Squash is a game of fine margins by Paul Bell

July 01 2019

I recently attended the Channel VAS Championships at St Georges Hill with our Scottish No.1 Greg Lobban. It’s always interesting watching the first events of a new season to see what changes the players have made over the summer training period. I love going & watching live squash, because despite the great job SquashTV are doing it is always best to see the game live to really & understand what’s happening on court. The differences between players at the top level is so subtle & there is nothing like seeing it live to really appreciate the fine margins & what the top players are doing.

Watching squash is essential for coaches & for players
As a coach I am always learning & trying to improve, & a big part of my continuous development is to make the time & effort to watch squash.  When I say watch squash, I mean really watch it to gain an understanding of what is happening. I believe that being in touch with what is happening at the top of the game is vital to ensuring coaches can create a long-term vision for how they would like their players to play the game. The game is evolving rapidly & if you aren’t evolving your training methods & ideas on the game, you will be left behind & therefore so will your players.

This same idea is also crucial for players. Watching the best players in the world is inspiring but is also the best indicator to help players form some opinions & ideas on where their game should be going next. My coaching method is quite different to a lot of other squash coaches in that I believe in a co-operative approach where the player is the driver of the process. The responsibility lies with them to develop their own style & ideas on the game.

Within this approach my role is to listen, steer, challenge & question ensuring the player is following the best path to achieve the goals they have chosen. Squash is a problem-solving game so by taking the conventional approach of telling players what they need to do, coaches leave players ill-equipped to make the right decisions in the heat of the moment. The understanding & knowledge of the game that players learn by watching is a key attribute that is often overlooked.

To develop the ability & skills that enable players to separate themselves from the crowd in a game where such small margins make all the difference, there are a few key areas that are necessary to emphasise.

Attention to detail
While the shots of the game remain the same, the way that they are used can change everything.

There is the obvious example with the Egyptians who are very attack minded & use the front of the court, a trend of the British players is to focus more on dominating the back of the court. While the same shots are used within the game the real impact comes how they are executed.

Within my coaching I try to stay away from asking players to play shots & instead focus a player’s attention on where they are putting the ball. Ask a player to play a straight drive & the margin for error in executing a straight drive is huge. Ask a player to get the ball second bouncing into the back-wall nick & suddenly you find a much greater purpose to every shot that is being played.

Our language & delivery of a message as coaches is crucial to getting players understanding what really matters in the game & what separates the good from the great.

Ball Placement
To be a good player you need to be able to put the ball in the right areas of the court in the right way. Generally, these are the simple shots but the impact that can be made with these shots are huge in both a positive & negative way depending on the execution.

Having the ability to make the ball go exactly where you need it to in order to cause maximum difficulty is something top players do flawlessly. The ability to execute effectively is down to swing control, however in match play players struggle to find the right areas of the court either through lack of thought into what they would like the ball to actually do, for example they just hit a drive, or they are unable to play the shot in the way they need to as a result of lazy movement &/or footwork - not making the effort to get into the required hitting position.

Shot Options
In addition to putting the ball in the right areas the best players are always showing at least two shots they are capable of playing.

During the Channel VAS event Greg played Karim Abdel Gawad who is a master at this. Gawad’s real weapon is his backhand, especially on the volley. All match he showed the long & short ball every time he was on the volley & throughout the match he played both, keeping his opponent guessing & needing to cover the whole channel. The ability to do this forces your opponent to do a lot more work which takes its toll as the match progresses.

In addition to this Karim then showed us that he also had a third option from this position, as things were getting really tight at 11-11 all in the fourth we saw a brand-new shot from the same position, a volley boast. It came from exactly the same position on the court, racket preparation & body shape he had obviously been capable of playing this shot all match long, but he was saving it for the opportune time to use it to get a quick winner & it worked perfectly.

Playing with a bigger picture in mind
A big factor in winning matches is also your tactics. From watching matches from the PSA World Tour, it is clear to see that each player has an approach in mind which they believe will maximise their own strengths & exploit their opponents’ weaknesses. This makes decision making on court much easier because you have pre-identified the best approach to beating your opponent. For example, you believe you are mentally stronger than your opponent which is a tactic often adopted by the top players; the aim would be to make every rally physically tough & enable the opponents’ mental fragility to affect their shot selections which will allow you to take advantage.

Developing it in your own game & your players
To end on a positive note, most squash players are capable of hitting a world class shot. In a feeding session which allows for players to set up the position, swing the racket perfectly & pick out exactly where the ball should go, the quality is just as good as the world’s best.

The problem occurs when players are asked to do all of these at speed & with different choices available. In order to play your best game, clarity & attention to detail in every shot that is played will ensure that you play the best squash that you are capable of on the day.

Give it a try.

Paul Bell is Scottish Squash National Coach, UNSQUASHABLE Coaching Ambassador & & one of the most respected squash coaches in the world.