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Squash Ramblings
More ramblings about squash


Here I go deeper into some of the topics that I have covered in other pages. There are some ideas here that don't have an obvious home on the other pages too.

Watch your opponent play

Watch a beginner play on a glass back court and you'll often see someone staring at the front wall waiting for a ball hit from behind to magically appear. Watch an experienced player, and they will turn to watch their opponent.

If you watch your opponent raise his racket and prepare for his shot, you will already have a good idea of what shot he is about to play. You can begin to move off the T already. You'll be able to start to move so much earlier that it often becomes a stroll to intercept the ball rather than a rush.

Put it the other way, and if you still move at speed, you'll be able to intercept the ball so much earlier you'll be able to put your opponent under more pressure with your early return.

When I first began to watch my opponent, and this meant watching the ball fly towards me as I was moving away from the T, I felt almost seasick for a week or two. My mind was not used to my moving fast without watching where I was going. Once the feeling faded, I could keep my eyes focussed on the ball or my opponent almost constantly, with the occasional look up at the court to orient myself.

Note that once you are practised at watching your opponent play, you no longer need to watch the ball all the way. When you have decided which corner the ball is destined for, you can turn away from the ball and start moving to where you will need to be to play your shot, confident that the ball will appear in your vision very shortly. You pick up the ball in flight as it comes into range, with your racket already raised for your return shot.

Get back to the 'T'

This applies almost constantly during the squash game. You don't want your opponent to have a comfortable time at the T, hitting balls for you to chase. So you should always be trying to hit shots that take your opponent as far from the T as possible, so you can get to the T yourself, the best position from which to dominate the court. A few moments on the T watching your opponent scramble to the back corner also gives you a short respite and a breather.

After you hit the ball, make every attempt to get back to the T, because that will give you the best chance of reaching your opponent's next shot.

Now let's look at that phrase, 'Get back to the T'.

Firstly, if you look at the red paint or tape on the floor that makes up the T, the worn part is just behind the T. So maybe that's a better place to aim for.

Secondly, I don't want to give the idea that a rush back to the T is right. What is right is that as you finish your shot you start moving, skipping, side-stepping, call it what you will, back to near the T. You must make your own judgement, after considering where your shot has forced your opponent to be, what 'near the T' means each time. If you're sure your opponent will have to send another shot down the forehand side wall, then you must hover to the right of the T.

Get your opponent off the T

When you hit your own shot, try to angle the ball so that as it passes level with the T it is as close to one of the side walls as possible. This draws your opponent off the T, leaving room for you to gain control of the centre of the court in your turn. Do this by either hitting a ball back down the side wall, or hitting a ball across the court to the opposite side wall.

Vary the power of your shots. If you hit a drop shot followed by a drive down the wall followed by a lob followed by a boast, you are ensuring that your opponent is going to do a lot of chasing. He will tire, and his shots will get wayward, and he will find it harder to force himself back to the T. You are on your way.

If your opponent is getting back to the T well, there is nothing wrong with playing the same shot several times, waiting for that moment when a different shot will catch him unawares. Repeating the same shot reinforces your dominance - your opponent is the one waiting for you to change your tactics - the rally is under your control.

Play to the side wall

Remember how tricky it is to return a ball that hits the side wall level with you ? You must either move forward to intercept the ball early, or you must drop back to take the ball late. So, and here we're back to that chess analogy, what is tricky for you is tricky for your opponent.

In particular, try to serve so the ball hits the side wall high as it passes level with where your opponent is standing. This is the best way to make sure that his return is not strong, and gives you time to reach it.

If you can get to the ball early enough, raise your racket for the backswing early, and hesitate for a brief moment. Your opponent is watching you, trying to judge from your movements what shot you are about to play. That little hesitation is enough to confound him, and to let you play a shot he wasn't expecting. All of a sudden, the shot he thought you were about to play down the wall is dying in the front corner from your deceptive drop shot.

Use patterns of shots

You have often have control of the court, but you find it difficult to win points against a good retriever. Use patterns of play to help deceive your opponent. Try playing the same shot - a backhand down the wall, for example - several times, before cracking a low cross court, straight or boast. Your opponent may be dropping back from the T ready for your next rail.

Or play alternate right and left cross court shots several times, before driving a short ball down the wall.

