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).


Squash Anticipation & Deception: 2 Sides of the Same Coin

April 8, 2015

Many squash spectators, players and even coaches misunderstand squash “quickness and speed”, attributing a “fast” player’s ability to physical factors rather than their ability to anticipate what the opponent is likely to do – or not do (partial anticipation).  One of the ways to “slow down” a fast player is to use deception to hold your opponent stationary for a longer time or even misdirect them. I have blogged on both (Deception link and Anticipation link) of these topics before  but now want to combine them since it is the same, identical motor learning theory behind both notions.

The theoretical idea (e.g., Hick’s Law) behind both anticipation and deception is very simple – the greater the number of options or choices – the slower the reaction time – as illustrated in the graph below.

Hick's Law

Practical Squash Examples of the above law:

  1. When you have glued a straight length to the side wall your opponent has only one choice – to hit straight – so you can cheat over to cut off their shot.
  2. When you have hit a loose, slow easy ball into the middle of the court, your opponent has so many choices (drive straight or cross, drop straight or cross) that you cannot anticipate and you have to stay put until they actually hit the shot.

As I have blogged before, the best way to develop deceptive players who anticipate well is to have young children (8-12?) be introduced to squash in an environment where deception is valued and they are exposed to a wide variety of practice partners and opponents – then these perceptual-motor skills develop “automatically”.  If you are a junior in America this is probably not going to happen since your British squash coach is having you hit endless straight lengths down the wall and working on your fitness through hours of mindless boast and drive.  I feel free to joke and make this outlandishly exaggerated comment as I am in fact British:)  But although I am joking about “only hit straight lengths a la Jonah Barrington, there is far too much closed drilling going on in our junior programs – and not enough tactical teaching.  Here is an example of “tactical teaching” using the Games Approach (ASEP, 2012).

Since in many places great anticipation and deception will not be developed automatically, a systematic approach is needed.  What do we mean by systematic?

  • Make a list of all situations to be trained in priority order, and make sure to teach anticipation cues and deception options when you introduce and train the situation.  Note that “priority order” could mean start with the a) most common situations; b) “easiest” situations (to help athlete gain confidence); c) most difficult situations (since these take longer to learn); d) most important (the situations that cause you to lose the most points in your current match play).
  • Theoretically, these lists should be tailored to the developmental level of your player, and integrated into annual, four-year and “lifetime” (e.g., LTAD plans).

Here is an example of a list of prioritized situations.

Squash Front Court Tactics: 3-Wall Boast

Application for Squash Coaches

  1. Do not leave the development of anticipation and deception to chance – train these qualities systematically.
  2. Train situations not strokes – include the teaching of anticipation and deception every time you train a particular situation.
  3. Plan your teaching of anticipation and deception by including these in your written annual, four-year, and LTAD plans.

Squash Coaches Can Produce Great Strength Programs with FitnessBuilder!

April 5, 2015

FitnessBuilder App

It is the start of the new 2015-16 for most U.S. College and High School squash coaches, and to help them plan for the upcoming year, I have just published two blog articles on squash periodization:  one on the Transition Phase and the other on Periodization of Technique and Tactics in the General Preparation Phase (GPP).  My next periodization article in the series will be on the planning of strength training in the GPP.

Before I get to that I want to introduce squash coaches to a fantastic tool that can be used to produce your team’s own custom-designed strength training program:  PumpOne’s Fitness Builder.  I have been using it for the past three years to plan and design my own college team’s strength programs – result:  two complete seasons without a single squash-related injury (you can check with the Smith trainers:)

Coaches can design programs with Fitness builder on their computer or smart device like an iPad or iPhone.  The custom programs can be sent to athletes via emailed PDF or directly to their phone/tablet, and since there are linked video descriptions for every exercise, athletes can take their own “personal trainer” or strength coach to the gym with them – great for the off-season when many squash players are away from the campus gym.  The interface is intuitive and extremely easy to use, with hundreds of exercises to choose from, as well as a variety of fitness programs.  My advice to squash coaches using the wise periodization approach is design your own programs following periodization principles (e.g., Bompa, 2009).  Check out this video overview of the Fitness Builder system:

Now here is the catch – are you qualified to design a periodized squash-specific strength program – or are you just going to “wing it” or copy somebody else’s program – or worse – use the program that got you a hip replacement?

