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.
A day trip to Aosta.
After a wonderful party with seventy or more of the World Masters Games Squash players that featured a seemingly endless Turinese dinner so typical of Italy – more of a fiesta than a meal – Pat and I walked the fifteen minutes or so through the classically porticoed – ‘though eerily quiet- late night streets of Torino and caught the penultimate metro train home to our little apartment on the Corso Brunelleschi.
Following an all-too-brief, six-and-a-bit hours in bed, we awakened to honor our previously arranged rendezvous with some of our US Squash team mates.
Neither Pat nor I were particularly bright or breezy as we dragged our bodies back to the Massaua metro stop at 7.30am to ensure that we met our assignation at the Porto Nuova at 8.10 or so.
After a painless train trip, a deliciously hot cup of Cafe’ Machiato and a few tasty morsels from the pastry shop at the station, we wandered over to platform 14 to meet our friends.
Despite an overwhelming desire to shut our eyes, the intriguing prospect of the Piedmonte region’s landscape kept us glued to the windows.
We were not disappointed.
As the distant Alps drew steadily closer, we were rewarded with a variety of hillside ‘pensione’ that seemingly clung to the rock defying gravity; terraced vineyards beautifully ordered with almost geometric precision and distant alpine meadows where one could imagine mountain sheep and grizzled ancient shepherds plying their age-old trade undisturbed by the hue and cry of the modern world below.
We changed at Ivrea and immediately became aware of the impending proximity of the French border as the voices on the Aosta train took on a distinctly gallic tone.
The view from the window became yet more spectacular as the milky waters of mountain streams cascaded powerfully into the valley almost threatening to carry the ancient stone bridges away as they burst out from beneath them.
The increasingly French influence on the area became further enforced as we arrived in the little city of Aosta and noticed that the signs at the train station were in both Italian and French. After some momentary uncertainty we ascertained the whereabouts of the city-center and on completing a two or three minute walk, we found ourselves in a beautiful large piazza, dominated by the impressive Hotel de Ville. The street signs themselves were written in French and everywhere French and Italian flags wafted symbiotically in the cheery breeze.
We immediately availed ourselves of the variety of coffee offerings from one of the piazza’s several boulevard cafe’s and I plumpted for a Nuttichino – an interesting mixture of chocolate Nutella, cafe mocha and hot milk foam.
Suitably replenished we made our way to the Ponte Pretorian which did indeed prove to be a remarkably well preserved Roman gate and beneath its arches we found the city’s tourist information office. In the process we were met with the most picturesque view of the Via Ponte Pretorian – a lovely street given over to a combination of delicatessens, souvenir shops, cafe’s, artisan’s workshops and local linen stores. Making a mental note to return later, we crowded into the tourist information bureau.
Prior to our trip I had done my utmost via the world-wide-web to discover the sights to be seen in Aosta. I had found evidence of a cable car to the ski resort of Pila, but every page I scrutinized seemed to suggest that it was closed in the off or non-ski season.
For this reason I was pleased and amazed when the pleasant English speaking young lady behind the counter assured me that it was very much open and available to take us up to Pila.
Having discovered that there was a 12.45-2.15 lunch break when the cable car shut down, we scurried along and – despite a detour born of self-imposed mistaken directions – arrived with five minutes to spare.
The seventeen minute trip from Aosta to Pila costs five euros and is worth every cent. Within moments of departing, the spectacular panorama of the Alps around the little city enveloped our tiny world – suspended on an impossibly thin wire – and like an insignificant asteroid in the massive void of the universe, we floated ever upward toward our ultimate goal : Pila -one of the most famous ski and mountain bike resorts in this part of the world.
Having passed several way stations, we gently bumped into the Pila arrival station and as the doors opened we stepped out into crisp air, seven and half thousand feet above the spot from which we had embarked but a few minutes before.
In the final moments of the ascent we had noted the location of at least two very inviting ‘ristorante’ – one crowded and busy with children, bikers, table-tennis and the other that featured a family sitting around a picnic table that supported two large, impossibly refreshing looking beers.
After stopping for a few snaps for the album and having established that the noisy pub held much less attraction for us than the quiet, refreshing beer-prominent one, we marched down the hill to stake our claim.
I was in the mood for a walk and our team mate Julie Kessler was also up for the challenge. Pat, on the other hand, had spotted the invitingly comfortable lounge chairs at the ristorante and nobly volunteered to forego the walk and to bravely defend our backpacks whilst we were away.
The others seeing the logic of Pat’s thought pattern did the same.
So it was left to Julie and me to brave the heights – which we duly did for a good 30 minutes. Within the first five I was struggling for breath and after 20 I had to take a break, realizing as I did that the thin air was liable to make me ill if I didn’t take care. Having had the rest, Julie and I walked back down the hill and regrouped with the team.
The views were heavenly and the world in which we dwelt for those couple of hour was truly other-worldly, quickly vanquishing the memories of that nether land from whence we had recently arrived.
Time however waits for no man( or woman come to that) and we knew that our sojourn to Nirvana must come to an end.
We gathered ourselves after a quick lunch and headed for the descent which, while equally spectacular, was over far too quickly.
Back then to the beautiful pocket city of Aosta.
Pat was on a mission to buy gifts for our grandchildren and for the first time this trip, her personal compass was on fire as she headed gangbusters for the previously mentioned Via Ponte Pretorian and shopaholism!
I am not always – perhaps I should more accurately say – I am seldom – a good shopping companion. It is remarkable to me that I have managed to achieve a level of fitness on the Squash court that has won me multiple national titles and yet when it comes to the grueling physical challenge of shopping I am like a novice contestant on the first day of the TV program ‘The Biggest Loser’.
Even short bouts are liable to floor me.
On this occasion however Pat was on world class sprinting form and found every item she was looking for in short order.
Having won the competition and perhaps even threatened the previous world shopping record, we were rewarded with a post match respite and collapsed into the shaded chairs of a lovely cafe’ at the end of the Via Porte Pretorian.
One cup of English Breakfast combined with the Prince of Wales’s own blend for me and a Coke light to the good for Pat and, with a zephyr breeze around my ears, I gratefully slipped into an afternoon doze.
Awakening to discover that I had not realized that I had dropped off, I felt comfortably refreshed and ready to reconnect with the team at our previously agreed meeting point back beside the Hotel de Ville.
With the rendezvous complete, we agreed to return to Torino a little early, filled with the satisfaction of a truly memorable day in a never-to-be-forgotten city in a romantic land of cafe’s and piazzas, vineyards and mountains.