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.

Recruiting is NOT Squash Coaching!

March 12, 2011

I have tried in vain to convince my Athletic Director – and my colleagues in the Department of Exercise & Sport Studies at Smith College that recruiting is not coaching – I am having another crack at it with this post!  Our department chair – Jim Johnson comments:  “I have never said that recruiting is coaching. I do believe that one’s won/loss record is related to their recruiting ability but not necessarily success as defined by many.”.

Before I support my proposition, I would like to argue that Talent Identification is part of coaching!

As you can see from this excerpt from the English Institute of Sport talent identification is a “complex blend of scientific knowledge and assessment” – requiring excellent knowledge in all areas of sport science and coaching.  When paired with a sound Long Term Athlete Development Plan, and a solid, integrated national health and welfare policy (that includes the role of sport at both the elite and recreational/wellness level – here is Ireland’s – a great example) Talent ID is a worthy pursuit.

The U.S. lacks a coherent strategy that integrates sport and wellness, due mostly to the pervasiveness of the “pro sport” or Division I major sports” philosophy or model – which accounts for their poor relative performance at the international level.  The effect of this lack of a comprehensive sport policy can be extended to the college level, where teams are being cut due to the inability of Athletic Directors to associate the benefits of athletics participation to the overall College mission, which includes student well-being (the same could be said of High School Physical Education programs).

U.S. College recruiting on the other hand is not skillful (I suppose salesmanship is a skill?:) and requires almost no sport science knowledge.  For example in college squash, U.S. Squash sends a list of all the juniors who compete in tournaments along with their contact information to each college coach – all a coach has to do is be able to write an e-mail.  It has been my observation, based mostly on 20 years of summer camps at Princeton university, that for most junior squash players in the U.S. (and more recently foreign players as well) college squash is simply a vehicle to be able to attend the best academic institution possible.

Simply put, everything else being equal, the best junior squash players will attend the best available school (I got a .43 correlation coefficient when I correlated the college squash rankings with the U.S. College news college rankings.).  The top academic schools – and some of the ones not so near the top – seem very happy to lower their usually high admissions standards to admit a top player – adding imbalance to an already UN-level playing field (a level playing field being a key component of sportsmanship/fairplay).

What strikes me most is the disconnect between an academic institution’s public statements concerning the role of varsity sports in developing leadership and human potential and the actual communications that take place between Athletic Directors and coaches “you had better win or else” (a Division III comment) – and the current “frenzy” to recruit.  The discussions around the success of the Trinity Men’s Squash Program provide a vehicle to examine many of the issues around coaching and recruiting.  On one hand  the Trinity approach to recruiting has violated the “level playing field” principle for its NESCAC peers, while on the other has in fact redressed the “un-level playing field” that had advantaged the Ivy’s for so many years.

This very American glorification of being #1, and a willingness to put aside related potential ethical issues (e.g., look at the public’s acceptance of MacEnroe’s tennis behavior – or Bobby Knight’s), concerns me.  It might appear to be reminiscent of past U.S. Foreign policy (e.g., “the accusation that the United States has striven to single-handedly dominate world affairs.”).

Having coached squash at a Division I college level (University of Western Ontario at a time when they usually finished top three in U.S. College Squash), as well as coaching (and consulting) at the International Level (e.g., Canadian Jr. National Squash Team with Jonathon Power, Graham Ryding; Olympic Gold in Tennis Doubles, etc.), I am unimpressed with rankings of any sort.  My respect for Paul Assiante, the Trinity coach, is based on my squash discussions with him, and more recently the coaching values that come across in his recently published book – not his win-loss record.  The idea that recruiting success (and the associated win-loss record) equates with coaching ability is a strange one for me.  “Recruiting” does not play a role in any coaching education program  that I know of – outside of the U.S – talent identification definitely does.  Considering that the average age of top performance in squash is 27-28, I would suggest that Athletic Director’s (and in some cases college Presidents) direct their coach-employees to take the estimated 30% of their work week that they devote to recruiting, and better use that time to mentor their charges.

Ironically, the Admissions Department here at Smith has, for the first time in my 16 years at the college, admitted several (2 ED, and possibly two more top junior players) squash recruits – so we are looking at moving up at least 10 spots in the rankings (we won’t get to the #12 spot (21-4 win-loss record) we achieved in 1998 and 1999 with a team with only one player who had played at high school:).  As I explained to my team at our season-ending meeting – the new players will make absolutely no difference to our win-loss record, as I will simply schedule more difficult teams in an attempt to play against opponents of similar ability – thereby maximizing their improvement.

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).

Developing a Squash World Champion: Align Your LTAD & Coaching Programs

April 8, 2009

Although squash is played in 153 countries around the world, it is not as well developed as some of  the world’s more popular or richer sports like soccer or tennis.  A small, well organized group of dedicated squash coaches (e.g. currently the Egyptians) can develop world class players, and even a world champion. If we look at the recent history of the squash world rankings, we can see that there is quite a bit of movement near the top of the rankings on both the men’s and women’s side in terms of the players’ nationality.  We also see a lot of successful solo efforts that cross national boundaries such as Liz Irving’s (Australia) coaching of Nicol David (Malaysia).

In terms of sheer numbers in the top 100, the English dominate simply because of greater numbers and government related money that is put into player development (more than any other country).  You can read this post to explore the economics of developing champions.

In order to achieve sustainable results, squash nations need to take advantage of the advances in sport science. This means using a system where the coaching certification program and actual coaching programs used in squash clubs are in perfect alignment with  a nation’s comprehensive Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) system:

An LTAD Aligned Coaching & Club Training System

An LTAD Aligned Coaching & Club Training System

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An LTAD Example for Junior Squash Coaches

January 20, 2009

A major criticism of U.S. Squash (and tennis), that also applies to North American sport in general, is that training activities are too squash-specific, too early in an athlete’s development, and feature too much technical work at the expense of developing a wider range of athletic abilities.

Here is a concrete example of what is meant by too squash-specific and too technical.  Imagine a typical junior private lesson for a 9-year old at the “X” Cricket & Tennis Club in City X.  After a short warm-up, the well-meaning squash professional spends 20 minutes on the forehand drive and 20 minutes on the backhand drive, correcting grip, backswing, follow through, and improving the students ability to hit the squash ball down the wall to land behind the back of the service box – finishing the lesson with a short, coach controlled game.

Contrast that with a second scenario, in which after 30-minutes of on-court instructions our 9-year old takes part in 30 minutes of the type of training activities that take place in this video:

Can you imagine the difference in the development of athletic potential?  Faced with the constraints of a beginner’s racquet skills, the nature of the bounce of the squash ball, and the confines of a squash court, it is not possible for our well-meaning squash professional to develop the type of athletic skills necessary for success at the elite level in squash – as depicted in this video (focus on White’s retrieving in the second rally):

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