Squash Deception: Knowledge into Reality!

December 9, 2010

Knowing something about squash does not necessarily translate into being able to do it – squash deception is a good example of this.  A good squash coach is able to turn knowledge into reality with a solid pedagogical approach.

Knowledge + Appropriate Pedagogy = Action

I have always been interested (being an attritional grinder myself) in the topic of how to teach squash deception, since most people consider it to be an innate talent (which it definitely is not!). Back in the early 1990’s, I hired a young, low-ranked,  18-year old Jonathon Power (one of the most deceptive male players ever) to come to my club in Montreal to give a workshop (I think we paid him $300?) on “Deception” to my “C” and “B” teams (only 4-5 of them signed up!?!).

Last summer I had a chance to coach alongside Karim Darwish – another former world #1 and and very deceptive player.  At our PPS Squash Camp I got Karim to demonstrate the use of a “deceptive wrist” to our campers and videotaped him doing it:

A year earlier, I had videotaped an example of the Games Approach pedagogical method of teaching deception – through the use of conditioned games.  One of the “models” in this video example is Wesleyan University’s Head Men’s and Women’s Coach Shona Kerr – she benefited from early coaching by Hiddy Jahan in the use of the “Pakistani” wrist.  I trained and competed alongside Shona during a period (2006-08) where she went undefeated through six straight women’s national championships (Howe Cup Teams, U.S. Nationals, etc.), defeating several members of the U.S. National Squad along the way – she has a great wrist – a rare attribute in the women’s game.

The main point here is that a squash coach needs to use a systematic approach in order to get his or her player to implement deception effectively in a game situation.  It is the rare athlete that can simply be told or shown what to do, and put it into practice immediately.  And deception is not just for the best players, as you can see in this video taken at the PPS Camp (that is Engy Kheirallah coaching).

Coaching Squash Deception Using the Games Approach – Drive or Angle from Front

July 8, 2009

In our first and second examples of coaching deception from the front using the Games Approach we looked at two of the most common situations: pairing a drop option with a cross-court drive and pairing a drop option with a lob – both force the opponent to cover the largest territory – the diagonal.  In our third example, we look at a less common option from the front, the pairing of an angle (roll corner in Americanese) with a straight drive.  This option could be classified perhaps as a “surprise” option or “an unexpected shot from an unexpected place” since without surprise both shots expose the striker to counter attack:  the angle rebounds towards the middle and the straight drive if loose could result in a stroke against the striker.  However we do see these shots played at the higher levels so players should be trained in their use and how to anticipate and respond to them.

As in the other two examples, we will focus more on the coaching method and framework or the Games Approach, and less on the actual technique of deception (e.g., use of wrist).  Here are the key teaching points from this video which may differ from more technically-oriented coaching sessions on the same topic:

  • Flexible approach to the session’s’ content.  We see the coach accept the player’s suggestion to modify the game according to the player’s preference.  The coach can always return to the original options, but should be willing to experiment with the player’s suggestion in order to reinforce self-direction on the part of the player.  Build choices for your players into your squash coaching – they may not notice it but will develop more confidence in themselves.
  • The Games Approach encourages competition so that training takes place in a similar psychological environment to actual match play. In fact here we see that Chris is somewhat down and not that competitive after losing the first conditioned game 5-0, but the coach encourages competition.
  • In the previous example of Games Approach session we saw the addition of options or conditions to make the games more challenging.  Here we see the player presented with a simple skill drill to encourage appropriate technique – in this case the use of the wrist versus the stroking to control the ball. Lower standard players might in fact spend a majority of the session working on basic technique (grip or swing)  following the initial game if this is what might improve them the most.  What is important is that the student understands that improving technique is what will help them solve the tactical problem they are presented with (in this case how best to attack the opponent in the front of the court after forcing a boast).
  • Playing a game instead of doing repetitive drills may encourage a player to more closely observe their opponent, if their opponent is clearly better at the game.  In this case it is clear that Shona Kerr is demonstrating superior deception with the wrist in the front.
  • Videotaping and replaying the the Games Approach training session will help the student understand the effect of their initial shot on gaining (or losing) an advantage in the rally with the payoff occurring several shots after the first – something not possible with traditional drilling.

Coaching Squash Deception using Games Approach – Lob or Drop?

July 7, 2009

In this second video example of a Games Approach coaching session, the objective of the session is to work on the game situation where the player in the front is working on her deception by lobbing or dropping straight off a boast from the back of the court.

In this example, Shona Kerr, the player in front is winning most of the points (trained as a young girl in the use of the “Pakistani wrist” by Hiddy Jahan) so the emphasis of the session has switched to helping Chris who is responding to Shona’s lob or drop in the front.

By starting with a game instead of a drill, Chris’ weakness in this game situation becomes apparent.  Through the use of questioning by the squash coach (a key characteristic of the Games Approach) is becomes evident that he is not really aware of how his “T” position can influence the success of his opponent’s tactics, or his best options in response to her drop attack – although he becomes aware by the questioning process.

The initial game can be modified easily (as it was in this example with the added “redrop” condition) to make the initial game easier or more difficult, or to emphasize a different aspect or tactic.  Both players spend the entire time practicing in game-like conditions so appear to be motivated (without coach reminders) to recover, hustle and try their hardest.

The second step of the Games Approach, to drill the different options in more traditional drilling practice (in this case the straight drop and lob), was skipped because Shona demonstrated solid deception and quality lobs and drops.  We could have assessed her performance under more pressure by having the coach start with either a straight drive feed or a boast, which would have forced a later start from further back by presenting her from early anticipation of the boast.

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 (Certified Squash, Tennis & Badminton 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).


