Squash Psychology: Children’s Motivation to Play Squash – the Big Picture

November 8, 2010

I have already written about the importance that enjoyment plays in a young squash player’s motivation to play squash.  A very simple approach for squash coaches is to make sure that their junior players enjoy lessons, training and competing!

But things are a little more complex than just making sure that kids “have fun”.  Sport psychology researchers have adapted one of Developmental Psychologist Susan Harter’s Models to come up with a complete picture of how young athletes’ motivation to play sport is determined.  Here is a simplified slide from Weinberg & Gould’s textbook (about to publish their 5th edition – but with completely acceptable earlier editions available on Amazon for under $10):

Weinberg & Gould (2007)

So while “enjoyment” is included (under “affect” which is a synonym for “emotion”) in this model, it is easy to see that the overall picture to developing motivation in children is in fact more complex.  What does this model describe?

  • In brief, the feedback a child receives from coaches, parents and peers partially determines their sense of “perceived competence” (how good they think they are at sport) and “self-esteem”;
  • The “type” of motivation a child has (“motivational orientation”), their anxiety level,  and the level of success they have (at squash for example), also contribute to competence and self-esteem.  To make a long story short, a win-oriented, extrinsically motivated outlook can result in low self-esteem and perceived competence and a process (improvement)-oriented, intrinsically motivated outlook usually results in higher perceived competence and self-esteem.
  • Both feedback and motivational orientation affect self-esteem and perceived competence – which then in turn influence “affect” (the emotions a child experiences) – which in turn influence the child’s motivation to a) choose to participate and b) how much effort they will expend in participating.

Harter’s original model (see below) from which the above slide was adapted, clearly shows two paths a child (and their parents & coach) may follow:

Harter (1981)

  • Stating in the center of the diagram (“mastery attempts, i.e., playing squash), the path to the right depicts failure (opponent or drill too difficult) and lack of reinforcement leading to anxiety and low perceived competence which leads to reduced motivation to participate.
  • The path to the left depicts mastery attempts followed by success (an opponent or drill of appropriate challenge) and positive reinforcement leading to intrinsic pleasure and increased perceived competence which increases motivation to participate and continue in sport (e.g., squash).

And you thought you were just giving a squash lesson:)

In 1992 I presented this model at the Tennis Canada Coaches Conference and subsequently wrote a chapter on the model in their Under 11 Coaching manual, making these key recommendations for coaches:

  1. Make sure you are a good coach who actually improves their athletes quickly – i.e., make sure they are successful.
  2. Related to the above, ensure optimal task difficulty (competition and practice) – a good practical guide being to make sure they succeed 50-80% of the time before making things more difficult (or get them to stop comparing themselves to others).
  3. Discourage a focus on winning and increase focus on improving (or make sure your students always win – good luck with that over a 10-year period which includes puberty and moving up in the age groups every two years :).
  4. Make sure parents are on board with the components of Harter’s model – otherwise they can unknowingly sabotage your efforts (more on parents in future posts).

Squash Psychology: Helping Your Child Enjoy Squash (Sport)

November 7, 2010

Yesterday was World Squash Day 2010! We were challenged by the World Squash Federation to introduce new players – including 20 children – to our sport.  Now our challenge is to keep them involved in a modern world with literally hundreds of alternative activities – how can we do this?

Actually – it is not that easy.  Parents, athletes, administrators and even squash coaches tend to view sport in an overly simplistic fashion.  That is not surprising given that most have very little academic background and direct professional practice experience with large numbers of children – what they have is their own subjective experiences: their own childhood memories or interaction with their own children.  In addition to having taken academic courses in the area (e.g., Developmental Psychology) I have been doing summer camps with kids for the past 37 years (yikes!) and written materials for coaching programs on how to best coach children from a psychological standpoint (e.g., the Tennis Canada Under 11 Coaching Program).

Most people tend to interact with children in a simplistic “stimulus-response” fashion – “if I/we do this – the child with do that”; “this is bad for the child – that is good”, discounting the fact that children are in fact thinking, feeling, acting beings.  Fortunately, there is a small group of researchers that seek to explain how children interpret and think about the feedback and interactions they receive around their sport and physical activity experiences.

One of the simplest yet useful models we can use to understand our children’s participation is the Sport Enjoyment Model originally developed by Scanlon and Lewthwaite in 1986.  As illustrated in the figure below, the factors that determine a child’s participation (e.g., parent’s support, alternative choice of activities, etc.) first affect a child’s enjoyment, which in turn determines their motivation to participate in sport (i.e., their sport commitment).

From Weiss, M.R., Kimmel, L.A., & Smith, A.L. (2001)

The numbers in the diagram are “coefficients” that range from zero to one (0.000 to 1.0).  The closer the number is to 1.0 – the stronger the relationship between the items (i.e., variables) in the diagram.  You can see that the coefficient (.959) on the line between Enjoyment and Tennis Commitment is almost 1.00 – so a child’s motivation to participate in a particular sport is highly related to their enjoyment! Here is one academic description (ignore it!) of the term “coefficient” “the size of the coefficient for each independent variable gives you the size of the effect that variable is having on your dependent variable, and the sign on the coefficient (positive or negative) gives you the direction of the effect (e.g., notice the number on the line between “Attractive Alternatives” and Enjoyment is negative – so the more attractive the alternatives to squash are – the less the child will enjoy squash.”)

