Squash is easy - at least that’s the way it should be by Paul Bell

February 01 2022

A common conversation amongst coaches is that present day players don’t work hard enough. Scottish National Coach Paul Bell explains that whilst he doesn’t disagree that work ethic is on the decline, over emphasise on hard work can have a detrimental effect on players who are looking to improve their squash.

I have the privilege of running the Scotland performance programme & all the players that I work with are either professional or aspiring to become professional. They are motivated to put the work in & achieve great results &, surprisingly, this is a big part of the problem.

Squash is currently in a great position with Ali Farag & Raneem El Welily sitting at the top of the respective men’s & women’s PSA World Rankings. They are two brilliant examples of making a game that has been proven to be one of the most physically demanding sports there is, look easy. They do this through movement efficiency, shot quality & clarity of thought.

Squash isn’t the only sport where the best in the world make it look easy, think of Roger Federer gliding around a tennis court, Lionel Messi slipping past three defenders like they weren’t even there & slotting the ball in the top corner, Mo Farah looking as though he is jogging a marathon in just over 2 hours or golfers like Ernie Els who despite the nickname ‘The Big Easy’ smashing a golf ball 300 yards straight down the fairway.

As a coach you look for a number characteristics when identifying talent & developing players & I’m sure for most coaches, working hard is pretty high on that list. While it is very important that we have athletes with a great work ethic they are also becoming much harder to find. Coaches have a tendency to emphasise effort & as a result, players become clouded with working hard & forget other key components required to play high quality squash. Within my coaching now I am increasingly using phrases such as slow down, relax, don’t rush.

That’s not to say I don’t get players to work hard. The Scots are notorious for being some of the hardest training players around, a legacy set by superhuman athletes such as Alan Clyne. The key however is to train smart, it’s important to avoid the trap of doing hard sessions for the sake of it & every session must have a purpose.

The training week should be planned to include sessions with a variety of intensities & a specific session focus. Gym sessions are usually all tough, but the squash sessions have different objectives using different methods & intensities to achieve those objectives fitting into a longer-term plan for the athlete to become a better squash player. Even the most brutal sessions we do, the aim is to do them in the most energy efficient way possible while maintaining quality because that is what will help player perform in tough matches.

It is important that players don’t sacrifice quality just to tick the hard session box, unless of course their only objective for playing the game is to get a good work out.

Players who focus too much on physicality over quality usually create problems for themselves in three ways, which can have a massive knock on effect for the rest of the rally.

Moving off the T zone too soon without knowing where the next ball is going
Running to the ball too fast & getting too close
Rushing back to the T zone before they have finished their shot

As a result of this over emphasis on effort, players are missing out on developing some of the fundamental skills required to play good quality squash. Skills like anticipation, awareness, movement timing & weight transfer, swing control & deception - these more subtle skills are the key to unlocking a player’s true potential when it comes to winning squash matches.

Developing anticipation & awareness requires players to have a clear mind so players have the ability to take in information around them & then use it to develop a clear idea of where they need to move, at what speed & where they should put the ball next. The ability to do this is lost when players become consumed only with getting the ball back.

Another biproduct of the desperation to get the ball back is rushing which results in players getting too close to the ball which has a significant & detrimental effect on the swing. A lack of movement timing prevents weight being transferred through the shot & causes players to swing harder to get the power needed. The ball is too close to the body, so the swing needs to adapt which generally leads to more use of the wrist. As a result, shot options become limited, players are forced to hit whatever shot they can & are unable to use any type deception. All this because players are too excited to hit the ball.

The rise of Paul Coll is a brilliant example of this. He became an overnight sensation with his physical exploits against James Willstrop at Canary Wharf in 2016, his immense physicality obviously took a lot of hard work to develop but that only got him so far.

What he has done with that physicality since then has been amazing to watch. No longer are we seeing all the dives & theatricals, which may be disappointing to some, but what we now see is Paul hardly breaking a sweat to pick up every ball & as a consequence he is more accurate, showing & hitting more options, fresher in the later rounds of events & making better decisions overall to become a far better squash player as his PSA World ranking demonstrates.

There is no doubting that squash is a physically demanding game which requires athletes to push their bodies to breaking point but too many players bring that onto the court with them & end up turning what used to be a thinking game into a physical game when to be successful in the modern era it needs to be both.

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