What can squash learn from Formula One?

February 01 2017

Squash has always been a popular recreational & professional sport both in the UK & across the globe. The sport has been increasingly receptive to adopting & embracing new technology to improve player & audience experience. Video replay is one example & an important tool for match officials during matches. The difficulty that the video referee system presents is that it is focused on what just happened, rather than what is going to happen.

Data on player movement, stroke-play & any type of bounce & spin of the ball are all useful insights & can contribute significantly to player performance. Data can provide useful insights but how much value is this knowledge contributing to player performance?”

Squash matches can last anything from 30 minutes to over two hours, meaning a player has to be prepared to be playing for both a short & long time. As a result, there is a significant opportunity to optimise performance before & during the game in addition to post match analysis.

The Formula One Opportunity
The engineering pedigree of high-performance motorsport has meant the sport has traditionally taken a different approach to that of others. The thing Formula One teams are good at is putting information in context. You see, or rather hear it, when racing coverage tunes into team radios & you hear engineers informing drivers that their speed was faster than the previous lap, or that they will catch the driver in front of them by taking a particular action.

What squash can learn from Formula One is not how to deliver advice & support, but how & when coaches can deliver this during a match. Efficiency & processes is what engineers & by association Formula One is good at. Implementing technology in the right places means people can do their jobs better, making well informed, intelligent data driven decisions.

Where I see the real opportunity in squash is in this behind-the-scenes area. Using experience from Formula One coaches can deliver advice & support with much more confidence & objectivity.

For example, the biggest challenge for competition players is how to adapt to each individual opponent. Facing a six-foot powerful player is always going to require a different game-plan to tackling a smaller, faster & more mobile opponent. At present, a lot of actors are taken into consideration, but I’d question how many adjustments to equipment & strategy are made during a game & match. For example, if rules allow, could changing racket tension throughout a game make a difference? Could players see benefits from a dynamic string tension manager with optimised settings? In general, thinner strings are more powerful but thicker strings are more durable - so a combination of both may be better for some player’s performance but not for others.

In Formula One, drivers adjust their brake bias, the amount of braking force applied between front & rear brakes, constantly throughout a lap. This enables them to maximise the entry phase for each corner, for any given condition such as changes in tarmac, wind direction, gradient etc. Taking a more objective, engineered approach to coaching should involve questioning everything.

Applying an engineering mindset
Engineers tend to follow a relatively strict approach when looking to innovate & develop new ideas, following a research, do, review & repeat process until the optimum outcome is achieved. Two areas this can be applied are simulation & aerodynamics.

Formula One teams regularly use simulators to prepare drivers to face different conditions & challenges. Race conditions can be simulated down to the smallest detail.

This approach can also be applied to squash. Coaches already identify aspects of opponents their players should be prepared to face, so why not develop the technology to simulate these? It would enable players to actually practice their game plan weeks before a match, ensuring every return & serve is precision engineered to beat an opponent.

The same approach can be applied to equipment. It is already understood that a different racket can make a difference in various points of the game. Squash matches can be incredibly varied depending on opponent, so a racket optimised to different opponents & conditions could be a significant advantage. Changing rackets mid rally is of course not possible, but what if a racket could be adapted mid-way through a game? There has been some discussion around nanotechnology & applying this to produce a dynamic racket that alters its aerodynamic properties & formation at different points in a game.

The nature of the sport has meant that Formula One has always been full of engineering minds, but I believe it is now time other sporting disciplines learnt from this. The technical nature of the sport is not just down to the fact it involves cars, but because team members are fully dedicated to constantly looking for that extra millisecond.

In short, I believe there is plenty that could be learnt through data sharing between Formula One & squash. To learn how to maximise player performance & success in an insightful way, I would advise the sport to examine & adopt the latest technical & engineering principles.

Written by Samir Abid, MBA, CEng for International Squash Magazine