Squash tactical intelligence

March 01 2022

With an increasing emphasis on technical & physical development, it is often forgotten, or in some case not even recognised, that in order to excel in their chosen sport world-class players, without exception, possess acute intelligence.

The intelligence of leading players should not be judged on their IQ & general knowledge but on their understanding of the complex geometry of the squash court. Their positioning is sublime as is their ability to orchestrate the movement of their opponents & such things should be seen & recognised as acts of intellect.

Leading specialists from other non-sport related fields, for example doctors who have developed their capacity through years of medical training & experience to help them examine patients to diagnose complex symptoms, do not demonstrate the abstract intelligence required in certain sections of a standard IQ test, rather, it is a practical, context-rich intelligence. And this is precisely the kind of intelligence demonstrated by top squash players or indeed any world-class players competing skill-based sports.

Squash players work in three dimensions & possess motor skills to control a moving ball that are comparable with world-class specialists from any field or profession. It is this array of skills that enable James Willstrop & others to strike a ball at such a precise trajectory & pace & with incredible accuracy. Genius comparable to anything seen in music, business or medicine.

The tragedy, however, is that the intellectual capacity of squash players, as well of many if not all sports, is seldom recognised or understood.

Often players look, or are even encouraged, to look towards their coach to provide all the answers & provide a formula or route that merely needs to be followed to achieve success. The perception that players are encouraged to believe that it is not necessary to think, merely follow, has a few damaging consequences. The first is that squash players do not feel entitled to think about how to improve their game, to build skill, to interact with their coaches to reach their potential. Players conceive of themselves rather like 19th-century labourers: they get their instructions from their boss & then go on to the training pitch & carry them out.

Players may resist, but they rarely engage. They may disagree or even fall out with their coach, but they almost never discuss how they could improve their touch, or tactical intelligence or perception. When it comes to their development, they are all too often mute.

This is immensely damaging. Sir Dave Brailsford, the former Performance Director of British Cycling & the General Manager of the INEOS Grenadiers Cycling Team who has pioneered a cycling revolution on the track & road, consciously enlists the ideas of his athletes, getting them to think, to take ownership & to engage which is empowering & effective not least in motivational terms. Elite sportsmen must develop a similar approach to their development to build skill through engagement rather than blind acceptance.

If players can think of what they do on the court as cerebral rather than merely physical, if they can recognise the astonishing practical intelligence required to make the grade, their elevation in the game to fulfil their potential can be assured. Squash is a sport in which the brain is the most vital organ. World-class squash players & intellect are not mutually exclusive & the most pressing task of any coach should be to reinforce that message.