Tennis Training (Kovacs et al.)

The USTA (tennis) has produced a number of books (e.g., Kovacs et al., 2007 above image) which can be used as a reference, as the strength demands of tennis and squash are similar enough.  The drawback of using a strength coach – the NSCA CSCS is the gold standard of certification (I got certified in 2006) – is that many of them come from a football background and still rely heavily on “traditional” strength lifts and exercises.  The major problem with this is that there are much better, more squash-specific and functional exercises available – so what is really needed is someone like myself with both the squash coaching and national level playing background AND a reputable strength training certification. Here is a short video I made on this topic:

If you do not have access to a CSCS with extensive squash experience, a smart alternative is to subscribe to the Exos (formerly Core Performance website) and either a) use their squash or tennis programs; or b) follow their template and select from amongst their bank of exercises when you use fitness builder.  Eighty per cent of the exercises I use with my team are the same or highly similar to Exos exercises (I like to think my programs are a little better than theirs due to my 40 years of experience designing squash-specific strength programs:).  This is what I did four years ago – every week in the fall (I started my Smith Squash Team on September 15th) I would upload the appropriate EXOS training program for both the Smith Tennis and Squash Teams to follow.

Core Performance for Tennis

As a minimum, I would design one program per phase of the annual plan.  If you have an assistant or enjoy this type of coaching you could change the plan up every two weeks, but the law of diminishing returns applies and you would probably be better off spending your time recruiting.

Here is an example program I have used with my team (remember that the version sent to your athletes iPhones has clickable video descriptions for each exercise!):

Fitness builder Example

Last couple of words on this topic.  If you are a squash coach working with not yet fully mature juniors, make sure you follow LTAD guidelines for squash or tennis.  If you need help in this area please give me a call – my rates are reasonable to develop custom branded programs for you and your team.


Periodization of Squash Technique & Tactics: General Preparation Phase

April 2, 2015

Periodization Chart

If you are a U.S. College or High School squash coach, your team’s season probably ended about the end of February.  If you use a periodization scientific approach (e.g., Bompa, 2009) to planning your team’s training, most of your athlete’s will have either completed or be near completing  their 4-6 week transition period – so it is time for you to start guiding them for the start of their 2015-2016 season.  This means you will have already completed the chart above with the year’s major training tasks and calendar of competitions – unfortunately there are no published guides for squash – only what you can find here on my blog.  You can use the “search” function and enter the keyword “periodization”.

The biggest mistake coaches and parents make is to invite a world champion or their coach as a guest speaker – the needs of a mature, already developed professional are very different from those of junior or even college players.  The planning of training has to be appropriate to the developmental level of the athlete – you can refer to articles on LTADs for some guidance on this.

To make a long story short, here are some key General Preparation phase points for the older high school or college squash player with respect to the development of technique and tactics:

– If squash courts or good squash coaching is unavailable, do not do any technical/tactical development – save that for the start of the Specific Preparation phase which normally starts in September when players return to their school.  Most college players will not have access to their coaches until mid-October or November 1 – a ridiculous situation that accounts for the general low improvement levels of American college squash players compared to the rest of the world.

– Make use of summer squash camps to improve technique and learn more about good tactics.  It is important to emphasize improvement and not performance and match play at these camps.

– If you do have access to a good squash coach, the General Preparation phase is the time to work on difficult and important technical corrections and improvements. Ideally a player’s technical goals should be set with the use of an objective video analysis – there are now plenty of apps to help with that.  These are best achieved in a low pressure setting, that is when there are not a lot of competitive squash matches.  Note that although technical improvement should be favored in this phase, a Tactics First approach dictates that you should always make sure the player is clear on the tactical context in which the technical skills will be used – don’t just do mindless, repetitive drills.

– If you are in a city where there is a summer squash league, making the technical changes during match play should be emphasized over winning – otherwise most will be unable to make the required technical changes – they will just go back to their old, incorrect ways in order to try and win the match.

– Although techniques is the priority, the Games Approach pedagogy (starting a training session with a conditioned game where the targeted technique will be used frequently) can still be used.

