Front-Court Squash Tactics: WISPA Grinham-Grainger Examples

January 17, 2010

There is very little published on squash tactics – and even less on differences between men’s and women’s squash tactics.  The purpose of this post is to use brief (about 10 points) notational analysis of a pro squash video to examine tactics and movement in the front court at a top world level (Grinham-Grainger Semi-Final 2006 Worlds).

The video analyzed was purchased at the WISPA website, and loaded into Dartfish for analysis with its “tagging module”. : every time the players being analyzed played a shot in the front court zone, I hit a “button” on the tagging panel I designed (based on the “Zone” model), which saved and labelled (e.g., backhand drop winner) a short video clip for later analysis.

Currently, most tactical information is given in a fairly general manner – for example Geoff Hunt’s famous “10 Commandments”.  For the past twenty years I have been using a zone model of squash (developed and tested with the assistance of my Princeton University friends Gail Ramsay and Bob Callahan) to add a high degree of precision and objectivity to any tactical analysis.  By focusing in on one zone at a time (front, mid, back),  the difficulty of the ball received (easy, medium, difficult) and categorizing shots according to the player’s tactical intent (attack, rally, defend) it is possible to develop quite specific tactical guidelines.

What can we learn by focusing our analysis on two of the world’s top players?  Here are a few of the observations and conclusions an analyst might make from this small sample of point seen in the clip below.  This is a great clip to analyze the front-court as we have a classic, defensive retriever (Grinham) playing an opponent with great attacking skills (Grainger) – so lots of play in the front of the court.

  • Grinham’s movement to the front on defence does not really resemble our classic squash ghosting drills – she moves in on a straight path to the ball, even leaning up against the backhand wall to maintain and regain her balance; the racquet work on her defensive lob is a flick with the hand/wrist – not at all like the demonstrations of lobbing from the front that we see in numerous squash books (stroking action from the slow-moving shoulder joint).  Grinham’s return to the “T” in the first front-court example features an about face which I have never seen a squash coach demonstrate in a practice or clinic (yet it obviously occurs and there must be a reason for it).
  • Under pressure in the front, we see that straight drives can result in a stroke against the striker (twice from Grainger in this clip), with cross-court drives being the most successful choice of both players.  This seems to contradict the current squash coaching practice of prescribing lots of “boast-straight drive” drills.  Although practicing straight drives from the front may have a technical and fitness purpose (more physically demanding and allows for “offensive” positioning), coaches should be wary of reinforcing tactical patterns that occur infrequently or are “poor tactical choices”.
  • There does not appear to be a “rally” phase in the front-court – the players are either defending or attacking (whereas in the mid-court we see many exchanges of length shots (“rallying”).
  • On Grainger’s tightest and most difficult shots, Grinham makes at least three racquet errors trying to lob.  I coach my team to redrop or hit a defensive, tight drop since the biomechanics of this action (push-touch with no backswing) are more simple than a lob (wrist snap or flick), a strategy that should result in fewer errors.  My observation of female American players (college/pro) is that they have not been trained sufficiently (too much grooving of ground strokes from mid- and back-courts) in the use of the hand, wrist and touch (certainly compared to the Egyptians and some of the English players).
  • We do not observe the use of the cross-court drop and very little use of deception (once from Grainger?) from these two players – which may be a male-female tactical difference due to men’s greater speed to and in the front-court ( time for deception and ability to cover the cross-court drop if it is not a winner).

Obviously, this tiny “research” needs to be extended with an analysis including entire matches featuring more female players.

Application for Squash Coaches:

  1. Findings from notational analysis of current top players can contradict current practice and published knowledge of squash coaching.
  2. We cannot take it for granted that men and women “play the same game” – something to keep in mind when planning summer camps.

Teaching Squash Deception: A Systematic Approach

July 5, 2009

Most squash coaches agree that deception, AKA disguise, faking, holding your shot, etc., is an important part of the modern squash game – thanks in part to the reign of Canada’s Jonathon Power and the current ascendancy of the Egyptians at the top of the world squash rankings.  So now what:  what deception shots and situations to teach first?  Which to teach second?  What do we do after the first few sessions? Although there have been recent articles published on how to teach deception (e.g.,  Cliff Wenn, David CampionRoger Flynn, John Lau) none of their work features a comprehensive framework for developing deceptive players and deceptions skills.

