Squash Back-Court Defence: Nicole David

May 12, 2017

The problem with most published work on notational or performance analysis of squash is that it is stroke or technique centered.  The simplest example of notational analysis would be when a squash coach charts one of their player’s matches by putting a “W” (for winnner) or “E” (for error) on a diagram of a squash court.

Another example of technique-centered performance analysis was our 1987  Squash Canada Level 4 Performance Analysis Task, where we had to chart a video of a match between Dale Styner and John Fleury (both Canadian National Team members), recording every stroke played and the result of the stroke. The output of the analysis was a summary chart of statistics: number of shots played, percentage of winners and errors for each stroke type (forehand drive, backhand drop, etc.).

Information of this type, without a tactical context is not very useful:  for example a player’s technique, and associated success ratio,  in the back of the squash court is very different depending on the difficulty of the received shot, the amount of pressure the player is under, and the characteristics of the opponent (fast vs. slow, retriever vs. shot-maker, etc.).

The best analyses are based on a defined tactical model in order to be able to make precise, specific recommendations to players concerning the improvement of their game.  When I teach the current Level 4 Performance Analysis Task for Squash Canada, the first assignment in the class is for each of the coaches to present the tactical model they use for coaching their players.

In order to demonstrate the usefulness of notational analysis based on a tactical model, I used the Dartfish Tagging  module to analyze the first 25 points of the first game of the  2006 British Open Final (purchase DVD here) between Nicol David (current World #1) and Rachel Grinham.  In this example I restricted the analysis to the backcourt.

The tactical model I used for the example analysis is the “zone” model I developed with the assistance of Princeton’s Gail Ramsay and Bob Callahan in the late 1990’s:  System 3.  The idea for a zone model was based on Jack Fair’s “Traffic Light”  Model (red, amber, and green) for hardball squash, and the tennis tactical model (Methode des actions) used by Tennis Canada starting in the early 1990’s (copied and adapted a few years later by Nick Bolletieri:  System 5). It should be mentioned that the Squash Canada Coaching Program independently adapted Tennis Canada’s Action Method into their own tactical model (less directive and evolved than System 3).

The model functions by dividing the squash court into three zones: front, mid, and back, and using the difficulty of the ball received  by the player (easy, medium, difficult), to determine the tactical objective of the player’s shot (attack, rally, defend).  The player realizes their tactical objective by choosing a particular technique (e.g., attack a loose ball in the mid-court with a cross-court volley nick). We have developed a “System 5” for international level players which features two more tactical objectives (force and counter-attack) as well as the use of deception.

In the first part of the analysis, we focused on what David did on defence (against a difficult ball) in the back-court:

  • out of 25 shots to the back, David was on defence (forced use of wrist only, stretched-leaning back, adapted swing) only eight times – her very quick perception got her into position quickly enabling her to “rally” most of the balls;
  • she was able to hit good drives 5/8 times (4/5 straight), being forced to boast only once, with only 2 “bad” (loose) shots;
  • she needed, and was very good at “adapted” shortened swings (versus the full drives we normally teach) and use of the wrist;
  • although not a direct goal of the analysis, it is clear that against Grinham, David’s high percentage of volleys in the mid-court, dramatically reduced the number of times she had to play the ball off the back of the court.
  • often she is not looking at the ball/opponent as her opponent impacts the ball, perhaps indicating reliance on the tactical knowledge of her opponent’s tendencies -perhaps Rachel should have tried a few more “surprise” shots.

Here are the back-court video clips, with the “bad” shots towards the end of the video.  Pausing the video gives insight into her approach into the back, her hitting position, and her recovery back to the “T”. In our next post we will examine Nicol David “rallying” from the back-court.


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 (Squash Canada Level 4 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).


How to Evaluate Squash Coaches ‘Scientifically”

April 26, 2017

It’s a funny position to be in – having yourself evaluated by someone who knows very little beyond their own minimal life experience about the subject that you are teaching.  College squash coaches, just like University and College Faculty are evaluated at the end of their annual teaching/coaching cycle.

To muddy the “evaluation” waters even further, those who design and administer the forms used to evaluate coaches have themselves received little if any training in the area, and it is extremely doubtful that they have kept abreast of research in the area – yes – “how to evaluate a coach” is an actual research area usually falling within sport psychology, coaching science, or sport pedagogy.