Any kind of pattern to your shots may tempt your opponent to expect the next shot in the pattern, only to be surprised when you break the pattern.

Practice dead racket reaction shots

You have control of the T and your opponent fails to hit a cross court shot cleanly, so the ball comes off the front wall fairly close to you. You don't have enough time to jump back and give yourself space for a proper forcing shot.

First, if the ball is at waist level or above, you will not be in a position to react if you stand at the T with a low dangling racket. You must hold the head of your racket at waist level or above while standing at the T. If you do, then with very little movement you should be able to bring the racket head round to play an accurate dead ball drop.

The ball is moving fast enough for your dead racket - with almost no backswing - to send the ball dying to the front wall. The angle of your racket is crucial. Concentrate when you play this shot erring towards lifting the ball too high. A high shot - a shot that hits the wall a foot or more above the tin - will at least carry to the front. From there you can practice with lower shots until you can dead racket the ball to within a few inches of the tin and well away from the middle of the wall.

Almost dead racket shots

Opponent has hit a shot that comes off the front wall close to you but just far enough from your body that you would like to fashion a decent shot. But you have no time to step back and adjust your stance for a standard swing.

As you prepare your short reaction swing, you realise that you may have twisted your body for the shot, but your feet are still anchored to the floor and haven't had time to twist to correct your stance.

And now either you have hit the ball a weak shot from a poor stance with your legs twisted or the ball has passed you by.

So what could you have done better ? Your main problem was a stance compromised by legs twisted to accommodate feet that have failed to move. I have no immediate answer but for myself I am trying to execute a very quick jump of a few inches as soon as I realise my situation. This will relieve the pressure on my feet, letting them twist to match my legs just as I play my shot.

The backhand

When you play a drive in cricket, at first your front wrist can feel so sharply bent that it is no help in the shot. When you first practice taking up your stance for a golf shot, your hands feel as if they are twisted over each other ready for some kind of conjuring trick.

When you first practice the proper movements for a backhand drive, the stance feels pretty strange. Body facing the back corner, trailing foot and forearm parallel to the side wall, leading shoulder dropped, chin, shoulder, knee and foot more or less above each other, and worst of all, the racket vertical and the wrist cocked out. And from that tortured position you now have to teach yourself how to bring the strength of your legs, your back, your shoulder, your arm and your wrist into play in a precise sequence with perfect timing.

Practice gentle shots at first, just steady highish shots down the backhand wall. But you must get back to the perfect stance each time. It's no good playing the first shot well, and letting the racket droop for the next shot. You must learn to play a good backhand.

My backhand is now better than my forehand. Not as powerful, but I play more backhands with crisp timing and strength than I play my forehands. I imagine that I find it easier to coordinate and sequence the various components of the backhand swing than with the forehand.

I like to feel myself as a coiled spring when I'm set up for a backhand shot, ready to trigger and start the swing. As in cricket and golf, when you are playing well you have time to feel the sequence of movements your body must initiate from your feet up through your shoulders and along to your wrist as you power the racket through a good clean shot.

The last two steps

I believe that playing racketball is good for your squash - and probably the opposite is true too. When I started to play racketball, all my shots were just off, they were wrong, and for several reasons - my positioning for the shot, my swing, the weight of the shot and others. But most important was positioning, how I took the last two steps to the shot. The way the ball would rebound off the wall more, the way the ball carried less, and where I wanted the ball to go was different.

All those differences led to me developing the practice of analysing my approach to the shot in greater detail, and trying to be more aware of my thinking during the actual shot. It led to me thinking harder about exactly where I wanted to be when I hit the ball, and where my trailing and leading feet should land. And this has led to me being able to analyse the same movements when I play squash too, and that is a good thing.

Of course the last step is crucial to how you shape for your shot, but the step before, the penultimate step, is where you set everything up. If you are under pressure, you want the last step to be a standard preparation for your shot. In a hurry and stretching, where you put your trailing foot, at the end of the penultimate step, will govern how well you are set up for the last step and the shot.

Think carefully about where your trailing foot is landing. It is crucial to setting up your last step and shot.

Improving

There is always scope for improvement. At the higher levels, players find the time to drill and practice with others specifically to address areas of their play that they feel could do with improvement.

