I often get asked for the best advice to give players right before a big match or event. The first thing to say is that there is very little physically you should do so close to the big match. You need to trust in what you have done in the previous months and even years. Thinking and praying for a short-term solution will only serve to damage you and likely only serve to add a heavy burden to your mind.
A lot of players believe that getting in extra court-time, an extra fitness or ghosting session, one more sharpening session with a coach, one more rolling cross-court nick in a solo will help. Yes, all these MAY help and give you SOME confidence and belief, so do not fully discount them, but I think there is something greater and more powerful you can do. And this involves the mind and preparedness. Setting aside the physical and focussing on the mental.
It was Theodore Roosevelt who said:
“Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are”
You should heed these wise words in the days before a lead up to this important match or event. What lenses are you looking through to get the best out of yourself in the lead up to this match? Read on to get some valuable tools and ideas for the mind and how to have the best mental preparedness you can have.
RUN YOUR OWN RACE
The first, and arguably the most important, tip I offer is for you to try and run your own race. You be you! You are good enough in this very moment. You need to try and stop comparing yourself to others.
I often use the below picture of Michael Phelps being looked at by his rival Chad Le Clos during a race. This picture is striking and speaks volumes. I know it is only one small snapshot of the entire race but the look (and maybe even panic) on Chad’s face looking across at Michael says to me he is reacting and comparing himself to Michael in this moment. This moment of looking across is likely to serve no purpose at this part of the race. This idea, this picture, can and should be used for not only squash but for life in general.
We are all too busy reacting to and seeking external validation for our actions and behaviours. Try and make you be your voice of judgment and validation. Your standards and benchmarks are the most important ones, not anyone else’s. That includes teammates, friends, colleagues, strangers, mentors and even family.
Furthermore, one of the most common things I hear with players when they know who they are going to play is what I call “connecting the dots”. This is a process whereby a player begins to connect multiple past performances of player vs player vs player.
For example, I once heard a player say something along the lines of, “So last week on Monday I know Johnny unexpectantly beat Mike, but it was a close 3-1 and the courts suited Mike, so then Johnny must be in great form! Because the weekend before there was this low seeded player that managed to take a game off a real top player and then Mike was able to beat this lower player quite convincingly. So it goes to figure that because Mike got the win against another player in form, Johnny must be playing the best he has ever played. Oh, and the week before Johnny did 10 sets of 400-meter sprints on the track.”
Wow! How complicated and convoluted is that? I can’t even keep up, can you? As you can see this serves absolutely NO purpose to how you should be approaching the match or event you are playing in. All this does is connect random dots from random events with no context. Who knows what was going on with Johnny or Mike or anyone else for that matter in their personal lives? And to be blunt, who cares? What I mean by this is that the results of other previous matches should serve no purpose to how you really want to play and how you should be looking to run your own race. All that thinking is just white noise. It drains your own mental energy and takes you off task what is important. Which is the way YOU want to play and the way YOU should run your own race!
In a recent interview I had with Nour El Sherbini, I asked her when she starts a match, what is her focus on? On her game plan and herself? Or on her opponent and how to combat her? Before I even finished my question Nour quickly jumped in and confirmed it was all about her. Her game, her plan, her processes. Her planting her flag on the court and being the one to take control.
“I always feel that I must play my game. What I am supposed to do I have to do it. And that will stop my opponent from what they are supposed to do” – Nour El Sherbini
She did however make the point you have to always be aware about what your opponent is doing. In squash, unlike maybe in swimming, you have an opponent in the same space battling with you, trying to disrupt you, trying to do all they can to beat you and expose your weaknesses. It would be remiss, and foolish, of you to put the blinkers on and just be completely insular. There is data to be collected from the external environment and you should use this. Yes, run your race, you be you, but strike the right balance. Lean more into your game plan, your strengths, the way you want to play, what success looks like for you.
This audio can be found in the SquashMind app if you type in, “Nour El Sherbini on Starting A Match”.
