The one component of squash style that separates the improver from the power player is the backswing.
A high backswing - tucked up, wrist cocked, lower for drops or lobs, more coiled up for full strength, is good, necessary, no - vital - to allow an improver to properly progress.
Although I'm sure that this style took many years to develop, there are several convincing technical reasons why it is the best way of playing an open ball. And by an open ball I mean a ball that gives you space to swing your arm - I am excluding those reaction shots that come at your body in front court tussles.
We will call the advanced player a highswinger, and the improver with a low sweeping round swing a lowswinger. We will also want to distinguish between the wristy lowswinger and the rigid lowswinger.
But first let me explain the concept of a cocked wrist. To cock your wrist, hold your arm out with the palm of your hand facing downwards, and then bend your wrist back to raise your knuckles, so the back of your hand rises towards you. With the handle of the racket held in your hand, that's the cocked wrist, although we now want the same wrist shape while holding the racket vertical or tucked behind your head.
I will say it again : a high backswing with a cocked wrist is essential for you to improve your squash. Once you can convince me that you can do this, then I will be prepared to debate the details with you.
Try this little experiment. Hold your racket so that the end of the racket head is close by your ear - a typical position for the wind up of the backswing for an experienced player. Let the head of the racket drop and catch it at about knee height. The racket head now has momentum and energy - it is falling downwards with a certain speed, that we will call the backspeed.
When the highswinger plays a hard shot - to a kneehigh or waist high ball - he speeds the racket head ready for the impact using all the muscles of the shoulder, the arm and the wrist that he can muster, but as the racket drops from the high back swing to the ball it also gains this backspeed. The final speed of the racket is the speed from the player's strength plus the backspeed.
You may point out that the backspeed is a vertical speed, and the racket needs horizontal speed at impact. But the pin joints of the shoulder, elbow and wrist restrain the arc of the racket, and the vertical momentum from the backspeed becomes horizontal momentum at impact. Imagine the arm and racket are the spokes of a wheel that is mounted on an axle sticking out of your shoulder. In that sense we are dealing with angular momentum.
When the lowswinger plays a hard shot, there is no backspeed, and so no extra energy to be added to the players exertion.
Now we are not talking explosive forces here, but we are talking about possibly 5% of an improver's racket momentum. And the effect is a greater part of the power for a less powerful player. So an improver needs high backswing more than a powerful player does !
I like to analyse the forces we put on the racket as coming from three muscle groups.
First there are the forearm muscles that control the wrist. During the shot, the wrist should move from cocked back to straight, turning the racket through over ninety degrees during the shot.
Then there are the upper arm muscles. Now we hardly use the flexor - the biceps - in squash, but the muscles on the back of the upper arm, the extensors - the triceps - straighten the arm at the elbow, and this is where most of the strength of a good shot comes from.
Lastly, the shoulder and chest muscles are vital to give the whole arm stability, and add to the racket head speed throughout the shot.
At a rough estimate, when playing a strong shot, 20% of the power come from the wrist, 50% from the upper arm and triceps, and the rest comes from the shoulder and chest muscles.
The way the lower arm and the shoulder muscles power the racket through are fairly obvious, but let's look a little deeper into how the straighening of the arm imparts power to the swing.
When you take up the correct backswing for a forehand shot, the racket head will be close to your ear, or even behind your head. As you start your swing, the first thing you do is to start straightening your arm, throwing the racket head away from you and slightly behind you, towards the back of the court.
When your arm is almost straight, with your wrist beginning to uncock, the racket head changes direction and begins to follow your arm round. None of the force that the triceps has put into the racket head - in its motion directly away from you - is lost. As the racket starts to come round in the swing, all of the momentum that the racket head has picked up from the triceps, and a little from the wrist as it begins to uncock, gets turned into useful speed towards the ball and the shot.
Now what is important to realise here is that if you do not bend the elbow in the backswing, if you start your backswing with a low straightish arm, your triceps cannot come into the equation. There's no bent arm to straighten. Your shoulders - and your chest muscles - and wrist have to do all the work. Which means that according to my estimate you will be limited to half strength shots.