IMG_6323

– If you are coaching squash layers with solid technique, the the General Preparation periodization can be somewhat different.  Preferably using the results of an objective video analysis, the tactical situations a player needs to develop should be organized and put into a priority order, and worked on systematically during this phase (and the following Specific Preparation phase) using a Tactics First, Decision Training or Games Approach – versus the traditional “let’s work on your backhand” approach. Here is an example of how to structure such a technical-tactical training session using the topic of “drop or lob in the front court”.  This is also a great time to develop complex skills such as deception.  In the video below I guide Karim Darwish through a session of teaching deception at a junior summer camp.

So you can see that the planning of technical and tactical improvement in the General Preparation is partly an art (based on coaching or consulting experience) as well as a science, the major factors being the availability of courts, opponents, and good coaching and the developmental level of the athlete.  I would be happy to help any coach, parent of athlete plan out this important phase of the annual plan.


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 is Great Cross-Training for Other College Sports

November 12, 2012

I have addressed the topic of using squash to cross train previously, but it is particularly salient for me this year.  I graduated seven players from last year’s Smith College varsity squash team – and I have only four returners, with no new recruits – only 1.5% of high school girls will consider attending a women’s college, despite the many educational advantages of doing so.

If I can get somewhat athletic women to come out for the team, I am quite good at developing them to a college standard quite quickly – although it is becoming more difficult with the huge emphasis here ins the U.S. on using squash as a vehicle to gain entry to a top Liberal Arts College (Smith College is amongst the top 15-20 in the country).  In 1998 and 1999, my Smith team finished 11th in the CSA rankings – only one person on the team had played high school squash (her JV team) – everyone else started from scratch here at Smith.  Our players have also won the Ann Wetzel Award more than any other team.

Here is a copy of the email I sent to the other coaches in my department in an effort to do some “internal recruiting”:

Hi,

Hope your fall seasons went well!
I have four returners ad no recruits coming in this season so we have a few spots to fill on the squash team.  I am writing in case you have any suitable candidates.
You may or may not know that the VO2 max (measure of aerobic power) of elite female squash players exceeds that of elite female marathoners (65ml/O2/kg/min.) as well as all team sports (FH, LAX, B-ball, etc.) – in other words it is a great aerobic conditioner.  One season, two rowers from Karen’s Varsity 8 pulled an erg score at their first spring practice that was identical to their last fall erg score – without erging once from November 1 to March 1 – i.e., maintained their aerobic solely through squash.
In addition to the aerobic aspect there are approximately 1,000 powerful hitting or swinging actions per squash match – a statistic which you can compare to the number of “hits/player” for your own sport, about 100 explosive starts, and about 100 full lunges.  A match takes about 35-45 minutes to play.
Finally, there are many tactical, perceptual, and mental aspects from squash that transfer over to other sports: covering space, chasing down a ball, dealing with the pressure of maintaining a lead or coming back, competing while in a fatigued state, etc., and I run the same mental training program I used to produce 30+ world champions (and one Olympic Gold) when I was doing sport psychology consulting with Canadian National Teams back in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
The type of athlete that would benefit from participating on the squash team would be:
– someone who is not going to do much training for your sport on their own – they need the impetus of belonging to a team
– someone who is a bit burned out and needs the experience of learning something new to get their love for sport back
-someone who needs supervision and instruction in mental skills training and modern physical training.
– someone who is only going to do a basic run and then traditional weight training
-someone who needs to burn about 1,000 KCal at practice to help with weight management.
The way we work things is that we give people a two-week trial to see if they like the sport and team.  We would also be willing to negotiate a 3 practices/week for varsity (not others) athletes as we acknowledge that 3 straight seasons can be draining.
So if you have someone in mind just get them to contact me.
Finally,  members of or team run rec play on Thursday evenings from 7-9 if any of your players are intrested in learning how to play.
Best,
Tim

Recruiting is NOT Squash Coaching!

March 12, 2011

I have tried in vain to convince my Athletic Director – and my colleagues in the Department of Exercise & Sport Studies at Smith College that recruiting is not coaching – I am having another crack at it with this post!  Our department chair – Jim Johnson comments:  “I have never said that recruiting is coaching. I do believe that one’s won/loss record is related to their recruiting ability but not necessarily success as defined by many.”.