“When we surrender our right to choose, we give others not just the power but also the explicit permission to choose for us. Make it a priority not just to recognise the power of choice, but to celebrate it.” – Greg McKeown
One of the most useful tools I feel that is baked into the SquashMind app is the Game Planning journal. Game Planning is hugely important and powerful for these 5 reasons:
- It helps you play under pressure
- It helps you stay focussed
- It helps you start the match off strong
- It helps you feel more in control of the match
- It helps you become a smarter player
Game planning is fundamental when you are entering the competitive arena. Without game planning, you will be lost and uncertain and this is where nerves and anxiety can really start to kick in. The Game Planning journal in the app is broken down into three distinct sections (1. the game plan, 2. the opponent, 3. the match review) all of which have some key questions and scripts for you to answer and write down your responses to.
A match doesn’t begin when it starts and ends when it stops. It begins off the court, continues through your pre-match regimen and into the match, and goes on after you’ve won or lost the final point. By giving yourself a good chance to start right you’re giving yourself a good chance to finish right. That’s worth the extra attention!
Linked closely to Game Planning, another valuable practical tool I get all my players to do before matches now is to write down their definition of success and to have it to hand to look at before matches and even in-between games. The definition of success can be written down on a piece paper that is kept in your bag, or in your physical or digital journal, or my personal favourite, taken as a photo and used as the wallpaper on your phone!
Your definition of success must be 100% within your control. It needs to be ACTIONABLE and DELIVERABLE. So, this means that your definition of success will have NOTHING to do with the result, the outcome, or where you end up in the final rankings. All these things are NOT within your control. You may have some influence over them yes, but remember, what is 100% within your control? This is where the focus, effort, and attention should lie.
Here are some recent examples from players who have written down their definitions of success over the years:
- Quiet mind, no judgements just curious observations
- Die on your sword, take on the attacking shot when it presents itself
- Positive body language, head up, feet moving, shoulders back
- Inject pace, win the length battle, get in front, then inject pace
- Focus on delivering my game plan for the entirety of the match
- Enjoy interacting with other players around the event
- Keeping my wrist strong
- Bend my knees
- Length, MUST get it past early, win the length battle!
- Not allowing my mind to be taken off task, reset at the start of each rally
- Embracing my nerves and knowing they are there for a reason
- Performing my warm-up and cool-down protocols after every match
- Play with a converting mindset when close to the finish line
- Be willing to do the dirty, hard work for long periods
The above list is not just from one person. There would be too much here to remember and execute well under pressure. The idea is to give yourself a small, actionable, and deliverable list that you can rely on when the pressure is at its highest. This list should be etched into your memory, but often when pressure strikes these are the last things that you think about and hold yourself accountable to. Therefore, having them written down and checking on them before and during matches is so valuable. I would suggest the list to be no longer than five points. Anything more you will be asking too much of yourself to remember during the heat of battle.
If you can set your actionable list, and then deliver on them, this is true success! No matter the outcome or the result, you need to see this as being successful. It is so easy to judge the win or loss as either good or bad. But it’s about the craft you are honing along the way. The processes you are mastering each match. The mentally tough person you are becoming. The resilient character you are building. You may not see the results right away but master the process and the results will follow! Remember to chop wood, carry water!
“Ultimately, true mental toughness is a higher standard that winning” – Joshua Medcalf
Setting your definition of success also gives you a feeling that you are in control as you know you can do what you have asked of yourself, and this is now an achievable challenge. Defining your success helps reduce nerves and anxiety because you now have a feeling of direction and purpose. We feel a lot more settled when we know what we need to do, and our skillset can match the environment. Because you are asking yourself to do something you have 100% control over this will now feel like a superpower!
As an example, from my playing days, this was a line I had written down and wrote down many times before playing. I felt it really encapsulates my definition of success as well as gives me a real purpose and focus. What I think is also powerful about this statement is that it takes my mind off the pressure of winning and losing the whole match. I am in the moment and looking to play every point to win, but I let go whatever the outcome of that point.
