Since I have suffered both hip and knee injuries and impact has become a serious concern for me, I have looked for alternative training methods to both prepare and maintain myself for intensive Squash competition.
The “discovery” of Medicine Ball training has been a lifesaver.
I have used the Medicine Ball in one way or another since I was a kid at school, but more recently I have incorporated it in my coaching and training. If I am honest ‘though, I had mainly subjected my students to the Medicine Ball routines and hadn’t done a great deal myself.
When I still owned a Squash club, I invited famed Sports Specific trainer Damon Leedale Brown to come and offer some Functional Training sessions to my members. I also participated and the experience proved to be something of a light bulb for me.
Damon had worked extensively with James Willstrop and Vanessa Atkinson – both world number one Squash players at various times – and had studied extensively how the movement patterns of Squash players both function and breakdown.
When we fatigue our musculatures naturally default to less efficient movement patterns and Damon was able to explore Sports Specific exercises to counter the loss of efficiency.
Much of this work was developed using the Medicine Ball.
After my sessions with Damon, I began to develop exercises based on my own knowledge of Squash and specific to the types of movement that I needed to be able to reproduce.
The net result is that I now have a simple training program that I try to use once or twice per week.
I am delighted with the results.
Not only are my joints protected, but my movement efficiency on the court is noticeably improved when I do the Medicine Ball sessions consistently.
With my existing hip and knee injuries, my form when reproducing these exercises is not the best – so rather than trying to emulate me – I strongly advise you to read and watch some of the numerous brochures/ videos that there are available on the net, in order to gain the correct impression of how these exercises are done. See the links below.
www.coreperformance.com is a great site with powerful information that is of great practical value to Squash players – particularly if you interpret your own movement patterns when you are fresh and try to analyze how you are breaking down when you are fatigued. You can also follow them on twitter: @coreperformance
When you purchase a Medicine Ball I would recommend that you buy a ball that is comfortable for you. If you have never done any medicine ball training and you are a slight person or a junior who hasn’t passed puberty yet I would suggest a very light ball – no more than 4 pounds. I myself use a 6 or 8 pound ball and find that more than adequate. If you are in great shape and have used Medicine Balls a lot you might want 8 or 10 pounds – but try the lighter ball first. There is great advice for how to select your Medicine Ball at www.coreperformance.com
I would recommend the rubberized ball that bounces as you can do a broad range of exercises with these balls.You can purchase your this equipment at www.performbetter.com. This is a great site to buy your Medicine Ball.
My typical session includes 4 to 6 different exercises. I typically do 15 reps of the leg and arm focused exercises, and around 30 of the core based exercises.
I try to do a Squash movement such as the one in the picture below (see images below and excuse my form), followed by a core exercise and then a swinging arm exercise and then a Squat and upward driving movement exercise. If I do my 15 reps for each exercise (both sides if the exercise involves lateral movements) and 30 reps for my core exercises and repeat the whole series twice, it typically takes me between 30 minutes to an hour.
Once or twice a week in addition to my stamina and sprint sessions, plus my games and training/practice sessions seems to provide this 52 year old body with a strong foundation for competition.
I strongly recommend you try this program. If you are not sure of your movements you should get some advice from a trainer or experienced Medicine ball user. Certainly watch the available videos carefully.
I would love to hear about your results so please get back to me with your findings!
Meanwhile – Good Training to you!
Top Row Squash Movements – Bottom Row Coordinating Medicine Ball Movements:
Hip Problems, resultant Knee problems and why (in my opinion) you should act sooner rather than later.
As many of my followers and acquaintances will know, in 1996 I was diagnosed with a severely arthritic left hip. At the time I was the Cornell University Men’s and Women’s Squash team Head Coach.
In 1995 I had trained with the teams and had been running very decent cross-country, mile and 400 meter times. Just a year later, I was having trouble running at all. Over the following ten years the situation became worse and worse. Although I continued to play Squash, the physical incapacity progressively made it a miserable experience. I could not find a comfortable position to sleep in. I couldn’t put my socks on. My wife had to do my shoe laces up in public. You get the picture. My limp was so pronounced that I had to swing my left leg around and through in order to be able to walk.
In 1998, my wife and I had moved to Mamaroneck NY, where in partnership with our now dear friends Eric and Patty Fast we started Westchester Squash, which as the historical record shows, became a wonderfully successful club and launch pad for many junior, collegiate and professional Squash players.
However, that year, I sat miserably at home while all of my fellow Squash competitors went to Los Angeles to compete in the US Championships. The pain of not competing was far worse than the hip.
I decided to play whatever the cost, and in fact, developed some pretty good strategies and control. I even managed to get to the semi-finals of the US National Masters Championships in 2006 having won a very close quarter final with my friend, the former world number 28 Gamal El Amir.
However, because my hip didn’t work properly and because I was not using my body as it ought to have been used, I was putting tremendous pressure on my right knee which was compensating for the incapacity of my left hip.
