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Being realistic about improving your squash

Unfortunately, there is no overnight success in squash. There is only one way to reach the top level and that is by hard work. Of course you must have the correct technique from the beginning. As the saying goes, " Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect! ".

Two good books on the subject of achieving excellence are Talent Is Overrated and Outliers. Both these recent books conclude there are three main ingredients to becoming world-class at something:

  1. Expert coaching , i.e. correct technique
  2. Passion
  3. Deliberate practice

Expert coaching makes sense, since one must have the fundamental techniques to improve. With incorrect techniques one handicaps oneself, which puts you at an immediate disadvantage. The second point, passion , is obvious as well. If you are not passionate about your hobby then you will not put your heart into it. As a result you will just be going through the motions. You will still improve , but just not as quickly as someone similar with passion.

The last point about deliberate practice is perhaps the most important and misunderstood. Practicing your favorite shots over and over is not going to make you better. You have to practice very specific challenging tasks that stimulate your brain to adapt to something different. In other words, deliberate practice is about training your weaknesses. But you must be coached in the correct technique first.

When Tiger Woods practices, he does not go out and hit powerful drives that stroke his ego. Instead he practices very specific shots that challenge his brain and body. Also, deliberate practice means errors in your practice must be measurable. You should be able to measure your errors so you can gauge your progress as you practice the focused drill. An article from the New York Times says:

" Effective practice focuses not just on the key skills involved, but also systematically stretches the person's limits. "You have to tweak the system by pushing, allowing for more errors at first as you increase your limits," said Dr. Ericsson. "You don't get benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal."

Most players think the only way to get better is by playing better players. Unfortunately, this is not true. In fact, exclusively playing better players will worsen your game. It is ok to play a better player once in a while to identify weaknesses in your game. But do not fool yourself into thinking your game will improve from continuously getting beat up by them.

You have to work on your game with equal and lesser skilled opponents. With a lesser skilled oponent you can work on your "deliberate practice", thereby equalizing the game for both of you.

As we all know, variety is the spice of life. Too much of anything is never good. Mix up the type of opponents you play and have the right expectations for what you hope to achieve from playing each of them.

To really improve you have to accept that there is always a better way to do whatever you are doing. Even world top 10 players continue to change and improve their games. Read these words by World # 7 (as of 2003) Ong Beng Hee:

... Beng Hee has not been performing well in the professional circuit recently. He crashed out in the first round of the US and British Open.

“I am in the midst of changing my technique. I could have reached the quarter-finals with the old technique,” said Beng Hee, who is now ranked seventh in the world. “But what's the use of that. I don't want to be in the top eight in the world anymore. I want to be in the top four. “There are weaknesses in my old technique and the top four players are exploiting on them to beat me. It's going to take about six months to fully adapt to the changes.

This means you are constantly changing old ways and learning new techniques and strategies. Any pro has spent thousands of hours in the squash court to get where they are.

I asked Sarah Fitzgerald (former world #1) what it takes to become an A player? Her answer was that the most important thing is "quality" over the "quantity" of training. She agreed that with focused training of two hours per day , one should be able to move up one level, such as from C to B in one year. So based on that it would roughly take 500 hours a year to move between levels, so 2500 hours of time on the court to get to A level squash.

Now you can begin to see why it takes the average club player who only plays 2 hours a week, almost 25 years to reach A level squash!

It is possible to achieve rapid progress in the game initially. One can go from D to C level fairly quickly as long as one has basic fundamentals and understands the concept of hitting the ball to the back corners. But to go from C and beyond takes a lot of hard work as the competition becomes much tougher and more experienced. In the D level the competition is mostly players who hardly know anything about the game yet have been playing it for a long time. So simple knowledge about the game and basic strategy is enough to get you above the D level into C. Beyond that takes hard work and tons of practice!

I follow the philosophy "Train smart, not hard!". There are two aspects to training. The smart training involves increasing your knowledge of the game. Here are some example of my "smart" training:

  • Take lessons from coaching pros
  • Compete in tournaments to identify weaknesses and learn from watching the better players.
  • Watch tournament videos featuring pros
  • Watch instructional squash videos
  • Read squash books/blogs by pros, coaches and top amateurs
  • Post questions about the game to online squash forums

    The second aspect of training is actually applying what I learned in the "smart training" on the court. Here is a list of things I do as part of my weekly court practice:

  • 1 hours/ week on solo drills.
  • 3 hours/week playing conditioning games against opponents of various levels
  • 0.5 - 1 hours/week in the gym lifting free weights.
  • 0.5 hour/week doing flexibility training, i.e stretching , yoga etc.

    Every few months I will take a lesson with a top internationally ranked squash pro. It is very important to have a real teaching pro analyze your game as they can see where you are and tell you where you should be going. Your training must have focus , otherwise you may over-train minor things while neglecting the bigger picture.

    It is good to play people you can beat as you can work on single aspects of your game. Since you are more in control with a lower skilled opponent, you have time to focus on such things as footwork, racquet preparation, anticipation, and hitting the nick!

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