4 Simple Steps to Practical Mental Training for Squash

September 21, 2016

Since sport psychology exploded onto the world scene with the 1976 Montreal Olympics there have been literally thousands of books and articles published on how to “do mental training”.  My particular approach was adopted by the Coaching Association of Canada and integrated into their 5-Level coaching system – I wrote the sport psychology content for Levels 1,2, and 3 (French version). Here is the original article describing my approach:    Bacon (1989). Periodization of Mental Training.

My approach has been always been very practical (I have never stopped coaching and competing) and simple and continues to be supported by current research and involves 4 steps – which can be 4 one-hour team meetings,  that can be implemented by either a coach or a mental training consultant.  In support of the 24 athletes on the 1988 World Champion Canadian Racquetball Team, I trained the National and Assistant National Coaches to deliver my program via email, telephone, mail, and training camps – very well evaluated by the team members – so you do not actually need a sport psychologist to support your athletes in the mental area:

  1. Introductory meeting (60 min.) To help guide athletes to enquire about and learn lessons from their own best and worst sport performances.  Athletes complete an individual form and we take up some of the answers in a group setting.  I introduce Jim Loehr’s Ideal Performance State (IPS) model – still the simplest out there in 2016 – you can download a copy here:  ipsloehrsports.
  2. Goal-Setting and Introduction to Mental Skills meeting (60 min.) There are a multitude of  goal-setting forms available, but Terry Orlick’s form is still the best with key questions on dream, realistic and specific mental goals.  My mental skills approach involves having the athletes do 1-2 basic 2-3 minute exercises from each of the five categories of skills: relaxation, positive self-talk, activation, visualization and concentration – followed by a 2-3 min. I facilitate a short discussion on how these skills can be used in an actual competition.  Optional additional self-assessment questionnaires (very short or more comprehensive) can be completed by the athletes to help them zone in on specific areas they need to work on.  Orlick also has a short one-page “self-directed interview” the athletes can complete before this meeting.  Here is a link to a YouTube video where I demonstrate the different exercises.
  3. Focus Plan meeting (60 min.).  To help athletes to write a one-page plan on a) how to prepare optimally, both physically and mentally for a competition; b) how to focus their attention at key moments in a competition (e.g., start, in between points, near the end of a game, near the end of a match, etc.).  Here is one of the forms we have used in the past:  Squash Focus Plan Form and a post with more details on how to develop a Focus Plan.
  1. Distraction Control (Refocus) Plan and Competition Evaluation meeting (60 min.).  To help athletes  develop a written list of situations that cause them to play poorly or lose their focus, and though group discussion lead them to find possible solutions to get back on track.  The final step is to introduce an evaluation process – which includes a written form – that they can complete after every competition to speed up their “experience” and development of mental toughness.  Here is one of the forms we have used in the past:  squash-match-evaluation-form.

Psyching for Sport

The meeting format I use closely follows the meeting format recommended by Terry Orlick in his book Psyched for Sport (out of print but available used on Amazon.com) – all Canadian National Team and Olympic coaches have been trained in this approach.  Canada is generally recognized as having one of the top coaching training programs in the world.  in fact you cannot coach on a Canadian National team if you have not obtained your Level 4 Coaching Certification (I got mine way back in 1988 in the first cohort of Squash Canada Level 4 coaches).

Summary

Following the above four-meeting approach above, a coach will meet the needs of about 80% of their athletes (80/20 rule:).  There will always be athletes that need more assistance in developing mental toughness and solving “mental problems”.

If you need help preparing  your mental training program, or would want to engage me to run the meetings for your team drop me a line at squashscience@gmail.com – rates start at $50 U.S. per hour.  Here is a link to my Facebook Page.


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).

 

 


Psychological Skills for Squash Coaches???

May 21, 2012

(This is a reprint from my Sports Leadership graduate class that I teach in Smith College’s Department of Exercise & Sport Studies – I think is applies pretty well to the squash environment and summer is a great time for squash coaches to do some professional development:)

This topic could also be entitled:

  • stress management for coaches
  • self-management for coaches
  • mental training for coaches.

The rationale for the necessity of “peak performance” or stress management strategies will be evident after reading the references.  The Canadian National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP) Level 4/5 (i.e., Elite/National Coach) program featured two courses in this area: Task 8: Mental Training for Coaches (which I taught several times at the NCCP National Coaching Conferences – in both English and Francais:) and Task: 16: Enhanced Coaching Performance.

A reminder that this self-paced segment of the course is ungraded, so you may post your “assignment” whenever you wish.  Your assignment is to post a brief summary of:

a) Your current level of “coaching stress” (as opposed to academic or relationship stress).

b) Identify three “mental training” strategies (either ones you use now or from the reference material) that you could use to either improve your “game day” coaching performance or reduce your short term or long term coaching stress.

