Front-Court Squash Tactics: WISPA Grinham-Grainger Examples

January 17, 2010

There is very little published on squash tactics – and even less on differences between men’s and women’s squash tactics.  The purpose of this post is to use brief (about 10 points) notational analysis of a pro squash video to examine tactics and movement in the front court at a top world level (Grinham-Grainger Semi-Final 2006 Worlds).

The video analyzed was purchased at the WISPA website, and loaded into Dartfish for analysis with its “tagging module”. : every time the players being analyzed played a shot in the front court zone, I hit a “button” on the tagging panel I designed (based on the “Zone” model), which saved and labelled (e.g., backhand drop winner) a short video clip for later analysis.

Currently, most tactical information is given in a fairly general manner – for example Geoff Hunt’s famous “10 Commandments”.  For the past twenty years I have been using a zone model of squash (developed and tested with the assistance of my Princeton University friends Gail Ramsay and Bob Callahan) to add a high degree of precision and objectivity to any tactical analysis.  By focusing in on one zone at a time (front, mid, back),  the difficulty of the ball received (easy, medium, difficult) and categorizing shots according to the player’s tactical intent (attack, rally, defend) it is possible to develop quite specific tactical guidelines.

What can we learn by focusing our analysis on two of the world’s top players?  Here are a few of the observations and conclusions an analyst might make from this small sample of point seen in the clip below.  This is a great clip to analyze the front-court as we have a classic, defensive retriever (Grinham) playing an opponent with great attacking skills (Grainger) – so lots of play in the front of the court.

  • Grinham’s movement to the front on defence does not really resemble our classic squash ghosting drills – she moves in on a straight path to the ball, even leaning up against the backhand wall to maintain and regain her balance; the racquet work on her defensive lob is a flick with the hand/wrist – not at all like the demonstrations of lobbing from the front that we see in numerous squash books (stroking action from the slow-moving shoulder joint).  Grinham’s return to the “T” in the first front-court example features an about face which I have never seen a squash coach demonstrate in a practice or clinic (yet it obviously occurs and there must be a reason for it).
  • Under pressure in the front, we see that straight drives can result in a stroke against the striker (twice from Grainger in this clip), with cross-court drives being the most successful choice of both players.  This seems to contradict the current squash coaching practice of prescribing lots of “boast-straight drive” drills.  Although practicing straight drives from the front may have a technical and fitness purpose (more physically demanding and allows for “offensive” positioning), coaches should be wary of reinforcing tactical patterns that occur infrequently or are “poor tactical choices”.
  • There does not appear to be a “rally” phase in the front-court – the players are either defending or attacking (whereas in the mid-court we see many exchanges of length shots (“rallying”).
  • On Grainger’s tightest and most difficult shots, Grinham makes at least three racquet errors trying to lob.  I coach my team to redrop or hit a defensive, tight drop since the biomechanics of this action (push-touch with no backswing) are more simple than a lob (wrist snap or flick), a strategy that should result in fewer errors.  My observation of female American players (college/pro) is that they have not been trained sufficiently (too much grooving of ground strokes from mid- and back-courts) in the use of the hand, wrist and touch (certainly compared to the Egyptians and some of the English players).
  • We do not observe the use of the cross-court drop and very little use of deception (once from Grainger?) from these two players – which may be a male-female tactical difference due to men’s greater speed to and in the front-court ( time for deception and ability to cover the cross-court drop if it is not a winner).

Obviously, this tiny “research” needs to be extended with an analysis including entire matches featuring more female players.

Application for Squash Coaches:

  1. Findings from notational analysis of current top players can contradict current practice and published knowledge of squash coaching.
  2. We cannot take it for granted that men and women “play the same game” – something to keep in mind when planning summer camps.

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).


Developing Squash Anticipation in a Systematic Way

May 19, 2009

Did you know that A grade squash players move to respond to their opponent’s shot before the ball is struck, while D grade players do not initiate movement until after it has been hit?

We can define squash anticipation as the ability to determine where the opponent will send the squash ball prior to the ball being struck. Useful concepts when devising  a squash coaching plan to train anticipation are technical anticipation, tactical anticipation and partial anticipation (terms I leaned in Tennis Canada workshops with then Davis Cup coach Louis Cayer).

Technical Anticipation: Relying on  pre-impact body and racquet cues.  In a series of ingenious studies, Abernethy (from Oz!) and colleagues showed that “expert” racquet sport players rely mostly on upper arm and racquet cues for hints.

