Diagnosing & Improving Squash Psychological Performance Problems

July 6, 2010

New AASP Logo

In my 24 years of sport psychology consulting I have found a very simple framework for diagnosing and correcting on-court mental problems encountered by squash players (note that I am referring to on-court, squash performance problems – if you as a coach suspect a problem of a more “clinical” nature (e.g., eating disorder, serious depression or generalized anxiety, etc.) you should encourage your athlete to see appropriate help:

  • Simply setting a psychological goal targeting the mental problem (e.g., choking at the end of a match) is often enough to “cure” the problem.  In reviewing hundreds of goal-setting studies in business and sport, researches found an across the board 15% improvement in participants who set specific goals versus those who simply “tried their best”.  There is a very good “self-interview” form in earlier editions of Terry Orlick’s book “In Pursuit of Excellence”, and an excellent goal-setting form in his book “Psyching for Sport”.  If you drop me a line of can send you a squash-specific, adapted, version of these forms (yes – for free:).
  • Since most squash performance problems revolve around anxiety (e.g., “I am afraid to lose”) and confidence (e.g., “I don’t think I can win”), understanding the link between anxiety/confidence and attention (see the slide of Nideffer’s simple explanation of choking) makes solving the problem relatively simple – 3-4 weeks work on relaxation and self-talk skills (as in the video below). 

If  the points above do not solve the squash psychological problem, it is likely that understanding  and working on two, slightly deeper, more complex phenomona will help:  a) importance of a task orientation and motivational climate and b) Albert Ellis’s model of “Rational Thinking.  Both are usually related to how a squash player was brought up – in other words how they were socialized into competition by  their parents (primarily), peers, sporting organizations and coaches.

  • If goal-setting and basic mental skills training do not address common squash psychological problems, often the reason is that the athlete has what is termed a “win” orientation instead of the more productive “task” orientation.  Here is a link to the background reading.  If an athlete does have a “win” orientation and their social environment is also “win’ oriented, it takes a fair bit of time (several weeks to months) to get them (and their entourage) to adopt “task” goals.
  • Another common reason that basic mental skills training does not work is that an athlete holds one or more “irrational beliefs” that hinder them from changing their behavior.  We all possess these irrational beliefs “(I must be liked and approved of by “everyone”; “I must be perfect”, etc.) to some extent – the key is to recognize them, and not let them interfere unduly with our pursuit of excellence in sport.  Luckily, Albert Ellis (considered by some to be the Father of modern cognitive behavior therapy – the current dominant paradigm in psychology counseling) has clearly outlined (in many books and articles) the procedure for disputing the irrational thoughts that cause the unproductive beliefs.  My recommendation is to read and work through the ‘Refuting Irrational Ideas” chapter in the Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook – very simple language and lots useful, practical forms and exercises – I have used it with great success when teaching Stress Management to College students.

Application for Squash Coaches

  1. When encountering a on-court mental problems with a player – set a specific goal to improve it – it should help.
  2. Most squash mental problems are related to anxiety and confidence – try a basic mental skills program with your athlete – it should help in most cases.
  3. If goal-setting and basic mental skills training do not work, the culprit is often a “win” orientation and climate (versus “task”) or irrational beliefs – “self-help” books can be of benefit if this is the case.
  4. If necessary seek the help of a qualified sport psychology consultant – here is a link to the AASP consultant finder (I am not a member as I qualified for and was registered with the Canadian Mental Training Registry which predates the AASP Certification).
  5. You can click on the “Mental-Psychology” link in the categories section of this blog’s sidebar for more info and squash and psychology.

Squash Coach Mike Johnson on the Psychology of Squash

August 10, 2009

I was lucky enough to work alongside Mike Johnson during Princeton Squash Camp’s Junior Elite weeks earlier this summer at the start of June.  Mike has a very simple approach to the game of squash, including the mental side.  As part of the camp’s Sunday evening program, I work with the lead coach of the camp to give a 45-minute workshop/lecture on the Psychological Aspects of Squash.  I have been doing this since 1987  (so about 5,500 junior camper-units – although there are some repeats in there:), and usually we help the campers analyze and compare their best and worst squash performances.

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Academic Stress Affects Season Training Plans for Squash

October 16, 2007

Coaches of student-athletes (the majority of young squash players) need to take their athlete’s level of academic stress into account when planning the physical aspects of training so that the overall level of stress on the athlete does not lead to sickness, injury or overtraining.

One easy way to make sure that this aspect does not escape attention is to allocate several lines of the annual plan to the academic schedule and academic stress. In the attached example plan of the Smith College Squash team, line 9 indicates the training load, line 10 the academic schedule and line 11 the level (estimated by team members, captains, and Faculty) of academic stress: Smith College Squash Annual Training Plan

Line 12 represents the overal stress on the athlete at any particluar moment of the year which facilitates an appropriate load which will lead to peaking at the most important competition of the year.

(Thanks to Smith Professor, Exercise Physiologist, James Johnson for a personal communication on this aspect of training)