Squash Anticipation & Deception: 2 Sides of the Same Coin

April 8, 2015

Many squash spectators, players and even coaches misunderstand squash “quickness and speed”, attributing a “fast” player’s ability to physical factors rather than their ability to anticipate what the opponent is likely to do – or not do (partial anticipation).  One of the ways to “slow down” a fast player is to use deception to hold your opponent stationary for a longer time or even misdirect them. I have blogged on both (Deception link and Anticipation link) of these topics before  but now want to combine them since it is the same, identical motor learning theory behind both notions.

The theoretical idea (e.g., Hick’s Law) behind both anticipation and deception is very simple – the greater the number of options or choices – the slower the reaction time – as illustrated in the graph below.

Hick's Law

Practical Squash Examples of the above law:

  1. When you have glued a straight length to the side wall your opponent has only one choice – to hit straight – so you can cheat over to cut off their shot.
  2. When you have hit a loose, slow easy ball into the middle of the court, your opponent has so many choices (drive straight or cross, drop straight or cross) that you cannot anticipate and you have to stay put until they actually hit the shot.

As I have blogged before, the best way to develop deceptive players who anticipate well is to have young children (8-12?) be introduced to squash in an environment where deception is valued and they are exposed to a wide variety of practice partners and opponents – then these perceptual-motor skills develop “automatically”.  If you are a junior in America this is probably not going to happen since your British squash coach is having you hit endless straight lengths down the wall and working on your fitness through hours of mindless boast and drive.  I feel free to joke and make this outlandishly exaggerated comment as I am in fact British:)  But although I am joking about “only hit straight lengths a la Jonah Barrington, there is far too much closed drilling going on in our junior programs – and not enough tactical teaching.  Here is an example of “tactical teaching” using the Games Approach (ASEP, 2012).

Since in many places great anticipation and deception will not be developed automatically, a systematic approach is needed.  What do we mean by systematic?

  • Make a list of all situations to be trained in priority order, and make sure to teach anticipation cues and deception options when you introduce and train the situation.  Note that “priority order” could mean start with the a) most common situations; b) “easiest” situations (to help athlete gain confidence); c) most difficult situations (since these take longer to learn); d) most important (the situations that cause you to lose the most points in your current match play).
  • Theoretically, these lists should be tailored to the developmental level of your player, and integrated into annual, four-year and “lifetime” (e.g., LTAD plans).

Here is an example of a list of prioritized situations.

Squash Front Court Tactics: 3-Wall Boast

Application for Squash Coaches

  1. Do not leave the development of anticipation and deception to chance – train these qualities systematically.
  2. Train situations not strokes – include the teaching of anticipation and deception every time you train a particular situation.
  3. Plan your teaching of anticipation and deception by including these in your written annual, four-year, and LTAD plans.

Developing Squash Anticipation in a Systematic Way

May 19, 2009

Did you know that A grade squash players move to respond to their opponent’s shot before the ball is struck, while D grade players do not initiate movement until after it has been hit?

We can define squash anticipation as the ability to determine where the opponent will send the squash ball prior to the ball being struck. Useful concepts when devising  a squash coaching plan to train anticipation are technical anticipation, tactical anticipation and partial anticipation (terms I leaned in Tennis Canada workshops with then Davis Cup coach Louis Cayer).

Technical Anticipation: Relying on  pre-impact body and racquet cues.  In a series of ingenious studies, Abernethy (from Oz!) and colleagues showed that “expert” racquet sport players rely mostly on upper arm and racquet cues for hints.

Tactical Anticipation:  When you get an early start to the ball because your opponent always drops the loose ball in the mid-court, you are relying on tactical anticipation – anticipating based on your opponent’s previous choices, strategy or game plan.

Partial Anticipation:  This type of anticipation is based on the knowledge of what your opponent cannot do when the opponent has several choices.  For example if you have glued a straight length drive to the side wall, you can cheat over towards that side because your opponent is unlikely to hit a hard cross-court drive past you – technically they are probably limited to a straight drive, lob or drop.   At a full lunging stretch to the front most players with a proper squash grip, cannot hit a hard, straight drive from that position, so we can move up and look for a cross-court drop, drive or flick.

There are systematic, progressive  ways to coach squash anticipation:

Method 1:  Always teach the anticipation cues associated with with each particular shot’s shot-cycle (e.g., watch-move-hit-recover-watch);

Method 2:  If you use a Zone Model of Tactics to regulate your technical-tactical squash coaching, identify and teach the different anticipatory cues associated with the different tactical situations in each zone (e.g., Opponent is on defence in front right – what are their possible options? Train the anticipation and response for each of these options.  Teach your players what to look for.).

Method 3:  Develop a hierarchy (list) of situations where anticipation has a major role or payoff, and work your way through the list with your players – developing a little practice around each situation.  Your list can start with the most common or  easiest situations (e.g., if a player turns extra in playing a difficult  ball off the backwall they are probably going to boast) or the most important (at the pro level only 5% of shots under pressure from the front right will be straight drives).  This hierarchy could also be based on a player’s stage in a sports LTAD (i.e., at this stage we train these situations).

One of the best ways to develop squash players with great anticipation of course, is to ensure that they grow up and train in an environment with frequent exposure in competition and practice to a variety of players and styles – especially attacking, deceptive styles of play (did I say Egyptian?) where developing anticipation is of prime importance.  This is great both for the young player and squash coach since anticipation can be learned mostly automatically though observation and trial and error, without having to resort to systematic teaching progressions (if the players are athletic and talented).

In developing anticipation skills with older players past the Golden Age of learning, it is important that the squash coach avoid excessive closed drilling and practice – that is every game or drill should involve choices and decisions – avoid mindless boast and drive and length drills except for a few minutes of warm-up.

Even the squash world’s best anticipaters sometimes get fooled – but that is a topic for another article:

Squash Coaches: What is the best way to develop quick players? Anticipation Training!

July 20, 2008

One way is to run a systematic strength, power, speed and agility training program for our athletes – we know that a good 4-6 week program can improve our athletes speed and power up to 10%.

An alternative and more efficient way however is to work on improving your players’ anticipation. In an on-court field study conducted almost 20 years ago, motor learning specialist Bruce Abernethy demonstrated that “A” squash players initiate movement towards their opponent’s shot before the ball is even struck, while “D” players do not depart until after the ball is struck. This creates a situation where better “anticipators” get the equivalent of a 3-4 meter head start in a short 10 meter race. The conclusion we can draw from this and other scientific studies in the area is that better players rely on pre-impact cues (in other words they anticipate) while lesser players rely more on post-impact cues (i.e., the flight of the ball).

Imagine how quick your players would be around the court if they knew exactly what shot the opponent would play before the ball was struck – especially useful retrieving balls played to the front. It appears that frequently, many of the best anticipators have learned this ability from unstructured observation and play, probably during one of the two golden periods of childhood learning that usually occur before the age of 12-13. Some athletes appear to be naturally very good at anticipation, and respond well to brief verbal coaching to “watch out for this shot when she is here”, or “when the ball is here, he will probably do this”.

Problem: what do we do with the players who do not anticipate well (many or most of our high school, college and even younger national team players) and do not respond to verbal directives to “get on his or her shot quicker”? Read the rest of this entry »