Please join me in supporting Street Squash

The Harlem Squash Trotters team

The Harlem Squash Trotters team

On May 9th I will be competing in the 7th (my 6th) Annual Street Squash Cup. This event raises money for an Urban Squash program started by my friend George Polsky that sends nearly 100% of its graduates to college, and I am asking for you to join me in supporting the work they do:  Donate to Street Squash

I remember when George was first raising money to start StreetSquash, going to tournaments and making a pitch about his vision, and at the time I must admit it seemed so outrageously optimistic as to what he thought he could accomplish. But 17 years later StreetSquash has 300 kids from Harlem from 6th through 12th grades practicing at the StreetSquash center each day. And did I mention that nearly 100% of graduates go on to college?

I started getting involved with StreetSquash about 6 years ago, and over the years have coached many of the kids and have taken 9 of them to Rome with me for my Rome Squash Camp. Needless to say I count many StreetSquashers as my friends.

I was happy when David Sachs, captain of the Harlem Squash Trotters, first asked me to join his team for the Annual StreetSquash Cup which is part squash tournament and part fundraising event. And I was even happier to have been invited back onto his team each year since. David is a tremendously enthusiastic and generous supporter of the event, and my goal is to do my part to support his efforts.

Will you help me to support this great cause? Please do! Donate to Street Squash

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Please join me in supporting Street Squash

Stick With What Got You There

Two of the greatest-ever squash matches have been played over the past couple of months in Egypt. The first was the final of the Women’s World Championship on December 20, 2014 in Cairo, and the second was the other day, April 10, 2015, at the El Gouna Open in the beautiful Red Sea resort town of El Gouna.

The matches featured 4 of the game’s all-time greats – Nicol David, Raneem El Welily, Ramy Ashour and Mohamed Elshorbagy.

Both matches showcased the highest level of skill, athleticism and tactics perhaps ever displayed on a squash court, and both matches were tremendously exciting – 5-game matches with the winner in each case coming back from multiple championship points down to take the title.

In both contests one player held match point up 10-6. But both times those very players who held the match points made an error that may have cost them the title.

Raneem was up 2-1 in games and was at 10-8, match point.  She had just played a tough point that Nicol won with a stunning forehand cross-court nick and Raneem responded by going for a quick winner off the serve. It went into the tin.

Mohamed was at match ball, 10-7 in the 5th, and had also had just played a tough point that ended with a no-let due to a perfect Ramy forehand drive, and his response was also a quick return of serve into the tin.

Both Raneem and Mohamed had 4 match points and lost the first of them in tough points, then went for a quick winner off the serve which ended up in the tin. Immediately the momentum of the match switched over to their opponent, despite the fact that they still held two match points.  Why?

The desire to go for a quick match-ending shot can be irresistible – even more so when you have multiple match points to work with. The idea that you can “waste” a point on a risky winning attempt seems so reasonable – if you make it you win, and if you lose it you still have match point.

The problem is that by going for that shot, not only is it very unlikely that you will make it due to the pressure of the situation, but that by going for it you break from the approach that you have taken that got you to this point.  And once you break from that approach it is very hard to regain it.  Mohamed did not win another point after that tin. Raneem lost 14 of the next, and final, 19 points.

The lesson from these matches is that when you get to match point, stick with the approach that got you there. Don’t break your strategic discipline. Don’t send the signal to your opponent that you are panicking and are trying to end things quickly. Instead, send the message that you will pressure and pressure them the way you have all match and that your focus cannot and will not be diverted.

If you have not seen these two matches, watch them. Incredible, exciting squash. But learn from Raneem and Mohamed. Stay focused. Be relentless. Keep your focus right until the end.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Stick With What Got You There

Hierarchy of Squash Skills

Squash is a game that is interesting and challenging for players of all levels.  That is because at every level there is a new challenge to take on. Squash can feel just as interesting and challenging for two beginners as for two professional players. They are just focused on very different challenges.

Squash skills build upon each other. As a squash teacher right out of college I used to over-teach. I wanted the student to know everything I knew about the game. Some students thought I was an amazing teacher and they loved their lessons. But a surprisingly high percentage were overwhelmed with the lessons. It was too much information and they were more confused the more I taught.

