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 a Squash World Champion: Part 3

July 26, 2011

If you are just joining us for part three, you may want to check out my first 2008 post on this topic – and last week’s post.  To make a long story short (read the previous posts:), if all squash coaches (and squash countries) have access to the same information why do some countries (in this case the Egyptians) outperform others (in some cases with much greater resources?

In the interest of brevity, since this topic could consume an entire weekend coaching conference, I am going to make my points, some of them hypothetical of course, in bullet form.  Please feel free to leave a comment below!

I will just add that my comments are based not just on my personal observation of the Egyptian’s (and their opponents), but on my entire consulting and coaching experience which include not only a Men’s Squash World Champion (Jonathon Power), but an Olympic Gold Medalist (tennis’ Sebastien Lareau), and several other World Champions (Jr. tennis, Canadian National Racquetball Team, etc.).

  • As Jahangir Khan pointed out in his book, and I paraphrase, “It’s not what you know – it’s what you do” – so we have to look beyond what people are saying (in books, at conferences, etc.) and see what is happening on the ground level;
  • In the U.S., top juniors are getting trained primarily through daily private lessons, often on their own family’s private squash court.  then they are packed off to prep school for an important four years of their life, with very little exposure to a wide variety of styles and competition – and perhaps too much emphasis on winning: “don’t play those beautiful risky shots – just hit the ball to the back”.  There are two main repercussions of his situations.
  •  The private lessons given to U.S. juniors, are often given by English and Australian pros who favor an attritional, conservative style of play – not only do players developed like this not develop the very difficult hand-eye coordination to play difficult, deceptive shots – they have little chance to counter or react against these shots.  The attritional style favours early success – but severely limits the ceiling of future potential as an adult – I have seen this first hand over several generations of Canadians – very fit players who find it difficult to stay in the top 20, because at the top everyone is fit: Dale Styner, Jamie Crombie, Sabir Butt, Gary Waite (to some extent), Shahir Razik (very un-Egyptian:), and Graham Ryding (to some extent).
  • The numbers of junior players in England has dropped dramatically (reducing the number of clubs that hacve a great variety of players) and getting players together has always been problematic in Canada due to the geography (although we did have two Toronto National Training Centers up and running in the late 1980’s which supported a slew of players who went on to decent pro careers) – this has led to “isolation”, whereas the Egyptians have set up a centralized system where all the players congregate in one of two places:  Cairo or Alexandria:  a great variety of players and styles and opponents with young and old and boys and girls training together facilitates the development of great anticipation, reaction time, and a high level of tactical awareness – not available when playing the same opponents week in and week out, and not developed in private lessons.
  • Status Quo:  In the last 10 years I don’t believe I have seen a squash coaching conference in the U.S. with an Egyptian Coach as the headliner – nor have I seen a coaching conference where Liz Irving was the keynote speaker/coach????  It is difficult to pick up on current trends – but in all honesty we had four Egyptian girls as semi-finalists at the 2003 Jr. Worlds in Cairo – how long has Nicol David been #1?  It is nice to see that there are now quite a few Egyptian associated summer squash camps (including the PPS Squash camps I directed in 2009 & 2010). If you keep doing what you have always done….

I do believe that it is possible for other countries to catch the Egyptians, but it will not be with the current crop of adult players – it will have to be with those who are now 8-12 years old (a “golden” age of learning) with a revamped squash coaching philosophy – which probably means 2020:)

ps.  I do not think this is incongruous with the LTADs – on the contrary – an LTAD that integrates these notions will be very effective.

Application for Squash Coaches:

  1. Pay attention to “trends’ in international squash – often it is the juniors (and their squash coaches), not the current world number 1’s who will provide the path.
  2. Teach and reinforce risky shot-making (since these skills take a long time to develop and to learn how to play against) while players are young (8-12) – this often means putting winning aside as a main focus.
  3. Related to the above – stop the over-coaching! Playing games and matches against a wide variety of opponents and styles is just as important as developing good strokes and perfect length.
  4. Stop prioritizing winning and rankings with junior that are under 18 – if you want them to succeed at the world level (no college player is suddenly going to turn on the skills required to get into the top 10 (adults) so forget it!).
  5. It is difficult, but you must expose juniors to the widest possible variety of opponents.