Even the world’s most deceptive players probably have very little idea about how to go about training deception in a systematic way.  Most of the world’s top players who use a significant amount of deception in their game started to learn deception through observational learning (i.e., watched others do it).  A couple of years after I coached the Canadian Jr. National at the 1990 Junior Worlds in Paderborn, I invited Jonathon Power (at 17 just starting on the PSA Tour) to my squash club in Montreal to run a clinic on deception for my A, B and C teams.  He did a great job (relative to his age and experience) but certainly did not have a very clear idea on deception teaching progressions

The purpose of this post is to outline a systematic approach to teaching squash deception that can be used to develop deception in one particular player – or a nation of players, through a country’s coaching education program.

Step 1. Start with a comprehensive Tactical Model to organize ideas around deception.  I plan to use System 3 – which is a zone model of squash, where tactics are determined primarily (but not exclusively) by a player’s position on the court when receiving the ball:  front, mid- and back-court zones.  In combination with the difficulty of the ball received (easy, medium, difficult) a player determines  his or her tactical intent or phase (attack, rally, defence) and then selects a shot to implement this phase (e.g., drop, drive, lob).  Any tactical model can be used however, and I will explain the System 3 Zone Model in a future post.

Step 2. Deception is a form of attacking (or counter-attacking) the opponent, so the next step in our approach is to list, in priority order, the different deception situations in each of the three zones.  There are several ways this priority order could be established:

  • easiest to execute to most difficult (probably best for young juniors)
  • most frequent to least frequent (probably best for pro players)
  • most important to least important (i.e., good deception in this situation usually wins pt.)
  • based on an individual assessment of a particular player
  • personal preference (of either the player or squash coach)
  • a combination of the above methods

Step 3. Make the list.  Here are a couple of examples for each of the three zones that probably reflect a progression of easiness and frequency at an “A” level:

Front

1.  Straight drop or cross-court drive off “easier” boast (show neutral compact drive preparation)

2.  Straight drop or lob off “difficult” boast (show drop preparation with hand).

3.  Show straight drop (slow moving arm) with last minute flick cross-court executed with wrist off boast.

4. As above but with straight instead of cross-court flick.

5.  Straight drive or angle off boast.

Mid-Court

1.  Straight drop or cross-court drive off a loose ball in the middle.

2.  Straight drive or attacking two-wall working boast off a low, hard straight drive from the back.

3. Straight or cross-court drop off a loose ball in the middle.

4.  Straight volley drive or volley boast of a not tight straight drive from back.

Back-Court

1.  Show straight hard low drive, surprise with attacking boast off easier ball off backwall.

2.  Show straight hard low drive, surprise with straight drop off easier ball off backwall.

3. Show straight hard low drive, surprise with reverse angle off loose ball off backwall.

Step 4. Choose a pedagogy or teaching method to teach the deception situations or skills.  The Games Approach seems ideal since this gives the squash coach an opportunity to evaluate the player(s) in a game situation to determine what work needs to be done.  For example, in the front court situations listed above, player A could “serve” with a boast, and player B, stationed on the “T”, could return with a straight drop or cross-court drive, and then play the point out to see if player B was able to take advantage of the situation.  After 5 minutes of play, an experienced coach would be able to determine which of the shots (drop or drive) needed more work, if the player was telegraphing the shot too much, as well as other basic elements common to all squash situations, recovery, ready position, quality of shot, choice of follow-up shots, effort, attitude, etc.  Obviously other teaching methods could be used as well.  With top players it might be enough to show a few video examples and then have the “play a game and try it out”.  Unfortunately, most squash coaches do not find themselves in this ideal situation and therefore need a systematic approach to teaching deception.

Step 5. Reinforce the importance of deception by occasionally using conditioned games to encourage your players to use and practice deception:  two points for a winning deception shot; A must play deep, B can attack with deception; short game (in front of service line); etc.  Give your player feedback on missed opportuities to use deception in match play – or the overuse of deception.