What a weekend

This weekend I went up to Toronto to spend two days training and learning from Willie Hosey. Willie is a legend in squash – 11 time Irish pro champ, multiple masters world champion (including in Hong Kong winning the 50+ beating the former world #2 3-0 in the finals), British Open Masters Champion, and even a world doubles pro champ.

I actually played Willie in a tournament 20 years ago and remember it vividly. While I did squeak out a game, for the most part Willie controlled the squash running me corner to corner. I was a very, very fit 24-year-old, but I had never experienced torture quite like that. After the match Willie came over and offered some advice. He said he liked the way I played but that I was using my speed for defense instead of offense. I have wrestled a lot with that comment.

Over the years I haven’t really run into Willie, but this summer watching him tear through the very, very tough draw in Hong Kong reminded me what a tremendous squash player and intellect he is. He is literally thinking and reacting twice as fast as his opponent. If there was anybody who could help me take my game up two or three levels it would be Willie. So I contacted him, set a weekend, bought my plane ticket, and there I was.

Willie had two other elite players join us for a weekend of intense technical and strategic training and what a weekend it was. Attacking early and deceptively to the front, swinging through the ball more quickly, coming off the ball twice as fast, and not getting too close to the ball in the back corners.

Day one was just trying to understand and implement what he was saying. We were on court 3 hours drilling over and over and then trying to implement in game situations. It made sense but I wasn’t feeling it. Over dinner we kept talking squash and I kept thinking through what we had worked on. Technical and strategic talk drifted into stories about the good old days – his matches with Geoff Hunt and Jonah Barrington, training with the top players, and some adventures from the road.

Getting on the court day two my feelings of soreness were overpowered by my determination to get it right.  We warmed up, started drilling, and Willie made one more attempt to explain and it suddenly all fit into place.  Attacking early and deceptively. Quick off the ball. Quick stroke through the ball. Don’t get too close in the back corners.

We kept drilling and playing – putting it into action – until we just couldn’t move anymore. I headed to the airport, got on the plane and sat down feeling like a new player.

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The Seinfeld Drill

Last night I played a match against a young English player, Simon Robinson, who had been a top English junior player but instead of turning pro had followed the family tradition and joined the Army. He was now playing #1 for the traveling British Army squash team that toured through NYC over the past 2 weeks playing matches and taking part in September 11th ceremonies today. Last night was a rematch of our battle last week, and we were both eagerly anticipating the match.

Simon hits the ball really, really hard, drives the ball into the nick, hits accurate, soft drops and moves exceptionally well. And last night’s match was on the fast courts at the Union League Club, so Simon’s power would be especially effective.

My #1 challenge would be to maintain my balance at the T, and to not “flinch” and commit to a shot before it was hit. Because if I did this, Simon would inevitably vary his shot to take advantage of my imbalance. So in order to have a fighting chance I had to remain calm and balanced in the face of danger to all four corners of the court.

Here and there I fell out of balance, but when I did I regrouped and told myself to “shake it out” and get back in balance. Come what come may – I would just relax and wait unit he hit the ball before I started moving. He nicked a bunch of balls and drove a few balls by me, but for the most part I was right on the ball in good position and balance and was able to mostly neutralize his impressive arsenal. Despite getting pretty badly outplayed in the 2nd game, I managed to beat a somewhat travel-weary Simon in 4 games.

Maintaining balance is something I have been thinking a lot about, especially after my experience at the British Open getting badly outplayed in the semis. It is also something that I have been focused on with my students, as getting pulled out of position is very, very common to squash players in general.

I was in a lesson with a student this summer who couldn’t stop moving before I hit the ball. We did several drills in which I had a choice of which shot to hit and inevitably he would flinch every time before I hit the shot. We have talked a lot about having a calm mind, but once my racquet started moving to the ball all the relaxation went out the window and he would flinch. So I decided to try something different.

I told my student to stand at the T in ready (neutral) position while I was in the back court. The drill would go like this: I could hit any shot – a drive, crosscourt, lob, boast, drop, cross drop – and he would watch the ball, stay at the T – and do nothing. Nothing. Just watch as I hit a shot, picked it up, hit another shot, picked it up, and so on. For the first 20 or so shots he still flinched – even though he didn’t have to do a thing. Just the sight of me about to hit the ball made him flinch.