Coaching Squash Deception with Games Approach – Drop or Drive

July 7, 2009

Here is a video example of a coaching session using the Games Approach method to teach deception in the front court. Notice the following in comparison to a “usual” technique-based coaching session:

  • Start with a game to assess the squash player before any coaching takes place.  This assures a minimum of talking (boring) and an active start to the lesson with competition (everyone loves competition!).
  • Use questioning to help the student figure out for themselves what they need to work on – if the squash coach tells them outright, the student will never develop the ability to think for themselves.  Notice in the video that Chris’ (the student) awareness of what is actually happening in terms of the results of his shots is not that great despite his relatively high standard (sorry Chris!)
  • After identifying an area to work on, squash coaches can use more conventional drilling to improve the weakness.  If possible, make the drilling game-like by including movement to the ball and also including the recovery and follow-up shot (in this case the straight volley into the open court created by the drop to the front).  Also if possible, set a standard of quality (seen in the drop practice scenario in this: if the opponent can lob over the player after the drop has been played) that provides the player with automatic feedback (no coach feedback required).
  • Missing from the video is finishing with another 5-point game to see if the student has actually improved.  Also for the sake of keeping things simple, we have not delved into a micro-analysis of Chris swing, use of wrist and hold, etc.

In this example, three players (including the coach) were involved.  Obviously the game could also be played with two players to make it even more game-like.  Thanks to Shona Kerr for helping out fresh off her knee surgery!

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

Wimbledon 2009: Psychological & Tactical Lessons for Squash Coaches

July 5, 2009

My prediction for the Gentlemen’s Singles was wrong – I was sure Andy Murray (with his big biceps) was ready to take Wimbledon and Federer with Nadal out of the way.  With Federer appearing to suffer some doubts and lack of confidence recently (obviously alleviated somewhat by his French Open win), I thought Murray’s increasing confidence would carry him through the pressure of the British press – apparently not.

The ability to keep pressure off in both squash and tennis is key.  I just finished two weeks of squash camp with Mike Johnson (former coach of Fitzgerald, Eyles and Ricketts amongst others) and he reckons this ability is the most important for players to acquire.  According to Johnson,  the inability to keep pressure off  (“I must win this match”) is the number one reason players underperform.

It was very clear in the Wimbledon women’s final that the William’s sisters are the dominant force in women’s tennis today (check the video!).  Their father played the key role in keeping the pressure off them in their formative years – forbidding them to play in junior tennis tournaments from the age of 12-14.  My hypothesis is that this allowed them to develop that “go for it” attitude which obviously has become a habit.  The lack of tournament pressure also allowed them to develop a variety of skills unhindered by the need to “win that match today”.  My two weeks with 70 of the U.S.’ top junior squash players has reconfirmed my belief that the “need to win” is the number one barrier to making necessary changes in one’s squash technique and tactics.  Many junior squash players are unwilling to accept the temporary drop in performance that would come with a grip change for example.  Since accepting a temporary performance decrement in exchange for future gains is logical, there must be external forces (parents, coach, tournament environment) acting on the junior.

Squash is much more tactical than singles tennis, especially tennis played on grass (with an average of less than three shots per rally).  Doubles tennis on the other hand, is at least as tactical and perhaps more so: the addition of the net game, poaching and faking, variety in positioning (both up, both back, Australian), use of the lob (rarely seen in singles), etc.  It was great to see the Canadian Nestor come through for the second year in a row.  I never worked with Nestor but did work with Canadian Sebastien Lareau (Olympic Doubles Medalist), and last week at Princeton ran into Canadian and former world number 1 doubles Glenn Michibata (with Grant Connell) – now coaching the men’s tennis team at Princeton.  Why has Canada produced so many top-ranked doubles players over the last 10-15 years?  It has to do with Tennis Canada’s Tactics First Approach to training their tennis coaches.  Their tactics first approach has been the official coaching method in Canada since at least 1985.  Although the Canadian tennis players are too few and not talented enough to regularly break into the top 100 in singles – in a sport which prioritizes tactics, they have dominated (per capita) the top ranking spots over the last 15 years. Smart play can overcome a lack of physical talent – a great lesson for sqush coaches.  in order to develop this “squash intelligence” coaches need to use a Tactics First Approach.

Application for Squash Coaches:

  1. Help keep the pressure off your junior squash players through proper goal setting (task not win goals) and an emphasis on longterm development.
  2. Use a Tactics First Approach to develop squash intelligence in your players

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., CorePerformance.com 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 squashscience@gmail.com 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).

Developing “Thinking” Squash Players

June 18, 2007

Squash is one of the most “open” sports, a sport in which players must effectively read, react, and make decisions in a constantly changing environment.

Why then do most coaches run “closed” training sessions where no decisions are necessary?

This question is not devoid of cultural influence where British and Australian players historically have tried to grind their opponents down in a war of attrition, while Egyptian and Pakistani players value skillful touch shots, trickery and deception.

There is a pedagogy designed to develop smart, thinking squash players. It involves the simple principle of starting every training session with a tactical problem or context, and ensuring that players must make decisions during practice and play. This does not mean that players should not work on developing excellent technique – only that technical work must be couched in a tactical framework.

I have been using this approach in my squash coaching since being introduced to this pedagogy in a tennis coaching workshop run by Louis Cayer in 1987 – the most user-friendly version of this approach can be found at a tennis coaching site run by Wayne Elderton. The rest of the world has recently been made aware of this approach under the name of Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU), Games Approach or Decision-Training (DT). Bob Callahan, Gail Ramsay and I developed “System 3” and used it to run Princeton Squash Camps in the 1990’s.

.Jonathon Power & John White