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!

Teaching Squash Deception: A Systematic Approach

July 5, 2009

Most squash coaches agree that deception, AKA disguise, faking, holding your shot, etc., is an important part of the modern squash game – thanks in part to the reign of Canada’s Jonathon Power and the current ascendancy of the Egyptians at the top of the world squash rankings.  So now what:  what deception shots and situations to teach first?  Which to teach second?  What do we do after the first few sessions? Although there have been recent articles published on how to teach deception (e.g.,  Cliff Wenn, David CampionRoger Flynn, John Lau) none of their work features a comprehensive framework for developing deceptive players and deceptions skills.

Even the world’s most deceptive players probably have very little idea about how to go about training deception in a systematic way.  Most of the world’s top players who use a significant amount of deception in their game started to learn deception through observational learning (i.e., watched others do it).  A couple of years after I coached the Canadian Jr. National at the 1990 Junior Worlds in Paderborn, I invited Jonathon Power (at 17 just starting on the PSA Tour) to my squash club in Montreal to run a clinic on deception for my A, B and C teams.  He did a great job (relative to his age and experience) but certainly did not have a very clear idea on deception teaching progressions

The purpose of this post is to outline a systematic approach to teaching squash deception that can be used to develop deception in one particular player – or a nation of players, through a country’s coaching education program.

Step 1. Start with a comprehensive Tactical Model to organize ideas around deception.  I plan to use System 3 – which is a zone model of squash, where tactics are determined primarily (but not exclusively) by a player’s position on the court when receiving the ball:  front, mid- and back-court zones.  In combination with the difficulty of the ball received (easy, medium, difficult) a player determines  his or her tactical intent or phase (attack, rally, defence) and then selects a shot to implement this phase (e.g., drop, drive, lob).  Any tactical model can be used however, and I will explain the System 3 Zone Model in a future post.

Step 2. Deception is a form of attacking (or counter-attacking) the opponent, so the next step in our approach is to list, in priority order, the different deception situations in each of the three zones.  There are several ways this priority order could be established:

  • easiest to execute to most difficult (probably best for young juniors)
  • most frequent to least frequent (probably best for pro players)
  • most important to least important (i.e., good deception in this situation usually wins pt.)
  • based on an individual assessment of a particular player
  • personal preference (of either the player or squash coach)
  • a combination of the above methods

Step 3. Make the list.  Here are a couple of examples for each of the three zones that probably reflect a progression of easiness and frequency at an “A” level:


1.  Straight drop or cross-court drive off “easier” boast (show neutral compact drive preparation)

2.  Straight drop or lob off “difficult” boast (show drop preparation with hand).

3.  Show straight drop (slow moving arm) with last minute flick cross-court executed with wrist off boast.

4. As above but with straight instead of cross-court flick.

5.  Straight drive or angle off boast.


1.  Straight drop or cross-court drive off a loose ball in the middle.

2.  Straight drive or attacking two-wall working boast off a low, hard straight drive from the back.

3. Straight or cross-court drop off a loose ball in the middle.

4.  Straight volley drive or volley boast of a not tight straight drive from back.


1.  Show straight hard low drive, surprise with attacking boast off easier ball off backwall.

2.  Show straight hard low drive, surprise with straight drop off easier ball off backwall.

3. Show straight hard low drive, surprise with reverse angle off loose ball off backwall.

Step 4. Choose a pedagogy or teaching method to teach the deception situations or skills.  The Games Approach seems ideal since this gives the squash coach an opportunity to evaluate the player(s) in a game situation to determine what work needs to be done.  For example, in the front court situations listed above, player A could “serve” with a boast, and player B, stationed on the “T”, could return with a straight drop or cross-court drive, and then play the point out to see if player B was able to take advantage of the situation.  After 5 minutes of play, an experienced coach would be able to determine which of the shots (drop or drive) needed more work, if the player was telegraphing the shot too much, as well as other basic elements common to all squash situations, recovery, ready position, quality of shot, choice of follow-up shots, effort, attitude, etc.  Obviously other teaching methods could be used as well.  With top players it might be enough to show a few video examples and then have the “play a game and try it out”.  Unfortunately, most squash coaches do not find themselves in this ideal situation and therefore need a systematic approach to teaching deception.

