Decision Training for Squash Coaches: Part I

August 1, 2011




















If you coach squash, and have not read and applied the knowledge from Joan Vicker’s (2007) book “Perception, Cognition and Decision Training”, you are missing a great opportunity to improve your squash coaching – and therefore the performance of your squash athletes.  Vickers teaches and conducts research at the University of Calgary, and since I have seen absolutely no reference to her book in any of the racquet sport or recent motor learning literature, I think we can safely assume that her book is only being used by a relatively small sample of Canadian coaches and athletes.

I first encountered Vickers’ Decision Training (DT) concept in an article she wrote for the Canadian Journal for Women in Coaching.  I was intrigued because her model of how sport skills and strategies should be taught was highly similar to 3-4 other models that I had already been exploring and using (for 24 years:)  in my squash coaching and consulting.  As one of the few sport scientists who is a  “generalist” and not just a “specialist in one discipline” (and also an active coach 20-30 on-court hours a week in the winter season who actively seeks ways to apply sport science knowledge), I was again struck by the phenomenon of several different researchers arriving at the same conclusion – all of them either unaware of each others’ work or unwilling to acknowledge it.

Here are the four sources (along with the current best web reference) of these similar models – I think “Tactics First” is the best term – and honestly I think the act researchers need to get their act in gear and organize their domain if they really want sport coaches to embrace and use their concepts!

  • Teaching Games for Understanding (TGFu)
  • Games Approach
  • Method des Actions (“Action Method” being the poor English translation) – originally conceived by the Swiss sport pedagogue Jean Brechbuhl and the official coaching method of Tennis Canada since 1985 (Squash Canada since 1998?), the best example of current application is AceCoach.
  • Decision Training

All four of these sources postulate that the initial point for teaching or coaching sport skills is to start with the tactical or game context or situation (i.e., have the athletes start with a conditioned (modified) game or a game with a specific tactical goal (e.g., win as many points with drop shots as possible) before teaching technique.

Vickers provides the perfect summary of research evidence to support this “Tactics First” approach in visual graphic form:

In the graph, the term “behavioural training” means the traditional “technique first” approach to coaching.  Basically the graph shows that those who learn “technique first” do better in practices and early in the season, and those who learn “tactics first” improve more slowly at the start (obviously the material is more complex) but perform much better later on in the season – when it counts!

Ever wonder why your athletes are great at practice but just can’t perform under pressure when it counts?

In a series of articles over the next few months I will go over the different parts of the DT model and explain exactly how to apply it to coaching squash, so that your squash players perform at their highest level when they need to. Note that if you are thinking of purchasing the book, it is divided into three parts, with DT covered in the third part (I am not that crazy about the first two parts relate)d to “gaze”).

Squash Coaches: Train “Situations” not “Strokes”

July 7, 2009

We have published quite a few posts on the current Tactics First approach to developing thinking, smart squash players.  The key concept is that teaching technique alone (e.g., backhand lesson, forehand lesson) and leaving the match play and tactics to the student (laissez-faire approach) in their formative years does not encourage squash intelligence.  Squash is much more than striking the ball well. It is one of the most tactical individual sports and involves considerable perception, anticipation (reading the opponent) and decision-making (attacking weaknesses not strengths) on every point.  I would wager that squash is the most tactical of the individual sports – with more individual player decisions per minute of play than any other sport (in team sports like football it is the coach making most of the tactical decisions).  Our coaching needs to reflect this priority and we need to start training situations not strokes right from the very beginning of a player’s career.

How does a squash coach go about actually planning a Tactics First lesson or training session?  Here is a template that  coaches can use to plan a lesson around a particular tactical situation:

Tactics First Squash Lesson Template

Look for some video examples of Tactics First training in the coming weeks (maybe even days:).  In the meantime, here is some brief background reading from the ACE Coaching site – the leading proponent of a tactics first approach for tennis:

Game Based Approach for Tennis

Designing the Ultimate Summer 2019 Squash Camp

June 27, 2009
Princeton Squash Campers July 2009

Princeton Squash Campers June 2009

Obviously, for squash campers whether young or old, the squash coach’s priority is to ensure they 1) have fun; and 2) learn something – and we all know “there is more than one way to skin a cat” (apologies to cat lovers).

