Wimbledon 2009: Psychological & Tactical Lessons for Squash Coaches

July 5, 2009

My prediction for the Gentlemen’s Singles was wrong – I was sure Andy Murray (with his big biceps) was ready to take Wimbledon and Federer with Nadal out of the way.  With Federer appearing to suffer some doubts and lack of confidence recently (obviously alleviated somewhat by his French Open win), I thought Murray’s increasing confidence would carry him through the pressure of the British press – apparently not.

The ability to keep pressure off in both squash and tennis is key.  I just finished two weeks of squash camp with Mike Johnson (former coach of Fitzgerald, Eyles and Ricketts amongst others) and he reckons this ability is the most important for players to acquire.  According to Johnson,  the inability to keep pressure off  (“I must win this match”) is the number one reason players underperform.

It was very clear in the Wimbledon women’s final that the William’s sisters are the dominant force in women’s tennis today (check the video!).  Their father played the key role in keeping the pressure off them in their formative years – forbidding them to play in junior tennis tournaments from the age of 12-14.  My hypothesis is that this allowed them to develop that “go for it” attitude which obviously has become a habit.  The lack of tournament pressure also allowed them to develop a variety of skills unhindered by the need to “win that match today”.  My two weeks with 70 of the U.S.’ top junior squash players has reconfirmed my belief that the “need to win” is the number one barrier to making necessary changes in one’s squash technique and tactics.  Many junior squash players are unwilling to accept the temporary drop in performance that would come with a grip change for example.  Since accepting a temporary performance decrement in exchange for future gains is logical, there must be external forces (parents, coach, tournament environment) acting on the junior.

Squash is much more tactical than singles tennis, especially tennis played on grass (with an average of less than three shots per rally).  Doubles tennis on the other hand, is at least as tactical and perhaps more so: the addition of the net game, poaching and faking, variety in positioning (both up, both back, Australian), use of the lob (rarely seen in singles), etc.  It was great to see the Canadian Nestor come through for the second year in a row.  I never worked with Nestor but did work with Canadian Sebastien Lareau (Olympic Doubles Medalist), and last week at Princeton ran into Canadian and former world number 1 doubles Glenn Michibata (with Grant Connell) – now coaching the men’s tennis team at Princeton.  Why has Canada produced so many top-ranked doubles players over the last 10-15 years?  It has to do with Tennis Canada’s Tactics First Approach to training their tennis coaches.  Their tactics first approach has been the official coaching method in Canada since at least 1985.  Although the Canadian tennis players are too few and not talented enough to regularly break into the top 100 in singles – in a sport which prioritizes tactics, they have dominated (per capita) the top ranking spots over the last 15 years. Smart play can overcome a lack of physical talent – a great lesson for sqush coaches.  in order to develop this “squash intelligence” coaches need to use a Tactics First Approach.

Application for Squash Coaches:

  1. Help keep the pressure off your junior squash players through proper goal setting (task not win goals) and an emphasis on longterm development.
  2. Use a Tactics First Approach to develop squash intelligence in your players

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.


Biomechanics for Squash Coaches

December 3, 2008

Earlier today I did a search of the world’s largest database of sport research and did not turn up a single accessible scientific article on the biomechanics of squash.  There were a few non-scientific articles in Sports Coach, an Australian coaching magazine, and some links to Conference Proceedings (i.e., someone presented on a topic at a conference so we might have access to a one-page abstract).

Furthermore, there are no published guides for squash coaches similar to Duane Knudson’s 2006 “Biomechanical Principles of Tennis Technique:  Using Science to Improve Your Strokes”.  Ideally there should be a dynamic interaction between Biomechanics research and squash coaching and playing:  a player or coach develops a new way of hitting the squash ball or moving on the court that is “verified” by a research study – or a new research study exposes a better way of executing squash technique.

biomech_

The actual paradigm that has been used in squash, and that is still in use today, is that a top player, or the coach of a top player, puts out a video or a book, or presents at a coaching conference and gives their subjective opinion (versus scientifically backed reasoning) on how to hit a squash ball.  One of the great things about working at the Princeton Summer Squash Camps for 18 years is that you get to see literally hundreds of coaches present and teach their version of squash technique – and this includes many coaches of world champions.  Obviously there are many contradictions, omissions, and obvious errors in the technique recommendations since they are based on “how I hit the ball” or “how I was taught to hit the ball”.