Step 5. Reinforce the importance of deception by occasionally using conditioned games to encourage your players to use and practice deception:  two points for a winning deception shot; A must play deep, B can attack with deception; short game (in front of service line); etc.  Give your player feedback on missed opportuities to use deception in match play – or the overuse of deception.

Play Squash “Like an Egyptian”

June 27, 2009

I was attending a squash coaching conference presentation on deception a few years ago, and at some point the presenting coach stated that “Deception should only be introduced and taught once the basic strokes are fully developed”.  Although we cannot ascertain the exact age or stage of development that was meant, I disagree with the basic premise behind the statement.

As a small experiment the next fall, I had my team play a deception conditioned game in the front court on the very first day of our Smith College Squash practice.  We used a blue dot ball and blue painter’s tape to “raise” the tin and ensure multiple shots in a rally.  The condition that was assigned, was that the players must try and surprise their opponent on every shot by hitting a different part of the ball on each shot (outside, back, inside).  Since we rarely get experienced players at Smith (only 1.5% of high school girls will consider a women’s college), for some in attendance it was their first introduction to the game that day – none had played for more than three years, and were far from fully developed.  Everyone had a lot of fun, and were often successful in either deceiving their opponent or in anticipating their opponent’s shot.

Why are the Egyptians so good at both attacking and deceptive squash and scrambling, retrieving and anticipating around the court?  Because they have been playing that style from a very young age.  It takes a much longer time to develop a complete game with a wide variety of shots than it does to develop a defensive grinder.  Some might argue that playing a risky attacking style is a sure way to ensure failure at the junior tournament level.  It really depends what you are after with your coaching – do you want to develop a junior champion or a player with the abilities to succeed at the world level?

It has been my observation that often our coaching stifles creativity and shot-making potential – and the necessary calm risk-taking mentality that goes along with that style.  A grinding, defensive style will take you only so far up the world rankings, and it is very difficult to get a player concerned with rankings to add risky shots to their arsenal under the pressure of the tour.  I am working with Mike Johnson (former coach of World Champions Sarah Fitzgerald and Rodney Eyles this week at sold-out  Princeton Squash camps) and he mentioned that it took him about two years to get an adult Anthony Ricketts to add a very good drop shot to his repertoire.

Ideally, each coaching group (Training Center or National Program) should develop a hierarchy of deception tactics (e.g., easiest to most difficult), and then determine which ones should be taught at each stage of their squash LTAD.

We are putting this philosophy into action at the upcoming Premier Performance Squash Camps (July 10-19, 2009 – there are still a few spaces open for juniors, adults, and in our Coach Mentor Program – mention “Squash Science” to get a 20% discount off the weekly rate).  Each morning, while the campers are fresh and eager to learn, we will be using a Tactics First/Games Approach to work on some aspect of deception.  While we won’t expect the campers to be perfect when we leave, with the assistance of World #1 Karim Darwish (lead coach), we hope to instill an understanding of the importance of deception in the modern game, and provide the campers with the framework to work on these deception and attacking skills.

Application for Squash Coaches

  1. Introduce some (10%) practice of deception skills early on in a player’s development – both the tactics and the technique (use of wrist).
  2. Even attritional grinders should have some deception in their game so that the uncertainty it creates makes there basic length tactics more effective.
  3. If a player shows a special talent (like some of the Egyptians) for deception and attacking squash you can help them develop a smart game plan that combines percentage squash with their attacking skills.