I had been to see various surgeons in the US. The advice I received was that I was in need of a total hip replacement. Sadly (at that moment in the history of total hip replacement) this would mean an end to serious competitive Squash, as the prostheses then in use would simply not bear the pressure of an impactful game like Squash.
Coincidentally one of my valued friends and clients had recently (Sept. 4th 2005) watched a CBS 60 minutes program about Medical Tourism in India and a surgeon by the name of Vijay Bose, who was offering Birmingham Hip Resurfacing(BHR).
I started to investigate.
The evidence was very inspiring. BHR was developed in the early nineties by two surgeons in Birmingham, England – Mr. Derek McMinn and Mr. Ronan Treacy. Their success rate was phenomenal, and serious sports men and women were having the surgery and returning to compete in their favorite sports. Dr. Bose had trained with McMinn and Treacy in England before returning to his native India where he had by this stage performed many BHRs.
At this point BHR was still not FDA approved. My read of the situation was that the American medical community were severely jaundiced by the memory of the metal on metal type Wagner Hip Resurfacing procedure of some thirty or forty years previous. I also had the feeling that surgeons who had trained to do total hip replacement were motivated to encourage total hip replacement and discourage anything that didn’t fit in with their training. It’s possible that I was wrong on this – but that’s the impression I got and the impression a lot of my friends who went to total hip surgeons got.
Anyway, in the end, I got in touch with Dr. Bose – sent him my x-rays and decided to go to India. The FDA had approved clinical trials for BHR here, but the quotes were astronomical – $40K-$60K US – quite beyond the capacity of a self employed Squash pro without medical insurance to finance.
The full story of my trip, with my somewhat disgruntled attitude toward the US hip surgeons of 2006 can be found in the link below.
The success of the surgery is beyond question. Although I did my best to screw things up, because on my return I was overly anxious to get back to full fitness and didn’t rehab thoroughly or professionally. Don’t make that mistake if you do the BHR or other hip resurfacing. When I did focus properly on Rehab, I did 12 weeks with a wonderful Physical Therapist down in Charleston, SC (where I moved in 2006) and by the end of the time in therapy, felt like I was an Olympic athlete preparing for the next games. I knew that full recovery was going to be a long haul. After all I had allowed 10 years to go by from 96 to 06 and the atrophy on my left side was complete. Additionally the imbalance effects on my right knee were considerable, although (I thought) manageable.
Briefly, my competitive record after surgery was as follows:
US National Skills 6.0: lost in semi
US Masters 45+: 2nd
US National Skills 5.5: 2nd
US Masters 45+: 3rd
US National Skills 5.5: Winner
US Masters 45+: 2nd
British National 45+: lost in semi
British Open 50+: 2nd ( lost to the legend Ross Norman – what can you expect!?)
Represented England in Home Internationals (first ever appearance for my country of birth).
US Masters 50+: Winner
British National 50+: Winner
Represented England in Home Internationals and played number 1 (Won all matches).
World Masters ( 50+) in Koln Germany: lost in semi (played OK but having a few knee problems and did catch a cold. No excuses – I was fairly beaten by the Scots no 1 Alan Thomson – who I had beaten earlier in the year in the Home Internationals.)
So you can see that by 2009/2010 my recovery from the BHR was pretty much complete. By late 2010 however, my right knee was giving me quite a few issues and had to be managed on a day to day basis.
Next the Knee
In 2011 I really wanted to retain my British National 50+ title and so I trained mercilessly. In the lead up to the event in the middle of February, I planned to play a tournament for peaking purposes. This I did, and played quite well – although again the knee was giving me trouble. Of course, when we are focused on a target event, it is amazing how able we are to ignore symptoms that should be attended to.
I won the peaking event (The North of England Masters 50+) and went back to my parents house in Yorkshire for the three days before the British Nationals started.
On the Monday before my Thursday match, I decided to go out for a run. I had intended to run for just twenty minutes, but as it was such a beautiful day (and we don’t get many of those in Yorkshire in February) I lost track of time. Before I knew where I was I had run twenty minutes out and now had to run twenty back. On asphalt. With a cranky knee. Which was in real pain by the time I got home.
So now I had two days to get ready. I tried anti-inflammatories (I wish I had known about Cheribundi, a tart cherry juice with high anti-inflammatory qualities, in those days). I drank gallons of water. I tried a leg brace. Which of course was useless.
When the tournament started on Thursday I was in real trouble. However, England Squash and Racketball have some great Physical Therapists on site at the National Center in Manchester and so I was able to get some treatment. But it was traditional Physical Therapy and I had done some real internal damage.
I was seeded third and made it through the first round – just and iced severely afterwards. In the next match I had to face former PSA pro Simon Rollington – a really tough customer.
I moved really well during the game and didn’t notice my knee. In the semi I had to face my nemesis of the 2010 World masters, number two seed, Alan Thomson.