My recommendation is to use the Coaching Behavior Scale for Sport (CBS-S) an evaluation form that has been validated in several studies and found to be an “effective” tool.  You can download a copy of the questionnaire and scoring instructions here:

http://the-coach-athlete-relationship.wikispaces.com/file/view/CBS-S+Sample.pdf.  Here is a link to a PDF of the original article on the development of the CBS-S (Mallett & Cote, 2006) and a screenshot of several of the questions:

CBS Screenshot

 

There are a few obvious “items that need discussing” ” that only an expert coach/sport scientist would be able to spot, but this instrument has the advantage of directing the athletes attention to key components as opposed to a less structured questionnaire.  My observations on items #8, #13, and #15:

#8 – one could argue a coach should NOT be talking during skill execution as might distract and athlete;

#13 – verbal feedback would have minimal effect on visual and kinaesthetic learning styles;  Better would be “coach gives feedback appropriate to my learning style”:)

#15 – recent research (e.g., Vickers – Decision Training) has found that the most effective feedback is that provided when a coach waits for an athlete to ask for feedback.

In addition to using a satisfactory questionnaire, there is no doubt that an actual observation by an expert in coaching and sport science is the best way to provide feedback about coaching.  I would have to say that I have rarely heard of this being done in the U.S. sports world let alone the squash coaching world.

The assessor would have to be somebody like me and that does not really exist (except for me:):

  • terminal degree in coaching (which is a Master’s for the discipline of sports coaching);
  • experience teaching relevant sport science courses where you regularly assess coaching knowledge and skill – I have taught Sport Pedagogy, Coaching, Sport Psychology, and Sport Leadership at the college level, and have held certifications in sport psychology, strength training (CSCS), and am a Level 4 Squash Coach (and Tutor/Learning Facilitator);
  • experience conducting coach evaluations – these were an integral part of our students’ experience in Graduate Program in Coaching at Smith College – as part of our Coaching Practicum I would be charged with observing and assessing 7-8 graduate students three times every year.

There are other ways of evaluating coaching we haven’t really discussed which might prove useful:  peer coach observation, video self-observation; ongoing professional development taking coaching certification courses where coach evaluation is part of the process (e.g., Coaching Association of Canada).  Whatever the evaluation process – hopefully a fair one for the coach – a very useful outcome would be for a coach to produce a “Personal Improvement Plan” and set goals for the next season of coaching.


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 (Squash Canada Level 4 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).


Visualizing Squash Tactics

February 1, 2017

How old are the best squash players in the world?  The PSA released the latest rankings today so let’s calculate the average age of the best of the best – the men’s top 5  (in the interest of gender equity we will look at the women’s top 5 in another post):  29.8 years old.

men-feb-2015-top-5-psa

Why – in the “world’s fittest sport” (except for Nordic Skiing) are the athletes so old? Or put another way – how can these “old” athletes beat younger fitter athletes in their late teens and early 20’s?  The answer lies in the older players’ “tactical expertise”, in other words their better decision-making and choice of shots – average shots per squash game is 200 – so up to 1000 tactical decisions where to play the ball per match.

Let’s look at the example of an 18-22 year old college player who does not want to wait another 7-8 years to play their best – how can they accelerate their “tactical expertise”?

  • limit closed mindless “blocked practice” drills like boast/drive to less than 20% of practice;  these drills let an athlete “get in a groove” and “feel good” but research shows this type of drilling has fewer benefits in actual match play.
  • use a high proportion of conditioned games (Games Approach), and variable (at least two different skills) and random drills that force a player to make match like choices.
  • play and practice with a variety of opponents/partners – court rotations (winner up and loser down) are a great way to do this.
  • encourage players to critically reflect on each match (Squash Match Evaluation Form) and allow them access to video of their matches to help them assess their performance.
  • develop or adopt a model of tactics which can serve as a reference point to speed up acquisition of tactical expertise – at Wesleyan University we use the Egg Model that I developed and refined.

olympians-use-imagery

Lastly use visualization (imagery) to speed up memory and learning of “good” tactics. According to recent sport psychology research more than 95% of Olympic Medalists and World Champions use visualization regularly to prepare for competition. Visualization procedures are very easy to learn and consist of finding a quiet place and focusing on breathing for 3-5 minutes to get into a state of relaxation – and then simply imagining the situation you want to achieve – 10-15 minutes a day is sufficient: before or after practice as part of warm-up or cool-down, before sleep or right after waking up are usually convenient times.