References (you should read at least two)

Bestsellers in “Success” Self-Help Books

Bradford, S.H., Keshock, C.M.  (2009). Female coaches and job stress:  A review of the literature. College Student Journal, 43, 196-200. (Click here or find on Smith Library’s Sport Discus)

Loehr, J., & Schwartz, T. (2001).  The making of a corporate athlete. Harvard Business Review (January).  Loehr & Schwartz, 2001

Taylor, J. (1992). Coaches are people too:  An applied model of stress management for coaches.  Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 4, 27-50.  Taylor (1992)

Thelwell, R. C., Weston, N. V., Greenlees, I. A., & Hutchings, N. V. (2008). A qualitative exploration of psychological skills use in coaches. Sport Psychologist, 22, 38-53.  PST For Coaches

Other Resources

Stress Map – this was the “text” in my Level 4 Enhanced Coaching Performance course given by Peter

Seven Habits of Highly Effective People – point form summary could be useful – and here is a useful downloadable weekly planner based on the book.


Squash Psychology: Not always in a textbook!

December 13, 2010

I did not learn everything I know about squash psychology from a text book during my M.A. at the University of Western Ontario and Ph.D. studies at L’Universite de Montreal.  I was reminded of this last week when one of my co-captains, Elizabeth Guyman, on the Smith College Squash Team that I coach had to rest an injured wrist for the entire week.  In addition to reading several chapters from several different sport psychology books, visualizing, doing her CorePerformance workout, doing bike intervals, and playing left-handed, I had her read two chapters from Geoff Hunt’s book.  I consider his two chapters “Match Play” and “Tempo and Temperment” to be two of the finest sources of “squash psychology” related to match play. (Note: I suspect we will have to switch Guyman over to being a “left-handed” player when she returns to Smith College on January 3rd – something we have done before with a previous Smith captain Becky Spalding:  she started her season as a right-hander with a field hockey injured wrist, playing one match for us at #4 before we had to switch her over due to a too long predicted healing time – she won her last match as a left-hander at #4 for us at our nationals at #4:)

The above slide shows that squash coaches can obtain useful knowledge of squash psychology (MT = mental training) from three sources – the information in Hunt’s book falling into the “subjective experience as a player” category since he had not done any significant coaching at that point in his career.  “Professional practice experience” would be that knowledge picked up as a squash coach or sport psychology consultant through observation and practical experience working with players and other coaches. This latter component can be critical in integrating the other two aspects of squash psychology knowledge.  Continued involvement in teaching academic sport psychology has helped me to critically reflect on my consulting experiences outline in the slide below.

Application for Squash Coaches:

  1. “Regular” squash books written by former top players can be a great sources of sport psychology knowledge – a great supplement or adjunct to sport psychology books and a squash coach’s own subjective experiences as a player and professional practice experience as a coach.

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).

Diagnosing & Improving Squash Psychological Performance Problems

July 6, 2010

New AASP Logo

In my 24 years of sport psychology consulting I have found a very simple framework for diagnosing and correcting on-court mental problems encountered by squash players (note that I am referring to on-court, squash performance problems – if you as a coach suspect a problem of a more “clinical” nature (e.g., eating disorder, serious depression or generalized anxiety, etc.) you should encourage your athlete to see appropriate help:

  • Simply setting a psychological goal targeting the mental problem (e.g., choking at the end of a match) is often enough to “cure” the problem.  In reviewing hundreds of goal-setting studies in business and sport, researches found an across the board 15% improvement in participants who set specific goals versus those who simply “tried their best”.  There is a very good “self-interview” form in earlier editions of Terry Orlick’s book “In Pursuit of Excellence”, and an excellent goal-setting form in his book “Psyching for Sport”.  If you drop me a line of can send you a squash-specific, adapted, version of these forms (yes – for free:).
  • Since most squash performance problems revolve around anxiety (e.g., “I am afraid to lose”) and confidence (e.g., “I don’t think I can win”), understanding the link between anxiety/confidence and attention (see the slide of Nideffer’s simple explanation of choking) makes solving the problem relatively simple – 3-4 weeks work on relaxation and self-talk skills (as in the video below). 

If  the points above do not solve the squash psychological problem, it is likely that understanding  and working on two, slightly deeper, more complex phenomona will help:  a) importance of a task orientation and motivational climate and b) Albert Ellis’s model of “Rational Thinking.  Both are usually related to how a squash player was brought up – in other words how they were socialized into competition by  their parents (primarily), peers, sporting organizations and coaches.