“Today I play every point to win. I don’t worry about winning or losing the match but whether I am making the maximum effort during every point because this is where the true value lies”
As you may or may not know, when you visualise effectively you activate the exact same brain circuits as if you were performing the act or skill you are visualising. The brain cannot tell the difference! You should practice visualisation based on your above definition of success. It goes to figure if you can run the movie in your head time and time again, the brain will feel like it has already done this hundreds, if not thousands, of times before you step on court to play. This will allow you to be closer at executing exactly what you want to do. And always remember, visualise what is 100% within your control.
Furthermore, In the SquashMind app, there is a Best Match journal. Being able to relive your best matches has been proven to be a hugely powerful tool when it comes to building confidence and self-belief. Reflect on some of the times you have played your best and use the Best Matches journal to write down in as much detail the matches as you can recall. The more attention to detail you can bring to the journal the better. Reliving the emotions, sights, smells, feelings, and inner voice will bring it more into focus and a way for you to rehearse these powerful positive feelings. Athletes capture these performances and read back over them before competitions to activate the brain and body and to release dopamine, the feel-good molecule. This is real and true positive thinking, not empty positive thinking. The fact is you have done this before, you have played that match, you have lived and executed it. It is in your DNA. You can rely on it and use it.
Alongside visualising your definition of success, you should now also look to visualise and relive your best matches once you have them written down. Combining these two powerful, real, and controllable forces into your visualisation practice. When done and practised on a steady and consistent basis your mind will become sharper, clearer, and more precise. Exactly the configuration you should strive for before entering a match.
Camille Serme has shared with me during a podcast her very cool and unique way of dispelling negativity during training or once she is playing and competing at an event.
What she does is write down three negative or unhelpful emotions on three separate pieces of paper. For example, Camille used the following words: negativity, scared or afraid, and bad emotions. You want to think about some negative emotions you exhibit that are personal to you and write them down in this way.
The next stage is for Camille to attach these pieces of paper to something in her bag that she was not going to immediately use. Such as her reel of strings, inside of a wrist band, a pair of spare socks, whatever she had in her bag of this nature. She would ensure not to attach these pieces of paper to anything she would often use, such as her water bottle, as she did not want to view or see these negative emotions all the time.
So now during the match, when Camille would feel this emotion rising, during the break she would forcefully take the object with the negative emotion attached to it out of her bag and “get rid of it”. She would throw it away from her bag, she would distance herself from it. Even at times she would walk over to the discarded negative emotion and walk/stamp on it to fully reenforce getting rid of it.
Camille was using a physical action to completely remove a negative emotion and dispel it from her bag and therefore from her mind. This is a classic distancing tool and has been used in sport psychology for some time now. She said she has used this tool her whole career and puts high value on it and the way it helps her distance herself from dwelling and ruminating on the unhelpful and destructive negative emotions. What is your version of this going to look like and entail? Can you adapt it to suit your needs? Maybe it will just involve paper in your bag on match day? Whatever you think will be most effective. But I would urge and encourage you to at least try it, and not only once, but several times to give it a real go.
It was great to hear Camille share this idea as I used to have my version of this. It was however a version that was done away from the courts and a long time before matches. I would write on a single piece of A4 paper in large letters the big negative emotions that were holding me back. For example, nervousness, fear of failure, impressing others, low expectations, and so on. I would then crumple this paper up into a small ball and put it in the bin with real gusto and enthusiasm. I’d get rid of it. It would be gone!
At one point, to emphasise the exercise even more, the psychologist I was working with had a bucket in his garden. He took me outside and got me to put my crumbled bit of paper, my emotion I was trying to get rid of, into the bucket and light it with a match! To burn it! I found this highly useful, and subsequently, I did then take this exercise one step deeper by bringing this image of the bucket with burning pieces of paper into my visualisation practices before matches and watch the smoke drift off and with it taking the negative and unhelpful emotions away. It was powerful and worked well for me! I can still see this today as I write, and the big emotion written in red on the paper right before crumpling it up and burning it.
