Stressful circumstances affect us all – from work difficulties, family issues, financial problems, or even just bouts of frustration with your game when you feel you’re playing badly – and everyone is subject to negative thoughts and mindsets at times.
These mental distractions can cause big problems with your focus during a game however when you’re physically on court but your mind is elsewhere. To avoid your game being affected, these thoughts ideally need to somehow be ‘shut away’ somewhere so as they can’t disturb your performance.
Whether you play squash to compete in leagues/tournaments etc., or you simply play for fun and recreation, to get the most out of the game you want to be able to play stress-free and undistracted. Performance levels will be higher if you’re playing physically relaxed and mentally focused, as will your sense of enjoyment.
Unfortunately, it is very easy for negative thoughts and stressful feelings to penetrate your concentration when you’re on court, affecting both pleasure and performance. The best time to deal with those thoughts isn’t in the middle of the game, so they need to somehow be mentally dismissed or ‘locked away’ for at least the time being.
One method that has been used successfully in sport psychology for dealing with this problem, is the Black Box. The Black Box is a short visualisation procedure where negative thoughts and distractions are imagined being locked away in a separate compartment deep in your subconscious, to be addressed later.
Another visualisation method often used that’s along similar lines, is that of picturing the closing of the court door as representing ‘closing the door’ on all of the outside negative thoughts and feelings you may be suffering from before you even begin to hit a ball. It takes some practice to make it feel natural, but the idea is to really take a moment before you go on to play to picture the court environment as a warm, light, positive, and enjoyable place to be, and feel that stepping onto that court represents moving into this other place where your stresses and strains are all trapped outside of the closing door.
One of the great benefits of becoming proficient in using this technique is that even when times may be particularly challenging in your daily life, the court can become almost a sanctuary of sorts where you can go to get away from the stresses and strains for a time and worry about addressing and dealing with them later.
A good analogy often used in sports psychology, is to imagine your mind in the same way as a smartphone or tablet. If you’re working with an app/programme on your phone but have a ton of apps also open running in the background, even though they’re not being directly operated or brought to the forefront, they’re still using up valuable RAM/resources that detract from optimal performance. In the same way, you can’t just get rid of negative thoughts, you can’t just delete all of the apps – what you can try and do however is to manage them and/or suspend them, allowing for the greatest possible focus and allocation of resources to the task in hand.
No sports psychology method is going to solve all your stresses and strains or eradicate negative thoughts overnight. The key thing though is to attempt to develop a method where they don’t distract you while you play.
Having that ability to shut out unwanted thoughts – be they from external work/family/social pressures, or from bad habits you have of holding on to mistakes or errors you make during a game – is crucial to both optimising your on-court performance, and being able to play and enjoy your squash without succumbing to negativity or frustration.
B.Sc.(Hons), CSCS, NSCA-CPT, Dip. FTST
SquashSkills Fitness & Performance Director