Squash Psychology: Children’s Motivation to Play Squash – the Big Picture

November 8, 2010

I have already written about the importance that enjoyment plays in a young squash player’s motivation to play squash.  A very simple approach for squash coaches is to make sure that their junior players enjoy lessons, training and competing!

But things are a little more complex than just making sure that kids “have fun”.  Sport psychology researchers have adapted one of Developmental Psychologist Susan Harter’s Models to come up with a complete picture of how young athletes’ motivation to play sport is determined.  Here is a simplified slide from Weinberg & Gould’s textbook (about to publish their 5th edition – but with completely acceptable earlier editions available on Amazon for under $10):

Weinberg & Gould (2007)

So while “enjoyment” is included (under “affect” which is a synonym for “emotion”) in this model, it is easy to see that the overall picture to developing motivation in children is in fact more complex.  What does this model describe?

  • In brief, the feedback a child receives from coaches, parents and peers partially determines their sense of “perceived competence” (how good they think they are at sport) and “self-esteem”;
  • The “type” of motivation a child has (“motivational orientation”), their anxiety level,  and the level of success they have (at squash for example), also contribute to competence and self-esteem.  To make a long story short, a win-oriented, extrinsically motivated outlook can result in low self-esteem and perceived competence and a process (improvement)-oriented, intrinsically motivated outlook usually results in higher perceived competence and self-esteem.
  • Both feedback and motivational orientation affect self-esteem and perceived competence – which then in turn influence “affect” (the emotions a child experiences) – which in turn influence the child’s motivation to a) choose to participate and b) how much effort they will expend in participating.

Harter’s original model (see below) from which the above slide was adapted, clearly shows two paths a child (and their parents & coach) may follow:

Harter (1981)

  • Stating in the center of the diagram (“mastery attempts, i.e., playing squash), the path to the right depicts failure (opponent or drill too difficult) and lack of reinforcement leading to anxiety and low perceived competence which leads to reduced motivation to participate.
  • The path to the left depicts mastery attempts followed by success (an opponent or drill of appropriate challenge) and positive reinforcement leading to intrinsic pleasure and increased perceived competence which increases motivation to participate and continue in sport (e.g., squash).

And you thought you were just giving a squash lesson:)

In 1992 I presented this model at the Tennis Canada Coaches Conference and subsequently wrote a chapter on the model in their Under 11 Coaching manual, making these key recommendations for coaches:

  1. Make sure you are a good coach who actually improves their athletes quickly – i.e., make sure they are successful.
  2. Related to the above, ensure optimal task difficulty (competition and practice) – a good practical guide being to make sure they succeed 50-80% of the time before making things more difficult (or get them to stop comparing themselves to others).
  3. Discourage a focus on winning and increase focus on improving (or make sure your students always win – good luck with that over a 10-year period which includes puberty and moving up in the age groups every two years :).
  4. Make sure parents are on board with the components of Harter’s model – otherwise they can unknowingly sabotage your efforts (more on parents in future posts).

Squash Psychology: Helping Your Child Enjoy Squash (Sport)

November 7, 2010

Yesterday was World Squash Day 2010! We were challenged by the World Squash Federation to introduce new players – including 20 children – to our sport.  Now our challenge is to keep them involved in a modern world with literally hundreds of alternative activities – how can we do this?

Actually – it is not that easy.  Parents, athletes, administrators and even squash coaches tend to view sport in an overly simplistic fashion.  That is not surprising given that most have very little academic background and direct professional practice experience with large numbers of children – what they have is their own subjective experiences: their own childhood memories or interaction with their own children.  In addition to having taken academic courses in the area (e.g., Developmental Psychology) I have been doing summer camps with kids for the past 37 years (yikes!) and written materials for coaching programs on how to best coach children from a psychological standpoint (e.g., the Tennis Canada Under 11 Coaching Program).

Most people tend to interact with children in a simplistic “stimulus-response” fashion – “if I/we do this – the child with do that”; “this is bad for the child – that is good”, discounting the fact that children are in fact thinking, feeling, acting beings.  Fortunately, there is a small group of researchers that seek to explain how children interpret and think about the feedback and interactions they receive around their sport and physical activity experiences.

One of the simplest yet useful models we can use to understand our children’s participation is the Sport Enjoyment Model originally developed by Scanlon and Lewthwaite in 1986.  As illustrated in the figure below, the factors that determine a child’s participation (e.g., parent’s support, alternative choice of activities, etc.) first affect a child’s enjoyment, which in turn determines their motivation to participate in sport (i.e., their sport commitment).

From Weiss, M.R., Kimmel, L.A., & Smith, A.L. (2001)

The numbers in the diagram are “coefficients” that range from zero to one (0.000 to 1.0).  The closer the number is to 1.0 – the stronger the relationship between the items (i.e., variables) in the diagram.  You can see that the coefficient (.959) on the line between Enjoyment and Tennis Commitment is almost 1.00 – so a child’s motivation to participate in a particular sport is highly related to their enjoyment! Here is one academic description (ignore it!) of the term “coefficient” “the size of the coefficient for each independent variable gives you the size of the effect that variable is having on your dependent variable, and the sign on the coefficient (positive or negative) gives you the direction of the effect (e.g., notice the number on the line between “Attractive Alternatives” and Enjoyment is negative – so the more attractive the alternatives to squash are – the less the child will enjoy squash.”)