  • If goal-setting and basic mental skills training do not address common squash psychological problems, often the reason is that the athlete has what is termed a “win” orientation instead of the more productive “task” orientation.  Here is a link to the background reading.  If an athlete does have a “win” orientation and their social environment is also “win’ oriented, it takes a fair bit of time (several weeks to months) to get them (and their entourage) to adopt “task” goals.
  • Another common reason that basic mental skills training does not work is that an athlete holds one or more “irrational beliefs” that hinder them from changing their behavior.  We all possess these irrational beliefs “(I must be liked and approved of by “everyone”; “I must be perfect”, etc.) to some extent – the key is to recognize them, and not let them interfere unduly with our pursuit of excellence in sport.  Luckily, Albert Ellis (considered by some to be the Father of modern cognitive behavior therapy – the current dominant paradigm in psychology counseling) has clearly outlined (in many books and articles) the procedure for disputing the irrational thoughts that cause the unproductive beliefs.  My recommendation is to read and work through the ‘Refuting Irrational Ideas” chapter in the Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook – very simple language and lots useful, practical forms and exercises – I have used it with great success when teaching Stress Management to College students.

Application for Squash Coaches

  1. When encountering a on-court mental problems with a player – set a specific goal to improve it – it should help.
  2. Most squash mental problems are related to anxiety and confidence – try a basic mental skills program with your athlete – it should help in most cases.
  3. If goal-setting and basic mental skills training do not work, the culprit is often a “win” orientation and climate (versus “task”) or irrational beliefs – “self-help” books can be of benefit if this is the case.
  4. If necessary seek the help of a qualified sport psychology consultant – here is a link to the AASP consultant finder (I am not a member as I qualified for and was registered with the Canadian Mental Training Registry which predates the AASP Certification).
  5. You can click on the “Mental-Psychology” link in the categories section of this blog’s sidebar for more info and squash and psychology.

Squash Psychology: Simulate Championship Conditions!

February 25, 2010

One of the final steps in an organized (periodized) mental training program, if for a squash coach to prepare his or her players for the conditions they will meet at the season-ending championship.  A tough competitive schedule will do a lot to optimally prepare players – but often there are challenges of the championships that cannot be met through regular practice and competition.

A squash coach has three weapons to help their players address these specific challenges:

  • a match or focus plan (including a distraction plan) – written plan of reminders and cues to perform well;
  • visualization – imagine playing well in challenging conditions
  • simulation – develop exercises to mimic the challenges of the championships.

In preparing the Canadian Jr. Men’s team of Jonathon Power, Graham Ryding, etc. for the 1990 World Championships, we set up a match at a Toronto Club with a 4-glass walled court and local pros as opponents – put on uniforms, decorated with flags, and invited parents and friends of the players with cameras and video camcorders.

Just because my Smith College team will be competing in the “D” Division at Howe Cup (U.S. College Championships) this weekend, dos not mean we cannot use the same high performance preparation as the world’s best athletes.

Here are the simulations we have run at practice in the last two weeks (in no particular order):

  • simulate play on 4-glass walled court by hitting against and along our own glass-backed courts:
  • simulate match point when the team match is tied and the players is the last match on:
  • simulate hot courts by playing a game with blue dots (Yale University courts play very hot with 1,000 plus people milling around).
  • prepared for crowds this weekend by taking a van ride down to watch the Men’s Championships last weekend (several players in their first year of squash)
  • play court rotation tournament during practice in order to practice certain match situations:  up 8-3 in fifth, 8-8 in fifth, etc.
  • simulate fatigue by having the players run 10 lengths of the court between every point.

Each player has also developed their own individual focus plan that would include the specifics of how to handle these situations, and we spend 4-5 minutes before and after practice visualizing some of these same situations.  The hope is that squash players will enter the championships feeling more prepared and confident in their abilities to compete and handle distractions.

Application for Squash Coaches:

  1. Optimal preparation for a squash championship can include special mental preparation such a visualization, focus plans and simulations.
  2. Simulate special championship conditions that do not occur in regular practice and competition.

Squash Coach Mike Johnson on the Psychology of Squash

August 10, 2009

I was lucky enough to work alongside Mike Johnson during Princeton Squash Camp’s Junior Elite weeks earlier this summer at the start of June.  Mike has a very simple approach to the game of squash, including the mental side.  As part of the camp’s Sunday evening program, I work with the lead coach of the camp to give a 45-minute workshop/lecture on the Psychological Aspects of Squash.  I have been doing this since 1987  (so about 5,500 junior camper-units – although there are some repeats in there:), and usually we help the campers analyze and compare their best and worst squash performances.

