Preparing yourself for competitive play
Jeremy Colton explains how his squash pupil, in the two weeks leading up to a tournament, prepares for competition
Match preparation is a crucial element of any sport; Squash is no different. Whatever your level of play, adequate preparation is important. Of course, part of getting oneself ready for competitive play is subjective. One player's painstaking attention to their physical conditioning, analysis of their game, their opponent, and match tactics, may contrast vastly to another's relaxed less intense build-up. Crucially, both camps must work towards achieving optimum performance in the match environment. What interests us as coaches is the complete picture; the programme or regime we oversee, and the players assiduously embark on.
Training in general
Until this point, we have embarked on what I would call a normal training phase, a period generic too many sports training programs. Daily sessions have consisted of numerous high-intensity sessions, multi-feed drills, and pressure feeding exercises. There has also been a background of technical work, looking at specific areas of strengths and weakness, but sessions have often been very hard and very physical.
Certain problem areas have been identified over the last few months, which have yet to be put to the test in a seriously competitive environment. The court and off-court activity has also looked to increase the pupil's base fitness and stamina, as well as their aerobic and anaerobic threshold. Routines and squash-specific drills have been combined with an element of cross-training, weights, and structured rest. Although the regular sessions have never been identified, there have been areas of similarity so that both of us can measure progress.
Training now changes in the two-week run-up to the competition. Focus moves to sharpening reactions and fine-tuning the things the pupil has been looking at over the last few months. Generally, the sessions involve shorter, lower intensity work. It is very important that when the time comes, the pupil is sharp and not jaded and that the objectives in match play are defined. Too often players and their coaches embark on heavy training at this late stage, emphatically pushing the notion that squash is a hard game; that no amount of hard work is enough. These players spend the days before their match pushing their bodies to the limit with anchored drills, relentless ghosting, and court sprints. They may be fitter than most, but competitive play will seem just like an extension of training and become tired, unfocused, and woolly.
Players need to do plenty of target hitting to hone accuracy. These routines may still involve ghosting or shadowing but are short and very specific. We also set up conditioned games, which focus on areas previously worked on, such as moving to a particular corner, length discipline, or consistency. All of these exercises must involve scoring so that my pupil can see an end to the routine and be in readiness for the real thing. It can be a good idea to involve other players towards the end of the sessions. Different players provide different challenges and bring less artificial, all-court hitting and movement. From a coaching point of view, it also makes it easier to observe the pupil as they try and reinforce these elements of their game. Other hitters need to be of a suitable standard to make it useful, but as many players train at the same clubs anyway, it is rarely a problem. It does not follow that a player must only hit someone of a similar ranking. A good junior can work perfectly well with John White or Rachael Grin ham, providing the parameters are set correctly with clear objectives and conditions. Several coaches employ this mix in aspects of their player's training and it is to be encouraged across the board. Crucially, we do not introduce new facets to the player's game during these sessions. This is not the time to pick up on other weaknesses and make fundamental technical changes. It is the time to build the pupil up to winning a squash match, rather than articulating long-term changes to the way they hit the ball.
A key element of pre-match preparation is the mental edge. Physically the top thirty squash players in the world are very similar. Some are slightly faster, some are a little fitter and others have marginally superior racket skills. But the court is a fairly level playing field and mental strength on the court is the most crucial weapon.
The player who is more mentally prepared for a game - eagerness to win, self-confidence, and control of their nerves - usually wins. Not everyone plays the game or even aspires to play at the top level, but psychology is nonetheless a very important aspect of squash. It is a good idea to discuss the upcoming game, without expending too much mental energy talking squash. When the time comes, the pupil needs to be clear about the way they will approach the game and any weaknesses their opponent might have that they will exploit. I encourage them to use mental imagery, visualising the first few points and how they would be played out if and when everything goes to plan. They may also have their mental routines, whether they are before serving or between games, to help maintain focus; these devices for positive and clear thinking will be personal to them.
Beyond that are the common-sense elements of good all-around preparation: getting plenty of sleep, drinking lots of fluids, and making time for relaxation. Diet is very important and eating plenty of carbohydrates during the week-long run-up to the match is a must. My pupil is sometimes required to play a couple of rounds a day and so they must try to eat the right things between matches. On the day, we warm up on the court with a ten-minute pulse raiser and a boast and drive routine. We might also spend a few minutes fine-tuning short volley kills, stretch and talk tactics. If the opportunity arises, it is a good idea for the pupil to have a hit on the court they will be playing on, having trained exclusively on one court. The advanced tournament player may have to adapt to a mobile court as well as a 17" tin for example and so we always look to hit a few balls at the venue.
If it takes two games before you are playing your best squash, you are going to lose a lot of matches. You need to be fully prepared and sharp at the start of the match and keep that discipline for its duration. If you are 1-0 up after the first, keep it going; do not change a winning formula. If you are trailing, focus harder on the basics and try to assess with your coach between games, what is working and what is losing you points or putting you under pressure. It may be that your opponent is giving a Nicolesque performance - keep going, giving every point the same level of concentration and effort. If you are playing the man himself, you will need every ounce of energy, skill, and luck!
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About the Author
Jeremy Calton is an England Squash Advanced Coach and has worked in the UK and Australia with players of all standards, from club to county and elite level. He is Head Professional at Dorking Lawn Tennis and Squash Club and Senior Coach at Wimbledon Racquets and Fitness Club and Ashtead Squash Club. Jeremy is currently working with Carla Khan who is ranked No 1 in Pakistan and 22 on the world rankings.