So although a teaching of technique based on squash-specific biomechanical research is not possible at this time, what is possible is a teaching of squash technique based on an empirical approach grounded in research into similar technical actions for which there is solid scientific evidence – the most classic example being a comparison of throwing a ball (for which there is a lot of research and practical coaching guides) with hitting a squash forehand drive.

heebthrow

The advent of easy video (filming, editing software and distribution) provides another way of empirically backing up our reasoning on squash technique.  If 95% of the top 20 use a shortened swing and lots of wrist flick (as seen in video examples) to hit a difficult ball out of the back-court, we can be much more confident in receiving advice than if we are told “this is what I do”.

Lastly, there are a set of universally accepted biomechanical principles which a coach can use to inform their technical interventions – analyzing, teaching or correcting.  The diagram below contains the Coaching Association of Canada’s conception of biomechanical principles important in the analysis of skills.  Ideally a coach should analyze and correct technique using both their experience as a player and a coach and a solid rationale based on biomechanical principles.  In future posts we will give some examples of how these basic principles relate to squash technique.

Seven General Biomechanical Principles for Sport

Seven General Biomechanical Principles for Sport

Application for Squash Coaches

  1. Go beyond the “this is what I do” rationale for stroke analysis and correction.
  2. Learn and use basic biomechanical principles in your technical coaching.
  3. Find and use a good tennis or general biomechanics reference.

Squash Practice: The Correct Sequence of Training Components

October 9, 2008

One of the most important things I learned during the the Periodization (Annual Planning) task of my Squash Canada Level 4 Course in 1987, was the importance of sequencing training activities within a practice according to the principle of “fatiguability of the Central Nervous System (CNS)” (Bompa, 1999). This principle states that activities that require a fresh well-rested athlete should be performed first, while those activities that can have a good training effect when performed in a fatigued state should be carried out later in the practice.

If you look at the practice plan for the Smith College Squash Team’s fourth day of practice, in the first week of the season you can see a specific application of this principle. Read the rest of this entry »


Three More Great E-Newsletters for Squash Coaches!

October 3, 2008

The more teaching and research I do the more I am convinced that printed books are going the way of the Dodo bird.  More and more in my Introduction to Exercise & Sport Studies class at Smith College I am using YouTube videos, podcasts and links to websites as first exposure to sport science topics such as biomechanics, physiology and sport psychology.  We then follow this up by directing students to more scholarly work using the SportDiscus database for which there is no charge at Smith College.  We are lucky enough to be the only Liberal Arts College in the U.S.A. with both a Graduate Program in Exercise & Sport Studies (ESS) and a Minor at the undergraduate level.  As an aside, we have graduated seven women with M.Sc.’s who have trained with me as assistant coaches in our varsity team program in the last 15 years.  Read the rest of this entry »


Do Squash Coaches Need a Nutritionist’s Help?

September 12, 2008
USDA My Pyramid

USDA My Pyramid

I have attended at least 20 nutrition for sport workshops over the years, and have found that the concepts behind good sports nutrition are very similar to those of nutrition for the general populace. I have taught sports nutrition to coaches and college students in my courses since 1992, so I rely mostly on the Food Pyramid to guide my educational efforts. But as the coach of a women’s squash team, I also include a mini-lecture on iron every season (and I also keep an eye out for signs of disordered eating). The Canada Food Guide is also a great free resource for squash players – and it is available in more than 10 languages. Read the rest of this entry »


Psychological Priorities for Squash – On-Court Mental Skills

August 30, 2008

In general, the principles of sport psychology apply to all sports.  However, in the same way that a squash-specific physical training program (e.g., lunges, twisting core exercises, med ball side throws) will improve your athletes more than a general one (e.g., squats, bench press, biceps curl), a program designed specifically to meet the needs of squash is better than a general one.

Although there are a quite a few books on mental training for tennis, I know of none for squash.  Having designed psychology programs for world champions in both tennis and squash I can say that there are important differences.  Due to the lack of published resources for squash we need to rely on knowledge from three areas to guide our interventions.

Examples of subjective and professional practice experience can be found in squash books published by top players in the 1970’s and 1980’s heyday of squash.

Another example of using professional practice knowledge involves summarizing the opinions of knowledgeable coaches. I asked national squash coaches from around the world attending the 2007 WSF Coaching Conference in Calgary the question:  “What is the most important thing you know about mental training for squash”.  Their answers are contained in this document: wsf-coaches-answer-the-question-1Read the rest of this entry »