A game of squash can be a lot of fun but, at times, it can also be an incredibly frustrating experience. Rather than providing an opportunity to let off some steam, the sport can actually have the opposite effect. Many squash players of all abilities have walked off the court at the end of a match feeling angry and aggravated. Usually, this frustration results from just a few mistimed (or completely missed) shots or a couple of instances where pace has proved inadequate and the ball ends up at the back of the court.
Even top players are not immune to the frustration which can result from a simple game of squash. Following a match against Lee Beachill, James Willstrop spoke of his desperate disappointment and intense unhappiness. Ultimately, the player was left feeling angry that he was unable to “perform” during such a “massive match” and was annoyed by the numerous errors which proved detrimental to his game.
The good news is that the frequency of such errors can be reduced if you are willing to put in the hard work. One obvious way of improving your game is to play match after match against various competitors of different abilities. You can learn as much in a game against a relative beginner as you can during a match with a player who is equal in ability to you. However, you may be surprised to learn that you can improve your squash game dramatically without going near a squash ball or fellow player.
There are numerous exercises which will help you improve your movement around the court. Improved movement can result in less errors and a better performance. Compare the following comments from John White with the statement from James Willstrop: “I was moving freely and playing well […] if you’re playing well, you can produce good rallies”.
However, you should also consider working on the psychological side of your game, devoting a certain amount of time each day to considering new tactics which will ensure that both your timing and technical ability are perfect during a match situation. A comment made by Rebecca Macree following victory over Rebecca Botwright elucidates the importance of such a combination: “I felt confident. I played the right shot at the right time, and that’s what it’s all about”.
You can dramatically improve your squash game using exercises which focus upon building stamina, anaerobic capability, speed and strength. Many of these exercises can be done at home although some require access to a fitness centre.
As soon as you take part in just one long rally during a game of squash, you will realise just how important stamina can be. There are numerous ways of improving your stamina but all of them depend upon consistency. There may be some days during which you feel like being lazy and doing no exercise. However, this day can easily turn into five days and this will set you back several steps in terms of improving your stamina.
Develop a realistic exercise routine which you know you will be able to obey each day. Running is a great way to improve your stamina. Try alternating periods of fast walking with periods of jogging for half an hour every day. Do not get carried away whilst jogging. Instead, try to maintain a steady pace and do not stop unless you really need to.
Skipping is another fantastic way to improve your stamina. You can buy a skipping rope from any local sports shop for just a few pounds. You should try to use a combination of fast and slow skipping. Some people find it useful to listen to music whilst skipping. Compile a playlist which has both fast and slow tracks and skip in time to the beat. Try to increase the time you spend skipping every time you do it. If you are easily bored by repetitive exercise, try to introduce some variations in your skipping technique. For example, use two feet followed by alternate feet followed by the introduction of a twist in the rope.
Swimming and cycling non-stop for a period of approximately half an hour will also help you to achieve your targets.
During a squash match, there will be times where you have to run as fast as you can, followed by relatively long periods of rest. Incidentally, these periods of rest should increase as your squash game improves because you will be in control of the ‘T’. Good anaerobic fitness will allow you to recover quickly following intense bursts of activity. Interval training is the best way to improve your anaerobic fitness. There are several drills which can be useful but one of the best is as follows:
- Jog slowly for approximately 50 metres.
- Sprint as fast as you can for approximately 150 metres.
- Walk slowly for 50 metres.
- Jog for 100 metres at a relatively slow pace.
- Sprint (or run as fast as you can) for 300 metres.
- Walk for 100 metres.
- Over the next few weeks, try to do this routine starting with a 200 metre jog and incorporating a 600 metre fast run.
Although a squash court is a relatively small playing space when compared to other competitive areas such as a football pitch, you will need to run at speed to reach certain shots. There are several simple exercises which can dramatically improve your speed around the court. One such exercise is the burpee, which will help to improve your leg speed. Place your hands on the floor and bring both your legs towards your chest until you are in a crouching position. When you are comfortable, push your legs straight up into the air in a vertical jump. Land gently with your knees slightly bent. Do these as quickly as you can and try to increase your speed over the next few weeks.
