Basic Squash Drills vs. “Games Approach” – Which is Better?

March 25, 2012

My ESS110 Introduction to Sport Coaching that I teach at Smith College is built around the ASEP (since I am in the U.S. – in Canada it would be built around the NCCP) Coaching Principles Course.  The target audience for the ASEP course is the high school coach.  In a sophisticated sporting country the course would be linked to LTADs – perhaps the “Train to Train” phase – but we are in the U.S. where the  focus is on short term results versus long term development – except for the rare exception.

One of the strengths of Coaching Principles course materials are very well and simply written.  The other major strength, especially useful for squash coaches, is that the course introduces the pedagogical approach know as the Games Approach.  I have blogged on this before, usually using the term ‘Tactics First”.

Unfortunately, most of the squash world, meaning players and coaches are entrenched in an overly technical approach to the game, with a focus on teaching strokes, often stereotypical strokes (e.g., the forehand drive) unrelated to any tactical situation.  For example most squash pros introduce new players with a “forehand” lesson where they feed players a very easy ball and ask the student to hit it straight back to them – progressively moving the player on to “mindless” straight length or boast-drive drills, focusing on the technique of “hitting better length”, in situations where we ingrain the instinct to hit the ball back to our opponents.  My hypothesis is that most squash players do not peak until the age of 27 or 28 since it takes that long to become a smart squash player and undo the effects of stupid drilling!

The problem of course is that squash is a decision-making game, where the choice of shot is of key importance, as a well hit shot directed back to the opponent is of little use. The Games Approach advocated by ASEP is basically the equivalent of the squash “conditioned game” (e.g. a game where is the opponent drops you must redrop or hit a cross-court) , the big difference being that the Games Approach coaching sessions starts with the conditioned game, and all coaching and drilling for the rest of the session targets student  improvement at that particular game tactic.

This preference for simplistic, not thinking drills is somewhat comically reflected in the statistics on my Squash Science YouTube Channel.  My video with the most views is “Basic Squash technical Drills” with 7,865 drills?!? The only reason I posted this video is that I was coming back from my total hip replacement and needed to do some easy moving drills that involved no uncertainty or decision-making.

Two of my better tactical training videos have only got 2,500 and 1,800 views???

In the first video we start the session with a conditioned game that forces player A to make a choice in the front-court. This was the third video session that looked at tactics in the front court, the first being drop or cross-court, and the second being drop or lob. This is classic Games Approach

A key part of winning a point is not only playing a good attacking shot, but also playing the correct follow-up or second shot, a notion that I thought we captured very well with our ball machine video – often difficult to do repetitively in a one-on-one coaching session.

Ball Machine: 

  • “Why did you keep playing that shot instead of ______”,
  • “You had to do a better job adjusting”,
  • “Why did you go for that winner then? ,
  • “You needed to attack more instead of just hitting it to the back”.These are all comments that squash coaches make to players who have been trained with an over emphasis on traditional technical drills.  We cannot expect our players to become smart players if we don’t give them a chance to make decisions in our coaching sessions.


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 (Certified Squash, Tennis & Badminton 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).


Teaching Squash Beginner’s (and other raquet sports too)!

August 27, 2010

As September rolls around most of us squash coaches, whether club or college, are going to be put in the position of introducing groups of new players to squash (and perhaps other racquet sports).  To make a long story short, most of the mainstream coaching world has finally caught up with a pedagogy that has been around for 30 years – unfortunately it takes several generations for new knowledge to filter down to the average coach whose primary choice of pedagogy (teaching methods) is to “teach the way that they were taught”.

In this series of videos from my Squash Science YouTube Channel I explain the rationale behind a progressive approach to teaching beginning racquet sports.  The “old” method of demonstrating and explaining the whole, complete final skill – and then working by “correction” (instead of progression) only works with “talented” learners (and demotivates and discourages untalented learners).  Obviously the costly (and inefficient in terms of developing a nation of players) private lesson coach has more latitude to use old-style methods.  These principles of learning apply to all racquet sports, something I learned as Head Instructor of the Toronto JCC Racquet Sports Camps in the summers of 1978 & 1979 – and as a recent racketlon player. I have embedded the first video, and provide links to the others.

Introduction to Teaching Racquet Sports to Large Groups of Beginners – Part 1

Teaching Racquet Sports to Large Groups of Beginners – Part 2

Teaching Racquet Sports to Large Groups of Beginners – Part 3

Teaching Racquet Sports to Large Groups of Beginners – Part 4

Teaching Racquet Sports to Large Groups of Beginners – Part 5

Finally, here is the recent ITF rationale for a progressive approach to teaching racquet sports:


A Progressive Approach to Teaching Racquet Sports to Large Groups: Part I

August 26, 2009

Most physical educators and squash coaches are not lucky enough to be able to solely coach talented, young athletes in a private lesson setting.  Most of are usually involved in teaching larger groups of untalented (and often unmotivated) youth or adults.  Traditional racquet sport pedagogy methods usually involved teaching using lines of students trying to hit full swings off an unrealistically perfect feed from a coach – with little time for individual correction in group teaching.  My first tennis teaching assignment (1975) was to teach 75 kids on three courts with two assistant instructors.

