Squash Psychology: Focus Plan = Psychology + Tactics

February 26, 2010

How can a squash coach best help their player to play well and get into their Ideal Performance State?  One of the best ways is to coach their players to write down a plan that includes three parts:

  • Pre-match plan – to help them get focused and warmed up before play;
  • Match Plan – reminders about their tactical game plan, perhaps a few key technical points, and some general reminders (psychological or motivational).
  • Refocus or Distraction Control Plan – a list of potential distractions and solutions.

The idea for a Focus Plan was initiated by Canadian Sport Psychologist Terry Orlick based on his work and research with Olympic athletes.  Since 1986, I have continued to adapt the idea to make plans for squash, tennis and racquetball players – with pretty good success since many went on to become world champions and successful professional players.  This idea of preparing written plans formed the basis for the Coaching Association of Canada’s Level 4 Coaching Certification – the steps are outlined in detail in two of Orlick’s books – Psyching for Sport and Coach’s Guide to Psyching for Sport – now out of print but available on Amazon.

I have used many different forms for the plan with the thousands of athletes I have worked with since then – here is the latest version for you to download – Focus Plan 2010 – I have added two new sections in the last few years:

  • Competition Philosophy Statement:  A brief statement by the athlete about why they compete – it can help keep the pressure off (e.g., I always go and give my best – win or lose”)
  • Communication Preferences:  What the athlete likes to hear from teammates and coaches before, during and after competition.

This will help your squash players to avoid the “fainting goat” syndrome when faced with competitive pressure:

Application for Squash Coaches:

  1. Help your squash players perform consistently by getting them to develop and use a written down game plan.
  2. Discuss communication preferences with your athletes to improve your on site coaching.
  3. Help your athletes develop and use a competition philosophy that fires them up, but also helps keeps the nervousness away.

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.

Mental Training for Beginning Squash Players

May 17, 2009

Most of the attention in the sport psychology domain is given to advanced and elite adult players.  In an ideal world, squash coaches would start to guide their proteges towards mental toughness at the very start of their squash lives.

In the early 1990’s I helped Tennis Canada develop mental training and sport psychology priorities for every age group in their junior tennis programs:  periodized annual mental training programs to be implemented in Canadian indoor clubs for each of their junior age groups:  U11, U14, U18.

At each stage of development, different psychological qualities were prioritized – for example tennis intelligence, courage, leadership, etc.  In effect what we did was  develop psychological specifics what we would now describe as stages of a Long Term Athlete Development Plan (LTAD).

While many of the technical and physical aspects of published LTADs are very concrete and specific, the psychological aspects tend to be general and vague – reason being that the sport scientists developing the LTADs work primarily in the areas of physiology and motor learning – not sport psychology!

Here is a link to great example of mental training for beginning tennis players – which will apply 100% to beginning squash players – thanks International Tennis Federation (ITF)!

ITF Mental Training for Tennis Beginners

ITF Mental Training for Tennis Beginners

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 »

The Psychology of Squash: Staying Focused Between Points

March 2, 2009

What is great about squash in comparison to many other sports is that each of the four performance elements are important:  technique, tactics, physical and psychology.  Unlike team sports, once the match is underway, there is no coaching allowed during actual play, and minimal pauses allowed for reflection and mental preparation.  This places the utmost importance on a player controlling their mental state between rallies – the average between point break being about 10 seconds – even more important since the switch this year to point-a-rally (PAR) scoring  for both men and women.  Players cannot afford to lose their focus for even a minute now, since it is so easy now to let a match get away, and so difficult to work your way back from a big deficit.

The importance of using the between-point time in racquet sports to control an athlete’s mental state was first recognized by well known sport psychologist Jim Loehr.  Although I have found some of his material and talks (he now charges $35,000 to top companies for speaking engagements on Energy Management) to be overly dramatic, Loehr pioneered the development of many practical, easy to use mental tools for tennis, which is an important accomplishment in a field which can get a little too ethereal.

I first ran into Loehr when he was the guest speaker at the 1984 World Professional Squash Association (WPSA) Teaching Pro Conference in 1984.  I was so intrigued by his dismissal of my mention of  Tutko and Tosi’s book Sport Psyching that I had just reread (purchased and read originally in 1976) that I went back to school to get a Master’s in Sport Psychology and Coaching.  I used his book Mental Toughness Training for Sports as the training manual for my first consulting job (hired by National Coach Tony Swift)  in 1986 at Squash Canada’s National Training Center in Toronto.