In future posts I will present other models we can use to plan our interventions with children – in the meantime you may want to get a copy of this book:


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 Psychology: Focus Plan = Psychology + Tactics

February 26, 2010

How can a squash coach best help their player to play well and get into their Ideal Performance State?  One of the best ways is to coach their players to write down a plan that includes three parts:

  • Pre-match plan – to help them get focused and warmed up before play;
  • Match Plan – reminders about their tactical game plan, perhaps a few key technical points, and some general reminders (psychological or motivational).
  • Refocus or Distraction Control Plan – a list of potential distractions and solutions.

The idea for a Focus Plan was initiated by Canadian Sport Psychologist Terry Orlick based on his work and research with Olympic athletes.  Since 1986, I have continued to adapt the idea to make plans for squash, tennis and racquetball players – with pretty good success since many went on to become world champions and successful professional players.  This idea of preparing written plans formed the basis for the Coaching Association of Canada’s Level 4 Coaching Certification – the steps are outlined in detail in two of Orlick’s books – Psyching for Sport and Coach’s Guide to Psyching for Sport – now out of print but available on Amazon.

I have used many different forms for the plan with the thousands of athletes I have worked with since then – here is the latest version for you to download – Focus Plan 2010 – I have added two new sections in the last few years:

  • Competition Philosophy Statement:  A brief statement by the athlete about why they compete – it can help keep the pressure off (e.g., I always go and give my best – win or lose”)
  • Communication Preferences:  What the athlete likes to hear from teammates and coaches before, during and after competition.

This will help your squash players to avoid the “fainting goat” syndrome when faced with competitive pressure:

Application for Squash Coaches:

  1. Help your squash players perform consistently by getting them to develop and use a written down game plan.
  2. Discuss communication preferences with your athletes to improve your on site coaching.
  3. Help your athletes develop and use a competition philosophy that fires them up, but also helps keeps the nervousness away.

Squash Psychology: Simulate Championship Conditions!

February 25, 2010

One of the final steps in an organized (periodized) mental training program, if for a squash coach to prepare his or her players for the conditions they will meet at the season-ending championship.  A tough competitive schedule will do a lot to optimally prepare players – but often there are challenges of the championships that cannot be met through regular practice and competition.

A squash coach has three weapons to help their players address these specific challenges:

  • a match or focus plan (including a distraction plan) – written plan of reminders and cues to perform well;
  • visualization – imagine playing well in challenging conditions
  • simulation – develop exercises to mimic the challenges of the championships.

In preparing the Canadian Jr. Men’s team of Jonathon Power, Graham Ryding, etc. for the 1990 World Championships, we set up a match at a Toronto Club with a 4-glass walled court and local pros as opponents – put on uniforms, decorated with flags, and invited parents and friends of the players with cameras and video camcorders.

Just because my Smith College team will be competing in the “D” Division at Howe Cup (U.S. College Championships) this weekend, dos not mean we cannot use the same high performance preparation as the world’s best athletes.

Here are the simulations we have run at practice in the last two weeks (in no particular order):

  • simulate play on 4-glass walled court by hitting against and along our own glass-backed courts:
  • simulate match point when the team match is tied and the players is the last match on:
  • simulate hot courts by playing a game with blue dots (Yale University courts play very hot with 1,000 plus people milling around).
  • prepared for crowds this weekend by taking a van ride down to watch the Men’s Championships last weekend (several players in their first year of squash)
  • play court rotation tournament during practice in order to practice certain match situations:  up 8-3 in fifth, 8-8 in fifth, etc.
  • simulate fatigue by having the players run 10 lengths of the court between every point.

Each player has also developed their own individual focus plan that would include the specifics of how to handle these situations, and we spend 4-5 minutes before and after practice visualizing some of these same situations.  The hope is that squash players will enter the championships feeling more prepared and confident in their abilities to compete and handle distractions.

Application for Squash Coaches:

  1. Optimal preparation for a squash championship can include special mental preparation such a visualization, focus plans and simulations.
  2. Simulate special championship conditions that do not occur in regular practice and competition.

Mental Training for Beginning Squash Players

May 17, 2009

Most of the attention in the sport psychology domain is given to advanced and elite adult players.  In an ideal world, squash coaches would start to guide their proteges towards mental toughness at the very start of their squash lives.

In the early 1990’s I helped Tennis Canada develop mental training and sport psychology priorities for every age group in their junior tennis programs:  periodized annual mental training programs to be implemented in Canadian indoor clubs for each of their junior age groups:  U11, U14, U18.

At each stage of development, different psychological qualities were prioritized – for example tennis intelligence, courage, leadership, etc.  In effect what we did was  develop psychological specifics what we would now describe as stages of a Long Term Athlete Development Plan (LTAD).

While many of the technical and physical aspects of published LTADs are very concrete and specific, the psychological aspects tend to be general and vague – reason being that the sport scientists developing the LTADs work primarily in the areas of physiology and motor learning – not sport psychology!

Here is a link to great example of mental training for beginning tennis players – which will apply 100% to beginning squash players – thanks International Tennis Federation (ITF)!

ITF Mental Training for Tennis Beginners

ITF Mental Training for Tennis Beginners


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 Amazon.com) – 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.

Read the rest of this entry »