Mental Training for Beginning Squash Players

May 17, 2009

Most of the attention in the sport psychology domain is given to advanced and elite adult players.  In an ideal world, squash coaches would start to guide their proteges towards mental toughness at the very start of their squash lives.

In the early 1990’s I helped Tennis Canada develop mental training and sport psychology priorities for every age group in their junior tennis programs:  periodized annual mental training programs to be implemented in Canadian indoor clubs for each of their junior age groups:  U11, U14, U18.

At each stage of development, different psychological qualities were prioritized – for example tennis intelligence, courage, leadership, etc.  In effect what we did was  develop psychological specifics what we would now describe as stages of a Long Term Athlete Development Plan (LTAD).

While many of the technical and physical aspects of published LTADs are very concrete and specific, the psychological aspects tend to be general and vague – reason being that the sport scientists developing the LTADs work primarily in the areas of physiology and motor learning – not sport psychology!

Here is a link to great example of mental training for beginning tennis players – which will apply 100% to beginning squash players – thanks International Tennis Federation (ITF)!

ITF Mental Training for Tennis Beginners

ITF Mental Training for Tennis Beginners

The Psychology of Squash: Staying Focused Between Points

March 2, 2009

What is great about squash in comparison to many other sports is that each of the four performance elements are important:  technique, tactics, physical and psychology.  Unlike team sports, once the match is underway, there is no coaching allowed during actual play, and minimal pauses allowed for reflection and mental preparation.  This places the utmost importance on a player controlling their mental state between rallies – the average between point break being about 10 seconds – even more important since the switch this year to point-a-rally (PAR) scoring  for both men and women.  Players cannot afford to lose their focus for even a minute now, since it is so easy now to let a match get away, and so difficult to work your way back from a big deficit.

The importance of using the between-point time in racquet sports to control an athlete’s mental state was first recognized by well known sport psychologist Jim Loehr.  Although I have found some of his material and talks (he now charges $35,000 to top companies for speaking engagements on Energy Management) to be overly dramatic, Loehr pioneered the development of many practical, easy to use mental tools for tennis, which is an important accomplishment in a field which can get a little too ethereal.

I first ran into Loehr when he was the guest speaker at the 1984 World Professional Squash Association (WPSA) Teaching Pro Conference in 1984.  I was so intrigued by his dismissal of my mention of  Tutko and Tosi’s book Sport Psyching that I had just reread (purchased and read originally in 1976) that I went back to school to get a Master’s in Sport Psychology and Coaching.  I used his book Mental Toughness Training for Sports as the training manual for my first consulting job (hired by National Coach Tony Swift)  in 1986 at Squash Canada’s National Training Center in Toronto.

16-Second Cure Video

16-Second Cure Video

In response to the McEnroe influenced mid-eighties tennis trend of out of control behavior between points, Loehr produced a video entitled “The 16-Second Cure” which detailed a four-step, between point, on-court routine (that took 16 of the allowed 25 seconds) whose purpose was to maintain the ideal performance state of relaxation, positiveness, activation and focus – mostly through the use of breathing and serve and return rituals.

It did not take me very long to develop the squash-specific adaptation of Loehr’s idea:  The 10-Second Solution.  Soon several generations of Canadian Junior National Teams, and thousands of U.S. juniors passing through the USSRA National Training Center (later Princeton Squash Camps) were being rated and trained on their between-point behavior – even playing conditioned games where the winner was the player who displayed the best focus.

I remember doing a “mental” charting of one Canadian Junior back in the late 80’s who had an astounding 36 negative between-point behaviors or vocalizations in the first game we charted.  I think he reduced it down to a dozen or so after being presented with the hard evidence (a standard scoring sheet with (+) or (-) notations along with comments in the columns).  Here is an example of another rating form we used to chart players – it could be completed by either the squash coach or a fellow player.

Between Point Behavior Rating Form

Between Point Behavior Rating Form

And here is a short video of a player who is not following the four steps:

Application for Squash Coaches

  1. You can use notational analysis (charting) of a squash players between-point behavior to help evaluate their mental performance.
  2. The four steps of the 10-Second Solution provides a simple framework to analyze and teach players to stay relaxed and focused during their matches – lots of good (and a few bad) examples on YouTube.
  3. Loehr’s  books provide many useful tools that can be adapted for squash.

What should a squash player visualize?

February 17, 2009

The good thing about many self-help books on sport psychology is that they often have visualization scripts that a squash coach could read aloud to his or her athletes, or many general suggestions (e.g., “imagine yourself playing well”) for what to visualize.

The bad thing is that these set scripts and general suggestions are too vague to be of real help to our squash athletes.  Imagine the similar situation of coaching our players on court with the feedback: “get your racquet back earlier” or “bend your knees” or “follow-through”.  Unlikely to be of help to the serious, thoughtful player who already has the basics.  As squash coaches, we are also hampered by the fact that there are no “Mental Training for Squash” books out there that directly address our needs.

So what should we tell our players to visualize?  Based on my 22 years of sport psychology consulting there are three practical sources of visualization content that squash coaches can use.  I have outlined them in the chart below.