The knee was sore and unstable, but with some additional physical therapy, I prepared myself.
It was a fabulous match with rallies that wrenched both of us into every possible corner, miss-direction, lunge, sprint, jump and impact that two 50-year-olds could possibly experience.
I won it in four games. In the very last rally, in the act of driving Alan into the backhand back corner that I knew he hated – something bad happened to the knee.
I shook hands and hobbled off the court to go and ice and hopefully prepare for the final against the robust Mark Woodliffe.
As it happened I could have saved my effort. No matter what I did I couldn’t get my knee to the point where I could even put my weight on it.
The next day I did my utmost to warm up, but it was useless. Even in the warm up, I couldn’t return Mark’s shots. Out of courtesy I tried to play the first game. I lost 0-9 in two minutes, walked over to Mark, apologized and shook his hand.
I went to see a consultant who had a good look at my knee. Shot – was his view. The meniscus was tattered and catching and the tracking of the knee was all over the place.
I arranged to have the Meniscus repaired. While the surgeon was in there, he took photos of the arthritis. In his opinion if I continued playing, I would need a full knee replacement in less than five years.
I thanked him for his service and went off to rehab (properly this time) fully intending to ignore his advice not to play.
I did rehab well and having had surgery in April of 2011 returned to the US. However, I didn’t feel up to competition. When Pat and I decided to live in the UK for 6 months, I was really looking forward to playing in British team league.
There’s nothing quite like playing league squash in Britain. 5 man teams competing throughout the winter. You play a hard match for your team, referee (absolutely impartially – which is something we learn growing up in Britain) one of the matches and then sit down for a good meal and some beers with the opposition.
One step up from this is to play for your county – kind of like playing for your state in a mainline sport that has state representation.
On my return to the UK in September of 2011, my county – Norfolk – had to play in the Inter County competition against three other counties in October. I thought that my knee was recovered sufficiently.
In my first match I discovered that it was still tender. In my second match I won so quickly that I didn’t realize how much damage I had done. By the time I finished the third match I couldn’t walk properly.
In fact I couldn’t walk properly for about 10 weeks after that. I played for my team in the local league and lost match after match to players that I had never lost to historically – although I do understand that that happens as you get older. But this was something different. I simply couldn’t change direction. I couldn’t push off.
I lost and lost.
In the end I just decided that I couldn’t afford to play anymore. The surgeon’s warning about full knee replacement started to really haunt me.
On the comeback trail.
I continued coaching – although even that was problematic. Some of my students were extremely talented and needed good movement from me even to coach them. Players like Jamie Goodrich (who as I write has just won the British Open 40+!) continued to come and work with me and fortunately felt that I was able to give them value. But it was hard work and very depressing.
I started to play a new game that had gained momentum in the UK. The ill-named UK Racketball. I was a little dubious at first, but as I played more, I discovered what the draw was. This sport has little or no impact on the joints while offering more exercise and rally duration than Squash – especially to masters levels players.
I continued coaching Squash but played the new game almost exclusively. Time passed until one day, toward the end of the season, my captain came to me in desperation and asked me to fill in for the Squash team. I wasn’t keen, particularly when he told me I would be playing against the best number two in the league – my old friend and rival John Cordeaux (at the time of writing John has just lost in the 2012 British Open 50+ semi finals against the self same Mark Woodliffe who was my opponent in 2011 in the final). I didn’t relish this much as I had lost to all the other number twos and John had beaten them. Anyway I agreed to do it for the sake of the team.
The first clue came when I warmed up. The knee pain was much reduced. When we got into the match, I was moving much better than on the previous occasion I played Squash. Thus released from pain, I was able to focus on my game plan and proceeded to penalize John (a lefty) in his backhand back corner. We had a fabulous match – which incredibly I won.
The only thing I can think of with regard to the knee is that by playing the other game I wasn’t subjecting the knee to the kind of impact and stress that regular Squash produces and perhaps was even flushing the knee joint with nutrients because the shorter racket requires a knee bend without a stretch.
Whatever the truth is, something was working, because I continued my regime of playing UK Racketball and only played the league matches of Squash. My Squash improved and so did my results. My knee wasn’t perfect – but it was a lot better.
A signal victory and the way forward.
Pat and I returned to live in Charleston in April. I started training just around the neighborhood on my bicycle – sometimes doing twenty to thirty minutes pushing as hard as I could and sometimes doing one minute wind sprints – usually just four or five.
I was training three days per week and alternating the bicycle sessions with a medicine ball program that I developed using some of the information that Damon Leedale Brown had shared with me and some sports specific medicine ball routines (more on the medicine ball training for squash shortly) that I had developed myself.
Working freelance as a Squash coach, my schedule was quite irregular. I was traveling to do some work for my friend Dominic Hughes at his Berwyn Squash and Fitness club in PA and also working in Charlotte and the Research triangle area. I discovered that I was free on the weekend of the US Skill Level nationals at Meadow Mill Athletic Club in Baltimore and as the US was asking for late entrants – I entered on the spur of the moment.