Read the rest of this entry »


Coaching Squash Deception with Games Approach – Drop or Drive

July 7, 2009

Here is a video example of a coaching session using the Games Approach method to teach deception in the front court. Notice the following in comparison to a “usual” technique-based coaching session:

  • Start with a game to assess the squash player before any coaching takes place.  This assures a minimum of talking (boring) and an active start to the lesson with competition (everyone loves competition!).
  • Use questioning to help the student figure out for themselves what they need to work on – if the squash coach tells them outright, the student will never develop the ability to think for themselves.  Notice in the video that Chris’ (the student) awareness of what is actually happening in terms of the results of his shots is not that great despite his relatively high standard (sorry Chris!)
  • After identifying an area to work on, squash coaches can use more conventional drilling to improve the weakness.  If possible, make the drilling game-like by including movement to the ball and also including the recovery and follow-up shot (in this case the straight volley into the open court created by the drop to the front).  Also if possible, set a standard of quality (seen in the drop practice scenario in this: if the opponent can lob over the player after the drop has been played) that provides the player with automatic feedback (no coach feedback required).
  • Missing from the video is finishing with another 5-point game to see if the student has actually improved.  Also for the sake of keeping things simple, we have not delved into a micro-analysis of Chris swing, use of wrist and hold, etc.

In this example, three players (including the coach) were involved.  Obviously the game could also be played with two players to make it even more game-like.  Thanks to Shona Kerr for helping out fresh off her knee surgery!


How Many Minutes Should a Squash Drill Last?

December 1, 2008

Well of course it depends on the objective of the drill! If the drill is a techno-physiological drill (i.e., a drill whose purpose is both technical and physiological), the drill could be structured around the requirements of the targeted physical ability. So a drill targeting speed, agility or power should be organized around 10 to 15, maximal, 5-10 second efforts, with plenty of rest (work:rest ratio of at least 1:3) between efforts to maintain the required high quality of work, as might be the case when working on retrieving drops in the front (with either a lob or counter-drop?). With one coach and 3-4 players per court, if you do the math, this will take 20-25 minutes if you work efficiently. Drills targeting other physical abilities important to squash such as aerobic power or lactic acid tolerance will need to be structured differently.

Attention Span is a Cognitive (Brain) Function

Attention Span is a Cognitive (Brain) Function

Most of the drills we see in squash have a primarily technical emphasis, for example hitting better length, or hitting tighter drop shots. How long should these drills last? We have two sources of evidence, one scientific and the other empirical to guide good squash coaching practice.

The first evidence comes from pedagogical research into classroom learning. Researchers have found that the learner’s interest and attention start to fall shortly after a lecture begins, with interest declining rapidly about the 20-minute mark as depicted in the graph below:

Learner Interest in the Classrom

Learner Interest in the Classrom

I learned about this at a Coaching Association of Canada conference for Coaching Certification Course Conductors. It was recommended that we follow the 7-20-40 rule when training coaches: involve participants at least every 7 minutes by asking a question; change the mode of instruction every 20 minutes if possible (e.g., lecture to small group discussion); and give students a short break every 40 minutes (quick stretch, toilet, etc.).

One way of adapting this rule to our on-court squash sessions would be to rotate partners every 7 minutes, changing the drill slightly every 20 minutes, and give a short water break cum mini-feedback/discussion every 40 minutes.

Empirical (i.e., based on experience) evidence concerning length of drilling comes from the German Tennis Association (coaches of Graf, Becker, Stich), who recommend drilling periods of 20-25 minutes, consisting of 150-200 strokes (in groups of 10-15 or 15-25 strokes depending on the purpose of drilling) when learning or stabilizing technique. They recommend this be followed by a 2-5 minute recuperation break before moving on to the next exercise.

Obviously, individual differences such as age of the athlete and an individual’s attention span need to be taken into account. U.S. Soccer has published a document which is an excellent example of applying these principles. The document summarizes different countries approaches to modifyng adult soccer rules for youth – notice that nearly all the countries use short game periods for the younger athletes: 206_international_associations_programs

Application for Squash Coaches

  1. Know the objectives of your drills to set an appropriate time.
  2. Keep technical drills to 20-25 minutes, with 150-200 repetitions.
  3. Take individual differences, especially athlete developmental level, into account when setting drill length.