Before I support my proposition, I would like to argue that Talent Identification is part of coaching!

As you can see from this excerpt from the English Institute of Sport talent identification is a “complex blend of scientific knowledge and assessment” – requiring excellent knowledge in all areas of sport science and coaching.  When paired with a sound Long Term Athlete Development Plan, and a solid, integrated national health and welfare policy (that includes the role of sport at both the elite and recreational/wellness level – here is Ireland’s – a great example) Talent ID is a worthy pursuit.

The U.S. lacks a coherent strategy that integrates sport and wellness, due mostly to the pervasiveness of the “pro sport” or Division I major sports” philosophy or model – which accounts for their poor relative performance at the international level.  The effect of this lack of a comprehensive sport policy can be extended to the college level, where teams are being cut due to the inability of Athletic Directors to associate the benefits of athletics participation to the overall College mission, which includes student well-being (the same could be said of High School Physical Education programs).

U.S. College recruiting on the other hand is not skillful (I suppose salesmanship is a skill?:) and requires almost no sport science knowledge.  For example in college squash, U.S. Squash sends a list of all the juniors who compete in tournaments along with their contact information to each college coach – all a coach has to do is be able to write an e-mail.  It has been my observation, based mostly on 20 years of summer camps at Princeton university, that for most junior squash players in the U.S. (and more recently foreign players as well) college squash is simply a vehicle to be able to attend the best academic institution possible.

Simply put, everything else being equal, the best junior squash players will attend the best available school (I got a .43 correlation coefficient when I correlated the college squash rankings with the U.S. College news college rankings.).  The top academic schools – and some of the ones not so near the top – seem very happy to lower their usually high admissions standards to admit a top player – adding imbalance to an already UN-level playing field (a level playing field being a key component of sportsmanship/fairplay).

What strikes me most is the disconnect between an academic institution’s public statements concerning the role of varsity sports in developing leadership and human potential and the actual communications that take place between Athletic Directors and coaches “you had better win or else” (a Division III comment) – and the current “frenzy” to recruit.  The discussions around the success of the Trinity Men’s Squash Program provide a vehicle to examine many of the issues around coaching and recruiting.  On one hand  the Trinity approach to recruiting has violated the “level playing field” principle for its NESCAC peers, while on the other has in fact redressed the “un-level playing field” that had advantaged the Ivy’s for so many years.

This very American glorification of being #1, and a willingness to put aside related potential ethical issues (e.g., look at the public’s acceptance of MacEnroe’s tennis behavior – or Bobby Knight’s), concerns me.  It might appear to be reminiscent of past U.S. Foreign policy (e.g., “the accusation that the United States has striven to single-handedly dominate world affairs.”).

Having coached squash at a Division I college level (University of Western Ontario at a time when they usually finished top three in U.S. College Squash), as well as coaching (and consulting) at the International Level (e.g., Canadian Jr. National Squash Team with Jonathon Power, Graham Ryding; Olympic Gold in Tennis Doubles, etc.), I am unimpressed with rankings of any sort.  My respect for Paul Assiante, the Trinity coach, is based on my squash discussions with him, and more recently the coaching values that come across in his recently published book – not his win-loss record.  The idea that recruiting success (and the associated win-loss record) equates with coaching ability is a strange one for me.  “Recruiting” does not play a role in any coaching education program  that I know of – outside of the U.S – talent identification definitely does.  Considering that the average age of top performance in squash is 27-28, I would suggest that Athletic Director’s (and in some cases college Presidents) direct their coach-employees to take the estimated 30% of their work week that they devote to recruiting, and better use that time to mentor their charges.

Ironically, the Admissions Department here at Smith has, for the first time in my 16 years at the college, admitted several (2 ED, and possibly two more top junior players) squash recruits – so we are looking at moving up at least 10 spots in the rankings (we won’t get to the #12 spot (21-4 win-loss record) we achieved in 1998 and 1999 with a team with only one player who had played at high school:).  As I explained to my team at our season-ending meeting – the new players will make absolutely no difference to our win-loss record, as I will simply schedule more difficult teams in an attempt to play against opponents of similar ability – thereby maximizing their improvement.