesthetic).

A Progressive Approach to Teaching Racquet Sports – Part 3

September 7, 2009

In parts one and two of our three part series on Teaching Racquet Sports (such as squash) to Large Groups we covered the rationale for using adapted or modified (“mini”) racquets, balls and court size to enhance the learning of the very young or non-athletic adults or youths.  We also covered the importance of using a “Rallying” versus “instructor feed” program so that the learning is relatively “open” and realistic so that players can fruitfully practice with each other outside of clinics and lessons (not possible if their only experience is a perfect coach-fed ball).

We suggested that early learning could be split into three units based on the distance from the wall or partner: 6′, 12′ and 18′ – the objective being for the student to be able to consistently rally 10 in a row with a partner at each distance before moving on to the next.  In our last post we covered Unit 1 from 6′ – and here are Unit 2 (12′) and Unit 3 (18′ ) explained in video.

Unit 2 – Rallying From 12 feet

Unit 3 – Rallying from 18 Feet

Summary for Coaches

  1. The learning of a correct grip is a fundamental that cannot be overlooked – a progressive program starting with minimal rallying distance is the only approach that quickly stabilizes a correct grip with large groups of unathletic learners.  If the grip is not correct then it is impossible for the learner to develop other  fundamentals (such as balance, correct swing paths, etc.).
  2. Optimal learning occurs when tasks are challenging (success ratio between 50-90% – made more difficult once 10 in a row is attained) and students learn by progression not correction (starting full court with a regular ball and racquet having to make frequent corrections to an “ideal’ swing).
  3. All of the most advanced tennis countries have now made the progressive approach their official pedagogy – it is time for squash (and other racquet sport) coaches to do the same.

A Progressive Approach to Teaching Racquet Sports – Part 2

August 27, 2009

Part one of this three part series covered the rationale behind using a Progressive Approach when introducing players, young or old, to squash and the other racquet sports.  In this second video, we  make a recommendation  to use a racquetball racquet as the starting “implement” no matter what racquet sport you coach.  It has the largest hitting surface, closest to the hand, making it the easiest weapon of choice.  The only easier implement would be Ken Watson’s Big Hand – a sport “glove” to really make contact with a ball easier – a great product.

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