Tactical Anticipation:  When you get an early start to the ball because your opponent always drops the loose ball in the mid-court, you are relying on tactical anticipation – anticipating based on your opponent’s previous choices, strategy or game plan.

Partial Anticipation:  This type of anticipation is based on the knowledge of what your opponent cannot do when the opponent has several choices.  For example if you have glued a straight length drive to the side wall, you can cheat over towards that side because your opponent is unlikely to hit a hard cross-court drive past you – technically they are probably limited to a straight drive, lob or drop.   At a full lunging stretch to the front most players with a proper squash grip, cannot hit a hard, straight drive from that position, so we can move up and look for a cross-court drop, drive or flick.

There are systematic, progressive  ways to coach squash anticipation:

Method 1:  Always teach the anticipation cues associated with with each particular shot’s shot-cycle (e.g., watch-move-hit-recover-watch);

Method 2:  If you use a Zone Model of Tactics to regulate your technical-tactical squash coaching, identify and teach the different anticipatory cues associated with the different tactical situations in each zone (e.g., Opponent is on defence in front right – what are their possible options? Train the anticipation and response for each of these options.  Teach your players what to look for.).

Method 3:  Develop a hierarchy (list) of situations where anticipation has a major role or payoff, and work your way through the list with your players – developing a little practice around each situation.  Your list can start with the most common or  easiest situations (e.g., if a player turns extra in playing a difficult  ball off the backwall they are probably going to boast) or the most important (at the pro level only 5% of shots under pressure from the front right will be straight drives).  This hierarchy could also be based on a player’s stage in a sports LTAD (i.e., at this stage we train these situations).

One of the best ways to develop squash players with great anticipation of course, is to ensure that they grow up and train in an environment with frequent exposure in competition and practice to a variety of players and styles – especially attacking, deceptive styles of play (did I say Egyptian?) where developing anticipation is of prime importance.  This is great both for the young player and squash coach since anticipation can be learned mostly automatically though observation and trial and error, without having to resort to systematic teaching progressions (if the players are athletic and talented).

In developing anticipation skills with older players past the Golden Age of learning, it is important that the squash coach avoid excessive closed drilling and practice – that is every game or drill should involve choices and decisions – avoid mindless boast and drive and length drills except for a few minutes of warm-up.

Even the squash world’s best anticipaters sometimes get fooled – but that is a topic for another article:

Coaching Squash Doubles: Start with Racketball!

March 5, 2009

How can we coach squash doubles if we do not have a doubles squash court?

In North America there is a big push to build the game of squash doubles – and in particular to attract female players to the game.  Both Gary Waite, president of the International Squash Doubles Association, and the  Women Doubles Squash Association have sent communications to College coaches encouraging them to get their players to take up the game – the game being the North America Hardball Doubles game.

Here is the mission of the WDSA:

Firstly, we want to increase the number of women playing professional doubles by encouraging former college players, current teaching professionals and WISPA touring professionals to play this fabulous game.  In addition to the growth of professional women playing doubles squash, we believe the WDSA will help foster and build women’s doubles on the amateur level as well.

How can a coach introduce the tactics, communication and an enthusiasm for squash doubles to beginning and intermediate players when there are no courts to be found within a 100 miles?  At Smith College, we have started our team off with British Racketball Doubles. 

British Racketball is played with a standard ‘American” racquetball racquet and a low-bounce ball designed for use on the squash court.  The same tactical principles as either type of regular doubles apply:  hit into the open space, attack the weaker player, communication, base your tactics on individual player strengths, etc. – a great way to introduce players to doubles on a squash court!


To reflect the growth of British Racketball in the UK, England Squash has just made a change to its name.  I am sure that the squash diehards are cringing, but having been mental training consultant to the World Champion Canadian National Racquetball Team in the late 80’s and early 90’s I can say that elite level racquetball (at least the North American variety) requires a unique set of explosive athletic skills:

Having played both Softball Doubles (2004 & 2005 Massachusetts Men’s Softball Doubles Champion with my female partner Shona Kerr – take that boys:) and Hardball Doubles (back in Toronto in the ’80’s), personally I prefer Softball Doubles on the 25′ official softball doubles court – as it is played at the Commonwealth Games. Read the rest of this entry »

What Does a World Champion do on Defence in the Back-Court?

December 5, 2008

The problem with most published work on notational or performance analysis of squash is that it is stroke or technique centered.  The simplest example of notational analysis would be when a squash coach charts one of their player’s matches by putting a “W” (for winnner) or “E” (for error) on a diagram of a squash court.

