Squash Back-Court Defence: Nicole David

May 12, 2017

The problem with most published work on notational or performance analysis of squash is that it is stroke or technique centered.  The simplest example of notational analysis would be when a squash coach charts one of their player’s matches by putting a “W” (for winnner) or “E” (for error) on a diagram of a squash court.

Another example of technique-centered performance analysis was our 1987  Squash Canada Level 4 Performance Analysis Task, where we had to chart a video of a match between Dale Styner and John Fleury (both Canadian National Team members), recording every stroke played and the result of the stroke. The output of the analysis was a summary chart of statistics: number of shots played, percentage of winners and errors for each stroke type (forehand drive, backhand drop, etc.).

Information of this type, without a tactical context is not very useful:  for example a player’s technique, and associated success ratio,  in the back of the squash court is very different depending on the difficulty of the received shot, the amount of pressure the player is under, and the characteristics of the opponent (fast vs. slow, retriever vs. shot-maker, etc.).

The best analyses are based on a defined tactical model in order to be able to make precise, specific recommendations to players concerning the improvement of their game.  When I teach the current Level 4 Performance Analysis Task for Squash Canada, the first assignment in the class is for each of the coaches to present the tactical model they use for coaching their players.

In order to demonstrate the usefulness of notational analysis based on a tactical model, I used the Dartfish Tagging  module to analyze the first 25 points of the first game of the  2006 British Open Final (purchase DVD here) between Nicol David (current World #1) and Rachel Grinham.  In this example I restricted the analysis to the backcourt.

The tactical model I used for the example analysis is the “zone” model I developed with the assistance of Princeton’s Gail Ramsay and Bob Callahan in the late 1990’s:  System 3.  The idea for a zone model was based on Jack Fair’s “Traffic Light”  Model (red, amber, and green) for hardball squash, and the tennis tactical model (Methode des actions) used by Tennis Canada starting in the early 1990’s (copied and adapted a few years later by Nick Bolletieri:  System 5). It should be mentioned that the Squash Canada Coaching Program independently adapted Tennis Canada’s Action Method into their own tactical model (less directive and evolved than System 3).

The model functions by dividing the squash court into three zones: front, mid, and back, and using the difficulty of the ball received  by the player (easy, medium, difficult), to determine the tactical objective of the player’s shot (attack, rally, defend).  The player realizes their tactical objective by choosing a particular technique (e.g., attack a loose ball in the mid-court with a cross-court volley nick). We have developed a “System 5” for international level players which features two more tactical objectives (force and counter-attack) as well as the use of deception.

In the first part of the analysis, we focused on what David did on defence (against a difficult ball) in the back-court:

  • out of 25 shots to the back, David was on defence (forced use of wrist only, stretched-leaning back, adapted swing) only eight times – her very quick perception got her into position quickly enabling her to “rally” most of the balls;
  • she was able to hit good drives 5/8 times (4/5 straight), being forced to boast only once, with only 2 “bad” (loose) shots;
  • she needed, and was very good at “adapted” shortened swings (versus the full drives we normally teach) and use of the wrist;
  • although not a direct goal of the analysis, it is clear that against Grinham, David’s high percentage of volleys in the mid-court, dramatically reduced the number of times she had to play the ball off the back of the court.
  • often she is not looking at the ball/opponent as her opponent impacts the ball, perhaps indicating reliance on the tactical knowledge of her opponent’s tendencies -perhaps Rachel should have tried a few more “surprise” shots.

Here are the back-court video clips, with the “bad” shots towards the end of the video.  Pausing the video gives insight into her approach into the back, her hitting position, and her recovery back to the “T”. In our next post we will examine Nicol David “rallying” from the back-court.


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).


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.

What Does a World Champion do on Defence in the Back-Court?

December 5, 2008

The problem with most published work on notational or performance analysis of squash is that it is stroke or technique centered.  The simplest example of notational analysis would be when a squash coach charts one of their player’s matches by putting a “W” (for winnner) or “E” (for error) on a diagram of a squash court.

Another example of technique-centered performance analysis was our 1987  Squash Canada Level 4 Performance Analysis Task, where we had to chart a video of a match between Dale Styner and John Fleury (both Canadian National Team members), recording every stroke played and the result of the stroke. The output of the analysis was a summary chart of statistics: number of shots played, percentage of winners and errors for each stroke type (forehand drive, backhand drop, etc.).

Information of this type, without a tactical context is not very useful:  for example a player’s technique, and associated success ratio,  in the back of the squash court is very different depending on the difficulty of the received shot, the amount of pressure the player is under, and the characteristics of the opponent (fast vs. slow, retriever vs. shot-maker, etc.).

The best analyses are based on a defined tactical model in order to be able to make precise, specific recommendations to players concerning the improvement of their game.  When I teach the current Level 4 Performance Analysis Task for Squash Canada, the first assignment in the class is for each of the coaches to present the tactical model they use for coaching their players.

In order to demonstrate the usefulness of notational analysis based on a tactical model, I used the Dartfish Tagging  module to analyze the first 25 points of the first game of the  2006 British Open Final (purchase DVD here) between Nicol David (current World #1) and Rachel Grinham.  In this example I restricted the analysis to the backcourt.

The tactical model I used for the example analysis is the “zone” model I developed with the assistance of Princeton’s Gail Ramsay and Bob Callahan in the late 1990’s:  System 3.  The idea for a zone model was based on Jack Fair’s “Traffic Light”  Model (red, amber, and green) for hardball squash, and the tennis tactical model (Methode des actions) used by Tennis Canada starting in the early 1990’s (copied and adapted a few years later by Nick Bolletieri:  System 5). It should be mentioned that the Squash Canada Coaching Program independently adapted Tennis Canada’s Action Method into their own tactical model (less directive and evolved than System 3).

The model functions by dividing the squash court into three zones: front, mid, and back, and using the difficulty of the ball received  by the player (easy, medium, difficult), to determine the tactical objective of the player’s shot (attack, rally, defend).  The player realizes their tactical objective by choosing a particular technique (e.g., attack a loose ball in the mid-court with a cross-court volley nick). We have developed a “System 5” for international level players which features two more tactical objectives (force and counter-attack) as well as the use of deception.

In the first part of the analysis, we focused on what David did on defence (against a difficult ball) in the back-court:

  • out of 25 shots to the back, David was on defence (forced use of wrist only, stretched-leaning back, adapted swing) only eight times – her very quick perception got her into position quickly enabling her to “rally” most of the balls;
  • she was able to hit good drives 5/8 times (4/5 straight), being forced to boast only once, with only 2 “bad” (loose) shots;
  • she needed, and was very good at “adapted” shortened swings (versus the full drives we normally teach) and use of the wrist;
  • although not a direct goal of the analysis, it is clear that against Grinham, David’s high percentage of volleys in the mid-court, dramatically reduced the number of times she had to play the ball off the back of the court.
  • often she is not looking at the ball/opponent as her opponent impacts the ball, perhaps indicating reliance on the tactical knowledge of her opponent’s tendencies -perhaps Rachel should have tried a few more “surprise” shots.

Here are the back-court video clips, with the “bad” shots towards the end of the video.  Pausing the video gives insight into her approach into the back, her hitting position, and her recovery back to the “T”. In our next post we will examine Nicol David “rallying” from the back-court.