First let's look at the forces on the body as a whole from the two styles of swing.
The lowswinger swings the arm and racket about an axis that is almost vertical. For the highswinger the axis about which the arm and racket swing is just above the horizontal.
Either way, when the arm and racket turn about an axis, the body must react either by turning in the opposite direction, making you feel a sudden twist away from the swing, or by transmitting the reaction to the floor.
A twist to the body, as a reaction to a swing about a vertical axis, cannot be easily resisted by the legs. The legs tend to twist to allow the body to turn, resulting in a knock-kneed instability. The forces on the body from a swing about a horizontal axis are a sideways bending, which the body can better resist, and a sideways force on the legs and feet, which likewise we are used to dealing with.
Now, let's examine the swing of the highswinger in more detail.
As the racket leaves the tucked-up position near the player's ear, the forearm sends it away from the body, so the upper body will tend to move away from the racket in a sideways manner, a direction that the legs can easily take care of. The racket then sweeps away from the body, forwards and down towards the ball. These three forces on the upper body are countered by the body leaning back, the body recovering from the sideways lurch from the racket beginning its swing, and a lightening of the load on the shoes respectively. It all seems quite do-able.
But now lets look at the lowswinger's shot. The racket starts level with the hips, and sometimes behind the body. The swing of the racket is a horizontal circle centred on the spine. The reaction forces are a twist down through the spine and the legs to the feet. Now twist is the one force the body is not good at handling. Not the spine, not the knees, not the heels, and often not the soles of worn out shoes. And the twist tens to turn your shoulders and head away from direction you want the ball to go.
None of this looks good to me. And when you add to it all the need to spring away from the shot back to the T under good control, the lowswinger looks to be at a grave disadvantage.
Well, this chapter has a heading and a half ! To hit a good hard shot, you need to coordinate your shoulder muscles that propel your upper arm, your upper arm muscles that control the bend of your elbow, and your forearm muscles that turn your wrist.
Although you could argue that so long as each of these three muscle groups have imparted their power before you hit the ball, they have done their job. The racket head now has the speed that results from the full power from each of the three muscle groups. What could go wrong ?
I say that if one or more of these muscle groups finishes its job early, that group is now floating uncontrolled, and the result will be imprecision.
I suggest that the best, cleanest, snappiest shot will result if each of these muscle groups peak at full power at exactly the same time, just when the ball is about to contact the racket head. With a little practice, you should be able to feel if your three muscle groups are peaking simultaneously, and if not, which muscle group is lagging behind, or which is firing too early.
With all three firing together, and the ball hitting the sweet spot of the racket, you should be able to feel the crack of a well hit and directed hard shot. And the swing style that I am describing here helps immensely with this synchronisation of your three muscle groups, on the forehand and the backhand.
Above, I argue that with a high backswing and a cocked wrist the arm and racket swing around an almost horizontal axis, and the reaction to this swing is readily handled by the legs and the feet.
But is is important that the maximum force should be exerted on the floor at exactly the same time that the muscles of the arm and shoulder exert their force on the arm, the wrist and the racket.
So the timing of your lunge forward onto a bent knee should match the timing of your swing. Your racket and arm should be whipping round into the shot just as the forward movement of your body is being checked and reversed by your front leg and bent knee.
To get the backswing right, you must get the relative timing of these two components of your shot, the swing and the movement, right too.
With your opponent hovering behind you, and probably a little to one side, you want to do all you can to send him the wrong way. So you need to hold the racket back and ready, and then either play fast, holding your wrist back but flicking the racket round for a crosscourt, or play late with a leading wrist for a boast.
Alternatively, if the ball is low and sitting up, you can go in with a lower racket, signalling the drop, but giving yourself room to play a late lob, or a flicked boast or cross court drop.
The idea is to avoid signalling your shot, to keep opponent guessing, until he finds he is late on the retrieve.
A lowswinger will have trouble holding his wrist back for the crosscourt, or bringing his wrist through early for a boast, without either tucking up as if he has indigestion, or bending the wrist back so that he loses all wrist power. In either case, he will telegraph the coming shot to his opponent.