Shuttle runs are also extremely effective. They will help to improve your speed, anaerobic capability and acceleration. Place an object approximately 10 metres away from you, another one 20 metres away and a third one 30 metres away. Run as fast as you can to the 10 metre mark, touch the ground and then run back to your starting position. Run to the 20 metre mark, touch the ground and return to the starting position. Do the same thing for the 30 metre mark and repeat the entire routine four times. You should use a stopwatch to time yourself and you should notice your time decrease as the weeks progress. If you are easily bored by running, try introducing some variations into your shuttle run routine. For example, take larger strides instead of small steps, or try heel flicks. These involve putting your hands on your buttocks and trying to kick them with your heels.
In order to play well during a squash match, your arms, legs and core need to be extremely strong. Strong legs will allow you to move quickly to the ball and execute an effective shot. Strong arms will enable you to control the squash racket and play powerful shots throughout the match, whilst a strong core will help your balance and general sense of body control. The following strength exercises will target the muscles used during a game of squash:
- Lunges: These will target your quadriceps, gluteal muscles and hamstrings. Squash players lose count of the number of lunges carried out during a squash match, so building up these muscles is essential. Step forward with your right foot and bend your knees, keeping your right knee behind your toes. Do not let your left knee touch the floor during the exercise. Keep your abdominal muscles tight and repeat the exercise on the left leg. Do this eight times on each leg and do three sets overall.
- Bench Press: This exercise will strengthen the various muscles in your arm as well as the muscles in your chest. Whilst lying on a bench on your back, lower a weight to chest level and push it back up until your arms are straight. Do not try to use weights which are too heavy for you, particularly during the early stages of your training.
- Leg Press: By pushing a weight away from your body using your legs, your overall lower body strength will improve. This exercise will target your quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteal muscles and calf muscles.
- The plank: This exercise is great for improving the strength of your core. Lie face down on the floor with your weight resting on your forearms. Raise yourself up onto your toes and keep your back in a straight line. Keep your abdominal muscles tight and make sure your bottom is not sticking up in the air. Hold this position for 45 seconds and repeat the exercise five times.
To be successful in a game of squash, you need to impose your personal idea of how the match should be played. In order to develop this idea, you need to be aware of your strengths and weaknesses. Spend half an hour in the morning thinking solely about your squash game. When are you at your strongest during a game? Where do you usually find yourself becoming frustrated? Write a list of positive and negative aspects of your game and then draw a simple diagram of a squash court. This diagram does not need to be at all detailed but it should have the ‘T’ clearly marked.
Take a red colouring pencil and a blue colouring pencil. Have another look at your list and shade in red the areas on the court in which you usually perform well. If you are particularly good at playing shots from the back of the court, shade in this area. Use the blue pencil to highlight the areas in which you are relatively weak. After you have done this, pin the diagram up on your wall or stick it on your fridge.
Even glancing at this diagram will help to assert your own individual idea of how a squash match should be played in your mind. It does not matter that you have actively sought out your weaknesses because at least you have been able to recognise them. When you enter the squash court next, your body will be automatically drawn to the areas in which you are strongest and your shots will be played in such a manner as to exploit these areas.
Learning to control anger and frustration
After you have played a few games of squash, you will be familiar with the feeling of wanting to smash your racket against the wall and shout a string of expletives at the top of your voice. There will always be situations during any match which annoy you. After all, you can never predict the behaviour and actions of your opponent and this is frustrating for anyone. Sometimes you will lose points unfairly and sometimes you will win points following a period of lucky play.
The most important point to remember is never to let frustration and anger build up inside your head. If you succumb to these harmful emotions, your physical game will be negatively affected and you will probably end up losing the match.
If you do start to feel the anger rising during a match, you need to be able to utilise a good breathing technique, which will allow your heart rate to drop rapidly and will clear your head. Quick, rapid breathing will only make you feel tense and agitated. The good news is that you can practice breathing techniques anywhere, even whilst sitting in front of the television. Try blowing the air from your lungs out through your mouth as hard as you can. Then inhale deeply through your nose and hold your breath for several seconds. Repeat this several times until you start to feel relaxed.
