A Golden Opportunity for Discovery

Life is a crucible in which necessity promotes experimentation and discovery.
Although lacking the controlled logic of empirical research conducted in the lab, the sheer quantity of time and effort devoted to the study of a specific field leads to multitudinous tiny evolutions within that field, the only record of which usually remains in the mind of the real life discoverer as opposed to the careful documentation of academic research.
As a result many crucial and valuable discoveries are unknown outside the specific field and may even be lost with the demise of the person who made the discovery.
In addition discoveries made in real life may be polluted by ego or misinterpretation as the person making the breakthrough either hoards the information or doesn’t have the necessary training or education to fully appreciate the ramifications of their discovery.
The academic researcher in turn is rarely an expert in the specific field and without access to such expertise and finding is unlikely to benefit from intuition borne of years of observation and experience.
Hence in my view society would benefit greatly by funding collaborative partnerships between academic researchers and expert real world exponents/coaches.
In this way enormous quantities of hitherto unrecorded knowledge could be empirically tested,documented and fruitfully applied in many other fields.
I believe that my field – the sport of Squash – is one such crucible where there is huge opportunity for examination of the discoveries that I and others have made.
Working with expert academic researchers I believe that the amalgam of the real world discoveries that I have made over thirty five years together with scientific techniques of empirically defining and documenting such evidence, could benefit fields such as medicine, psychology,biomechanics, education, engineering, ergonomics, military research etcetera.
I recently had an exchange with Dr SJ Vine at Exeter University in England after reading an article that was the product of his research.
The article was about what he terms ‘The Quiet Eye’ and I recommend that readers read it both because it is a fascinating article and because it provides context for this piece.

Here is the link:http://www.thesportinmind.com/articles/i-spy-with-my-quiet-eye-the-quiet-eye-and-its-application-to-skill-acquisition-and-performance/

Here is my message to Dr Vine:
To: Vine, Samuel
Subject: QE

Dear SJ Vine,

I read with interest your article relating to QE and skill development.

I have been a professional Squash coach and student for thirty odd years and sadly lack the advantage of a sports science education.

By the usual grueling path of trial and error I have however noticed some interesting things as relates to skill development and execution.

In my opinion there are two perception systems at work in a seamlessly dovetailed partnership when Squash athletes perform at optimum levels.

One of these perception systems ( which I call Primary focus for practical usage) is used to maintain a relationship with the ball – Mentally, Physically and Emotionally ( MPE).

This is a conscious system and focuses the athlete the primary task of staying connected with the ball at all times – the ball being necessary to their survival in the game and therefore an absolute necessity.

The other perception system ( which I call Peripheral focus for practical usage) is used to constantly monitor the athlete’s environment – their own whereabouts, the opponent’s whereabouts, their proximity to the walls and indeed any peripheral threat that might interfere with their survival.

I have noticed that in order to execute movements and skills it is very important for the athlete to be continuously active in the situation and never even for a moment to allow their survival skills – of Primary and Peripheral perception to become passive or dormant.

Unfortunately well meaning attempts by coaches to help their athletes can result in the opposite effect as admonishments to focus on coaching aids or ideas often lead to athletes becoming passive on the successful execution of the coaches advice – feeling that the task that they have been given is over and that they are now free to rest. Their Primary focus is distracted in this instance and the continuity of their relationship with the ball is now severed.

In addition to this continuous active behavior I have also noticed that one particular specific behavior triggers the sub-conscious mind to produce a menu of options, extraordinarily precise judgements of hand eye coordination and the ability to exactly predict the behavior of the ball at speeds way beyond the capacity of the conscious mind – whilst still maintaining a continuous connection with the ball.

This simple trigger: the preparation of the racket for either a forehand or backhand, is the single most effective tool in prompting advanced technical, physical and strategic behavior.

In my experience preparing the racket and using feedback in the form of triangulation between the exact point the athlete intends to strike on the racket, the ball and their eye, to exactly guide the athlete, results in a precision of set up to a consistent accuracy within a quarter of an inch, provided the racket preparation is maintained as a measuring tool in exactly the same location, as the athlete approaches. If the racket is moved then the measurement is inaccurate and the weight transference and control, rather than being surgically precise, lacks focus and accuracy.

However this triggering of advanced judgement and precision is only effective if it is done prior to the athlete moving even a single step – because if the movement towards the ball occurs prior to the triggering of advanced planning from the racket preparation, the athlete becomes a ‘chaser’ instead of a planner and much of the subsequent behavior is reactive instead of proactive.

Remembering the great Wayne Gretzky’s famous advice that he tries not to go where the puck ‘is’ but where it is ‘going to be’, and in light of your research and thoughts on QE, I wonder if you would be kind enough to share an empirical understanding of how the above mentioned processes of Primary and Peripheral perception meld to produce a seamless flow of skills and movement within the overarching framework and big picture of a developing rally construction and game plan?

thanks in advance for your consideration.