In future posts I will present other models we can use to plan our interventions with children – in the meantime you may want to get a copy of this book:


Finally – A Blueprint to Develop a Squash World Champion!

July 28, 2010

One of my Smith College Squash Team Alums, Sarah Devotion Garner (“Devo”), writes from Vietnam – “I have three kids (boys & girls) aged 4-8 – when should I start them off in squash?”

The great news is that we now have a carefully crafted, precise, document (an LTAD) that incorporates all of the most recent sport science information to guide squash coaches and parents in how to introduce children to squash – and how to ensure their optimal development.  The slightly sobering news (for squash) is that this document has been produced by a tennis, not squash organization – Tennis Canada.

My first coaching certification was actually for tennis – I received my Tennis Canada Level 1 Certificate way back in 1976 (one year before I started playing squash).  In 1987, I moved to Montreal  do a Ph.D. in Sport Psychology at the Universite de Montreal and within a few weeks designed and implemented the mental training program for Andre Lemaire’s Elite Tennis Junior Training Group – most of his athletes were enrolled in the Boucherville Sport Etudes program at the local high school.  It was a talented group of athletes, with two of them “Les Deux Sebastiens” winning Jr. Wimbledon, French, and U.S. Open Doubles the next year – as well as being members of the 1989 Sunshine Cup championship team.  Sebastien Lareau went on to be ranked #1 in the world in doubles and an Olympic Gold Medal in Sydney (beating beat the Woodies).  My work with this group led to further work (and a Level III Technical Certification) with Tennis Canada including the writing of several chapters in coaching manuals, coaching conference presentations, and the training of some of their national coaches in sport science (including Davis Cup Coach Louis Cayer who has been stolen away by the British LTA to head up their coaching programs).  I am including this trivia as support for my main point ,which is that Tennis Canada runs the most effective and efficient coaching programs in the world – due mostly to a small, dynamic group of people led by Ari Novick with minimal interference  from the Association’s volunteer executive.  Keep in mind that Canada is now the #1 sporting nation in the world (winter sports:).

The Tennis Canada LTAD can be downloaded here, and in my opinion, the recommendations and guidelines can be wholly applied to the development of squash players.  Currently, no nation has developed a comprehensive LTAD for squash – although a few very rough ones do exist.  Here are a few keys slides and points from the document:

  • These shortcomings apply to nearly all of the major squash nations.

  • An overemphasis on technique and early specialization – at the expense of developing physical literacy (overall athleticism) – is the downfall of most junior coaching (and the current demise of U.S. tennis).  This chart clearly delineates the time frame for optimal development – and the important responsibility of parents.

  • This slide provides very specific advice for my alum, and other squash parents about when to start and how much to play.

The Tennis Canada LTAD is a great starting point for those national squash organizations interested in systematically and optimally developing their squash juniors – and it is free!  Parents have a responsibility to play catch and ball games with their kids several times a week from the earliest possible age (3, 4, 5, etc.), and to make sure they have a lot of opportunities for FUN sports participation in a wide variety of activities – not just squash.  Realistically, junior tennis programs (since they are now starting to be good thanks to ITF initiatives) are probably one of the most viable options for squash parents in most parts of the world, gradually switching kids over to squash as they start to approach the age of 10.


Developing Top Juniors: 3 Keys for Squash Coaches

May 8, 2010

I have already blogged on the specific elements to the Egyptian’s current success at the world level in squash – here are three general keys to systematically developing top players:

  1. Start with the big picture;
  2. Ignore early results;
  3. Focus on developing a wide repertoire of attacking skills and tactics.

Start with the Big Picture

Unfortunately there is no clear overview of the path to developing a top world class squash players.  Although several countries (e.g., England) have initiated long term athlete development plans (LTAD), they are short on specifics to the point that the average squash coach does not receive meaningful direction from them. And of course the plans are not even available to the club coach!  Jindrich Hohm’s 1987 book Tennis: Play to Win the Czech Way shows the exact detail to which squash coaches must go to develop world class players – any of the German Tennis Federation books are also excellent prompts for squash coaches.

Ignore Early Results

Early maturers can win at the junior level with fitness and defensive, conservative tactics – something that is often reinforced by adults in their environment (i.e., parents, coaches).  Once juniors reach the adult ranks everyone is fit and possesses excellent basic tactics.  Most top juniors end up languishing for years ranked 40-100 on the pro tour, never quite able to break through.  This unrealized potential can be traced back to being sidetracked by early success (“I have a good ranking so I must be doing the right thing”), instead of a longterm focus on developing a wide variety of athletic abilities and the ability to play an attacking, pressuring style (with considerable deception).  The average (exceptions to this are more prevalent in squash than say tennis due to the lack of depth in both the men’s and women’s game) age of peaking in squash is about 27-28 for both women and men – therefore squash is a late-development sport.

Focus on develop a wide repertoire of attacking skills and tactics.

I have already written a few articles on the importance of systematically developing deception and an attacking (currently Egyptian) style from an early age.  It is simply common sense that at the age of 20, when confronted with the situation that all opponents are fit and fast (with improvements and training highly accessible – you just have to increase effort), a player will find it very difficult to make the drastic changes in game style and technique required to set themselves apart from their opponents.  The time for juniors to learn these skills and tactics is during the Golden Age of motor skill learning – so 8-12ish – or in the year or two after starting for those joining the sport late.  It is also important to focus on the development of general (i.,e., not practicing shots on a squash court) as is outlined inn this video by Tennis Canada.


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).


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