This audio can be found in the SquashMind app if you type in, “Camille Serme on Dispelling Negativity”.
Overthinking this close to the match or event is a real problem. With all the above tips and information, you can easily start to overthink and make the match into such a big deal. It is obviously important, and you should recognise and tag this. But then you also need to work on letting go. Stepping back. Zooming right out. You have given it thought and time and attention. You now need to rest the mind and accept you have done what you can. When you rest effectively, the mind starts to weave and piece together the pieces of the jigsaw and begins to make sense of the picture you are trying to create. With continuous conscious heavy lifting the subconscious brain cannot work its magic.
The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for key functions such as focus, emotional control, creativity, and coordaining complex behaviours (all things REALLY great to play squash well!), can very quickly become overused. Operating this part of the brain takes a lot of stored energy and is a valuable and limited resource we should look to conserve.
Training the mind is often quite different to how you might imagine it to be. Maybe you have an idea it’s about stopping thoughts or eliminating feelings. But the reality is a bit different and an easy way to think of it is to imagine yourself sitting on the side of a busy road. The passing cars representing thoughts and feelings. All you have to do is to sit there and watch the cars. Sounds easy right? But what usually happens is that we feel a bit unsettled by the movement of the traffic. So, we run out on the road to try and stop the cars. Or maybe even chase after a few. The idea was to just sit here. And of course, all this running around only adds to the feeling of restlessness in the mind and furthermore burns out the prefrontal cortex.
So, training the mind is about changing our relationship with the passing thoughts and feelings. Learning how to view them with a little more perspective and when we do this, you naturally find a place of calm. But will we sometimes forget the idea of the exercise and become distracted? Of course, we will, but as soon as we remember, here you are back on the side of the road again just watching the traffic go by perfectly at ease in both body and mind.
One way to help train the mind and reduce prefrontal cortex burnout is to begin a mindfulness and mediation protocol. Training the mind to be in the here and now and not to overthink and judge will serve you well. There are dedicated and built-in guided mediations in the SquashMind app just for this purpose and if you search for “meditation” you will be presented with plenty to choose from.
You should look towards sleep as your SUPERPOWER when leading up to an event or big match. Prioritise a sleep protocol in YOUR LEAD UP. This should be done for all parts of life if I am being picky, but if we are just zooming into this upcoming match then getting in your good quality sleep hours is essential!
As discussed previously when I spoke about overthinking, sleep is fundamental for resting the brain and allowing deep learning to take place. Multiple studies point to the benefit of what academics now call “delayed offline learning” and it comes across exclusively in sleep. During delayed offline learning, the conscious efforts that took place in the day, or over several days, begin to percolate into the subconscious mind. What the studies also go on to show is that when delayed offline learning took place, participants performing cognitive or motor tasks were more fluid, more seamless, lacking errors and overall, more autonomous than the control group by a percentage of between 25-40%. They were essentially calling on the subconscious mind to do some of the heavy lifting. This is the ideal state we want our brain to be in right before we play that match we have been focussing on for some time.
For a deeper dive into sleep being your superpower I will signpost you to this blog I wrote dedicate to this most important habit we should prioritise for all parts of our lives.
So matchday has arrived and there is very little more you can or should do besides taking care of the basics. You need to trust in what you have done the previous few days, weeks, and months. You should try and trust in your previous processes and let your best self in this moment come to the party. Over-preparing and over-thinking are real problems and the best thing you can now do is ensure the basics are done well.
Hydrate before, during and after your matches. Be sure you always have your water bottle or energy drink close to you and it is filled up. Take lots of little sips throughout the day.