Richard Millman
Columnist: Squash Magazine http://www.squashmagazine.com Former US National Men’s team coach.

Sent from my iPad
Here is Sam Vine’s reply which he has kindly consented to allow me to reproduce:

Many thanks for your email, I read it with great interest.

Your analysis of the perceptual and visual attentional processes that underpin expertise in squash is very interesting. In my opinion in resonates with much of the empirical work that has been done in this area. For example Millner and Goodale famously discuss 2 attentional systems (ventral and dorsal) and Corbetta and collagues also discuss goal directed vs. stimulus driven systems. These are prominent theories within cognitive psychology and neuroscience.

Your interest in squash may also lead you to some of the work of Professor Bruce Abernethy who has performed research looking at visual perception in badminton and other high speed racquet sports.

Personally I would very much like to do some research in Squash, using our mobile eye tracing technology, but as with most things ‘Science’ funding is always the stumbling block. If any opportunities arise I will be sure to get in contact with you, your experience and insight would be invaluable.

Many thanks again for your email and your interest in my article.



Dr Sam Vine
Psychology & Human Movement Science
Research group: http://sshs.exeter.ac.uk/exsell/
Webpage: http://www.sshs.exeter.ac.uk/staff/index
In my estimation this interchange is an excellent example of the potential for collaboration between vocational workplace exponents of Squash and highly skilled academic researchers.
With focused funding the possible progress that could be made would, in my opinion, produce unimaginable benefits to many sectors that society is not currently privy to or aware of and indeed that the real world exponent in turn doesn’t appreciate the potential of.
I appeal to anyone who has the capacity to direct funds to seriously consider encouraging people such as Dr Sam Vine to continue his research and to enable him to collaborate with experts in Squash and likewise to promote the concept here in the USA with myself and people of Dr Vine’s persuasion and dedication.
While I cannot say precisely what the product of such associations will be, I know that they will be extraordinary, surprising and of unexpected benefit.
Thank you for reading and please encourage your friends and contacts to support these ideas.
Richard Millman

Published by millmansquash

Richard Millman, a world renowned Squash Professional, has trained children, high school students, and adults to achieve all levels of proficiency and realize the enjoyment they derive from squash. A multiple time National Coach for the United States, Richard has steered many teams to championships and successes! His students include British Junior Open Champion, Michelle Quibell, as well as multiple National junior and adult champions. With his wife Pat, England’s 2010 Captain of the Ladies over 55+ team, and 2010 US National Champion over 55, Richard brought his vision and enthusiasm for this sport to the United States. A regular contributor to Squash Magazine, Richard is also the co-author of "Raising Big Smiling Squash Kids," with Georgetta Morque, and "Angles, A Squash Anthology." Richard's 30 year love for Squash is infectious. His love for kids is infectious. Put these two loves together, and you can't help but want to get involved as well.

7 thoughts on “A Golden Opportunity for Discovery

    1. Thanks Ferez – I am a little frustrated at what seems to be a lag between common understanding of how to train survival/perception systems on the Squash court and the existing knowledge in academia. How can we make ordinary coaches and players understand that the attention systems we employ on the Squash court are synonymous with the systems we use to survive under duress eg: when confronted by an enemy or when attempting to find our way out of an unknown jungle?

      Distractions created by directions that muddle the use of perception systems cause behavior that leads to death ( in the case of Squash ‘death’ is the ball bouncing twice).

      To survive not only must our attention systems be at maximum alert, but they must maintain relevant focus – Primary ( sometimes referred to as Ventral) must deal with conscious matters at hand – the ball in Squash – getting out of a jungle in the case of someone who is lost, or the wild animal or enemy in the case of a direct confrontation.
      Peripheral ( sometimes referred to as Dorsal) attention must deal with the environment and immediate surroundings – in Squash that would be ones location relative to the court and the opponent ( including the lines, the tin, the walls, the spaces etc), in the jungle it would be to scan for danger in the form of any not Primary threat – perhaps a Jaguar or Leopard in a tree, poison plants, dangerous holes or ravines that might break a leg etc, and similarly with an immediate enemy – knowledge of surrounding – enemies apart from the one confronting you, cover in the form of trees or boulders, things you are in danger of tripping over.

      Why is it so hard for Squash coach/ players to realize that directing a Student to ‘get to the T’ is going to kill them because it misguides the Primary focus – away from its essential focus toward the Periphery and in doing so, makes the student vulnerable and incapacitated in terms of maintaining necessary continuity for survival?

      Are we really so bull headed that we would prefer to die than give up a convention that simply doesn’t work – just because we heard it from someone else?

      1. Dear Richard,

        Firstly, please excuse the delay in my responding to your posts – today has been a particularly bad day! I’ve just got back from Coaching in Princeton.

