Dealing with pressure is critical to success in squash

January 15 2020

In the world of professional sport, margins are small whilst the repercussions can be large. The effect of unforced errors or bad judgments can not only result in a poor outcome but can also contribute to increased pressure. Small errors mount up & dealing with pressure is critical to elite success.

How a player deals with pressure can have a huge impact on the overall outcome of a game, match or indeed a career. The negativity surrounding the subject as an area to work on & lack of general support makes it hard to tackle. Players who are poor at dealing with pressure often find themselves having to improve through their own research or develop their own coping mechanisms through trial & error.

The effect of pressure is well documented in a breath of topics & here are just two examples.

Fighter pilots must deal with huge amounts of pressure at a fast pace. In work when pressure increases, the pilot’s ability to do external skills outside of flying massively decreases. First goes the administrative capability of a pilot, then the communication & finally their navigation until all they are doing is flying!

In a further study on Police officers in situations when dealing with pressure, their heart rate increased & the ability to function reverts to just the essential tasks required.

If you translate this to a game of squash, the awareness of a player under pressure moves from a broader breadth of aspects to the very narrow focus of just playing & hitting the ball.

So why does this happen?

It’s all in the brain. Just think when you are at work & you are given a lot of tasks all at once. You become overloaded & stressed. This is what is happening in the brain with the pressure. Our brains only have so much attentional capacity. When pressure sets in, it starts to eat up this capacity & reduces the amount of capacity you then have to deal with vital tasks to the ability to perform at your very best.

The best squash players in the world will be able to deal with this better than the average player with their awareness remaining a lot wider for longer as pressure increases & the effect of pressure setting in is delayed.

So how do you get good at dealing with pressure?

Everyone is different in the way they can use certain strategies & it is therefore important to first understand yourself to determination what will be most effective for you.

For some players, routine gives confidence & takes away the pressure as ‘controllables’ are controlled. It might be a lucky wristband, the lay out of your bag or schedule of your warm-up. Others may try talking to themselves with positive self-talk. Constant reassurance can always help pick up your mood & equally this can come from a significant other, a coach, parent or teammate. Staying in the moment can help others especially during a match. Reassessing the situation, taking in smells & noises can help re-centralise. Imagery can also be a powerful tool, imagining success or past success can always help to settle pre-match nerves. The key is finding a method that works for you.

For the majority it is like a straight dropshot or drive, its simple but needs practice in a live situation & constant repetition.

It can be hard for players to expose themselves to these kinds of situations. Coaches often apply pressure to the training & practice environment. This can be done simply by a prize for the winner or forfeit for the loser. This could be money, treats or a test of pride!

Some players are more hard-wired to deal with these situations. Some players may come from a background of another sport or high-pressured environment & transferring this across is more natural. These players need less support, probably more times than not just someone to talk to or reassurance them in what they are doing.

Others however will need greater support in dealing with pressure & learning these mechanisms. The worst thing that a coach can do is write someone off at being bad at dealing with pressure. Coaches need to problem solve & make it an ok area to work on, just like any other technical aspect or skill. The mental side of the game is still massively overlooked & under supported which we can see generally from the many discussions around mental health.