It was something of a baptism of fire. Based on my previous rating they seeded me number one (I had won the event a couple of years previously). My first round match was against a talented young man from Atlanta, Danial Saleem, who I discovered was now at the rapidly improving Columbia Uni program headed up by SA coach Jacques Swanepoel. I had last seen Danial when he and his family came to work with me for a long weekend training session in Charleston when he was 16. Naturally expecting the same player as I had worked with then, I received a sharp affront to my senses as I discovered that he had matured considerably. We had a great game, but he managed to retrieve just about everything I played. He won 3-1 (and progressed to the semi finals eventually before losing to the winner of the event). Meanwhile I found myself in the consolations. I wasn’t too bent out of shape about this – after all, I had entered on a whim and didn’t even know if I could compete after the trials and tribulations of the previous few months.
In the consolations I had a quick win and then a hard five-set win to take the consolation trophy – and came away reasonably satisfied and more importantly injury free.
On the strength of this performance (and because it coincided with my sister in law’s return to the UK after visiting with us) I decided to enter the Canadian nationals in May. Having missed both the British and the US Nationals I was excited to get a nationals “fix” especially as I had never played the Canadians before.
I entered the Rothenberg Big Apple Open the weekend before the Canadians as I needed a peaking tournament (although I would have preferred it to be two weeks before – one week doesn’t really give enough recovery) and it also happened to fit with our family travel plans.
I played very well in the Rothenberg – losing in a fine match in the final to another Columbia Uni player (have these boys got a vendetta going?) – their number 2 Tony Zou. I felt fit and the knee didn’t hurt, although I was pretty exhausted.
I spent the next few days doing some light coaching and then visited with some friends. There was no knee pain on the Monday or Tuesday after the Rothenberg, but then mysteriously on the Wednesday it began to ache and give me some trouble.
I have fully recounted the story of my Canadian Nationals win in a previous blog.
With the combination of Cheribundi and Dr. Joe Pelino, my cranky knee was not only managed but came back to competitive form.
I want to say a few words about the technique that Dr. Joe Pelino used to get my knee working. It’s called Active Release Therapy and is available throughout North America from a network of trained therapists.
I had never experienced it before – despite having worked with some first class physical therapists. The way it worked for me was by seemingly changing the pressure on various structures around the knee and allowing the knee to function without pain.
I can’t say that it will work for everyone, but the effect on me was tangible and dramatic. I will definitely continue with it whenever I can.
Dr. Joe also advised me that it is not only possible but necessary to rebuild cartilage in the knee joint by using supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin but by actually consuming plenty of cartilage from meat such as Chicken wings. This I have been doing – and it really seems to work.
So to conclude:
Dr. Vijay Bose transformed my life by giving me the BHR operation in 2006. I wish I had sought him out years before.
If I had, perhaps the over compensation on my right side which led to the breakdown of my right knee might not have occurred.
If I hadn’t gone running on the road when I was already tired and the knee was inflamed perhaps I might have been able to give my defense of my British Closed title 100 percent.
Being that the knee breakdown did occur, I am delighted that I discovered the relatively impact free sport of UK Racketball that I am now developing into a new sport and that I think could well impact (no pun intended) millions of enthusiastic players world wide, offering them both a great cross-training opportunity and a wonderful, diverting game in and of itself.
If my knee hadn’t caused me so much trouble I doubt I would have discovered “Active Release Therapy” (ACT) which I think will be a massive boon and relief to many Squash players.
And finally the advent of Cheribundi has been an additional bonus that I may well have discovered anyway but not to the same extent of relieving my aches and pains.
Overall by either ignorance or over enthusiasm leading to bad decisions, I have made choices that were avoidable and that hopefully you – the reader – can avoid.
Nevertheless as my friend O Wayne Hodges is fond of saying “Every decision you make is the right decision in the end,” and my bad ones have led to discoveries that have benefited me and hopefully will benefit you.
If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to contact me either here or at Millmansquash@gmail.com
May 22nd, 2012
As you will know if you read my last blog – I just had a very satisfying competition in Niagara on the Lake, Canada. Winning the Canadian nationals was a dream, especially considering that just a few months ago I thought my playing career was over.
A number of contributory factors conspired to put me at my competitive best in Canada. One of them was completely unplanned by me and was coincidental. But what a happy coincidence!
I had arranged to stop off with some good friends on my way up to Niagara from New York City. While I was there my friend Kirk mentioned to me a Cornell based enterprise that he had invested in. Usually when a friend starts telling be about an investment I am pretty skeptical – but Kirk is a shrewd cookie and so I was more open than I might normally be. Anyway he started talking to me about Tart Cherries and their extraordinary natural benefits.
The company he had invested in was now producing a range of Tart Cherry health drinks and so Kirk gave me a selection of the flavors and suggested that I try using them over the course of the tournament – drinking before during and after each match.