Having said that, due to the usual compressed time frame of a one-week squash camp it is easy to throw established sport science principles out the window – in a desire to teach the campers “everything possible”.  In this post we will discuss  a few guidelines based on the latest sport science research to ensure that your camper benefit optimally from your coaching program.

Volume, Intensity and Organization of  the Week’s Training. Since one of the primary purposes of a summer camp (versus national camp prior to World’s for example) is to teach new squash skills, care must be taken to not overfatigue the campers as this will hurt learning. A L-M-H-L-H (L=low, M=medium, H=high) distribution of  the daily training load over the week will help accomplish this.  This will produce more and better quality work that a L-H-L-H-L periodization for example.  Obviously, most of us will be violating the rule of thumb not to increase training volume more than 10% from week to week – as most summer campers will not be playing much sqaush or training very hard.

Planning the Daily Training Sessions. There is actually a theoretically optimal order in which to train the different components needed to play better squash (which I have adapted for squash from  Tudor Bompa – the North America Father of Periodization):

  1. Train new technical skills first while the athlete is fresh.
  2. Train speed and agility second, as improving these qualities require a fresh and unfatigued CNS.  If you save your sprinting to the end of the day you will be training your athlete to move at sub-maximal speeds in a fatigued state (actually not that unimportant in squash – but not speed work).
  3. Practice well-learned technical drills or do match play or conditioned games third as they can be accomplished well with some fatigue (may even be desirable).
  4. Train strength-endurance fourth, after most of the on-court work has been done as this does not require a fresh CNS to benefit the athlete. A camp is a great time to focus on functional or core training (e.g., to avoid making the prime squash movers (e.g. quads) overly sore.  Another focus would be to avoid heavy loads and focus on the athlete executing good technique – i.e., the actual training is symbolic, and secondary to learning about training.  There probably is no place for plyometrics or maximum strength training at a summer camp – although demonstrations are fine.
  5. Lactic work (intense court sprints with efforts of 15+ seconds) should be training second last, since quality work is very difficult to do after a workout of this type, due to the long recovery period required to eliminate lactic acid from the muscles (at least an hour for partial clearance of LA).
  6. Aerobic endurance training should be performed last, since little coordination is required, and if the intensity is around 60-70% it will in fact aid regeneration for the next day.
  7. Mental and flexibility training and video analysis/tactical discussions can be interspersed with other training factors to help aid recovery and help provide adequate rest.
  8. If you really want to help your squash campers learn how to train properly you can model your physical training sessions after an actual periodized training year:  Day 1 do General Prep training, Day 2 to Specific Prep training, etc.). With handouts, this will provide them with a template to help them plan their own year.
Princeton Squash Camp Coaches - June 2009

Princeton Squash Camp Coaches – June 2009

Pedagogical Approach to Coaching Technical-Tactical Skills. Doing our basic length and boast and drive drills, followed by match play will definitely improve our players, although to a much lesser extent that than a Tactics First Approach using Games Approach and Decision Training methodology and tools. This involves choosing a tactical model (e.g., Zone or Egg) to organize the week’s sessions, and then starting each session with a conditioned game related to the sessions theme (e.g., 2 pts. for a winning volley if the session topic is volleying) game  (not lecture and drills) in order to evaluate the players and motivate them to change in a fun way – everyone loves to play games!  Players trained with the traditional methods will definitely perform better in practice – but those training with a Tactics First approach will perform better later (weeks or months) in match situations – basically because their training has been more game-like – which is just common sense.

I will be working at several camps this summer of 2017 at Wesleyan University and Princeton University, and of course I offer individual and small group 1-4 day mini-camps for those unable to attend one of the many camp offerings here in the U.S. – just drop me a line at for more information.

Application for Squash Coaches:

  1. Take advantage of recent advances in sport science to enhance the learning at your squash camps.
  2. Where possible use a Tactics First Approach (versus traditional drilling) to introduce and coach new squash skills.
  3. Be careful not to over fatigue your squash campers if you really want to improve learning.

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).