Things are not always as they seem.
by Richard Millman
What have a forest, The Great One, Sir Isaac Newton, a locker room full of boisterous teenagers and David and Goliath got to do with one another?
Not immediately sure?
Well, let me tell you a story.
When I was a boy my mother, in an effort to help me look at the big picture instead sticking with my all too common myopathy, would say to me, “Richard, your trouble is you can’t see the wood for the trees.”
What she meant, of course, was that my frequent obsession with some minor component often prevented me from seeing how that component functioned in the big picture of whatever it was that I was trying to understand. My efficiency and indeed my success all to often suffered.
As we all progress in the field of squash, we too need to ensure that we don’t get bogged down in minutiae but always relate specific areas of focus to how they are meant to function in the totality of the game.
Sport at its best is a game of proactivity not reactivity. This is particularly true of squash where a readiness to cope with whatever is thrown at us is an essential of the game. If we only focus on what we are trying to do, we will be unprepared for whatever comes next. In consequence great squash is about developing an awareness of everything that could possibly happen and being prepared to respond to anything.
Of course to that you have to know what could happen and you have to be ready before it does.
The Great One, Wayne Gretzky summed this up perfectly when he said, “ Don’t go to where the puck is, go to where it is going to be.”
Constantly positioning oneself ahead of the play, in other words, is the key to greatness.
Sir Isaac Newton gave so much to the world and squash is no stranger to his largesse. In his second law of motion he told us, “ Force = Mass x Acceleration.”
We of the squash community should really pay attention to that equation.
One group that understands what Sir Isaac told us, even if they are unaware that they are using his second law of motion and they are misbehaving, are boisterous teenagers in a locker room.
Armed with slightly damp towels, they put Sir Isaac’s math into action with dramatic effect.
Holding their damp towels alarmingly at the ready, they load their legs and just as they push back away from their team mates, while still leaning their balance toward the targeted area of exposed skin, they convert their mass into a wave of force by skillfully channeling their entire bodyweight into a chain reaction of whiplash that leaves a nasty welt on the skin – which is usually returned with interest.
Yes! They move away from the victim while delivering their body weight in an energy wave through the towel, using a highly skilled piece of timing where the fractional delay between the legs pushing back and the arm coming forward, produces a powerful wave of whiplash.
This whiplash has been instinctively understood by human beings for millennia. It has been used to separate the wheat from the chaff in the medieval practice of flailing and of course the young shepherd boy David used Sir Isaac’s latterly recognized law to kill Goliath with his sling-shot.
So where does that leave us?
Here is where it leaves us.
When we play squash we need to keep in mind our overall purpose and make sure the mechanics we use facilitate what is most important.
What is most important is that we are always moving ahead of the game and not getting stuck in one place such that we focus on a single moment of the game rather than the whole game.
To this end when we move to retrieve the ball, the shot that we are about to play is primarily of relevance to where it can take us in the future – not primarily about how well we hit that shot. The shot in itself is not the focus – it is only important as a part of the big picture.
Wayne Gretzky told us not to go where the puck ( ball) is, but where it will be.
That doesn’t just mean after the opponent hits it.
It means all the time.
As we hit, we should already be on the way to the next situation.
Fortunately for us Sir Isaac Newton proved that, in addition to this proactivity keeping us ahead of the game, it also is better mechanically.
If you don’t believe it do the math.
Force = Mass x Acceleration
If you try to stand still when you hit a squash ball your legs are passive and you really only employ the arm.
The muscles of the arm are designed for fine control not power and if you overload them two things happen. You lose feel and you fall over – because flailing away with your upper body on a passive legs will do that!
Here’s the math. Your arm maybe weighs 8 pounds. Lets say you could move it at 3 meters per second ( which would near rip it off and probably injure you). Multiply 8 x 3 and you get 24 Newtons of potential force.
If on the other hand you take a leaf out of the boisterous teenagers in the locker rooms’ book and you load/activate your legs before you get to the shot so that you can utilize your entire weight while controlling your balance with your powerful leg muscles and giving your arms the freedom of precision they were designed for you get this: If your body weighs 180 pounds and you load your legs to accelerate away just before you cleverly time the relaxed wafting action of your relaxed arm/racquet toward the ball at say 0.5 meters per second, you get this: 180 x 0.5 = 90 Newtons of potential force. And guess what? Simultaneously with executing your shot you have moved to your next position in the rally before your ball has even come off the front wall, and you aren’t blocking your opponent because by the time your shot came back – you were long gone and they hadn’t even seen where the ball was going.
The Great One would be very happy. Sir Isaac would be beaming a broad, avuncular smile. David would see that you were ready to battle your own Goliaths, the teenagers in the locker room would be hi-5ing you all over the place and my mom would nod approvingly that you actually saw the forest for the trees.
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.