Kirk is a great friend, so I agreed to give it a go, although – if I am honest – I didn’t expect to experience any effect whatsoever. It tasted fine ‘though, so I could’t see any harm.
Off I went to Canada. I arrived at the event with my knee giving me some trouble. I had felt fine the previous weekend playing at the Rothenberg Big Apple Open but I guess pushing myself farther than I had been able to for sometime had produced a negative effect.
I played my first match at the Canadians – and really struggled. I couldn’t push off and anytime my opponent played a boast or took me long and then short – I was done.
I drank my Cheribundi – the Tart Cherry juice before during and after the match – and managed to hold on to win in what felt like pretty ugly style.
I then went to see Dr. Joe Pelino (more on him in my next blog), a sports chiropractor resident at the White Oaks Resort and Conference Center where the event was being held and told him about my knee issues.
I didn’t think about the Tart Cherry juice – I had only just finished the match.
My next match was against my friend Andre Boissier. Andre is no slouch and with my knee issues, I was quite concerned. I had a full day’s rest and some treatment from Dr. Joe, but the knee was still tender every time I put my foot down and created pressure. In the event I didn’t play any worse than I had in the first round – no better – but certainly no worse and I managed to scrape through three hard games. Again I drank my Cheribundi before, during and after. And again I didn’t give it much thought – although the games against Andre had twisted and turned me a good deal and I knew that I would have a little glute and hamstring stiffness the next day. But a good warm up should alleviate that.
The next day was the semi-final against the number three seed, Dave Safton, from Calgary. I was quite concerned about this because the player he had beaten – Mike Blythe – I considered to be a good competitor – and Mike had lost in three close but straight games. Talking to Mike the evening before, I got the impression that Dave was in good shape and played a very good basic game. This gave me a mixture of thoughts. On the one hand he was fit – so that sounded like hard work physically. On the other hand he didn’t have much variety or deception, so that might be good for me if I could twist and turn him. I was concerned about my fitness – both in terms of muscle soreness and the injured knee. I would have to really prepare and warm up well.
The first surprise was when I got out of bed the next morning. I eased my legs onto the carpet and got ready to deal with the usual glute and hamstring pain as I stood up. Nothing….Weird. No matter how fit I am after two matches in tournament play and having been twisted around I ALWAYS have some muscle soreness. Now I started to wonder about Cheribundi.
I had breakfast (three and a half to four hours before my match for food), drank loads of water (to the point of having to pee every few minutes) and then a couple of hours later headed to White Oaks to do my usual hour preparation for a serious tournament match: ten minutes raising the body temperature on the elliptical, ten minutes of dynamic stretching to loosen the squash specific movement muscles, ten minutes of light ghosting, ten minutes of solo drills if I can find somewhere to hit (I used a racquetball court this time) and then traveling back and forth to the court I am due to play on to check on the status of the match preceding.
Dave and I had a good match. On this occasion my pre-match assessment wasn’t too far off the mark. He was indeed in good shape and he did indeed hit very solid basic length. In the first two games I was able to bamboozle him with my trickery sufficiently to gain a small but consistent edge. After the second game however, Dave implemented a strategic change – he decided to really hit the ball early hard and deep. This worked well because it prevented me from getting in front of him to wrong foot and confuse him. I lost the third game and had to rethink my approach for the fourth. I determined that he could only attack me if I gave him ball to attack. If I played tight enough to the side wall, he would be limited in his options. This I was able to do and unfortunately for Dave, my tightness down the back hand wall was pretty immaculate – if I say so myself. As a result Dave was either trapped in the back or hit the ball back at himself. My movement was uninhibited – no muscle soreness – and peculiarly my damaged knee wasn’t causing me any trouble. Of course the treatment that Dr. Joe Pelino had given me two days before was likely coming into effect, but even considering this is was a little strange that I had NO negative effects.
I drank my Cheribundi.
The next morning I woke up and prepared for the ubiquitous fourth day of competition fatigue and muscle soreness. Or at least I wouldn’t have been surprised to feel them. But once again – NOTHING.
I followed the same pre-match eating, drinking and warm up routine and got ready to face Dominic Hughes in the final. You’ve probably read my blog about the final so I won’t take you through the whole story again. Suffice to say, that we both did our level best to physically, mentally and emotionally disembowel each other, while maintaining the honor and etiquette of the sport that we both believe in. In the end a single point separated us (it was actually 14-12 in the fifth not 16-14 as I earlier reported).
Not only have I not subjected my body – or rather had my body subjected to – the kind of physical torment that five hard fought games against one of the best players of his age in the world results in – I wasn’t physically capable of doing so for nearly a year. Suddenly out of a weird combination of a new sport – more on that in an upcoming blog – that helped me regain fitness without impact – sports specific training that I developed using a medicine ball – another upcoming blog – Dr. Joe Pelino’s “Active release” therapy – yet another upcoming blog and a funny little drink called Cheribundi – I am able to throw this poor old body into the cement mixer – and come out smiling!
