The stroke - preparing to hit the ball, hitting it and following through - is at the heart of playing a good and forcing game. For all players, from the hard hitter to the finesse player, every shot should be under control, and should be as good as possible in timing, direction and strength.
But Squash is such a busy game that you need to position yourself, get the racket ready and deliver your stroke in a short space of time. You have little time to adjust to the bounce from the front wall, unlike tennis and badminton, where the ball comes directly to you from your opponent's racket. There are many ways to get it wrong, and few ways to get it right.
This section takes you away from whacking a ball and towards playing a decent squash stroke. When you think you are halfway to playing strokes as described here, it is time to look at the section on the backswing, which will take you deeper into the mechanics involved.
When you hold a tennis racquet you generally use what I call a fist grip. This is the same grip you would use to hold a hammer, or to hang from an overhead horizontal. You should hold a squash racquet more delicately, with the fingers angled at almost forty five degrees to the handle, and a significant gap between the index and the second fingers. The thumb and index finger should still wrap around the handle - just don't let either the index finger or the thumb be extended along the grip.
The racquet should feel as if it is nestling in the fingers, not being held hard against your palm.
Beginners, juniors and anyone with less strength, like me in fact, should hold the racquet shorter - keep the hand further away from the butt end of the handle. The racquet will feel lighter, you'll be able to move it faster and you'll be able to control it more accurately.
The ball has been hit down the wall or cross court, and you are moving towards where you are going to make your shot. You plan to hit the ball at about knee height. You will hit a cleaner and a stronger shot if you are stretching for the ball, your back inclined towards the ball and your knees bent. There is little worse than cramping the ball - letting the ball come too close to your legs. Standing upright and trying to hit a ball near your legs means that timing errors, errors that were previously errors in direction, become errors in height - hit the ball a fraction early and the ball will be out of court, hitting the lights before it reaches the front wall. Hit the ball a fraction late and it slams into the ground or the tin.
Don't stretch just because you have to. Stretch, bend a little, have bent flexible knees, wait until the ball is level with you and let your shoulders come round with your arm for a free swing.
A good stretch can gain you more than a foot in reach, which means both that you can reach a ball you thought was out of reach, and that you have less far to travel from, and back to, the T.
But you can't often hit a good steady shot if you are not steady yourself. Try to think ahead for every shot to where you will be when you hit your shot, move there early, plant your feet to form a stable base, take a good high backswing, and hit through the line of the ball. It goes without saying, I hope, that you must do all this at the same time, at high speed, and automatically time after time !
You cannot hit a decent backhand with your left foot leading towards the ball and an open stance. There's just not enough room for your right hand to reach across the left of your body for a deccent backswing.
If you are returning a drive down the left wall, you should be facing the back corner, and you should aim to connect with the ball when it is level with your right knee. If you are late, and stretching back to a ball moving towards the back corner, you will need to be almost facing the back wall, and you'll have to flick the racquet sharply back, or resort to a predictable boast.
For a cross-court shot, you can face the side wall and take the ball a foot in front of your knee. The same shot rhythm will then naturally send the ball to the middle of the front wall and then down to the nick halfway down the opposite wall.
When preparing to hit the ball, it is good practice to hold the racquet high in the backswing, and to follow through fully after your shot.
When hitting a backhand shot, a shot from the lefthand side of the court, assuming you are righthanded, keep your wrist cocked - meaning keep the back of your hand tensed back up towards your forearm - most of the way through the stroke.
The high backswing means that your racquet arm should always be above your balance arm, and keeping the wrist cocked means that the side of the racquet that will hit the ball should always be facing the ball, and visible to you should you freeze your stroke for a moment. This is called keeping an open face to the racquet.
Your balance arm may be fully across the front of your body, and since your racket is held high, it follows that your balance arm must be below your racket arm. If you see someone playing a backhand with their balance arm above their racket arm, they have almost certainly not used a high enough v=backswing, and they will have great difficulty avoiding slamming the ball into the tin with regularity.