I started thinking about what it is I should be teaching students and what I should leave out. What do you tell a student in order for them to improve? When I was the Head Pro at CityView Racquet Club the former World #1 spent a month practicing on the court next to me while I taught. I would introduce my students to him and they would inevitably ask what was the most important thing to know about squash. He would tell them – squash is all mental. That is the secret. It surely was all mental to him – he had absolutely mastered and ingrained all the other aspects of the game. But for my students the game surely was not all mental. Some of them were just trying to make consistent contact with the ball!

I started thinking about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which provides 5 levels of psychological human needs and the theory that when a human is missing certain basic needs that it is difficult to take on higher psychological states, starting with Physiological Needs, and moving to Safety, Love/Belonging, Esteem and finally arriving at Self-Actualization. A squash player must learn certain skills before they attempt to learn more advanced concepts, and if they don’t their efforts will end in frustration, failure, or just get them nowhere. How productive is it for a student to work on strategy and tactics if they can’t even control the ball to put it where they want it to go? While the game at the highest level may be all mental, that is little help to beginning, intermediate or even most advanced players who have yet to ingrain all of the fundamentals.

So what is the Hierarchy of Squash Needs?

First, a new player must master the basic Technical Skills: Spacial alignment, stroke production, and movement.

Second, a player can begin to learn Tactics and Strategy: shot creation, shot selection, and match strategy.

Third, a player introduces Physical Training to their game: Strength, speed, endurance, flexibility and agility.

Fourth, and finally, a player learns to incorporate the Mental Aspect to the game: strategic discipline, resilience, and finally the ultimate mental state: a clear mind.

The Hierarchy of Squash Needs, like Maslow’s Hierarchy, does not prohibit one from learning more advanced concepts, or being fascinated by concepts that the very best players are focused on. In certain circumstances I might rearrange the order for a certain student for specific reasons. The hierarchy is not law – rather it is meant as a roadmap for a player to be able to truly master the game.

In future posts I will talk more about aspects of the hierarchy, and my thinking behind the order.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Hierarchy of Squash Skills

Squash Player Paralyzed; Community Called to Action

Report courtesy of Joseph “Jody” Burns. Orginially published on

On the morning of January 10, 2015, while playing in a singles squash match at a club on Long Island, Arvind Lall tripped over his opponent’s foot while going for a drop shot, smashed his head against the wall and broke his neck—instantly paralyzing him from the chest down.

Neurosurgeons operated on Arvind that same day, managing to repair the broken C6 & C7 vertebrae with metal pins and cleaned out most of the bone bits in the spinal canal. Although blood supply had been interrupted to the spinal cord, the good news was that the cord had not been severed. Arvind was heavily sedated for several days, inhibiting his movement and relying on a breathing tube and ventilator, and developed double pneumonia and a high fever. The doctors were able to knock out the pneumonia, but Arvind remained in the ICU for three weeks.

A friend called me the day of the accident, knowing that Arvind and I are close. My first call was to Steve Watters, a longtime friend to myself and Arvind, and headmaster at Greenvale School, where Arvind’s son, Christopher, is in the sixth grade. My second call was to John McConnell, a friend who had broken his neck in a bicycle accident in 2005.

I called John because I thought he would be able to provide Arvind and his wife, Fran, with some positive reinforcement at a very frightening time. John was originally told that he would never walk again, but went on to win a local tennis tournament a couple of years ago! What I didn’t realize when I called John was that he is also co-chair of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, dedicated to curing spinal cord injury. Through the foundation and personally, he has provided invaluable immediate guidance to Arvind and his family and has guided them to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta—the gold standard in spinal cord injury rehabilitation and recovery.

Arvind and I met playing squash in 1988 and became close friends and frequent doubles squash partners in various local tournaments over the last fifteen years. Arvind is a solo-practitioner lawyer and his wife, Fran, teaches American History at Great Neck High School. They met while students at the University of Pennsylvania: Arvind then a law student and Fran in the undergraduate program for American History.