As you saw in the earlier account of the Canadian’s – I then traveled for 22 hours in a car and was able to spring out of it at the other end – WITH ABSOLUTELY NO STIFFNESS.
In fact I was pain free for a full 48 hours after the tournament. But having run out of Cheribundi, I guess the natural anti-inflammatory effects of the Tart Cherries wore off. Wednesday was a tough day on the coaching court as my body suddenly reminded me that I am, indeed, over 50.
Brother did I order my supply of Cheribundi quickly after that!
Anyway – this is my experience and I can’t guarantee that it will be the same experience that everyone has. But I certainly think it is worth a try. So much so that I am recommending Cheribundi to all my clients and followers.
You should certainly check out the research and other commentators – don’t just take my word for it – although it has made a big difference to me.
Here are some links that you may find useful:
I just got back from mammoth 22 hour journey from Niagara on the Lake, Canada. Spent a good deal of the journey singing along at the top of my voice with Meatloaf to Bat out of Hell. Yesterday was one of the great days of my life’s journey.
Three months ago in the UK, I thought my competitive Squash career was done – I was losing to players that I would never have normally expected to lose to, with pain in my right knee that simply prevented the possibility of changing direction or pushing off. Having given up and started playing what the British call UK Racketball, I started to get some playability back in the knee and even played a couple of good matches against my old friend and rival John Cordeaux. I really enjoyed the UK Racketball and enthusiastically encouraged players from my county of Norfolk to try it. What a great game for everyone – especially those of us who can no longer play long rallies in Squash. It might be the best cross training game ever for people who want really exhaustive fitness without joint stress.
Anyway, somehow it alleviated the inflammation and pain in my right knee and on my return to the US I started to play a little. As I had nothing to do the weekend of the US Skill levels I entered late into the 5.5. I was seeded but was beaten in a good match by Danial Saleem from Columbia and Atlanta. I won the plate and decided I felt OK and would enter the Canadian nationals. I entered the Rothenberg Big Apple Open as a warm up event the week before – a bit risky because of the knee – but I hoped for some hard games. That is precisely what I got – and ended up playing a talented 17 year old, this year’s 5.0 nationals winner John Sayward, and then Tony Zou – the number 2 from Columbia University. I was moving really well and no real problems with the knee. I lost to Tony 1-3 in the final and was very pleased over all with movement and strategy – control needed a little more work but it was all coming together.
I did some coaching at my friends Simon and Shayne Haysom’s Squash barn on the Tuesday – nothing stressful – felt fine, kicked a soccer ball with my friends Beth and Kirk’s two boys on Wednesday and woke up Thursday morning to drive from Ithaca to Niagara.
Got on court on Thursday lunchtime for my first match and all of a sudden, for the first time since the UK, the bloody knee pain was back and I couldn’t push off. I struggled through my first round match and got off court and tried to work out what the hell was going on.
White Oaks Resort and Conference Center which hosted the Canadians this year is an amazing place – a veritable Disney of Sport and one of the extras they provided was access to both professional sports massage and physical therapist.
I took my bum knee to see one Dr. Joe Pelino. What an awesome guy. He has treated NBA and NHL athletes and cranky knees were nothing new to him. He is trained in many systems and schools of thought and uses what seems most appropriate to each individual case. He told me about something called “active release” which I had never heard of – and proceeded to work an area that he gave a Latin name to which equates to the “Duck’s foot” structure on the inner side of my knee. Whatever he did seemed to quickly begin to relieve some of my “pushing off” problems, and on the strength of that success I booked another session for the next day prior to my quarter final match with my friend and competitor Andre Boissier from California.
In the treatment session the following day, Dr. Joe informed me that he didn’t believe that arthritic knees were impossible to rebuild. He told me about a process of serious specific heavy weight training combined with taking on board Glucosamine and Cartilage. He told me to make sure that when I ate a plate of wings that I crunched up all that gristle on the end. After all said Joe – if you want your knee to regenerate you need the raw materials to rebuild with.
He gave me another session and it felt a little better again. I played my match with Andre on an unusual court with a black glass back. No kidding – pitch black – really good for developing your imagination when it came to following the ball.
I felt a little embarrassed in the match – I was still favoring the leg – more mental than anything else – and moved rather woodenly around the court. Andre was magnanimous in his comments afterward and he had real chances of taking at least a game if not more, but it was a bit of a scruffy match and I feel that Andre was more generous to my sometime reputation than he ought to have been.
Anyway I had made it through to the semi finals and had to face a guy from Calagary by the name of Dave Safton.
By all accounts Dave was a good solid player, firm straight length all the way and in good shape. A test then – if my knee would work, a disaster if it wouldn’t – as without movement no one can play Squash – shots are just punctuation – movement and position are the lifeblood and flow.