Here is a list of specific visualization topics that we have asked the Wesleyan Squash Teams to visualize this week:

  • straight volley drops off harder hit balls that pass though the “Yolk” – slower moving balls are killed or volleyed to dying length.
  • quick straight drops off harder, lower boasts from the back-court – hold and snap (to dying length) slower moving boasts – ideally show drop (deception) to drag the opponent forward.
  • lifting the ball higher from outside the Egg especially in the back court and when stretched – avoid “blasting your way out of trouble”.
  • insert “bursts or flurries” of 3-5 rallies of change of pace (slower/faster) or game style (hard hitter/retriever/shot-maker) to disrupt an opponent’s play in a relatively low-risk way.
  • finishing games and matches (when the score reaches about 8-8) with tough percentage play – focusing on hitting good aggressive length and using kills (12″-15″ above the tin) instead of drops and avoiding going short from the back-court when the opponent is on the T – being patient and forcing the opponent to take high risk shots and make mistakes first.

Don’t wait until you are old to play your best squash – change your practice habits, adopt a tactical model, and visualize to speed up the process of being a “smart” player.


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 (Squash Canada Level 4 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).


4 Simple Steps to Practical Mental Training for Squash

September 21, 2016

Since sport psychology exploded onto the world scene with the 1976 Montreal Olympics there have been literally thousands of books and articles published on how to “do mental training”.  My particular approach was adopted by the Coaching Association of Canada and integrated into their 5-Level coaching system – I wrote the sport psychology content for Levels 1,2, and 3 (French version). Here is the original article describing my approach:    Bacon (1989). Periodization of Mental Training.

My approach has been always been very practical (I have never stopped coaching and competing) and simple and continues to be supported by current research and involves 4 steps – which can be 4 one-hour team meetings,  that can be implemented by either a coach or a mental training consultant.  In support of the 24 athletes on the 1988 World Champion Canadian Racquetball Team, I trained the National and Assistant National Coaches to deliver my program via email, telephone, mail, and training camps – very well evaluated by the team members – so you do not actually need a sport psychologist to support your athletes in the mental area:

  1. Introductory meeting (60 min.) To help guide athletes to enquire about and learn lessons from their own best and worst sport performances.  Athletes complete an individual form and we take up some of the answers in a group setting.  I introduce Jim Loehr’s Ideal Performance State (IPS) model – still the simplest out there in 2016 – you can download a copy here:  ipsloehrsports.
  2. Goal-Setting and Introduction to Mental Skills meeting (60 min.) There are a multitude of  goal-setting forms available, but Terry Orlick’s form is still the best with key questions on dream, realistic and specific mental goals.  My mental skills approach involves having the athletes do 1-2 basic 2-3 minute exercises from each of the five categories of skills: relaxation, positive self-talk, activation, visualization and concentration – followed by a 2-3 min. I facilitate a short discussion on how these skills can be used in an actual competition.  Optional additional self-assessment questionnaires (very short or more comprehensive) can be completed by the athletes to help them zone in on specific areas they need to work on.  Orlick also has a short one-page “self-directed interview” the athletes can complete before this meeting.  Here is a link to a YouTube video where I demonstrate the different exercises.
  3. Focus Plan meeting (60 min.).  To help athletes to write a one-page plan on a) how to prepare optimally, both physically and mentally for a competition; b) how to focus their attention at key moments in a competition (e.g., start, in between points, near the end of a game, near the end of a match, etc.).  Here is one of the forms we have used in the past:  Squash Focus Plan Form and a post with more details on how to develop a Focus Plan.
  1. Distraction Control (Refocus) Plan and Competition Evaluation meeting (60 min.).  To help athletes  develop a written list of situations that cause them to play poorly or lose their focus, and though group discussion lead them to find possible solutions to get back on track.  The final step is to introduce an evaluation process – which includes a written form – that they can complete after every competition to speed up their “experience” and development of mental toughness.  Here is one of the forms we have used in the past:  squash-match-evaluation-form.

Psyching for Sport

The meeting format I use closely follows the meeting format recommended by Terry Orlick in his book Psyched for Sport (out of print but available used on Amazon.com) – all Canadian National Team and Olympic coaches have been trained in this approach.  Canada is generally recognized as having one of the top coaching training programs in the world.  in fact you cannot coach on a Canadian National team if you have not obtained your Level 4 Coaching Certification (I got mine way back in 1988 in the first cohort of Squash Canada Level 4 coaches).

Summary

Following the above four-meeting approach above, a coach will meet the needs of about 80% of their athletes (80/20 rule:).  There will always be athletes that need more assistance in developing mental toughness and solving “mental problems”.

If you need help preparing  your mental training program, or would want to engage me to run the meetings for your team drop me a line at squashscience@gmail.com – rates start at $50 U.S. per hour.  Here is a link to my Facebook Page.


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).