Read the rest of this entry »


Psychology of Squash: The Ideal Performance State

April 7, 2009

In 1983 Sport Psychologist Jim Loehr published an article in a little known Journal published by the Coaching Association of Canada.  Shortly thereafter, Loehr exploded onto the international tennis scene, spending the next 10-15 years consulting with many of the world’s top professional tennis players, frequently through his association with Nick Bollietieri and his tennis academy.  What was great about Loehr’s article on the Ideal Performance State was that is was concise and easy to understand – and therefore highly usable – a key quality for squash coaches.  Nowadays, Loehr spends time giving $35,000 speaking engagements to some of the world’s top business executives.  Since 1983 he has published almost a dozen books on sports and performance psychology (go to Amazon.com) – most of them very applied and practical.

Nicol David, World #1

Nicol David, World #1

In his article, Loehr argues for the existence of a special psychological state that occurs during an athlete’s best performances.  An athlete’s Ideal Performance State (IPS) consists of high energy, positive feelings, and can be described using adjectives such as energized, physically relaxed, mentally calm, self-confident and focused in the present.  Loehr’s IPS model has never been scientifically validated by the sport psychology academic community, and in the academic world has been supplanted by Hanin’s Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning, and Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow model – both of which I teach in my Psychology of Sport class at Smith College.

Read the rest of this entry »


What should a squash player visualize?

February 17, 2009

The good thing about many self-help books on sport psychology is that they often have visualization scripts that a squash coach could read aloud to his or her athletes, or many general suggestions (e.g., “imagine yourself playing well”) for what to visualize.

The bad thing is that these set scripts and general suggestions are too vague to be of real help to our squash athletes.  Imagine the similar situation of coaching our players on court with the feedback: “get your racquet back earlier” or “bend your knees” or “follow-through”.  Unlikely to be of help to the serious, thoughtful player who already has the basics.  As squash coaches, we are also hampered by the fact that there are no “Mental Training for Squash” books out there that directly address our needs.

So what should we tell our players to visualize?  Based on my 22 years of sport psychology consulting there are three practical sources of visualization content that squash coaches can use.  I have outlined them in the chart below.

Sources of visualization content for squash players.

Sources of visualization content for squash players.

Player’s Goals

If your squash player’s three main goals are to:  1) Improve quickness; 2) Be tougher on key points; and 3) Play tighter length court of the back-court – then these scenarios are exactly what they should be visualizing.  The more specific the squash coach can be with visualization instructions, the more benefit the player will get from doing the mental training.  For each goal the coach could develop three visualization scenarios to reinforce the accomplishment of the player’s goals – in the example here scenes that support goal #2.

2.a.  Visualize playing from 8-8 in the 5th.

2.b.  Visualize playing from 0-0 in the 5th.

2.c. Visualize coming back from down 7-2.

Training Phase

For those squash coaches who use periodized (periodised for you non-North American Commonwealth natives:) annual training plans, visualization content will change as you move through the year to support the main training goals of each phase.  The main directives for each phase are contained in the above chart.  You can read about periodized mental training programs in my article here.

Focus Plan

A Squash Focus Plan is a written plan with three parts that a player uses to stay totally focussed during a squash match:

1) Pre-match:  The list of activities, physical (jogging, stretching, etc.) and mental (breathing, visualization, etc.), that a player does to get warmed up and into the “zone” in the 60 minutes prior to a match.

2) Match Focus: List of reminders (technical, tactical, mental) that a player needs to focus optimally during a match.

3) Distraction Control or Focus Plan:  list of problematic situations or distractors that might cause a player to lose focus – and a specific solution for each (e.g., cue words, breathing, etc.).

An important part of using a Focus Plans is to have your athlete visualize each part of the plan being carried out under different conditions (different tournaments, opponents, styles of play, etc.).  A highly recommended resource for Focus Plans is Terry Orlick’s Coaches Training Manual to Psyching for Sport – out of print but still available used on the internet.

Application for Squash Coaches

  1. Provide individualized, squash-specific visualization workouts for your players.
  2. Help your players develop a written Squash Focus Plan.

Summer is Here: Plan Your Squash Team’s Season Mental Training

July 8, 2008

Now that summer is upon us, many squash coaches are turning their attention towards planning their next squash season. Dedicated athletes are already logging 10-15 hours a week doing General Preparatory physical work such as low to medium intensity aerobic workouts and whole body strength-endurance exercises, and hopefully some fun activities like summer basketball, swimming, biking and roller-blading.

Most coaches do not feel as comfortable planning their team’s mental training as they do the physical and technical training aspects of squash. What exactly are the elements that need to be included in an effective program? Here they are in order of importance and priority:

  1. Establish a task (versus win) climate for your program.
  2. Assist athletes to develop a ‘Squash Focus Plan”.
  3. Implement regular match and Focus Plan evaluation procedures.
  4. Encourage your athletes to visualize regularly.
  5. Address individual athlete issues through a mental skills training program.  Read the rest of this entry »