Meanwhile, my great friend and rival number one seed, Dominic Hughes, was progressing relatively unburdened through the top of the draw. He now faced Tom Powers – a solid teaching pro from Canada. I obviously hoped that it would be a hard match, but to be honest I was more concerned about how far I could go. It wasn’t long since I was talking about giving up and was unable to change direction and Dave Safton wasn’t chopped liver. Neither on the other hand was Andre Boissier and I had come through that.
I warmed up well and wasn’t thinking about the knee pain every single time I put my foot down – so that was good.
I started the match well and it became evident that, while Dave was a good athlete and a fine striker of the ball, he wasn’t that familiar with deception and pace variation, which are a part of my tool kit when things are going well. My issue was to prevent myself from creating an opening with a well constructed rally and then trying to stupidly play short for a cheap end to the point, which invariably ends badly when you are facing a fit opponent, as it simply results in handing over the advantage that you have just spent your blood sweat and tears earning.
It’s always hard to separate the devil and the angel on your shoulders from competing for your attention and too often the voice I respond to is the one that tells me to be cheap – even though I know that logically when I go longer for longer – I make my opponent pay a heavy price. Fear and a lack of fitness can make for very poor bedfellows and a resulting illogical but tempting sequence of shot selections.
Fortunately I got in front and while it wasn’t plain sailing, I was definitely in charge for the first two games. At two love up, Dominic appeared behind my court, having clearly summarily dismissed Tom Powers. This was mildly irksome, but I was pleasantly surprise to discover that I was that interested. As I walked off to get some water Dominic quipped that he had come to see the next three games and I smiled, but again found I wasn’t affected.
Dave changed his strategy in the next game and came out smacking the thing to the back of the court low and with real power. This caused my knee some real issues as I couldn’t get there soon enough to balance and push off as I played the length. It wasn’t really bad – just enough to force me into flicking at the ball whilst unstable. Dave got to 9-4 up (we were playing 11 PARS) and then I finally stopped the rot. I got to 5, then he got to 10 – game ball – and then I really stepped up and won a quick series of points to get to 9-10. Then I constructed a really good rally, pushed him to the back of the court and got him to leave a half length. Guess who whispered in my ear at that point? Yep – the bloody little devil on my shoulder: “Go for the drop” he said. “No no!” quoth I – and then watched as my arm tamely stuck the ball about two feet above the tin. It was more of a feed than a drop. Dave stuffed it away. 11-9. Bugger! Dominic looked intrigued. I walked off and started talking to myself about my game plan. “Focus” is the mantra I usually use when I am playing well and I realized I had stopped repeating it. I also realized that Dave could only attack if the ball was loose.
I went back into the fourth and started playing very slow and very tight down the backhand wall. It was effective. Dave was utterly non-plused as to what to do. He put me behind him and then could do precisely nothing with the ball that I glued to the wall. In frustration he swung in hope a couple of times and gave strokes away as the ball came right back at him. This was enough to give me a couple of points lead, and from then on I stayed at least that far ahead – never letting him smack it again. So 3-1. Not perfect, but not bad – and the knee was no worse.
The party that night was terrific – very reminiscent of the fantastic job that SESRA did for the US Nationals in Atlanta a few years ago.
All the participants and attendees were made to feel special. Folks are just so friendly up there in Canada. It’s very similar to the ambiance we have down here in the South.
I didn’t get too carried away with the ambiance however, as Dominic was no where to be seen, and he’s just way too good to give him a head start . So after a very pleasant meal, some good conversation with the official referees (they had a ton of them – not a single match was marked by a player!), some presentations of the events already completed, I disappeared back to the hotel.
I had a good solid egg bacon and pancake breakfast and then went to White Oaks to see if I could get some more treatment from Dr. Joe Pelino. I wasn’t hurting badly, but I was looking for some insurance. As it happened I couldn’t locate him in time – so I just did my best pre- match warm up routine – elliptical for 10 minutes, squash specific movements for about 5 minutes, dynamic stretching for about 5 minutes, a little gingerly ghosting – not wanting to hurt that knee – and then solo routines with the ball and movement on any available court.
The final started right on time. Dominic appeared at the last moment – as I expected – he is a professional and would have been doing his own preparation quietly somewhere away from distractions.
My game plan was to try and make the first game as long and drawn out as I could without hurting myself. I felt surprisingly loose and strangely unconcerned. The first game was quite laid back without much intensity – sort of a checking each other out type of deal. I was pretty fortunate and managed to play some good high volley returns to some of Dominic’s excellent high searching approach balls. I stayed narrowly ahead though out and somehow managed to steal the first game about 11-8.