Arvind can breathe on his own, talk, move his arms and use his hands. Now, whatever the final recovery outcome, he will not be able to work for a long time. The Lall home is undergoing extensive modifications in order to be wheel chair accessible before his return home from Shepherd later this month. In addition to a customized wheel chair, a wheel chair van and specialized home rehab equipment, he will need daily home care and rehab for the foreseeable future, if he has any hope of being able to walk, let alone stand on his own again.

Other immediate needs have been and continue to be weekly airfare for Fran and Christopher to go to Shepherd on weekends while Arvind is there. They are being trained at Shepherd now to care for Arvind once he comes home.

The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation estimate that the cost for Arvind’s care in the first year could be in excess of a million and a half dollars over and beyond what the family’s insurance will cover. Since Arvind will not be able to work for an indeterminate amount of time, they will be totally dependent on Fran’s salary as a teacher. Without our help, the family savings will be gone . As a squash player and friend of the family, I can’t help but feel that this is a moment for our squash community to come together to help one of our own.

Friends of the Lall family have already set up an Arvind Lall Fund donation page on the website. Any donation you care to make through that site will be 100% tax deductible. The immediate goal is $250,000.00 as a first step in the next sixty days.

To access the Arvind Lall Fund, go to the official page on Arvind has tried to maintain a weekly blog there, as well as photos of his progress.
Arvind calls me frequently from the Shepherd Center where he undergoes many hours of exhausting daily therapy and I know he will be incredibly grateful for your help at this time of extreme need for him and his family.

HelpHopeLive’s tax ID number is: 52-1322317.
Foundations making gifts will need a W-9 form.

If you would like to help in some other way or have any questions at all, please don’t hesitate to email or call me: Joseph Burns,, 516-528-1200.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Squash Player Paralyzed; Community Called to Action

No Excuses

View through the side glass wall.

View of the 45+ finals through the side glass wall.

When I arrived at the MacArthur squash center this morning and went to the locker room I ran into Michael Gough, the world 75+ champion who had just won the US 75+ championship. His match, like mine would be, was on the all-glass court, and it is a very, very difficult court to play on. The lighting is tough, the white ball plays a bit differently, and the glass and floor really slow down the ball. It is very, very different from the other courts where all our other matches were held. Michael barely won his first two games and came off complaining about all the difficulties of playing on this court. His wife said – no more excuses – just go out and play your game. So Michael said to me – John – no excuses. Just go out and play your game.

Steve is a strong player and came out taking the ball early and putting a lot of pace on the ball. I stuck to my game and responded with a lot of volleying deep and attacking short. We both were having challenges with the court but we both just kept pushing as hard as we could. I squeaked out the first game coming back from 8-10. Second game Steve really picked it up and I started overly-focusing on sticking the ball to the wall to induce errors. Steve handled my shots well and took the initiative and took the second. Game three I went back to good squash and played perhaps the best game I have played all year: 11-1. I knew Steve would fight back, and fight back he did.  We had furious points throughout the 4th and I stuck to my guns picking my opportunities to attack. At 10-9 (match ball) he left a ball short and set me up perfectly for my favorite shot – backhand crosscourt drop. I felt it leave my racquet and knew I had it. Steve lunged but came up short. Game, match, National Championship.

I want to thank several people for helping me to get to this win.  First, my coach Willie Hosey who worked so hard with me and transformed me as a player. Second, my drilling and playing partners: Anders Wahlstedt, Caleb Garza, Will Cheng, Valentin Quan and Rob Endleman. Third, my students who cheer me on, send me texts and e-mails, and make my job as a teaching pro not feel like a job. And finally my girlfriend Laura who travels with me when she can and makes traveling to tournaments a fun adventure.

Next stop Toronto for the Canadian Championships.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on No Excuses

Finals to be live streamed

The glass court at the MacArthur Squash Center at UVA.

The glass court at the MacArthur Squash Center at UVA.

Finals from the US Masters Championships will be streamed by US Squash. My final with Steve Wren is scheduled for 12:20pm.

