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

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 »