In the second Dominic clearly meant business. He came out more assertively. Dominic has an amazing ability to play constructive length with pin-point accuracy and then from the consequent loose return – either put the ball away with devastating accuracy and severity or completely wrong foot you. There’s not much mystery – he just rips people apart. My only chance in this scenario is to not play a loose ball from his approach shot. This was not working out too well for me in the second game and I soon found myself being mercilessly wrenched all over the court. Anything I was able to retrieve pretty much just fed more fuel to the flames. I was being well beaten when towards the very end of this debacle Dominic stretched me even more severely to the front corner. I felt a nasty little burning sensation in the back of my right hamstring. It wasn’t huge, but it was a problem. It hurt without me moving and even more if I tried to stretch. I came off having lost the game – and felt extremely apprehensive about my ability to continue running.
The third game was not very competitive. Dominic had the bit between his teeth and was ready for business. I was shy of pushing myself. The combination of me being unsure and Dominic being bloody sure did not make for a great competitive spectacle.
I was 2-1 down in short order. As I came of the court that bloody little devil started whispering in my ear again: “Well you made a brave effort. At least you took a game. You didn’t even think you would get to the final.” “SHUT-UP!” I wanted to say. I asked myself what my wife Pat Millman – the best match coach I have ever come across – a former national champion and captain of England Ladies 55+ a couple of years ago – would tell me to do if she were here right now (she wasn’t – she was in the UK, so I was on my own).
I thought she would say – “Either you go on there and give it everything you’ve got or you concede. There’s no point worrying about that leg. It’s now or never. Play your game. Use your height – that’s what wins for you. And don’t play short too early.”
She really is the angel on my shoulder.
So that’s what I did.
The fourth was one hell of a game. Dominic was fully vested. I came out and competed. We had some cracking rallies. It was neck and neck all the way through with him always edging ahead.
Finally he gained match ball 10-9. I stuck to my game plan and managed to get back to 10 all. The rallies were surprisingly long, varied and dynamic for 50+ squash. Dominic made a couple of uncharacteristic errors. And we headed for a fifth game.
The fifth game of the 2012 Canadian National Squash 50+ men’s final is probably one of the most competitive games I have ever played.
Dominic was determined to finish me and most of the rallies off summarily and with vicious severity. I, on the other hand, was determined to hang on, drawing the rallies out, maneuvering Dominic into the back corners with my high trademark floats in the hope that he would either give me an easy opening or make an error. In any event both of these strategies gained some momentum, but not enough to separate us by any appreciable margin. Neck and neck it was, with first one and then the other of us pulling narrowly ahead.
I think (I don’t actually remember) that Dominic managed another match ball. Perhaps this was at 11-10. However I then got on terms and gained a match ball myself. The little devil wasn’t getting in my ear, although I will say that it felt rather surreal to have a match ball against Dominic – a champion who has beaten everyone with monotonous consistency and hasn’t lost to anyone in the US for a long time (he was injured and had to withdraw against Diniar Alikhan in Atlanta – before that it might have been me that beat him at Trinity – but that was years ago). The thought that I had the opportunity to win not only this prestigious title but to beat Dominic in doing so gave me a somewhat heady – almost vertigo-like feeling for a second or two. However, I was still focused on my game plan and still using my “Focus” mantra. Dominic wasn’t going to lie down and die however and promptly brought the game back to level at 12 all. I then won the next point for 13 – 12.
It was at this point I had the brilliant idea of trying to hit a slow easy serve to tempt Dominic into attempting a winner and hitting a tin. Not the brightest strategy against one of the most technically astute players in the game, but I had my reasons. What I didn’t unfortunately reason was the consequence of serving the ball out at match ball – which I proceeded to do. There was a great and incredulous sigh from the gallery and I – laughed. What else could I do? As coaches we spend our life telling our students never to serve out at match ball – and what do I do?
I did not, however, lose my focus. I had a game plan and I stuck to it. I won the next rally. Dominic the next. Then I won the next 15-14 – match ball. A murderous rally ensued, mainly down the backhand wall with neither of us wanting to give an inch and realizing that the first person to play a loose straight backhand would be at a considerable disadvantage. We were both playing quite well, but nerves were jangling, this was after all as vital a moment as you can have in a national championship.
I made a decision that I was going to try to test Dominic high on the forehand – just to throw him off his home territory of perfect backhand length. I committed myself to take the next vaguely loose ball high and across. Dominic’s ball came down the wall and I went to cross court float it. As I played it, I caught the side wall which prevented the ball from going to a full width. It did go very high but I was trapped on the backhand, at about half court, watching as Dominic lined up with the whole of the forehand side open. But the ball was just that little bit high. And Dominic perhaps misjudged it just that little bit. Clang! The ball loudly struck the tin. And I had a Canadian National title to add to my US and British titles. Unreal. And against one of my personal heroes in my sport to boot.
Dominic was extremely gracious in his praise afterwards. It was one of the best competitive matches I have had. Dominic could have easily closed out the match in the fourth. But he didn’t and sometimes that’s what leads to an extraordinary match. Nearly but not quite – for both of us.
Match balls, serving out and tins!
But in the end – “Focus.”