The Millman Experience
I’m here at the US Junior Open coaching several of my up and coming students.
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.
5 thoughts on “The Millman Experience”
Loved your thoughts…an international problem
Thanks Alan- as our sport evolves more and more of these ideas with come to the fore.
Liked your piece on touch and subtlety or the lack thereof in SA – would love to teach a bunch of your guys sometime to set the seeds of deception and artistry to grow in the community. Maybe we’ll get together sometime.
Do you think left-handed coaches should charge 10% more than their right-handed rivals, Richard!
As a leftie, I’ve always believed the left/right distinction benefits us. There is the sinister unfamiliarity, bolstered by the central point in your article, the tendency, ingrained in right handers since they learned the game, to flog the ball to the left hand side of the court at every opportunity.
In addition to this, I’ve often speculated that left handers are not an exact mirror image of right handers: they seem to have unduly strong forehands but correspondingly weak backhands. Right-handers’ go-to tendency therefore plays TO the left-hander’s strength and AWAY FROM their faery weakness. By chance a year or so ago I saw some video of myself taken during a match. I was appalled to see how bad my technique was on the backhand side. Presumably I’d got away with this up to then firstly with brute strength (now a distant memory) and secondly with the fact that righties had always fed my stronger side. After this revelation I made a big effort to improve my backhand technique. New tricks don’t come easily! I’m thrilled occasionally by how well I can hit a backhand off the back wall but find it hard to get into the right position to do this elsewhere on the right-hand side of the court.
A final thought on the backhand: happily there is no single correct way of how, as opposed to where, it should be hit, as anyone watching matches between Ramy Ashour and Mohammed el Shorbagy will testify.
Excellent commentary thanks Aubrey. How’s the recovery coming along?
thanks, Richard, it’s gone really well and two separate physiotherapists have told me they’ve never seen anyone recover as quickly… but, there’s always a but! It’s a frustrating time now (ten weeks gone and still early) as I can do more than my knee will tolerate. So it’s range of movement stuff (2-117º currently versus 30-85º preop) and static strength exercises; I’m giving myself a year before deciding how much effort I’ll be able to put in
I hope your various joints are all behaving themselves (for me it felt so irrevocable having a replacement, but life goes on, and people like you have done so well)