 

 


Squash Anticipation & Deception: 2 Sides of the Same Coin

April 8, 2015

Many squash spectators, players and even coaches misunderstand squash “quickness and speed”, attributing a “fast” player’s ability to physical factors rather than their ability to anticipate what the opponent is likely to do – or not do (partial anticipation).  One of the ways to “slow down” a fast player is to use deception to hold your opponent stationary for a longer time or even misdirect them. I have blogged on both (Deception link and Anticipation link) of these topics before  but now want to combine them since it is the same, identical motor learning theory behind both notions.

The theoretical idea (e.g., Hick’s Law) behind both anticipation and deception is very simple – the greater the number of options or choices – the slower the reaction time – as illustrated in the graph below.

Hick's Law

Practical Squash Examples of the above law:

  1. When you have glued a straight length to the side wall your opponent has only one choice – to hit straight – so you can cheat over to cut off their shot.
  2. When you have hit a loose, slow easy ball into the middle of the court, your opponent has so many choices (drive straight or cross, drop straight or cross) that you cannot anticipate and you have to stay put until they actually hit the shot.

As I have blogged before, the best way to develop deceptive players who anticipate well is to have young children (8-12?) be introduced to squash in an environment where deception is valued and they are exposed to a wide variety of practice partners and opponents – then these perceptual-motor skills develop “automatically”.  If you are a junior in America this is probably not going to happen since your British squash coach is having you hit endless straight lengths down the wall and working on your fitness through hours of mindless boast and drive.  I feel free to joke and make this outlandishly exaggerated comment as I am in fact British:)  But although I am joking about “only hit straight lengths a la Jonah Barrington, there is far too much closed drilling going on in our junior programs – and not enough tactical teaching.  Here is an example of “tactical teaching” using the Games Approach (ASEP, 2012).

Since in many places great anticipation and deception will not be developed automatically, a systematic approach is needed.  What do we mean by systematic?

  • Make a list of all situations to be trained in priority order, and make sure to teach anticipation cues and deception options when you introduce and train the situation.  Note that “priority order” could mean start with the a) most common situations; b) “easiest” situations (to help athlete gain confidence); c) most difficult situations (since these take longer to learn); d) most important (the situations that cause you to lose the most points in your current match play).
  • Theoretically, these lists should be tailored to the developmental level of your player, and integrated into annual, four-year and “lifetime” (e.g., LTAD plans).

Here is an example of a list of prioritized situations.

Squash Front Court Tactics: 3-Wall Boast

Application for Squash Coaches

  1. Do not leave the development of anticipation and deception to chance – train these qualities systematically.
  2. Train situations not strokes – include the teaching of anticipation and deception every time you train a particular situation.
  3. Plan your teaching of anticipation and deception by including these in your written annual, four-year, and LTAD plans.

Squash Coaches Can Produce Great Strength Programs with FitnessBuilder!

April 5, 2015

FitnessBuilder App

It is the start of the new 2015-16 for most U.S. College and High School squash coaches, and to help them plan for the upcoming year, I have just published two blog articles on squash periodization:  one on the Transition Phase and the other on Periodization of Technique and Tactics in the General Preparation Phase (GPP).  My next periodization article in the series will be on the planning of strength training in the GPP.

Before I get to that I want to introduce squash coaches to a fantastic tool that can be used to produce your team’s own custom-designed strength training program:  PumpOne’s Fitness Builder.  I have been using it for the past three years to plan and design my own college team’s strength programs – result:  two complete seasons without a single squash-related injury (you can check with the Smith trainers:)

Coaches can design programs with Fitness builder on their computer or smart device like an iPad or iPhone.  The custom programs can be sent to athletes via emailed PDF or directly to their phone/tablet, and since there are linked video descriptions for every exercise, athletes can take their own “personal trainer” or strength coach to the gym with them – great for the off-season when many squash players are away from the campus gym.  The interface is intuitive and extremely easy to use, with hundreds of exercises to choose from, as well as a variety of fitness programs.  My advice to squash coaches using the wise periodization approach is design your own programs following periodization principles (e.g., Bompa, 2009).  Check out this video overview of the Fitness Builder system:

Now here is the catch – are you qualified to design a periodized squash-specific strength program – or are you just going to “wing it” or copy somebody else’s program – or worse – use the program that got you a hip replacement?

Tennis Training (Kovacs et al.)