Here is the link:

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Finals to be live streamed

Tactical efficiency

Four generations of Yale #1 players: Will Carlin, '86, Julian Illingworth, '04, John Musto, '91, and Derick Niederman, '76

Four generations of Yale captains and #1 players: Will Carlin, ’86, Julian Illingworth, ’04, John Musto, ’91, and Derick Niederman, ’76

One of the keys to performing well in a tournament is to not just win, but win efficiently. This does not mean to conserve energy, but rather to ensure that as much as possible of the energy you spend is productive.  When I played the World Masters last summer I wasted a tremendous amount of energy winning a brutal 5 game match in the round of 32.  When I got to my next match in the round of 16 against the 5th seed I was definitely not fresh, and my opponent had yet to drop a game. When I was younger I would often blame a bad draw for this situation. But now I give respect to the player who won efficiently and did not get bogged down in a match that they really should win in a straightforward fashion.

A player at the World Masters who epitomized winning efficiently was Willie Hosey who repeated as World 50+ Champion in Hong Kong. He cut apart his opponents by applying tremendous pressure, taking the ball early and using tremendous deception and redirects to keep his opponents completely off balance. After my experience and watching Willie, I decided to reach out to Willie to learn how to be more tactically efficient so that I could get further through a tournament without draining all of my energy.  In earlier posts I talked about my sessions with Willie, and this current tournament has been my first opportunity to attempt to put into practice what I have been working on.

My semifinal opponent today was Ronn McMahon, a feisty player who attacks well and has to be the fastest player over 45. Ronn also has the fascinating background of having played for the Canadian National basketball team and having competed against Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird at the 1994 Barcelona Olympics. So Ronn is quite an athlete.

I tried to take it up a notch from my morning match and took the ball early, drove the ball deep, and really looked to attack. Ronn got some of my very best shots back, and in one point made three amazing gets and went on to win the point.  But I knew I was dictating the play and making him work much, much harder than me.  So I stuck to my guns. 11-8, 11-9, 11-6. I am happy to make it to the finals where I get a rematch of last years finals against Steve Wren, a strong player from Quebec.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Tactical efficiency


Chit-chatting with Sean Ryan before our quarterfinal match

Chit-chatting with Sean Ryan before our quarterfinal match

Squash is a game of technique, strategy, fitness and competitive desire. But above all it is a game of decisions. What shot to hit, where to take it from, what pace and what height. Making good decisions is easier when you play a weaker opponent. But as the opponent gets stronger, it can become tougher to make good decisions. And when the match is a league or tournament match it can be even tougher. And when you start to get worn down as the match progresses it can be even tougher.

I am in Charlottesville, VA right now at the US National Championships having won my 45+ quarterfinal match 11-5, 11–3, 11-5 against Sean Ryan – originally from South Africa but now residing in Portland, OR. Sean is a strong player and I knew in order to win I would have to keep him under constant pressure and deny him attacking opportunities. My question to myself was whether I would make good decisions under the pressure of a good player at the Nationals. So I didn’t pay attention to the score and instead just paid attention to making the right decision with each shot. For the most part I did. Two ill-advised backhand drops off the half-volley, and one backhand volley drop when I probably should have called a let. Other than that, I am pretty happy with my decision-making, even on the points I lost – he either hit a great shot or I hit the top of the tin while hitting the right shot.

I now play Ronn McMahahon, a strong player from Seattle.  Ronn and I played last year in the semis and had a tough battle which I won in 3. In the quarters Ronn beat Craig Medvecky who I used to play in the juniors.  He is back playing again and playing well.

This tournament has had some great matches – two particularly good matches were played last night in the professional draws – Todd Harrity defeated defending National Champ Julian Illingworth in 4 after an 18-16 2nd game, and Olivia Blatchford came back from 0-2 to defeat defending National Champ Sabrina Sohby.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Decisions

Setting goals

It is the beginning of the season and its that time when squash players set the goals that we want to achieve for the season. I have been setting goals for my squash since I was 12 years old. I’ve done it right and I’ve done it wrong. Goal setting is one of those things that is almost always done wrong. The basic mistakes are:

1) Setting a goal that seems like what others would expect of you, not a goal that you really, really want.

