To play sport competitively at any level requires a range of different skills and abilities to succeed. To really excel though, it’s necessary to garner a deeper understanding of the major elements that blend together to make-up that sport.
While each sport has its own unique set of attributes required for success, particularly one so multi-faceted as squash, all competitive athletic pursuits can be generally divided into four main components: Technical, Tactical, Physical, and Mental.
Having an awareness of these four crucial components is the first step to thinking like an elite athlete, and understanding what they are, why they’re important, and how to train them can go a long way to improving sporting performance.
The first component to consider then is technique, and this is perhaps the element most commonly thought of when assessing aptitude in a sport.
The technical side of the game deals with the specifics of the main actions of the sport – in respect to squash, this is primarily the hitting of the ball (preparation, swing, grip etc.) and the movement (footwork, positioning, body alignment etc.). Think of an elite player such as James Willstrop, whose every shot and swing is carried out with laser focus and precision.
Regarding developing technique, it’s useful to remember the adage that ‘Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent’. No matter how hard and long you spend practicing, if your technique isn’t being performed correctly you’ll just get more consistent at doing it wrong.
The emphasis when developing technique should be to repeat key movement patterns and actions accurately and correctly for sufficient time or reps, to convert a cognitive motor pattern (requiring coordinated concentration) into an autonomous one that requires very little conscious effort - this is the difference between having to think about the technique for a shot, to allowing it to just happen automatically. The quality of movement is the key to developing these skills – every time you perform sloppy technical movements, you reinforce a bad habit.
How to improve the TECHNICAL side of your game:
The best way to improve your technique is to work with a qualified and experienced coach who can work you through a range of structured drills and routines, while providing clear and relatable feedback. Video can be a very useful tool here as well, whether it be through direct analysis with your coach, or just simply watching back your own games/practices and comparing it to an elite professional model.
It’s worth also remembering that new skills are best learned while you’re fresh, so that you can better coordinate and control your motor patterns. For this reason, it’s a good idea to focus on new technique in dedicated sessions separate from your conditioning work, or at least at the start of a training session when you’re not overly fatigued.
The tactical side of sport then, deals with decision making and reacting to situations. In squash this relates to how you think about the structure of the game, the shots you select, and the choices you make within rallies.
Tactical implementation can be thought of in terms of putting your technical tools together to carry out a desired strategy. It involves selecting the right tool for the right job, and piecing together connecting techniques in response to your opponent’s own choices and reaction.
Tactically strong players are very good at utilising different shots in both defence and attack, while varying timing and rhythm to make it hard for their opponent to implement their own tactics. Good examples in the professional game are players like Laura Massaro and Nick Matthew, who are masters of making subtle adjustments to maximise their own strengths and expose their opponent’s weaknesses.
In line with that, it’s an important tactical point to also aim to really gain familiarity with your own strengths and weaknesses — to become a better squash player, it’s extremely important to ‘know yourself’. Tactics are as much about knowing what you do well, as they are knowing what your opponents do badly
How to improve the TACTICAL aspect of your game:
Tactical proficiency is best developed working with a good coach or hitting partner. The use of open drills requiring you to respond to some kind of restriction or controlled situation are a great way to develop this, forcing you to make good decisions and formulate appropriate strategies to overcome the artificial constraints imposed by the particular routine you’re practicing.
Another good method of developing your tactical mastery, is by simply ensuring you play a wide variety of different kinds of players – let the game be the teacher. Play your club’s resident cardio machine retriever, the aged but savvy veteran, the lazy out of shape nick hunter, the up and coming junior – win, lose, or draw, you’ll learn how to play different styles and adapt to different opponents.
Watch video of pro players doing this also – check out the aforementioned Nick Matthew for example, and compare and contrast his tactics against a stylish flair player such as Ramy Ashour, or a physically imposing grinder such as Simon Rosner.
Despite traditional belief, the physical side of the game is about a lot more than just general ‘fitness’. There are a wide variety of different physical attributes that go into making up an athlete in any sport, and in squash this includes endurance, stability, power, speed, and flexibility. A good physical foundation is the base upon which the technical and tactical side of the game are built, and helps ensure these elements don’t break down too much through tiredness and fatigue.
