Between coaching assignations, I have been watching the other games and today I hit on something that may be of interest to you.
It was certainly interesting to me.
The quality of play here continues to escalate; technically, strategically, physically – although understandably the emotional state of young athletes, fighting for their place in the pecking order of life, continues to be a bit wobbly – as does some of the behavior of coaches and parents who are also desperate for them to succeed – although even that seems less animated this year.
But within the confines of that superior play, I have noticed some interesting trends.
Depending on how experienced you are, you may or may not know that most players start off playing squash with much more confidence in their forehand strokes than in their backhands.
However if and when they become experienced and advanced players their backhands become their better sides.
This has to do with the fact that the natural forehand stroke is a pulling and throwing action that, if overdone, tends to lead to the ball being pulled away from the sidewall, whereas the backhand action is more of a directed, uncoiling action, that is easier to push along the wall away from the body as opposed to the ball being pulled across the body.
However, I believe the degree to which the backhand becomes unduly focused upon has a number of other contributory factors.
For one, few dynamic young players can resist the opportunity of ripping a hard forehand when the opportunity arises. As a consequence, attention to forehand length directional control and pace variation is a rare attribute in young squash players.
Here at the US Junior Open, players that set up and float tight balls down the forehand side are in a small minority – whereas they almost all do that exceptionally well on their backhands.
There are other reasons too, for this strong desire to rip the forehand toward the opponent’s backhand.
Most players and coaches when working at beginner/intermediate level focus on playing the ball to the opponent’s weaker backhand.
Hence Mark Allen’s email handle ‘ Lobtohisbackhand.’
But once players reach a level of proficiency in returning deep backhands, I wonder if this love affair with attacking the deep backhand actually becomes a hangover that is much less productive and is actually destructive, in so far as it discourages the development of quality, controlled, forehand play?
I had the pleasure of chatting about this today, with that great doyen of French and World Squash, Thierry Lincou – now the Head Coach at MIT.
I posited the following theory to him:
Left handed players develop in a different environment to right hand players ( there being less of them) and necessarily learn to rally on their forehand sides against the consistency of the right handed backhand.
In my experience, lefties don’t rip their forehands anywhere near as much as righties ( they get less opportunity and it is much riskier against the tight righty backhand).
However they do have similar backhand development for the same mechanical reasons I mentioned earlier.
On the other hand lefties don’t get as much exposure to patient careful backhand rallies as righties do – because the righties can’t resist ripping their forehands most of the time. Perhaps the lefty’s backhand makes the righty a little more disciplined, but to be honest, I think most righties – unless they have really trained on this specifically – can’t free themselves from the rush of adrenaline they feel when they get the chance to crack the ball, from half or three-quarter length. This usually means the righty doesn’t get forward to intercept on the volley as often on the forehand as they do on the backhand, because they don’t consider/manufacture the time they need to get forward when they rip a forehand.
So here’s a thought from this old coach:
What if we made sure that our righty players regularly trained with either lefties of their own level or above, or with a lefty pro?
Would this increase the quality of control and pace that righty players developed and discourage the desire to just whack the ball on the forehand?
Thierry thought about it for a moment and then relayed his strategy when he was a player, when playing lefties.
He told me that he would always build a backhand game plan against Peter Nicol or Amr Shabana based on hitting to the backhand deep.
He said that the reason for this was that he knew that they were confident on the forehand side but less so on the backhand and that he could usually get an opening.
I find this very interesting.
At first blush, one could be forgiven for thinking that Thierry was positing the old ‘Lobtohisbackhand’ strategy – until you stop and remember that in Nicol and Shabana we are talking about two of the greats of out game. They didn’t have technical flaws like some Under 13 boy or girl.
What I believe Thierry had struck upon was how much practice Nicol and Shabana had in competition, playing deep on their backhand sides.
Clearly it was more than in junior competition, because James Wilstrop and Nick Matthew don’t just rip it when it comes to their forehands, but even so, I suspect that the time that they spent deep on their backhand sides was appreciably less that deep on their forehand sides.
So, as a result of this discussion and my continuing observations, I have to conclude that if we wish to see the continuing development of quality in junior squash, planning regular training with lefties is a must if righties are to bring the quality of their forehand organization, execution and pace control up to or close to the level of their backhands.
Of course if we do that, Thierry won’t be able to get so much mileage out of playing deep to the lefty backhand – because the lefties will improve too.
Which is of course good for us all, because everyone and Squash as a community, will step up another notch in this ever evolving game.
Oh and by the way, could all the lefty coaches that find their business increasing after this article please forward my 10% commission check via Pay Pal?
December 20th 2015
At the US Junior Open at Trinity College, Hartford, CT.
E Pluribus Unum
The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, or so the saying goes.
But of course, each whole is greater still if the the parts are great to begin with.