If you let the racquet face close on the backswing for a backhand, so the side of the racquet that will hit the ball is hidden from you, and you have a low backswing, then you risk your wrist slowing halfway through your stroke, so the head of your racquet overtakes your wrist and plays the ball on its own. Your forearm rotates about its length, and the natural variation in the timing of the shot results in a large variation in the angle of the racquet at the moment of impact. The direction in which the ball leaves your racquet becomes much less easy to predict.
While many advise that the shoulders should turn through the backhand, as with the forehand, I observe many top-flight players getting most of the way through a strong backhand stroke with their shoulders staying parallel to the left side wall, before their shoulders turn to the right with the follow through. In this case, you can convert the momentum of the late rotation of your shoulders and the end of your follow through into the initial spring of your legs to start you on your way back to the T.
The most important thing is that your wrist moves forward through the stroke with the head of the racquet, to avoid changing the angle of the racquet through the hitting zone. Keep the wrist moving with the racquet head and the racquet turns less, and the direction the ball takes becomes more controllable.
Through the shot, your balance arm may mirror your racquet arm and end up to your left. You have executed an inverse scissors with your two arms.
Using the balance arm like this is not obligatory. I can think of several video coaches who seem to play with dead balance arms.
But if you want to see how NOT to square up to a shot, take a look at this unfortunate publicity shot.
When you are about to begin your down swing on the backhand, your racquet could be vertical, your forearm could be horizontal and your elbow could be under your chin.
An additional reason for a high backswing, and for turning towards the back of the court, before playing the backhand is that this helps bring the muscles of the back and shoulder into play. A low backswing, and facing too far to the front, means that you have to power the shot with the muscles on the outside of your upper arm, and these are far weaker than your shoulder.
A forehand shot can be taken closed with the left foot leading to the ball, which is the more classic style, and better for hitting a clean shot, or with the body open, with the right foot extended out towards the flight of the ball. The latter stance is the result of stretching back to take a quick ball off the right wall. Either method will need you to turn your shoulders with your shot. Try to read a ball off the wall well, and aims to plant your feet early with enough space in front of you for a full swing.
You can hold your racquet high as you move into position for a steady, deliberate almost signalled shot, with a possible last moment feint to an unexpected late boast or deep lob, or you can prepare for a quick last minute racquet raise, followed by a quick flick of a shot down the wall or across the court. But the racquet should be high for all forehand shots bar the long drop.
You should start the forehand swing with your wrist cocked, but it is less important this time to keep your wrist cocked throughout the stroke. For a forehand stroke, the shoulders will turn with the stroke, whether you lead with your right or your left foot. The follow through should take the racquet through to something like a vertical position a little past your left shoulder.
When you throw a cricket ball, you are taught to point at the target with your other hand. This is good advice for the squash forehand too. If your swing starts with your balance arm pointing towards the from wall, it will mean your balance arm is poised ready for action.
When you are about to begin your down swing on the forehand, your forearm could be vertical, your elbow could be level with your armpit and the racquet could be angled back a little off the vertical towards your head. Your balance arm, initially pointing at the front wall, now performs a genuine scissors action, and as you swing your racquet and your wrist forward for contact with the ball, your shoulders beginning to turn with the shot your balance arm can end up in front of you or up by your right shoulder.
You should feel the reaction to your swing through your leading foot, and your leading leg should be pushing you back upright and back away from the wall before you have finished your follow through.
For either a backhand or a forehand, if you want to exaggerate, try starting each shot with the side of the racquet that is destined to hit the ball flat against the back of your head. You can't go wrong.
Don't make the mistake of constant power hitting. You will tire yourself, you will wear out you shoulder joint, and above all you will give your opponent several free gifts. You will keep the ball warm, so it bounces for him and doesn't die, you will allow him to hit hard shots with very gentle shots, you will be letting the ball bounce off the back wall so your opponent can just stand and wait for it to come to him and you will not be ready for his delicate drop shots and boasts.
If you watch professionals playing a down the wall game, they use the height of the ball to govern the distance their ball must travel towards the back wall before bouncing. They want the ball to hit the ground near the back of the service box, so it is dropping for the second time as it reaches the back wall. They can get this result with a medium strength shot that hits the front wall at the service line, or a softer shot that hits the front wall three feet aboove the service line. Rarely do they crack a ball down the wall.