Eat a decent meal about 2-4 hours before you play. You do not want to feel slugging by wolfing down a bowl of pasta 45-mins before you play. Alongside this, have some bananas as well as some jelly style sweets if you need a little sugar pick-me-up. A bite of a banana is a great energy source to have in-between games. You could also use some gel packs to have right before you go on court or also in between games to keep your energy levels high.
Do a decent physical warm-up. The best tip I ever heard was from Nick Matthew when he spoke about doing a warm-up that felt like he was already at 5-5 in the first game by the time he stepped on court to warm the ball up. You should feel a slight sweat on yourself as well as your heart rate being at about 70%. You should feel the full range of your body and your movements warm and stretched out.
Whilst doing your physical warm-up you should also begin to do your mental warm-up. This can involve light visualisations about how you want to start the match, or certain scenarios that may unfold during the match. Alongside some visualisations go back to your definition of success and go through this a few times. Read what you have written down whether that be on your wallpaper on your phone or written down physically. You should also refer to this definition in-between games to keep you on course.
In the SquashMind app, there is a Pre-Match tab that has plenty of useful tools such as guided micro-meditations, tactics to use against different styles of players, and other short lessons for mental areas such as coping with nerves, dealing with pressure, and building confidence and self-belief. Get in the habit of opening the app and diving into these useful and important Pre-Match mental tools.
Finally, use the knock up to get your body moving, to feel like you are fully hitting through the ball, to use your body weight through your shots, to practice your strengths, to practice a range of shots with varying paces, heights, and angles.
Use this time to really watch and study the flight of the ball as well as the technique and body movements of your opponent. Take in as much information as possible. Get used to the pace of the court and the bounce of the ball. Is the court warm or cold? Does it take certain shots in very well? How is the floor? What height is the ceiling to use your lobs? Being tuned in and aware and mindful of these areas can help you get into gear mentally and physically for the match you are about to begin.
In summary, a huge amount of information has been presented in this blog and I do fear that it can easily become an overload for you, the reader. The goal of this blog is to present you with a full toolkit of things to use when building up to that big event or match. It is unlikely, and not recommended, that you do and follow every single protocol to its fullest degree. This will easily just serve to add even more pressure and do the opposite of trying to get you to perform your best. The flow and zone state we are all looking for when competing happens when very little thought is taking place and the subconscious is doing the heavy lifting. This flow and zone state can only be achieved consistently by inputting the correct bits of information over the course of time (days, weeks, and months before) and then letting the mind rest and be content in the here and now.
I would recommend running lots of different experiments over time using the above tools to find what works best for you in different situations. Being aware and conscious of what to try and do is a key step in the right direction and then it is about effectively reflecting on what worked and what didn’t work. Remember not to dismiss something if you try it once and it did not work. You need to give the tools you are working on a fair shot before dismissing them fully.
- Run your own race. Remember this is about you trying to be the best version of yourself. You are playing for no one else besides yourself (even if competing for a team, squash is a very individual sport).
- Game plan. Be sure to use the scripts in the SquashMind app to get you focussed on what you should be trying to do and to help you feel in control and start the match off strong.
- Define success. Think about what is 100% in your control and write down what you want to achieve in the match. Use this as your compass about how to play and know that if you deliver on this you will be successful.
- Run the plays and scenarios in your head in the days leading up to the event as well as during your warm-up phase on matchday. Use your previous Best Match entry in the SquashMind app to relive the feelings and emotions of playing your best ever match.
- Dispel negativity. There is no place and no use for you to have negative thoughts and emotions in the build-up to the event. Use a physical way to get rid of these negative and destructive thoughts during training sessions as well as on matchday.
- Prioritise a solid sleep protocol to let the brain be fresh and clear and for deep learning to take place.
- On matchday do the basics well such as hydrate, eat, and warm up physically and mentally. Use the knock-up well and take in as much information as possible at this time.
- Finally, try and mitigate overthinking. Let your mind rest. Be relaxed and at peace with where you are. Use the Pre-Match tools in the SquashMind app to help calm the nerves and freshen up the mind for optimal performance.
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