The USTA (tennis) has produced a number of books (e.g., Kovacs et al., 2007 above image) which can be used as a reference, as the strength demands of tennis and squash are similar enough.  The drawback of using a strength coach – the NSCA CSCS is the gold standard of certification (I got certified in 2006) – is that many of them come from a football background and still rely heavily on “traditional” strength lifts and exercises.  The major problem with this is that there are much better, more squash-specific and functional exercises available – so what is really needed is someone like myself with both the squash coaching and national level playing background AND a reputable strength training certification. Here is a short video I made on this topic:

If you do not have access to a CSCS with extensive squash experience, a smart alternative is to subscribe to the Exos (formerly Core Performance website) and either a) use their squash or tennis programs; or b) follow their template and select from amongst their bank of exercises when you use fitness builder.  Eighty per cent of the exercises I use with my team are the same or highly similar to Exos exercises (I like to think my programs are a little better than theirs due to my 40 years of experience designing squash-specific strength programs:).  This is what I did four years ago – every week in the fall (I started my Smith Squash Team on September 15th) I would upload the appropriate EXOS training program for both the Smith Tennis and Squash Teams to follow.

Core Performance for Tennis

As a minimum, I would design one program per phase of the annual plan.  If you have an assistant or enjoy this type of coaching you could change the plan up every two weeks, but the law of diminishing returns applies and you would probably be better off spending your time recruiting.

Here is an example program I have used with my team (remember that the version sent to your athletes iPhones has clickable video descriptions for each exercise!):

Fitness builder Example

Last couple of words on this topic.  If you are a squash coach working with not yet fully mature juniors, make sure you follow LTAD guidelines for squash or tennis.  If you need help in this area please give me a call – my rates are reasonable to develop custom branded programs for you and your team.


Periodization of Squash Technique & Tactics: General Preparation Phase

April 2, 2015

Periodization Chart

If you are a U.S. College or High School squash coach, your team’s season probably ended about the end of February.  If you use a periodization scientific approach (e.g., Bompa, 2009) to planning your team’s training, most of your athlete’s will have either completed or be near completing  their 4-6 week transition period – so it is time for you to start guiding them for the start of their 2015-2016 season.  This means you will have already completed the chart above with the year’s major training tasks and calendar of competitions – unfortunately there are no published guides for squash – only what you can find here on my blog.  You can use the “search” function and enter the keyword “periodization”.

The biggest mistake coaches and parents make is to invite a world champion or their coach as a guest speaker – the needs of a mature, already developed professional are very different from those of junior or even college players.  The planning of training has to be appropriate to the developmental level of the athlete – you can refer to articles on LTADs for some guidance on this.

To make a long story short, here are some key General Preparation phase points for the older high school or college squash player with respect to the development of technique and tactics:

– If squash courts or good squash coaching is unavailable, do not do any technical/tactical development – save that for the start of the Specific Preparation phase which normally starts in September when players return to their school.  Most college players will not have access to their coaches until mid-October or November 1 – a ridiculous situation that accounts for the general low improvement levels of American college squash players compared to the rest of the world.

– Make use of summer squash camps to improve technique and learn more about good tactics.  It is important to emphasize improvement and not performance and match play at these camps.

– If you do have access to a good squash coach, the General Preparation phase is the time to work on difficult and important technical corrections and improvements. Ideally a player’s technical goals should be set with the use of an objective video analysis – there are now plenty of apps to help with that.  These are best achieved in a low pressure setting, that is when there are not a lot of competitive squash matches.  Note that although technical improvement should be favored in this phase, a Tactics First approach dictates that you should always make sure the player is clear on the tactical context in which the technical skills will be used – don’t just do mindless, repetitive drills.

– If you are in a city where there is a summer squash league, making the technical changes during match play should be emphasized over winning – otherwise most will be unable to make the required technical changes – they will just go back to their old, incorrect ways in order to try and win the match.

– Although techniques is the priority, the Games Approach pedagogy (starting a training session with a conditioned game where the targeted technique will be used frequently) can still be used.

IMG_6323

– If you are coaching squash layers with solid technique, the the General Preparation periodization can be somewhat different.  Preferably using the results of an objective video analysis, the tactical situations a player needs to develop should be organized and put into a priority order, and worked on systematically during this phase (and the following Specific Preparation phase) using a Tactics First, Decision Training or Games Approach – versus the traditional “let’s work on your backhand” approach. Here is an example of how to structure such a technical-tactical training session using the topic of “drop or lob in the front court”.  This is also a great time to develop complex skills such as deception.  In the video below I guide Karim Darwish through a session of teaching deception at a junior summer camp.

So you can see that the planning of technical and tactical improvement in the General Preparation is partly an art (based on coaching or consulting experience) as well as a science, the major factors being the availability of courts, opponents, and good coaching and the developmental level of the athlete.  I would be happy to help any coach, parent of athlete plan out this important phase of the annual plan.