Sources of visualization content for squash players.

Sources of visualization content for squash players.

Player’s Goals

If your squash player’s three main goals are to:  1) Improve quickness; 2) Be tougher on key points; and 3) Play tighter length court of the back-court – then these scenarios are exactly what they should be visualizing.  The more specific the squash coach can be with visualization instructions, the more benefit the player will get from doing the mental training.  For each goal the coach could develop three visualization scenarios to reinforce the accomplishment of the player’s goals – in the example here scenes that support goal #2.

2.a.  Visualize playing from 8-8 in the 5th.

2.b.  Visualize playing from 0-0 in the 5th.

2.c. Visualize coming back from down 7-2.

Training Phase

For those squash coaches who use periodized (periodised for you non-North American Commonwealth natives:) annual training plans, visualization content will change as you move through the year to support the main training goals of each phase.  The main directives for each phase are contained in the above chart.  You can read about periodized mental training programs in my article here.

Focus Plan

A Squash Focus Plan is a written plan with three parts that a player uses to stay totally focussed during a squash match:

1) Pre-match:  The list of activities, physical (jogging, stretching, etc.) and mental (breathing, visualization, etc.), that a player does to get warmed up and into the “zone” in the 60 minutes prior to a match.

2) Match Focus: List of reminders (technical, tactical, mental) that a player needs to focus optimally during a match.

3) Distraction Control or Focus Plan:  list of problematic situations or distractors that might cause a player to lose focus – and a specific solution for each (e.g., cue words, breathing, etc.).

An important part of using a Focus Plans is to have your athlete visualize each part of the plan being carried out under different conditions (different tournaments, opponents, styles of play, etc.).  A highly recommended resource for Focus Plans is Terry Orlick’s Coaches Training Manual to Psyching for Sport – out of print but still available used on the internet.

Application for Squash Coaches

  1. Provide individualized, squash-specific visualization workouts for your players.
  2. Help your players develop a written Squash Focus Plan.

Psychological Priorities for Squash – On-Court Mental Skills

August 30, 2008

In general, the principles of sport psychology apply to all sports.  However, in the same way that a squash-specific physical training program (e.g., lunges, twisting core exercises, med ball side throws) will improve your athletes more than a general one (e.g., squats, bench press, biceps curl), a program designed specifically to meet the needs of squash is better than a general one.

Although there are a quite a few books on mental training for tennis, I know of none for squash.  Having designed psychology programs for world champions in both tennis and squash I can say that there are important differences.  Due to the lack of published resources for squash we need to rely on knowledge from three areas to guide our interventions.

Examples of subjective and professional practice experience can be found in squash books published by top players in the 1970’s and 1980’s heyday of squash.

Another example of using professional practice knowledge involves summarizing the opinions of knowledgeable coaches. I asked national squash coaches from around the world attending the 2007 WSF Coaching Conference in Calgary the question:  “What is the most important thing you know about mental training for squash”.  Their answers are contained in this document: wsf-coaches-answer-the-question-1Read the rest of this entry »

Evaluate Every Competitive Opportunity!

January 13, 2008

What is the quickest and simplest way to get your athletes to be mentally tougher? The answer lies in helping them track and then compare their best and worst squash performances on a regular basis – and learning from this comparison.

After every game have your athletes answer, in writing, 3-4 simple questions:

  1. What was your level of activation before the match.
  2. What was your level of anxiety before the match.
  3. What were you saying to yourself shortly before the match.
  4. When you were playing your best, what were you focussing on or paying attention to.

After every tournament, or every 4-5 matches have them sit down and spread the evaluation sheets out and try an pick out patterns and similarities for good versus bad performances.

What they are likely to find is that best matches occur with:

  1. High levels of activation prior to the match.
  2. Medium levels of anxiety.
  3. Self-talk before the match focussing on strategy, effort, or having fun.
  4. Focussing on the task during – meaning tactics or strategy, or effort, or something simple like watching the ball which allows an automatic focus.

But instead of telling them this – let them discover it for themselves – much more efective!

Note: This approach forms the basis for the Canandian approach to mental training initiated by Brent Rushall and Terry Orlick in a number of their publications – and refined by later generations of mental training consultants like myself.

College & H.S. Coaches – How to Implement Psychology Programs

December 7, 2007

I have spent the past 20 years teaching coaches at all levels (Olympic, National Team, College & High School) how to run mental training programs for their athletes. Yes – I have also consulted directly with athletes at these same levels – but it is the coach who is best suited to do the mental coaching – because they know their athletes best.

However, most coaches feels that they are not qualified to direct their athlete’s mental training. At this point we need to make the distinction between declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge. Many coaches have taken courses and read books in sport psychology resulting in an accumulation of theoretical or declarative knowledge. In addition, they usually have an intimate knowledge of their athlete’s mental strengths and weaknesses. What is lacking is knowledge of the step-by-step procedures (procedural knowledge) to close the gap between the athlete’s current and desired level of mental mental skills or qualities. Read the rest of this entry »