Suppose you want to hit a simple rail, making contact with the ball when your racket head is at right angles to the side wall, and that your racket head will be at right angles to the side wall just when the racket head is level with your knee.
That's what you want. The advanced player will hope to get the contact point right within an inch or so. You will be less accurate. Let's say your inaccuracy results in contact with the ball being made within a region 5 inches fore or aft of your favoured contact point, right in front of your knee.
Now lets look at what the racket head and your wrist are doing at the moment of contact.
The highswinger has brought his wrist down from shoulder level a little ahead of the racket head. His wrist has been moving almost at racket head speed since it passed waist height, and is now sweeping forwards across the front of the body a little ahead of the racket head, but letting the racket head overtake it a little. A little is the point. If the wrist and the racket head move forwards together, through the area of uncertainty, that 10 inch part of the swing, then the angle of the racket will change very little as the racket head passes through this area. And since the direction of the ball after contact comes from the angle of the racket head, you can be in good control of the final direction of the ball.
The wristy lowswinger will also put wrist energy into the racket, but this will appear at the racket head, causing his wrist to slow. The result is that the racket handle slows and the racket turns about a vertical axis near the racket handle. And this means that the angle of the racket changes a great deal as it passes through the 10 inch area of uncertainty. The angle at impact can vary a lot, and so the final direction of the ball can vary a lot. And there you have an uncertainty in your shot caused by your low swing style.
The racket head gets its speed from gravity, from your shoulder and arm muscles, and from your wrist. A classic high backswing primes gravity and your shoulder and arm muscles. But to prime your wrist on a forehand shot you need to cock your wrist.
Rigid lowswingers bring their racket arm through the stroke with a wrist that looks as if it is locked on their arm. This solves the varied direction problem as described above, so that rigid swingers are often very good at playing precisely directed shots.
But lowswingers lose the ability to use the wrist for deception, and they lose power.
To get maximum shot power, all players need to bring the wrist into play at just the right time. The first task in the warm up is to get this timing right. Wristing a little early or later is easily corrected, and just a few test shots in the warm up, bringing the wrist in early or later, sets your timing up for the first game.
Rigid lowswingers must start to cock their wrists to find deception and power, but they must start with a high backswing at the same time, or the will lose the precision they have been relying on.
All the above arguments apply to the backhand except the cocked wrist. Surely, you may say, to prime the wrist at the top if the back swing for a backhand, you should do the opposite of cocking your wrist. And, yes, that does make some sense.
But firstly the tendency to bring the racket head round through a large angle when the wrist releases on the backhand is even stronger than on the forehand, leading to even more direction error.
And secondly, as the racket drops from the backhand back swing with a cocked wrist, the wrist does uncock, so that by the time the wrist is down at waist level the wrist is straight, and primed for the wrist action through the stroke.
With the wrist cocked on the back swing, is is much easier to make sure that the wrist and racket handle come forward through the swing at impact with the racket head, all designed to keep the racket head angle under control.
In addition, I find that many lowswingers keep their leading shoulder up, resulting in a swing that looks to be full of slice. Whether the lowswing results in this, or whether failure to turn to the back of the court before the shot leads to lowswinging and a low leading shoulder is moot. Either way, highswinging is the solution.
All it takes to understand the advantages when digging a ball out of the back corners is a little geometry.
The lowswinger has to leave room in the corner for a horizontal circle centred on the spine to be able to swing his racket at a ball. So a ball closer in to the corner than the length of the racket just cannot be hit.
The highswinger can change his swing to flick the racket head round from the wrist, providing boast possiblities for balls closer to the corner than the wrist at impact.
I advise holding the racket up in front of your chest even when resting at the tee. Standing like this you are primed for that inaccurate shot from your opponent that heads for your body. Taking the racket from your chest to where you need it to play a dead racket return on either side from over head height to knee height works well whichever side of you the ball will pass.
With the racket head drooping to knee height or below it takes so long to raise the racket to body height, especially on the forehand side, that you are hard pressed to return a quick ball.
Copyright (C) Richard Hart 2015 - 2018