16-Second Cure Video

16-Second Cure Video

In response to the McEnroe influenced mid-eighties tennis trend of out of control behavior between points, Loehr produced a video entitled “The 16-Second Cure” which detailed a four-step, between point, on-court routine (that took 16 of the allowed 25 seconds) whose purpose was to maintain the ideal performance state of relaxation, positiveness, activation and focus – mostly through the use of breathing and serve and return rituals.

It did not take me very long to develop the squash-specific adaptation of Loehr’s idea:  The 10-Second Solution.  Soon several generations of Canadian Junior National Teams, and thousands of U.S. juniors passing through the USSRA National Training Center (later Princeton Squash Camps) were being rated and trained on their between-point behavior – even playing conditioned games where the winner was the player who displayed the best focus.

I remember doing a “mental” charting of one Canadian Junior back in the late 80’s who had an astounding 36 negative between-point behaviors or vocalizations in the first game we charted.  I think he reduced it down to a dozen or so after being presented with the hard evidence (a standard scoring sheet with (+) or (-) notations along with comments in the columns).  Here is an example of another rating form we used to chart players – it could be completed by either the squash coach or a fellow player.

Between Point Behavior Rating Form

Between Point Behavior Rating Form

And here is a short video of a player who is not following the four steps:

Application for Squash Coaches

  1. You can use notational analysis (charting) of a squash players between-point behavior to help evaluate their mental performance.
  2. The four steps of the 10-Second Solution provides a simple framework to analyze and teach players to stay relaxed and focused during their matches – lots of good (and a few bad) examples on YouTube.
  3. Loehr’s  books provide many useful tools that can be adapted for squash.

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.

Practical Leadership Tools for Squash Coaches

September 6, 2008

Do you want to have a cohesive team with motivated athletes – and great coach evaluations from your athletes? The you cannot just “be yourself”, because that is a “hit and miss” strategy that we know rarely works.

So how do you become an effective leader-coach?  Not an easy question to answer since there have been literally thousands of books published on the topic of leadership – just go and do a search at Amazon (you will find 2,060 “products)! Or you can try and Google “leadership if you dare:)

Here are the three most practical and useful leadership models that I have encountered in 15 years of teaching leadership to coaches:

  1. Situational Leadership Model:  Should I be a dictator or a democratic leader with my team?  According to Blanchard & Hersey, it depends on the situation – specifically it depends on the motivation and competence of your athletes do perform the task you are asking them to do (a drill, strength training in the gym, not go out the night before a match, etc.).  The less motivated and competent they are the more you have to be a dictator; the more motivated and competent they are, the more you can simply delegate and not have to supervise them closely. The model is explained in more detail here.  This was the model I used to educate coaches in the old French Canadian Level 3 Theory National Coaching Certification Program – you cannot go wrong using this model.  Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

New Year’s Resolutions – the SAME as Goal-Setting!

January 1, 2008

In all fields of life, including sport, those who set goals perform, on average 15% better than those who do not. This finding has been clearly supported by two eminent researchers in a recent review of 35 years of goal-setting research published in the American Psychologist (Locke & Latham, 2002).

This notion applies across a wide variety of tasks and settings. For example if two athletic twins in equal physical condition set out to perform as many sit-ups as possible, the twin thats sets a goal will do better 15% more sit-ups than the twin who tries to “do as many as possible”. If a squash team of numerous equal twins are divided into two groups and try to hit as many backhands as possible into a target area, the group which sets goals according to specific guidelines will hit 15% more targets.

What are these goal-setting guidelines? They can be summed up with the acronym “SAME”. Goals should be Specific, Achievable, Measureable, and Evaluated regularly to have maximum motivational effect.

So yes, you should make New Year’s resolutions to improve your life and your squash – you will be a better person and a better player!

Academic Stress Affects Season Training Plans for Squash

October 16, 2007

Coaches of student-athletes (the majority of young squash players) need to take their athlete’s level of academic stress into account when planning the physical aspects of training so that the overall level of stress on the athlete does not lead to sickness, injury or overtraining.

One easy way to make sure that this aspect does not escape attention is to allocate several lines of the annual plan to the academic schedule and academic stress. In the attached example plan of the Smith College Squash team, line 9 indicates the training load, line 10 the academic schedule and line 11 the level (estimated by team members, captains, and Faculty) of academic stress: Smith College Squash Annual Training Plan

Line 12 represents the overal stress on the athlete at any particluar moment of the year which facilitates an appropriate load which will lead to peaking at the most important competition of the year.

(Thanks to Smith Professor, Exercise Physiologist, James Johnson for a personal communication on this aspect of training)