But then he changed – his composure relaxed, and he stopped emanating nervousness. He just watched. I kept hitting shots. I told him to remember this feeling and told him now to actually hit the ball. He was a transformed player. He was relaxed with all his energy efficiently moving to the ball. Then the flinching crept back in. So we did the drill again with him just watching. He quickly regained his relaxed state and we reintroduced hitting the ball – and he kept his composure.

We still do the drill now and then as a refresher, but for the most part his flinching is a thing of the past. And I have done the drill now with other students with the exact same positive results. A drill about nothing. Not that there’s anything wrong with that . . .

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Technique serves strategy. Specific technique should not be adopted for aesthetic reasons, or because your favorite player happens to do it that way, or because they guys or gals at the club say you should do it. And you shouldn’t do it simply because your coach says that’s the way to do it. You should adapt specific technique because it supports a strategic approach that makes sense to you and makes it more likely that you will win.

Having said that, let’s talk about the backswing. How you do your backswing is very important, because it can be the difference between being able to play the ball quickly and accurately or having to take extra time to play the ball and being more likely to play a sloppy shot. A squash match is most often won by the person who can maintain dominance of the central area of the court and is able to attack to the front of the court from a position in front of their opponent. It is therefore essential to have a backswing that allows you to play the ball quickly and accurately in order to maintain and attack from this strategically superior positioning in the court and not have to fall back to inferior positioning to play the ball.

The biggest mistakes that players make with their backswing are:

1) Waiting until the ball arrives close before getting the racquet back.

2) Leading the backswing with the elbow.

3) Just bringing the arm back and not turning the chest back.

4) Not adjusting the feet to the ball once the racquet is back.

So what should you do?

1) Once you know if the ball is going to be a forehand or a backhand get the racquet back – ideally before your opponent’s shot hits the front wall. By doing this you will avoid being late hitting the ball.

2) Get the racquet back initially by rotating the forearm back and pointing the racquet to the back wall. By doing this the racquet is instantly ready to hit the ball, even one that comes at you with tremendous pace.

3) Turn the chest back as you bring your elbow back. By doing this you will be able to create power quickly.

4) Once the racquet is back, quickly adjust your feet for the ball. By doing this you will be able to hit the ball accurately as accuracy comes from good alignment, and sloppiness comes from a stroke that constantly changes based on where the ball is.

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Stroke and Alignment

One of the most common skills for a player to work on is their stroke. Players may spend many hours perfecting the turn of the back, pendulum of the arm, rotation of the forearm, keeping the chest up and keeping the right angle between the racquet and forearm. But then they play a point and it all falls apart, or at least falters to a degree. The player who from a static position has a great stroke may not have such a great stroke in a dynamic situation. This is very, very common. Why does this happen?

In order to maintain the integrity of a stroke when you play you must understand the distinction between stroke and alignment. The stroke is the mechanics of swinging the racquet properly. Alignment is the relationship between you and the ball when you make contact. If the alignment between you and the ball is off, then by necessity you will need to modify the stroke to adjust to the position of the ball. And it is this modification of the stroke which causes the problems. If the alignment is correct, then you can maintain your stroke. And there is a slightly different alignment for every shot that you may want to hit. So proper movement and adjusting to the ball is essential for keeping a good stroke.

A good way to ingrain good alignment is to take practice swings adjusting both feet each time. Most people practice their stroke by planting their back foot and stepping forward with the front foot as they swing. If instead you slightly shuffle each foot and then step in with the front foot when you swing you will start to ingrain adjusting into your stroke, and will start to create good alignment to the ball.

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3 quick changes that will improve your game

Squash is a very dynamic game, and the process of improving is complex. There is stroke technique, movement, shot-making, strategy and competitive mindset, to name a few of the basic facets of the game. And they are all intertwined. It is a complex game and when you focus on improving one thing, often another aspect suffers. So the process of improving is generally one step back, two forward, over and over.

But there are a few things that you can do that are only positive and will make you a better player, and they are some of the most common mistakes that squash players make. Here are my top 3 things that you can do now to make you a better player:

1) Hit your rails and cross courts higher and deeper. The most common mistake that beginner and intermediate players make is to not get their rails and cross courts deep in the court.  By leaving the ball in the middle are of the court you actually force your opponent to retain strategically superior positioning and the result is to be constantly on the defensive.  By lifting up rails and cross courts 3-4 feet on the front wall the ball will go 5-6 feet deeper in the court without hitting the ball harder. Now the T is open to you and you can take advantage of superior court positioning.