2) Setting a goal because it seems impressive

3) Setting a goal based on an outcome

No matter how much you try you cannot control an outcome. You can play the best squash of your life and still not win. You may get a bad call. Or the other player may just play better. Or you may win. It is inherent in playing competitive squash that while to a certain extent you can control the quality of your own game, you may be able to influence but you cannot control the quality of your opponent’s game.

I remember when I was 24 and was coming back from a year away from pro squash due to mono and I was determined to make up for lost time. I set huge outcome-oriented goals and started practicing. I quickly got stressed. Was I good enough? Was I on the right track? I talked to a good friend about my goal conflicts. He said something that stuck with me: “The will to win is nothing without the will to prepare.” Someone had repeated this quote to him and he passed it on to me. This quote changed everything for me. Suddenly I wasn’t worried about some possible future match, but instead I was focused on getting the most out of every training session and practice match. I proceeded to have the best year of my pro career beating every top American and a couple of highly ranked international players.

This year I have been tempted to have some pretty aggressive goals. I had a great 2013-14 season, have taken on an amazing coach in Willie Hosey and have been playing some of the best squash of my life. My basic goal each year over the past bunch of years has been to continue to play 6.0 squash. While there is definitely something satisfying about beating 23-year-old 6.0 players at my age (twice that of the 23-year-old) there is also something depressing about this goal – there is definitely and end-point. So I thought long and hard about what my actual goal is. And it came to me – to continue to become a better player for my age. Let the results take care of themselves. Just focus on getting better.

There is another word for this – mastery. Strive for mastery. It is a constant quest – one is that is out there in front of you. There are so many aspects to this game, and the game is constantly evolving. Stay current. Never be complacent or self-satisfied.  Learn from others. Work hard at improving each area of the game. And then get out and compete. You will win some, you will lose some. But you will get better. And at some point all the hard work will come together and you will achieve heights you never imagined.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Setting goals

Coaching Training

This past weekend I attended US Squash’s first Level 3 Coach Certification seminar. The focus was on teaching elite players. I had been both looking forward to this weekend for several years (while it was in development) but I also have to admit that I had a healthy dose of skepticism – which it turns out was shared by the other 10 invited coaches. Training coaches can be tricky as the attendees often have more experience than the instructors, and there are a variety of philosophies on technical styles which can sometimes lead to unproductive debate rather than open discussion. Coaches also can often have healthy egos that can get in the way. So as I took my seat for the start of the weekend it was with a bit of trepidation.

The session was run by two relatively young Englishmen, Rich Wade and Alex Stait both of whom, besides being excellent players and coaches, had been intimately involved with the coaching certification process in England. They instantly set the tone for the weekend acknowledging the wealth of experience and knowledge in the room and letting us know that we would be discussing and sharing ideas all weekend and that they would not be lecturing. Instantly you could feel any tension in the room disappear. What followed was three of the most engaging, interesting and enlightening days of coaching I have ever experienced.

Rich and Alex went back and forth effortlessly leading discussions and introducing ideas. The discussions which were lively and very knowledgable also benefitted from both the geographical diversity of the coaches – coaches from virtually every region of the country – but also from the wide variety of international backgrounds represented: England, Australia, Egypt, Zimbabwe, and the US. So there were a lot of ideas.

It can be difficult for coaches to accept new ideas as they will often have a “personal” stake in the specific technique they have taught, and it can be strangely uncomfortable for a coach to go back to a student they have taught and change something they may have reinforced for a long time. But clearly in this group all those concerns were not involved and we were all determined to learn as much as possible.

John White, former world #1, was brought in for a session to get his take on several technical issues as well as an experienced strength trainer who works extensively with squash players.

Daily sessions were long – we would start early and go late – but invariably everybody would stay to get games in at the end of the day. As I write this I am sore from all of the end-of-day games I played – 3 games each against an Egyptian, and Englishman, an Australian and an American. Playing tough games against so many styles was an experience in and of itself.

A strong bond was built between the twelve of us and we are determined to keep in touch on ideas and results which will inevitably make us continue to grow and improve as coaches.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Coaching Training