A good physical training programme prepares the athlete to perform optimally in their specific sport or activity. It not only builds the aforementioned attributes of strength, power, speed etc., but it also helps underpin the coordinated movement required for technical mastery of the chosen sport. A good example of a player who stands out physically is Greg Gaultier, who combines all the various attributes of stamina, strength, mobility, and movement to great effect.
Even more so than many other sports, squash is a tremendously physically challenging pursuit, that requires an interaction of a variety of your body’s energy systems to produce optimum physical performance. This physical element is one of the great things about the game of squash – the fact that an extremely well-conditioned player can potentially overcome a more skilled opponent through sheer determination and attrition.
How to improve the PHYSICAL characteristics of your game:
It’s important to recognise that the fitness element of squash is multi-faceted. The different physical attributes integral to the game, require different methods and modality of training – just doing the occasional set of court sprints or a few ghosting patterns is not going to be enough to maximise your physical potential.
It can be hard to find a trainer who understands how to develop sports-specific conditioning, much less one who properly understands the intricacies of the sport of squash. Physically challenging workouts such as bike sprints, track sessions, and resistance training can be quickly and easily researched online however, and all will have a significant positive effect on your physical performance if implemented into your training week.
Think about also incorporating some kind of periodical physical testing. Without assessing your fitness at regular intervals, it’s very difficult to ascertain how effective your physical training programme is. How you ‘feel’ physically on court is obviously one gauge, but objectively measuring your conditioning levels is really the only way to truly accurately monitor your improvements.
The mental side of the game is perhaps more difficult to clearly define, but primarily has to do with how an individual performs in challenging situations, and how they cope with pressure.
This ‘pressure’ could come from a variety of different things, such as the importance of the game (i.e. a tournament final), the amount of people watching, or performing for a team when others are relying on you. A good example of someone who has stood out as having great mental strength in the professional game, is Nicol David. Very rarely will you see Nicol out of her zone, rattled by her opponent, or launching emotional outbursts at the referee. She remains cool, calm, and composed nearly all of the time.
The psychological element of squash however, is perhaps the most neglected of the 4 technical/tactical/physical/mental that we’ve looked at. Coping with the weight of pressure or nerves and maintaining positive, constructive thought processes requires as much attention and practice as the technical or physical aspects of the game, yet so few players actually properly address it.
Mental strength is of massive importance in such a claustrophobic and tightly contested game as squash, but it can be a difficult thing for a lot of players to actually understand or have any real concept of how to improve. Addressing this side of the game though, can reap great dividends in your competitive matchplay.
How to improve the MENTAL part of your game:
Sport psychology has become big business over recent years, as the understanding of the value of this aspect of the game has become more and more understood. There are some great professionals out there that can help you understand and work through the mental limitations you might encounter during a match, and they are a worthy use of your time and money.
Outside of working directly with a professional sports psychologist however, there are still plenty of resources out there that can be utilised. A great website full of useful articles that we’ve referenced a number of times here on the site is believeperform.com, while there are also dozens of great sport psychology books out there well worth picking up – one of our particular favourites here at SquashSkills is ‘Winning Ugly’ by elite tennis coach Brad Gilbert.
We’ve featured a number of different mental training tips on the site in the past as well that are a good read for those keen on incorporating more psychology focus into their games, including pieces on goal setting, pre-performance routines, and body language.
Simply training hard can also be a great route to fortifying your mental strength. Peter Nicol himself often attributes a big part of his fantastic mental fortitude to his security in the knowledge of just how much time and effort he had put into his training sessions. If you know you’ve done the best you can in training and really pushed yourself to your limits, that is a reassuring rock to cling to when the pressure hots up in your matches.
So to become a better all-around player and be the very best you can be, all four of these crucial components need to be understood and addressed within your training. Here at SquashSkills we make sure to cover all of them in detail through our fantastic library of articles and videos – to become a fully rounded technical, tactical, physical, and mental master, make sure to check the site regularly to learn and understand how the very best players in the world work toward becoming the complete package of elite performance!
Gary Nisbet - B.Sc.(Hons), CSCS, NSCA-CPT, Dip. FTST
Squashskills Fitness & Performance Director
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