2) Stop hitting boasts from the back court. It is almost a reflex reaction for beginning and intermediate players to chase a ball to the back court and smack the ball into the wall for a boast. Inevitably your opponent is camped out at the T and is in great position to attack off of your “defensive” boast, and now you are running the diagonal to retrieve the ball. Players often think the boast is their only option and think in terms of hard and low boasts vs. high and soft boasts when the right answer is to not hit the boast in the first place.  While there is a technical component to being able to hit a straight drive instead of a boast, namely: cock the wrist, keep your back foot away from the ball, and rotate your forearm, the even more important thing to do is to remove the boast in your mind as an acceptable option. It is impossible to get better at hitting the drive instead of the boast if you keep hitting the boast. Force yourself to try to hit the front wall first, follow the technical steps mentioned above, and you will get better and better at it  And the result will be that instead of giving your opponent a golden opportunity to run you the diagonal, you will retain superior positioning and you will be the one looking to attack.

3) Don’t let the ball bounce deep in the court. One day I will write something about the power of push-ups.  They are very effective at changing behavior. And one of the grave errors  for which I mete out push-ups is a student letting an easy volley pass them by only to become a very difficult shot in the back corner. Often it is on the return of serve, and the player starts out the point with a very, very defensive shot with their opponent in great position. When a volley looks easy often there is a thinking that assumes that the shot will remain easy and so it really doesn’t matter if the ball is taken early or not. But the easy volley quickly turns difficult as it moves to the back of the court.  Volley those easy shots and you will eliminate an unnecessary trip to terrible positioning.

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One of the challenges of playing tournament squash is that you need to play matches one after another, especially if you keep winning. For those of us no longer in our twenties (or younger) the process of recovery is even more challenging. However, the need for recovery is not only for tournaments – if you want to train properly you need to be able to push yourself very hard multiple times a week.

There is a lot of talk about athletes using steroids – and the main purpose is invariably to reduce the recovery time and increase the number and intensity of workouts. That’s not my style however, so I have been on a quest to improve my recovery time without risking my health or crossing basic ethical boundaries. In my research on recovery I have seen a lot of the same themes from experts: Sleep, protein before and after workouts, post-workout stretching and staying hydrated. I want to share with you the most comprehensive and helpful article I have found which touches on some less-mentioned approaches that I have found extremely helpful – foam roller, tart cherry juice, and good music! I hope you find this as helpful as I have:

18 Scientifically Proven Ways to Speed Recovery

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Win some, lose some

With Hope Prockop, my friend and US Masters teammate, moments after her impressive battle with Sarah Fitzgerald.

With Hope Prockop, my friend and US Masters teammate, moments after her impressive battle with Sarah Fitzgerald.

Today I played Predy Fritsche , the top German masters player, in the round of 16.  He is a good player and got off to a strong start while I got off to a rather slow start.  Physically I felt pretty good (all things considered) but was having a tough time keeping the ball tight.  I went down 2-0, in both games digging a deep hole for myself before fighting back. After some good coaching after the 2nd game from Will Carlin, I started getting back to good squash again.  The game was even up until 8-8 when Predi went ahead 10-8. A long point followed with what I thought was a winning shot, but a let was requested for an apparent double-hit at some point during the rally, and a painfully over-matched ref acquiesced. I then brought it to 10-9, but a winning drop from Predi ended my come-back attempt.

The tournament is now over for me, and although it was an unsatisfying end, the tournament overall has been an incredible experience. Winning my match yesterday will stay with me for a long time, as will watching Hope Prockop battle with 5-time World Champion Sarah Fitzgerald. Hope impressed many, many people. The opening ceremonies were phenomenal, and the setting in Hong Kong was just stunning.  We now have a couple of days to explore Hong Kong before making our way home.

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Americans at the World Masters Championships: me, Ken Stillman, Andre Maur, Natalie Grainger, Hope Prockop and Will Carlin.

Americans at the World Masters Championships: me, Ken Stillman, Andre Maur, Natalie Grainger, Hope Prockop and Will Carlin.