We lower mortals have to fit in our improvement with our play. Before any match, you should resolve to work on one or two areas of your play, like backhand serving and drop shots, or forehand rail strength and lobs. Any more and you will dilute your ability to focus on what you intend.

But what you focus on should not just be shots. You might need to work on not cramping yourself in the back corners, or on better monitoring your opponent's fitness, or on playing in a more relaxed and open minded fashion.

Decide before the match which aspects of your play you are going to concentrate on, and review your progress in a quiet moments after your match, either ticking off a job well done, or refining your problem so that you can do better next time.

Of course, if you go on court and one aspect of your play is going disastrously wrong, well, all bets are off, and you'd better concentrate on what's going wrong here and now. But reading your own play, and reacting to problems, is another subject that you may choose to try to improve.

The Inner Game

Is it really thirty years ago that I read the Tim Gallwey's books about his coaching experiences with tennis players and golfers ? I only have a distant memory of his thesis. He coached californians with the yips - a problem in their swing or movement that was ruining their game but that was proving elusive. The inner game refers to the idea that you have two selfs - one is unhappy with how you play, has thought about it a lot and thinks it knows how you can change, while the other, the more physical self, could play the game with its eyes shut, but currently isn't doing it quite right. This, galway suggests, is possibly because it can't concentrate with all the instructions being received from the voice of the first self.

Gallwey says the second self should be left alone to play the game with the minimum interference from the first self. Just get the first self to pipe down, and the second self can get on with the game. The first self is continually giving advice to the second self, so the latter just can't concentrate on the game, let alone start addressing the minor problem that is causing the yips in the first place.

But how to distract the first self from all this backseat driving ? Give it something to do. And what better than to give the first self the task of monitoring the second self. Was the stance right ? Was the swing correct ? Did the swing start at the right moment ? But not interfering. Just taking notes. For a little chat after the game.

With more serious cases, Gallwey had his clients saying a mantra - swing, hit, bounce... swing, hit, bounce... and so on. After the game the two selves are allowed to work it out between themselves, but often by the mere knowledge that it is being observed the second self will make the adjustments to stance or swing that are needed to improve the game.

So in most cases, Gallwey's approach is to give the first, the conscious, self the task of carefully monitoring a few parts of your game. Not in too much detail - just at the level of "racket low" or "racket high" in the shot, or "lands short" versus "lands long" after a rail. Enough monitoring to keep the first self from giving instructions on the next shot, and possibly enough to be useful if all shots reap the comment of "racket low".

The ballet called squash

When I'm playing well, I see squash as a dance, with ritual movements and a definite style, and my movements and strokes are conducting the piece. But when I'm up against a stronger player, it doesn't take much chasing for me to see squash as a gladatorial combat, as I get beaten to an aching mess of passed drives and missed drops.

So I sometimes see my task, up against this stronger player, to keep up my pretence of dance, because I'm sure I play better in my dance mode - I see where the ball is going better, I make my move to the ball more cleanly and I have more time to judge and make my shot.

Work out your own metaphors for play, and see if this idea of dance can help you when you are trying to refine your shot and movement style.

What you can do to improve

Let's split the skill we are chasing into talent, application, fitness and practice. By talent I mean all the innate stuff you have - your reaction speed, your build and coordination, although of course each of these can be improved a little. Application means concentration, remembering your movements for that new shot, and all the strategy stuff. Fitness and practice speak for themselves.

Being a lazy squash player, I devote most of my endeavours to improving my application - I work hard to remember how each little variation of serve or shot, of positioning and of placement, turn out for me, and I try to make little adjustments to my movement every time I play. I do this best when playing a challenging game with someone at my level. The application drops off fast as I tire, and is rarely there when I'm not challenged. I do practice from time to time, but 15 minutes as about as much as I can squeeze out of myself.

You may have other priorities. You may be into you fitness, or you may like to get on court early and refine your rail shots or your boasts. But however fit you may be, and however practised you may be with your rails and drops, there is still all that head space available during your play that you can use at first to monitor your play and your decisions, and later to think further ahead use trickier tactics to outwit your opponent.

So my message is to learn how to apply your mind more sharply to your squash in the first game or two in every friendly or match.



Page updated on 1st October 2018

Copyright (C) Richard Hart 2015 - 2018


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