Whatever standard or level of competition you play at, the game of squash always begins with a knock-up – 5mins of hitting the ball back n forth with your opponent, 2½mins on each side. For many amateur players in particular, this knock-up is nothing more than a necessary evil, used to just briefly get the ball warm before plunging straight into a game. This is a gross oversight however – taken advantage of correctly, the knock-up can be an excellent way to groove in your shots, scope out your opponent, and to properly prepare yourself for the forthcoming match.
Before looking at what the knock-up IS however, it’s perhaps best to start with what it is NOT. Despite popular belief, the knock-up should NOT be your ‘warm-up’!
We’ve discussed here on SquashSkills many times before the importance of a properly constructed warm-up, to optimise your on-court performance and ready your body for the physical exertions ahead. Bouncing around a little during a knock-up throwing in a half-hearted stretch or two is NOT a good way to do this!
That said, for the amateur player there may of course be occasions when other commitments and responsibilities crop up that eat into squash time, and you’re rushing to the club with literally no spare time available due to a restricted court time window.
On these occasions, you just have to make the best of things – the best advice here would be to still attempt to follow an approximation of the 3-part structure of a more comprehensive squash-specific warm-up, but cut it right down to where you spend just a couple of minutes staying light on the feet with little hops and bounces on the spot, progressing into a few lunges, squats, and arm circles (while the ball is on your opponent’s side of the court), before finally moving into a few short sharp sprints back n forth (try running in a few drops and sprinting forward to pick it up). It’s not ideal, but it is at least something.
So if the knock-up is not supposed to be your warm-up, what exactly should you be focusing on instead? There are 3 main areas the diligent player should be aware of – grooving your shots, analysing your opponent, and familiarising yourself with the court and conditions.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the knock-up, is the opportunity to groove in your base shots. Take the time to find your rhythm up and down the wall on each side of the court, hitting with a mixture of height and pace and finding your targets for your length shots. Vary your crosscourts to your opponent also; hit a few high lobs, a few hard low drives, a few volleys.
Remember to take in a few short balls as well – it’s not uncommon to watch two amateur players knock-up for 5+ minutes without actually putting in a single drop shot! The drop is very much a shot of touch and control, and for it to be effective in a match you really need to ensure you’ve grooved it in by hitting a few in your knock-up – otherwise come the first rally of the game and your first attacking opportunity, you’ll be trying to play that drop with your upmost feel and accuracy when the last time you hit the ball anywhere near similarly was the last time you played maybe +48hrs ago!
In addition to the benefits of hitting with a variety of height, width, and pace in the knock-up gives to your own shot repertoire, it also allows you a great opportunity to see how your opponent responds to that same variety of shots.
Lob a few balls up high to see how your opponent deals with a volley, drill a few slightly looser balls into their body to see how quick they are with their hands/footwork, throw a boast or two in to see what their first step and speed to the front of the court is like. Elite professional players usually have some idea of who their opponent is and their relative strengths and weaknesses, but the club player playing a league match or a graded tournament will frequently be seeing their opposition for the very first time – use that 5min knock-up to learn as much about them as you can.
Other things to look for in your opponent are the size of their swing (Is it excessive? Will it affect their ability to get the ball out of the back corners?), any ‘tells’ they have (Does their racket or body angle change in any obvious way when they hit cross-court? Or when they hit short?), any immediately apparent tendencies (Are they hitting all their shots at the same pace? Do they generally hit a shorter or deeper length?), any obvious strengths (Have they slammed in multiple cross court nicks? Have they thrown in many deceptive drops from the back of the court?), and any weaknesses (Do they tend to struggle and end up forced to boast when the ball gets past them? Do they get caught underneath the ball on high lobs?).
You of course want to go on-court with a good understanding of your own strengths and with a general game-plan in mind formulated according to that, but using the knock-up to analyse your opponent is a great way to really fine-tune your tactics ahead of the start of the match.
So you’re thinking about grooving in your own shots, you’re thinking about making some initial assessments regarding your opponent’s game; the third and final factor to consider is perhaps a little less specific – the court conditions and general surroundings.
If it’s a court you’re not familiar with, pay attention to how it plays – consider things like whether the ball comes off the wall particularly fast, note if there seem to be any dead spots in the back corners, observe the condition of the floor and whether the ball skids off and picks up speed etc. Think about the temperature as well – contemplate how you may need to adjust your tactics and be cautious with your drops if the court is particularly hot and the ball is looking lively, or alternatively on a cold court in winter think how the short ball may become that much more effective (for you AND your opponent).
Familiarise yourself with the surroundings as well – if it’s an unfamiliar club, there may well be a level of noise you’re not used to, or excessive movement outside of the court if on a glass back. You may not be able to do anything about these aspects, but just mentally checking them off so they don’t completely surprise you if you become aware of them mid-game can be a useful mental tool before you return your full focus to the upcoming game.
So despite its seemingly simple premise, there is a great deal more going on within the knock-up for the astute player. Along with readying your mind and body for the match ahead, there are also several big potential benefits to be taken advantage of if the knock-up is approached correctly. The knock-up isn’t a competition with your opponent, you don’t gain any extra points for ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ a knock-up – just try to stay mentally cool and focused, while grooving your shots, analysing your opponent, and building your familiarity with the court. In a closely fought match, that extra eye for detail in your preparation may well be enough to help get you over the line.
Gary Nisbet - B.Sc.(Hons), CSCS, NSCA-CPT, Dip. FTST
Squashskills Fitness & Performance Director
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