        Beyond that you are very welcome Richard! I have seen you play and coach over the years and know well your ability to mold the talent that you did with such remarkable success. Your ‘on and off court’ perceptions are acute and I can imagine why you chafe at ‘formulaic teaching’ or as has been said in another way ‘thinking within the box’. But as one who is not quite as accomplished, and therefore possibly is not as aware of oncourt teaching practises as you are, let me approach this with caution. To do this perhaps we can draw parallels with teaching students in a class room in Junior High where teachers have to find ways of holding the attention of students e.g. with pedagogy (repeated and interesting messages, parallels etc…) while resisting the consequences of blunting creativity. So Coaches create a framework for communicating messages that are counter-intuitive as well as those that are intuitive but more often than not lost under pressure. It is the ability to retain this disciplined structure under increasing levels of pressure with increasing levels of play, among a myriad of other things, that culminated in a Hashim Khan, Jahangir Khan and Geoff Hunt.

        Lets start with something intuitive and simple that evolves into that incredibly complex dance of ‘read-get/stroke’ on which everything in a Player’s game hangs! It is also the first thing to be lost in the absence of tough match play and cannot be replaced with e.g. conditioning. We are all taught and know to look at an item that will require an action, e.g. looking both ways before crossing a street. This is learned long before we ever get on the court for the first time! In Squash, as you know well, unlike e.g.the Net Sports, strokes are made all around the receiver and when they are made from behind him/her it is imperative to engage the ‘peripheral vision’ that you referred to and look back at the Stroke Maker. The Brain (probably) interprets postures, ways of holding and swinging the racquet, ball movement and integrates other vectors etc.. to calculate or estimate where the ball is going to end up in fractional time spans. All this is impossible without Hashim Khan’s ‘Keep eye on ball is one most important thing, I tell you’.Not looking at the Stroke Maker and the Ball trajectory immediately means being ‘late on the ball’ and a vortex of events that culminate in losses. Yet this is the hardest thing to Coach at any age – there is a natural reflex, to assume a rigid frozen posture and stare at the front wall – something to do Evolutionarily acquired with instinct?

        Beyond that once this ‘reading instinct’ is mastered the next step is consciously suppressing the tendency to ‘jump the gun’ and take off for the ball before the Stroke Maker’s racquet is irreversibly committed leading to being ‘wrong footed’. At its zenith this is only one of a myriad set of Stroke Maker/Ball Retriever interactions which is turned into the most engagingly elegant ballet of ‘cat and mouse’ that has to be mastered before a Player can graduate through all the levels to become a top end Pro! But Coaching this requires breaking up the actions into small communicable bytes/pixels, based on simple structured assumptions, i.e. certain habits that must be cultivated – e.g. a standard place to return to on the court from which peripheral vision can be applied, from which most of the corners may be efficiently accessed, where a player learns to stop dead so he/she is not passed or finds the short dead ball that you put so well, and so on. This usually is the T junction of the court and of received wisdom. And like the other Coaches I do emphasize this strategic domain as a way of inculcating structured, disciplined games.

        But you do bring up an excellent point in the requirement for adapting to a specific condition at hand on the court. One that some of my Coaches (Mentors) have also brought up. Adaptability and meeting the needs of specific spatial and cognitive dimensions/sections/circumstances on court is indispensable to becoming a complete Player. And so that I do not get your Court/Jungle analogy wrong here is the most germane segment – ‘deal with the environment and immediate surroundings – in Squash that would be ones location relative to the court and the opponent ( including the lines, the tin, the walls, the spaces etc), ‘. Absolutely agreed! So e.g. after a ball has been dropped (Stroke) the Stroke Maker must not back peddle all the way back to the T junction but only to some point far enough to allow subsequent recovery of either a re-dropped, or the likely driven, ball. Furthermore, under some conditions that back peddle can be more effectively used as a turn around and sprint.

        There are unending numbers of Strokes, Moves, Footwork, Postures, Spatial (Court) Senses, Physical, Mathematical, Behavioral, Biomechannical, Bioenergetic vectors that engage Motor Skills, Sensory Perceptions, Cognitive, and Neurophysiological processes of each Player. I imagine it would take a major undertaking to simply list them, let alone understand them.That Squash (and other Racquet) Coaches can mold the talent that you do into the level of performances that we are privileged with, is nothing short of amazing – whichever way it is done!

      2. Hi Ferez
        Thanks so much for the comment.
        I absolutely agree that practical teaching must include easily intelligible devices to help students understand.
        But those stories, parables, examples must be correctly founded and not lead to misunderstanding because they are traditional or convenient.

        People often are misled when celebs offer quotes. Hashim did indeed say ‘keep eye on ball’ but the most important thing he said was something else.
        For entertainment and to illustrate I am going publish a chapter of a story I recently wrote.
        I will put it up shortly.
        I hope you enjoy!

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