Keep your power shot for a low drive past an opponent that you have lured up to the front expecting a drop shot from you, or for a low cross court from halfway down the wall.
Vary the strengths of your shots, and concentrate on accuracy and placement. Keep your opponent working, rather than hitting the ball so hard that it stands up for him.
Get to a shot early and you give yourself the chance of a moment's hesitation at the top of the backswing, a feint, suggesting to your opponent that the shot you are about to execute is not the one he is by now expecting. You will have sown seeds of doubt in his mind. You are in control.
To get the maximum force into the racket, and a really good stinging shot, you must be able to swing the racket with a sort of freedom. Look at a top tennis player serve. The racket comes back and is then swung through like a slingshot. This is what you must do with the squash racket. It is easier when you are hitting a volley, or at least a ball around or above waist height. And you inevitably lose a little accuracy. To avoid the ball bouncing nicely off the back wall for your opponent, you aim for somewhere near the centre of the front wall, looking for the nick with the floor near the service box. You must also be ready to step back in case your opponent wants to back towards you to look for a backhand down his wall.
The advantage you have is surprise, forcing your opponent to react quickly to a fast ball. You are asserting your control, and making your oppponent feel he is on the back foot.
Now we have covered the strokes, let's revisit the grip. First we should understand how the force of the shot is transmitted from the hand to the racket.
The force to hit a backhand comes almost solely from the inside of the thumb and the palm pad of the third and fourth fingers. Hold the racket and force the back of the racket against a wall and you will see that the first two fingers have little to do with the force transmitted from the hand to the handle.
The force to hit a forehand shot comes amost entirely from the palm pad of the index finger and the insides of the third and fourth fingers. Again, the index and second fingers have little involvement in the transmission of the force from the hand to the handle.
Where the index and second fingers, and the full length of the thumb, do come into play is in angling the head of the racket during the last moments before contact with the ball.
So my advice is to hold the racket less than firmly into the backswing, to tighten your grip, strongly for a hard shot, as you swing the racket, and to loosen the grip again before contact to allow the first and second fingers and the thumb to take control, especially for a gentle lob or drop shot. Of course, for a hard shot you must keep the tight grip a little longer, till after contact. Just as in driving a car, the grip of death removes a lot of the delicacy needed for good fine control. Of course it all becomes automatic after a while, but when you are not hitting cleanly, when some shots go awry, just think through some of these points. You may be surprised what strange habits you have formed.
Many players keep their wrist rigid from the start of the swing to the end. Others bring their wrist to the striking position and let the wrist swing the racket round for contact. Both of these action styles must be changed if you are to progress, for reasons of both power and direction control.
For an everyday medium strength shot, down the line or cross court, your wrist angle should change from a cocked back wrist through to a broken wrist steadily through the shot.
To angle the ball away for a boast you would let the wrist lag at the start of the shot, while to angle the ball cross court with a late flick the wrist should come round fast just before contact.
So the wrist comes into play, adding its force to the strength of your arm and shoulder, in every shot, and you should think hard about how this is working for you. How you use your wrist is crucial to getting power and late shot direction in every shot.
Just as you should be watching as your opponent positions their backswing and starts to play their shot you must assume that your opponent is watching you, to gain the maximum time advantage in returning your shot. Delay and deceit are the keys to reducing this advantage.
Suppose you are in good time to play a shot halfway down the wall at medium height. Your backswing is half height, with the racket head level with your ear, as the ball leaves the front wall. You delay your shot as long as you can, and then play a punchy shot with as much power as you can from the limited backswing, to drive the ball down the wall, or to go for the cross court nick. The delay means your opponent will have trouble reading your shot, and will set off for the return late, and will have to move fast as a result.
Alternatively, set up for a drive, you delay and either hook a drop across your body, or you slice a drop into the forehand corner, again attempting to deceive your opponent, and again cause then to move fast to the front.
This delay and deceit will give opponent more work. They will tire faster, and you should soon be on top.
Copyright (C) Richard Hart 2015 - 2018