Decision Training for Squash Coaches: Part I

August 1, 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you coach squash, and have not read and applied the knowledge from Joan Vicker’s (2007) book “Perception, Cognition and Decision Training”, you are missing a great opportunity to improve your squash coaching – and therefore the performance of your squash athletes.  Vickers teaches and conducts research at the University of Calgary, and since I have seen absolutely no reference to her book in any of the racquet sport or recent motor learning literature, I think we can safely assume that her book is only being used by a relatively small sample of Canadian coaches and athletes.

I first encountered Vickers’ Decision Training (DT) concept in an article she wrote for the Canadian Journal for Women in Coaching.  I was intrigued because her model of how sport skills and strategies should be taught was highly similar to 3-4 other models that I had already been exploring and using (for 24 years:)  in my squash coaching and consulting.  As one of the few sport scientists who is a  “generalist” and not just a “specialist in one discipline” (and also an active coach 20-30 on-court hours a week in the winter season who actively seeks ways to apply sport science knowledge), I was again struck by the phenomenon of several different researchers arriving at the same conclusion – all of them either unaware of each others’ work or unwilling to acknowledge it.

Here are the four sources (along with the current best web reference) of these similar models – I think “Tactics First” is the best term – and honestly I think the act researchers need to get their act in gear and organize their domain if they really want sport coaches to embrace and use their concepts!

  • Teaching Games for Understanding (TGFu)
  • Games Approach
  • Method des Actions (“Action Method” being the poor English translation) – originally conceived by the Swiss sport pedagogue Jean Brechbuhl and the official coaching method of Tennis Canada since 1985 (Squash Canada since 1998?), the best example of current application is AceCoach.
  • Decision Training

All four of these sources postulate that the initial point for teaching or coaching sport skills is to start with the tactical or game context or situation (i.e., have the athletes start with a conditioned (modified) game or a game with a specific tactical goal (e.g., win as many points with drop shots as possible) before teaching technique.

Vickers provides the perfect summary of research evidence to support this “Tactics First” approach in visual graphic form:

In the graph, the term “behavioural training” means the traditional “technique first” approach to coaching.  Basically the graph shows that those who learn “technique first” do better in practices and early in the season, and those who learn “tactics first” improve more slowly at the start (obviously the material is more complex) but perform much better later on in the season – when it counts!

Ever wonder why your athletes are great at practice but just can’t perform under pressure when it counts?

In a series of articles over the next few months I will go over the different parts of the DT model and explain exactly how to apply it to coaching squash, so that your squash players perform at their highest level when they need to. Note that if you are thinking of purchasing the book, it is divided into three parts, with DT covered in the third part (I am not that crazy about the first two parts relate)d to “gaze”).

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Karim Darwish’ Backhand: Squash Biomechanical Analysis

July 22, 2009

In an earlier post we wrote about the general method for doing a biomechanical analysis of  a squash stroke by breaking the stroke down into five phases and using seven biomechanical principles to analyze it.  I also posted an example of an analysis of a squash forehand drive, and a video of a tennis forehand drive biomechanical analysis (similar but not identical ideas for analyzing a squash forehand).

Premier Performance Coaching Team 2009

Premier Performance Coaching Team 2009

I recently had the chance to video the strokes of the current world #1 Karim Darwish at the Premier Performance Squash training held July 10-19 at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania.  Along with Engy Kheirallah and Miguel Rodriguez we coached 20 adults and juniors using the Games Approach framework to introduce the players to Egyptian style attacking squash.  In addition to on-court coaching we spent quite a bit of time reviewing video of both game play tactics and forehand and backhand basic strokes.

For the biomechanical video analysis, since we were using a Mac and not Dartfish on a PC, we made a Quicktime video clip of Karim’s and each campers strokes, and opened both clips at the same time side-by-side for easy comparison.  Although I used the seven biomechanical principles to anlalyze the players strokes, it was very useful to be able to refer to Karim’s technique in each of the five key positions:  ready position, backswing, force production, impact, and follow through.

Betsy & Karim's Forehand Preparation

Betsy & Karim's Forehand Preparation

In this video I walk slowly though an analysis of Karim’s basic backhand straight drive off an easy ball in the mid-court (note that you need to specify the exact shot being analyzed since technique differs depending on the situation) using the seven biomechanical principles.  The most notable aspect of his backhand stroke is the extreme “blocking” action of the left arm during the follow through, compared to most of his peers.  The purpose of the blocking action is to slow rotation of the body (as in a figure skater opening out of a spin), which will help keep his hitting zone longer and shoulders turned for a fraction of a second longer.  Most players will do this on precision shots such as the straight drop or straight volley drop, but Karim does it while hitting with power as obviously his racquet speed is sufficient – he does it much less on his cross-court drives.  Stay tuned for an analysis of his forehand stroke.


Maintaining Squash Technique Over Winter Break

December 15, 2008

The good news is that it only takes one to two sessions a week to maintain the form that you have built up with daily session over many weeks.  If you do nothing you will lose both your physical and technical game.  The key to effective maintenance sessions is to make sure that they are carried out with the same quality (intensity and volume) as the habitual training sessions.

For many high school and college students, it is important to maintain form as long as possible while studying for exams and tests – as once they leave campus they no longer have easy access to squash courts.  Here is a 30-40 minute technical drilling routine appropriate for high school or college players demonstrated by Wesleyan University Squash Coach Shona Kerr, and Smith College Squash Coach Tim Bacon.  Every drill should have a stated purpose, focus or goal, and players should work cooperatively to make sure that each player gets the most our of the session.

Those with difficulty finding a place to practice their squash skills should watch this video from France:


Getting to #1 with Squash Coach Neil Harvey: Technique

December 10, 2008

Now that Peter Nicol has retired from competitive squash, we squash coaches can turn our attention to the lessons learned from his ascent from a top 8 junior to the World #1.  I caught up with Peter’s former coach, Neil Harvey at the Starbuck’s in Princeton, NJ, where he was directing the elite weeks at the Princeton Squash Camps.  Although Neil is available and still active as a coach in various projects, much of his energy is devoted to humanitarian work such as the Children’s Fantasy Fund.

In my 2007 interview with Neil, it is evident that developing world class technique goes well beyond the nuts and bolts of how to hit the squash ball.  I first saw Peter play as coach of the Canadian Jr. National Team at the World Championships in Paderborn, Germany in 1990.  He did beat our #1 Winston Cabell (ahead of our #2, 15-year old Jonathon Power) in our match against Scotland,  but frankly, I did not think he had anything special other than good fitness and a sound, complete technical game – I thought Winston was definitely more “talented” than Peter.  Neil’s insightful comments get to the heart of the dedication required to be #1.


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.