Tag Archive | Skill development

Mind/Body – How does your Competitive philosophy affect your mechanical and strategic performance?

As I approach my thirty-eighth year as a professional Sports coach, I find myself increasingly intrigued by the philosophical aspect of competitive development and coaching itself as a field of study.
Many wise coaches over the history of our profession – even back to the days of our true ancestors – the fencing masters and the sergeants at arms and gladiatorial instructors – have routinely declared that 95% of what we do is mental and that the skills that must be learned in order to participate – no matter what the level of excellence achieved – are merely tools and are in reality the entry fee that must be paid to get in to the party. What you do once you have gained entry – that is the crucial part.
This being the case, I cannot help but feel that importance attached to certain areas in the development process are not only given disproportionate quantities of attention but, in point of fact, whilst well meant, do a great deal of damage.

Let me explain.

I have a pet saying that when I look at a competitor performing, what I am seeing is a physical representation of the ideas in that competitor’s head.

Therefore if the philosophy is flawed, no matter how hard the competitor works on mechanics and skills, ultimately the competitor is doomed.

You may work as hard as you like on running a race, but you can only win if you are on the right course.

In my field of competition, the Sport of  Squash, competitors become distracted by the huge volume of attention given to winning and losing, rankings and rivalries, outcomes rather than performance.

This in turn manifests itself in mistaken philosophies and assumptions that misdirect competitive development.

Not only this, but because philosophy directly contributes to mechanics, the physical execution of skills are compromised through a failure to understand ultimate priorities.

Language, as we know both to our benefit and to our cost, is a very powerful tool and so before we speak – and that includes self-talk – we must make sure that we understand the consequences of the words/advice we offer or hear.

For instance a simple example of a philosophy that has disastrous consequences in Squash, is the concept of trying to hit ‘a winner’ – ( a finishing shot).

To the unthinking or the uninitiated this may seem a harmless expression.

But let’s follow through the philosophy:

If a player is attempting to play ‘ a winner’ they are attempting to end the game.

If they are committing to ending the game, how much will they focus/work on the continuation of the game beyond the shot that they are attempting to win with?

None is the answer, because in their minds they are hoping/intending to finish.

Should the opponent retrieve or worse still counter attack against the attempted ‘winner’, the player is unprepared for the next phase of the game – having committed to the end and having made no plan for the future.

But this is not the end of the story.

When a player attempts to play ‘a winner’ it seriously affects the physical and mechanical technique employed.

When attempting to bring play to a halt, the player becomes static – focused as they are on stopping rather than continuing the play. As a result they only employ their upper body strength as in focusing on stopping – they don’t employ their legs to move into position (as they execute their shot) in order to be prepared for the opponent’s possible reply. Why should they? In their mind there isn’t going to be a reply so why move to cover?
As a consequence of not dynamically recruiting the powerful muscles of the legs and thereby creating an energy wave that will flow smoothly and uninterrupted up through their bodies, through their arms and into the ball and at the same time alleviating all stress in the arms to enable the arms , hands and fingers to precisely control the ball – the opposite occurs and the upper body becomes stiff, prevents smooth and precisely controlled weight transference and produces a tight inaccurate, emotionally charged attempt – which frequently results in an error.

I am sure that there are exactly equivalent behaviors in the competitive business world.

All this from a seemingly innocuous expression – ‘ a winner.’

The expression ‘winner’ of course is a description of an outcome that has occurred in the past, not something that should be attempted in the future.
Competitors  should ‘attack’ with gusto, always remembering that highly talented opponents will almost always retrieve those ‘attacks’ and that one should therefore always assume a need have a plan in place for the continuation of the play.
If by some chance the opponent doesn’t retrieve the attack even though you expected them to, then you are in the happy position of having covered every eventuality. And of course because your philosophy was to ‘attack’ without making any prediction as to how successful your ‘attack’ would be, your body has been employed dynamically and thus has produce mechanics which have resulted in the best possible combination of power/weight transference originating in your active legs which in turn was funneled through the precision oriented, relaxed and sensitive, unstressed arms, hands and finger – all in a seamless and natural progression which facilitated both protection for your self ( the primary focus) and pain for your opponent ( an important but secondary focus).

To summarize: Competitive skills must not be developed in isolation from the philosophy of the competition.
Over concentration on ‘how’ to perform a skill rather than on ‘why’ to perform a skill will lead not only to poor strategy but poor execution.

Competitors  must firmly understand their purpose in all of their behaviors otherwise they will emphasize physical and mechanical movements that are counter productive.

In general we in the Competitive world need to direct all of our activities toward putting us ahead on the timeline.

Much is spoken of staying in the moment – but this refers to the physical and mechanical execution of skills being well delivered and not distracted by concerns about possible final outcomes.

In point of fact Competitive people need to focus on remaining physically up to date ( in the present) but mentally slightly ahead ( in the future) to be successful.

Forgive me for misquoting the great Wayne Gretsky, but he is credited for ‘ not wanting to go to where the puck is, but where the puck is going to be.’

That, in a nutshell, is what Competition is about. Keeping your mind being prepared for what could happen next and making sure that whatever you are doing now puts you in the best position to strengthen your situation.
This may mean attacking, defending or both in various ratios.

Always prepare for the worst. Attack like a demon when you can, but never over commit, never become complacent. Hurt your opponent over and over again, but make no assumptions as to how effective your attack will be. A wounded opponent can be a lethal enemy, so keep your guard and your position up until nothing comes back.

Here is the sequence that I believe produces the best player development:

1. Study and understand the philosophy of the game understanding that in order to survive one must always think ahead.
2. Develop movements and skills that adhere to that philosophy.
3. Condition the mind, emotions and body to be able to execute the movements and skills that are in line with the philosophy of the game.
4. Continually review, reappraise and re-rehearse all of the above with an open mind.

With this formula I believe that both competitors and coaches can achieve their maximum potentials.

Richard Millman
Dec 9th 2013.

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

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