Such is the case in American Squash today in my view, with still greater prospects looking forward.
The strong traditions and talent pool of the oldest organized squash country in the world, its adherence to the values of meritocracy and its willingness to embrace any individual that can make a positive contribution and the unique supply and demand market of college squash, have produced the ultimate melting pot of both US and international squash talent.
The melting pot, inevitably, is a swirling mixture of confusion; but every once in a while, the USA’s ability to act as a catalyst takes disparate personalities and combines them with situations and opportunities to create an individual whose unique assets may never have come to the fore in the same way, without having been thrown into this extraordinarily fertile environment.
Such an individual, in my opinion, is a young Englishman from Yorkshire, whose gentle manner, quiet voice and loose limbed appearance belie a remarkable fire within.
His name is Luke Butterworth.
Once upon a time my wife Pat and I contributed to the development of the squash mecca that the Westchester County, New York and nearby Fairfield County, Connecticut have become.
Into this firepit the young and unassuming Luke Butterworth arrived. He made his way first to the well respected squash program at the Round Hill Club under the mentorship of Steve Scharff.
This in itself was providential as Scharff is not dissimilar in nature to Luke Butterworth.
Extremely courteous and gentle of manner, he was himself a ferocious competitor who expressed his courage and vitality exceptionally well on the Squash court.
Additionally Luke was able to call upon a number of good friends that he had developed strong links with in his brief but successful career on the World Squash tour.
I well remember him dropping into Westchester Squash to train with his friend Andy Learoyd and also my surprise when the seemingly gentle youth produced such clinical, searing precision and effortless movement on the court.
With the strong platform and mentorship of Steve Scharff and the Round Hill, Luke proceeded to diligently go about the business of turning his undoubted prowess as a player into a celebrated ability as a coach and mentor.
In all of my interactions with him I have found him to be considerate. I mean deeply considerate – in all senses of the word.
This is an essential quality in our sport. The ability to accurately consider the future consequences of one’s action and then rapidly adjust the immediate action to take account of possible outcomes is a rare skill.
The ability to pass this understanding on, with clear concise explanation, is rarer still.
And yet, without doubt, Luke Butterworth, in his inimitable way, has achieved just this.
Having gleaned a great deal from Steve Scharff, Luke was encouraged to spread his wings and did so, gaining an appointment as the national coach of Paraguay for the 2011 Pan American games – where with his help, the Paraguayan’s achieved an unprecedented Bronze Medal.
Understandably, his Paraguayan team are full of praise for the young Master.
More recently Luke has moved on to the prestigious Greenwich Academy for Girls, a program of unparalleled historic success on the squash court and an institution that would not make squash appointments lightly.
In addition, in recognition of his world class talent as a Squash coach, US Squash has seen fit to make Luke a part of their national coaching framework where he heads up the the regional program of arguably the strongest US region in Connecticut.
Here are a couple of quotes from those who Luke’s work has materially affected:
Esteban Casarino 21 time Paraguayan Champion and PSA world number 90:
“Leading to the Panam Games that year, I aproached our National association’s president, as our team # 1 and said that if we wanted to have a chance for the podium we had to bring somenone who could take the weight of been the coach from my shoulders and we explain that to our National Olympic Comittee as well. (-)
The results, Bronze medal at the 2011 Panam Games, showed we were right. A great achievement by a great team.”
Steve Scharff – Head Professional of the Round Hill Club:
“Luke was a major part of the recent success of the junior squash program at the Round Hill Club. He helped establish a culture inclusive of all squash players but also pushed the truly interested ones to reach new heights. With Luke’s help, the program produced multiple players ranked #1 in the U.S. from 2011-2014.”
Rich Wade – Director of National Teams US Squash:
“‘It is very rare to have a player of Luke’s playing ability on the world stage also be able to harness those skills with coaching and delivering those messages to other players. During his time in the U.S., Luke has proven to be a valuable addition and US Squash have no doubt that he will continue to be one of the very best coaches in the country.”
Clearly Luke Butterworth is a rare and world class talent. His development continues and with it the progress of the United States in this truly modern sport that combines intellect, physical fitness, courage, wit and dedication.
Survival is the number one priority of the Human kind and Squash helps our species to hone its survival skills in the modern world where the comfort of a protected society often leads to the loss of those necessary skills.
We in the United States are fortunate to be able to call upon the riches of the global talent pool to help our students of the game, young and old, to continue the pursuit of excellence in this complex world.
The global talent pool in its turn recognizes that there is no better environment in which to ply its trade.
Thus our whole is becoming greater as we source the sum of greater parts.
And one of those that we may count ourselves fortunate to have garnered is Luke Butterworth.
Richard Millman Dec 17th, 1995
USOC Developmental Squash Coach of the Year 2014
First ever Pan American US Men’s Squash Coach – Mar Del Plata, Argentina, 1995