What a match.  Today I played Chris Moody from South Africa in the round of 32 on a day when a number of seeded players went down.  Chris is a tremendous athlete and competitor, and no lead was ever safe. I was up in the first 6-2 and he came back to win 11-9.  In the second I held my lead and won 11-6. In the 3rd I was up 9-6 and he came back again to win 12-10. In the 4th he was up 7-5 and I went on a bit of a roll and won 11-8. Going into the 5th I was ready for war. I knew he would never give up, and seemed to have endless reserves of energy although I was working him tremendously hard almost every point. I started off strong, working him hard and finishing off the points with good straight and cross-court drops. I also used the boast to work him and counter-punched off his drop with deep cross-courts.  I rolled off the first bunch of points and went to 6-0. But he was still burning to get back in the game and was being cheered on very strongly by an impressively large South African contingent. The next point he hit a powerful crosscourt volley drop that rolled out of the nick. At that moment I knew that he would capitalize on any bit of momentum and that I had to win the next point. We played a long, long point, and I made a few desperate gets to keep the rally going. I finally got an opportunity with him too far forward and I hit a forehand drive to dying length. I played determined squash the next four points and closed out the 5th game 11-1. I haven’t played match this tough in quite a while, and it felt great to come out this battle with a W. But I also gained tremendous respect for Chris, who never gave up, hit great shots, and was a good sport. I now look forward to my round of 16 match with Germany’s top player who out of the corner of my eye I saw watching my match today.

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Wold Masters first match

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESToday I played a good player from Russia, Sergey Kostrykin, at the Hong Kong Squash Center. After 3 days of solo hitting at the local community sports center, it was great to actually play a match.  I felt good, moved and hit the ball well, and won in 3. Next up I go against a good player from South Africa and the match will be over at the Hong Kong Football Club. Maybe we’ll get in a game of bowling in after . . .

A couple of friends living in Hong Kong came to watch the match which was nice. Tom Burns, who lives in Hong Kong but is a student of mine whenever he travels to New York, graciously took us out to the Foreign Correspondents Club for a drink (seltzer and lemon!) which, if you like clubs, is a fantastic place. Famous original front pages on the walls, and a very comfortable and old-school bar. Oh – and then a Peking Duck dinner in a beautiful restaurant in the hills overlooking the City. What an evening!

Tomorrow I’ll get up early and get a hit in and then dive back into Hong Kong until it is time to head over for the match.  In the meantime, I’ll be rooting for Federer to win one more major . . .

You can follow all the results of the World Masters here.

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Solo practice before a match

Opening ceremony at the Hong Kong Football Club

Opening ceremony at the Hong Kong Football Club

Last night was the opening ceremonies of the World Masters Championships here in Hong Kong. 26 countries were represented with over 700 competitors and one “good luck” dragon. The ceremony was held at the Hong Kong Football Club which is quite a Club. I purposely got myself a bit lost so I could check it out a bit. There’s a 15,000 square foot indoor lawn bowling green, a full gym, a swimming pool, bowling alley, rugby fields, tennis and badminton courts along with 9 squash courts. It is a truly beautiful Club with endless photos on the walls displaying the many teams dating back to the Club’s founding in 1886. So you can see that I like this Club very much!

My first match is tomorrow against a good player from Russia. In the meantime I have been getting plenty of solo practice in at the local community sport center. Practicing solo is always a good idea, and I recommend that every player trying to improve get on the court at least once a week for a solo practice session.

A solo session before a match is different than a regular solo session in which you may be working specifically on mastering a shot or two or ingraining better movement. Before a match the focus is on calibration.  It is not time to learn how to do something new, but rather to fine-tune your game. The three areas that need calibration are the stroke, your alignment to the ball, and your movement around the court. There are many ways to do this, but what I like to do is 1) straight volleys to groove the forearm movement through the ball, 2) straight and cross-court drop shots to groove alignment, and 3) ghosting around the court to get the feet engaged.

A 45 minute solo session focusing on these three things is just right for me.  The other thing I like to do while awaiting my match is to watch a bit of top pro squash to get my head very much focused on creating good squash. I watched a great Nick Matthews-Ramy Ashour match this morning.

rounded.phpAs I have said before, it is also good to get completely away from squash for a bit, so this morning we had dim sum in Old Hong Kong, this afternoon we wandered around Hong Kong just exploring, and tonight we will watch the fireworks and light show from the harbor. Then it is off to the Hong Kong Squash Center tomorrow for my first match.

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