Philosophy, Analysis, Practicality, Strategy and Execution in Squash. A five part series by Richard Millman. Part 1: Philosophy
Phlilosophy, analysis, practicality, strategy and execution in Squash.A five part series, by Richard Millman.
Part 1. Philosophy
As I write, that extraordinary railway terminus in New York, Grand Central Station, and more particularly the wonderful Vanderbilt Hall, is once again echoing with the ‘thud,’ ‘thud,’ ‘thud,’ of a rubber ball against glass walls.
For those of us that are lifelong addicts, this is both the source of pride and frustration.
Pride, in that the whole world walks through Grand Central and sees the best that our game has to offer, and frustration in that neither we nor they have the capacity to instantly understand the complexity of what is happening.
To the casual observer, the spectacular ‘cockpit’ enclosing two pretty fit looking athletes is a momentary distraction, perhaps even the subject of a few minutes of novel fascination. But, after a while the number of variables become simply too much to absorb and the passer-by moves on to something that he or she is more familiar with.
If it was an NFL game or and NBA game, observers both casual and expert would have a shared general understanding of roughly what was happening. But in Squash, not only do the casual and expert observers not share a basic understanding of what is happening, the experts themselves are still trying to understand what is going on. Such is the complexity of our sport.
To the lifelong addict such as myself, these games are the source of amazement, as young people and the people around them, wholly dedicated to a pursuit that has limited financial rewards ( and those only at the very top of the game), push themselves past any perceivable limitations in the search for survival and success.
Ultimately those two – survival and success – are interchangeable.
In the same way that the cockerel that survived in the bloody onslaught of the historical cockpit, was successful.
In a fight for life and death between two combatants, survival is success and vice-versa.
That is the simple and pure philosophy of Squash.
Whether you are a passer-by at Grand Central or one of the leading experts in the game, it is imperative that you look at Squash through the ‘lens’ of survival, if you hope to gain an understanding.
But to understand how to survive requires detailed analysis and comprehension of the physical, mental, technical, emotional and strategic aspects of that survival.
And that study is a maelstrom of widely diverging opinion often backed by powerful, charming, charismatic, famous, forceful, experienced personalities, but rarely (if ever) by logical, empirical study.
Expert opinion is only that – opinion. And too often that opinion is accepted as fact. Our sport needs firmer ground than opinion alone as a foundation. We must be able to hold our understanding up to the candle of proof.
Opinion without facts is like a house built on sand.
Squash needs more than that if it is to reach its maximum success, indeed if it is to fight for its own survival.
In my next piece, I will look at the analysis required to accurately identify and highlight the unbelievably complex kaleidoscope of behaviors that are required for a Squash player to ultimately survive.
Hopefully accurate analysis will make the subtleties of Squash more accessible both to folks who happen upon our sport as they wander through Vanderbilt Hall, and to those who wish to expose themselves to the ultimate challenge of the life and death fight for survival in the arena.
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.