When I ask athletes and coaches to make a list of mental skills they often look at me in shock as they usually don’t know what to put on it. It’s easy to list the shots you can play in squash, the types of physical training required and what you are meant to do as part of your recovery. Listing the mental skills in sport and in squash, in particular, is likely something you haven’t done before.
The purpose of this post is to start peeling away the layers of the mental element so you know exactly what counts as a mental skill. Once you know what counts you can then start working on those skills to improve your mental game. The end result will be an improvement in your performance and that is what it’s all about.
The Mental Element in Squash
I like to break the mental element in squash down into the following two categories:
Competition refers to everything that happens on a day when you are playing a competitive match. Practice refers to every other day.
Competition and practice are two separate environments which have different mental skills. For example, practice is where we are focused on skill-acquisition and learning our skill set, whereas competition is skill-execution oriented. Ideally, your mental game is being developed and practiced in your practice environment so it can be executed in competition. For many players, this is not the case as their practice environment is lacking some vital mental components, which is why they have skill execution issues when it matters most – during matches.
For this post, we will look at the mental demands of competition as this is what we need to be preparing ourselves for in our practice environment. Next post we will cover the practice environment and how to adequately prepare ourselves for the demands of competition.
The Mental Demands of Competition
Humans get nervous before they perform or compete. This is a biological fact and there are biological systems and processes in place that facilitate this. Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) is in charge and it includes two sub-systems called the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS activates what is commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ response which gives us energy and activates the necessary systems for performance. The PNS is what helps us relax the body and calm down.
It is this response from our SNS that separates competition from practice. The presence of adrenaline in our bodies is a sign of SNS activation and this only comes out when we perform or are under stress. Few of us have our adrenaline kick in during practice, which is often why we perform so differently in each environment. The Holy Grail for peak performance in sport is to have our practice conditions exceed or at least match our performance conditions, but we will go into that in more detail when we look at the practice environment and the mental skills we use there.
Prior to a competition, our SNS is activated and we have nerves to deal with, which often happens at some stage pre-performance. Nerves can also occur during the match as well so we need to be able to manage this. Due to the heightened activation of our SNS, we are also more emotionally sensitive, which means poor decisions from referee’s (and other things) can get to us and produce an emotional response. The court and the surrounding environment can also provoke an emotional response on match day due to this activation in our nervous system, which is absent when we practice.
When we compete we want to win, so this adds another layer of stress to our match day experience, which also isn’t present when we practice. Our desire to win can push us through physical pain and help us overcome adversity during the match. However, our desire to win can also make us more sensitive to emotional outbursts and potentially cripple us with anxiety to the point that it impairs our ability to move effectively on court and play the shots we need to play to win. Due to the fast nature of squash, there isn’t much time to manage emotions between points so you have to get really good at that, otherwise, it will cost you more than one point if it takes you too long to regain control of your emotions.
Closing out a game or a match often involves winning the mental battle between our SNS, which is full of energy, adrenaline and excitement because we are close to winning, and our PNS, which helps us calm our body down to a level that allows us to effectively perform our shots to get the job done. As a player myself I have certainly had times where I have been willing my opponent to make an error on game ball for me so I don’t have to do the hard work and win the point myself. We all do this to some degree, even the pros. Mental toughness involves being able to love doing the hard work and winning the point when it counts, instead of looking for the easy way out.
At some stage during a match we are going to encounter fatigue and possibly some physical pain. Our legs will start to feel heavy and our lungs will start to burn and scream at us for oxygen. During this time our physical condition can exert pressure on us to make different decisions or cut corners regarding shot selection and movement.
For example, when novice or amateur players get fatigued they usually stop hitting the ball straight because they don’t want to have to keep clearing the ball. They hit it cross court instead so they can have a rest. This is a mental battle between playing the shot we know is the right shot to play instead of giving in to the temptation to play the shot we know is the wrong shot to play but the one we want to play to so we can have a rest and make it easy for us.
Fatigue also often results in players taking more risk and trying to attack everything instead of building the point and waiting for an opportunity to attack. This is a large part of the on-court mental battle once fatigue is a factor.
Now that we have outlined some of the mental challenges that a competitive match presents we can make a list of the mental skills we need to overcome those challenges and achieve our desired result of consistently high performance.
List of Match Day Mental Skills
- Managing pre-match nerves and adrenaline
- Setting and maintaining appropriate goals and expectations
- Directing our attention and concentration
- Performing an effective warm-up
During the Match (with a heart rate of up to 180 bpm)
- Playing our best from the 1st point
- Directing our attention and concentration (especially after we make an error!)
- Discipline to stick to our game plan
- Managing nerves during the match (closing out games, closing out the match)
- Managing emotions
- Overcoming adversity (being behind on the scoreboard, being bullied by opponent)
- Coping with physical pain and fatigue
- Decision making and shot selection, especially under fatigue
- Coping with referee decisions, crowd noise, on court temperature
- Making tactical changes as required
- Recovery between games (knowing what works best for you and letting your coach know)
- Post-match physical and mental recovery
- Post-match technical review of performance
That’s a pretty long list!
My role as a psychologist is to teach you skills that can help shorten this list and give you only a few things to focus on that will take care of everything. That is why professional help with the mental game is so important. You get a mental game plan that you execute during matches, just as you execute your technical game plan.
Want to learn more about mental toughness?
Check out this series where Paul Assaiante explains everything you need to know to improve your mental toughness during matches.Watch now