Another example of technique-centered performance analysis was our 1987  Squash Canada Level 4 Performance Analysis Task, where we had to chart a video of a match between Dale Styner and John Fleury (both Canadian National Team members), recording every stroke played and the result of the stroke. The output of the analysis was a summary chart of statistics: number of shots played, percentage of winners and errors for each stroke type (forehand drive, backhand drop, etc.).

Information of this type, without a tactical context is not very useful:  for example a player’s technique, and associated success ratio,  in the back of the squash court is very different depending on the difficulty of the received shot, the amount of pressure the player is under, and the characteristics of the opponent (fast vs. slow, retriever vs. shot-maker, etc.).

The best analyses are based on a defined tactical model in order to be able to make precise, specific recommendations to players concerning the improvement of their game.  When I teach the current Level 4 Performance Analysis Task for Squash Canada, the first assignment in the class is for each of the coaches to present the tactical model they use for coaching their players.

In order to demonstrate the usefulness of notational analysis based on a tactical model, I used the Dartfish Tagging  module to analyze the first 25 points of the first game of the  2006 British Open Final (purchase DVD here) between Nicol David (current World #1) and Rachel Grinham.  In this example I restricted the analysis to the backcourt.

The tactical model I used for the example analysis is the “zone” model I developed with the assistance of Princeton’s Gail Ramsay and Bob Callahan in the late 1990’s:  System 3.  The idea for a zone model was based on Jack Fair’s “Traffic Light”  Model (red, amber, and green) for hardball squash, and the tennis tactical model (Methode des actions) used by Tennis Canada starting in the early 1990’s (copied and adapted a few years later by Nick Bolletieri:  System 5). It should be mentioned that the Squash Canada Coaching Program independently adapted Tennis Canada’s Action Method into their own tactical model (less directive and evolved than System 3).

The model functions by dividing the squash court into three zones: front, mid, and back, and using the difficulty of the ball received  by the player (easy, medium, difficult), to determine the tactical objective of the player’s shot (attack, rally, defend).  The player realizes their tactical objective by choosing a particular technique (e.g., attack a loose ball in the mid-court with a cross-court volley nick). We have developed a “System 5” for international level players which features two more tactical objectives (force and counter-attack) as well as the use of deception.

In the first part of the analysis, we focused on what David did on defence (against a difficult ball) in the back-court:

  • out of 25 shots to the back, David was on defence (forced use of wrist only, stretched-leaning back, adapted swing) only eight times – her very quick perception got her into position quickly enabling her to “rally” most of the balls;
  • she was able to hit good drives 5/8 times (4/5 straight), being forced to boast only once, with only 2 “bad” (loose) shots;
  • she needed, and was very good at “adapted” shortened swings (versus the full drives we normally teach) and use of the wrist;
  • although not a direct goal of the analysis, it is clear that against Grinham, David’s high percentage of volleys in the mid-court, dramatically reduced the number of times she had to play the ball off the back of the court.
  • often she is not looking at the ball/opponent as her opponent impacts the ball, perhaps indicating reliance on the tactical knowledge of her opponent’s tendencies -perhaps Rachel should have tried a few more “surprise” shots.

Here are the back-court video clips, with the “bad” shots towards the end of the video.  Pausing the video gives insight into her approach into the back, her hitting position, and her recovery back to the “T”. In our next post we will examine Nicol David “rallying” from the back-court.

Developing “Thinking” Squash Players

June 18, 2007

Squash is one of the most “open” sports, a sport in which players must effectively read, react, and make decisions in a constantly changing environment.

Why then do most coaches run “closed” training sessions where no decisions are necessary?

This question is not devoid of cultural influence where British and Australian players historically have tried to grind their opponents down in a war of attrition, while Egyptian and Pakistani players value skillful touch shots, trickery and deception.

There is a pedagogy designed to develop smart, thinking squash players. It involves the simple principle of starting every training session with a tactical problem or context, and ensuring that players must make decisions during practice and play. This does not mean that players should not work on developing excellent technique – only that technical work must be couched in a tactical framework.

I have been using this approach in my squash coaching since being introduced to this pedagogy in a tennis coaching workshop run by Louis Cayer in 1987 – the most user-friendly version of this approach can be found at a tennis coaching site run by Wayne Elderton. The rest of the world has recently been made aware of this approach under the name of Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU), Games Approach or Decision-Training (DT). Bob Callahan, Gail Ramsay and I developed “System 3” and used it to run Princeton Squash Camps in the 1990’s.

.Jonathon Power & John White