Once you have mastered this in a situation where you have not been physically exerting yourself, for instance whilst you are doing the washing-up or waiting for your baked beans to heat up on the stove, you should try it after an exercise of some form. This exercise does not have to be intense. If you have worked up a slight sweat traipsing around the shops doing some early Christmas shopping, take a few minutes to pause and carry out several repetitions of the breathing technique. If you are going for a quick jog or bike ride, stop several times and practice the technique until it becomes second nature to you.
If at any point during the day you start to feel even slightly stressed, view this emotion as a good opportunity to test your breathing routine. You should find that after both physical exertion and mental exertion, the technique will allow you to calm down. In a match situation, this new calm perspective will hopefully allow you to put any errors behind you and maintain the confidence needed to beat your opponent.
Some sportsmen and women have started to incorporate yoga into their weekly training schedule in an effort to learn new ways to control their emotions whilst on the court or the pitch. Yoga will teach you new methods of coping with frustration in daily life and in a match situation. Most fitness centres offer yoga classes and most provide a welcoming atmosphere for beginners.
However, if you do not have access to a fitness centre or would prefer to practice the techniques in the comfort of your own living room, there are some simple moves which you can try:
- The Corpse Pose (Shava-asana)
By practicing this technique, you will learn how to bring your body and your mind to a state of relaxation. Although you will not be able to replicate the position during the middle of a squash match, you will be able to psychologically recall the experience of feeling extremely calm and relaxed. Alternatively, if this mental recall proves too difficult for you, simply ask for a water break and find a quiet spot in the locker room in which to perform the pose.
Firstly, lie flat on your back, with your legs nearly touching and your palms facing the ceiling. Close your eyes and relax all the muscles in your face. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nostrils before focussing on the top part of your head. Focus all your thoughts and energy on consciously relaxing this one section, before slowly proceeding on to the next part of your body. After you have successfully relaxed all the muscles in your body, stay in this position for several minutes, concentrating on your breathing for the duration of the pose.
- The Shoulder Stand (Sarvang Asana)
This technique can be difficult to master but it will help you to relax. Lie flat on the floor with your legs touching and your hands facing down on the floor. Whilst taking a deep breath through your nostrils, push down on your palms and raise your legs in the air directly above you. Lift your hips and raise your legs until they are beyond your head, at an approximate angle of 45 degrees.
Whilst exhaling gently, bend your arms and use them to provide support for your body. Push your back up whilst lifting your legs. Gradually straighten your spine and work on bringing your legs to a vertical position. Maintain this pose for as long as you can, concentrating on your breathing throughout the duration of the technique.
Confidence is so important to maintain during a game of squash. Sometimes, whilst watching a match on television, you can almost see the confidence drain away from a player who has missed a few easy shots. Confidence can affect the movement of a player, their choice of shot, their body control and their emotional control. It is therefore vital to improve your confidence level if you want to improve your squash game.
This may seem like a ridiculous way to improve your squash game but mirror talk can do wonders for your confidence and, if you walk out on court feeling like you belong there, your opponent will take notice. Mirror talk is easy to do but may feel slightly awkward at first. Simply locate a mirror, stare at your reflection, and repeat some kind of phrase. You can choose the exact wording of this phrase but something along the lines of “I have confidence in myself” or “You can do this” or even “You deserve to be here” can work wonders.
If any doubts start to enter your mind whilst you repeat your phrase, do not ignore them. Immediately address each doubt and question its validity. Ask yourself whether there is any logical or good reason for you to be thinking in such a negative manner. Usually, you will find that such doubts are just mental tricks and do not have any meaningful basis in reality. Use mirror talk in the locker room before you start a match and you really will notice a difference.
Some players choose to increase their level of confidence by using mental imagery. This involves visualising previous matches in which you have been successful. Think about how strong you were in that game and how good it felt to beat your opponent. Alternatively, imagine hypothetical scenarios and try to think about how you would cope with them. Always imagine yourself as a strong individual during these hypothetical situations.