Psychology of Squash: The Ideal Performance State

April 7, 2009

In 1983 Sport Psychologist Jim Loehr published an article in a little known Journal published by the Coaching Association of Canada.  Shortly thereafter, Loehr exploded onto the international tennis scene, spending the next 10-15 years consulting with many of the world’s top professional tennis players, frequently through his association with Nick Bollietieri and his tennis academy.  What was great about Loehr’s article on the Ideal Performance State was that is was concise and easy to understand – and therefore highly usable – a key quality for squash coaches.  Nowadays, Loehr spends time giving $35,000 speaking engagements to some of the world’s top business executives.  Since 1983 he has published almost a dozen books on sports and performance psychology (go to – most of them very applied and practical.

Nicol David, World #1

Nicol David, World #1

In his article, Loehr argues for the existence of a special psychological state that occurs during an athlete’s best performances.  An athlete’s Ideal Performance State (IPS) consists of high energy, positive feelings, and can be described using adjectives such as energized, physically relaxed, mentally calm, self-confident and focused in the present.  Loehr’s IPS model has never been scientifically validated by the sport psychology academic community, and in the academic world has been supplanted by Hanin’s Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning, and Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow model – both of which I teach in my Psychology of Sport class at Smith College.

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What should a squash player visualize?

February 17, 2009

The good thing about many self-help books on sport psychology is that they often have visualization scripts that a squash coach could read aloud to his or her athletes, or many general suggestions (e.g., “imagine yourself playing well”) for what to visualize.

The bad thing is that these set scripts and general suggestions are too vague to be of real help to our squash athletes.  Imagine the similar situation of coaching our players on court with the feedback: “get your racquet back earlier” or “bend your knees” or “follow-through”.  Unlikely to be of help to the serious, thoughtful player who already has the basics.  As squash coaches, we are also hampered by the fact that there are no “Mental Training for Squash” books out there that directly address our needs.

So what should we tell our players to visualize?  Based on my 22 years of sport psychology consulting there are three practical sources of visualization content that squash coaches can use.  I have outlined them in the chart below.

Sources of visualization content for squash players.

Sources of visualization content for squash players.

Player’s Goals

If your squash player’s three main goals are to:  1) Improve quickness; 2) Be tougher on key points; and 3) Play tighter length court of the back-court – then these scenarios are exactly what they should be visualizing.  The more specific the squash coach can be with visualization instructions, the more benefit the player will get from doing the mental training.  For each goal the coach could develop three visualization scenarios to reinforce the accomplishment of the player’s goals – in the example here scenes that support goal #2.

2.a.  Visualize playing from 8-8 in the 5th.

2.b.  Visualize playing from 0-0 in the 5th.

2.c. Visualize coming back from down 7-2.

Training Phase

For those squash coaches who use periodized (periodised for you non-North American Commonwealth natives:) annual training plans, visualization content will change as you move through the year to support the main training goals of each phase.  The main directives for each phase are contained in the above chart.  You can read about periodized mental training programs in my article here.

Focus Plan

A Squash Focus Plan is a written plan with three parts that a player uses to stay totally focussed during a squash match:

1) Pre-match:  The list of activities, physical (jogging, stretching, etc.) and mental (breathing, visualization, etc.), that a player does to get warmed up and into the “zone” in the 60 minutes prior to a match.

2) Match Focus: List of reminders (technical, tactical, mental) that a player needs to focus optimally during a match.

3) Distraction Control or Focus Plan:  list of problematic situations or distractors that might cause a player to lose focus – and a specific solution for each (e.g., cue words, breathing, etc.).

An important part of using a Focus Plans is to have your athlete visualize each part of the plan being carried out under different conditions (different tournaments, opponents, styles of play, etc.).  A highly recommended resource for Focus Plans is Terry Orlick’s Coaches Training Manual to Psyching for Sport – out of print but still available used on the internet.

Application for Squash Coaches

  1. Provide individualized, squash-specific visualization workouts for your players.
  2. Help your players develop a written Squash Focus Plan.

Summer is Here: Plan Your Squash Team’s Season Mental Training

July 8, 2008

Now that summer is upon us, many squash coaches are turning their attention towards planning their next squash season. Dedicated athletes are already logging 10-15 hours a week doing General Preparatory physical work such as low to medium intensity aerobic workouts and whole body strength-endurance exercises, and hopefully some fun activities like summer basketball, swimming, biking and roller-blading.

Most coaches do not feel as comfortable planning their team’s mental training as they do the physical and technical training aspects of squash. What exactly are the elements that need to be included in an effective program? Here they are in order of importance and priority:

  1. Establish a task (versus win) climate for your program.
  2. Assist athletes to develop a ‘Squash Focus Plan”.
  3. Implement regular match and Focus Plan evaluation procedures.
  4. Encourage your athletes to visualize regularly.
  5. Address individual athlete issues through a mental skills training program.  Read the rest of this entry »

New Year’s Resolutions – the SAME as Goal-Setting!

January 1, 2008

In all fields of life, including sport, those who set goals perform, on average 15% better than those who do not. This finding has been clearly supported by two eminent researchers in a recent review of 35 years of goal-setting research published in the American Psychologist (Locke & Latham, 2002).

This notion applies across a wide variety of tasks and settings. For example if two athletic twins in equal physical condition set out to perform as many sit-ups as possible, the twin thats sets a goal will do better 15% more sit-ups than the twin who tries to “do as many as possible”. If a squash team of numerous equal twins are divided into two groups and try to hit as many backhands as possible into a target area, the group which sets goals according to specific guidelines will hit 15% more targets.

What are these goal-setting guidelines? They can be summed up with the acronym “SAME”. Goals should be Specific, Achievable, Measureable, and Evaluated regularly to have maximum motivational effect.

So yes, you should make New Year’s resolutions to improve your life and your squash – you will be a better person and a better player!

WSF Presentation: Periodization of Mental Training for Squash: A 20-Year Update

September 6, 2007

Tim Bacon’s presentation summarizes 20 years of sport psychology consulting using a periodized model. Here is the WSF Conference page for discussion, notes and downloads related to this presentation.