Exclusive interview with Hadrian Stiff, the Bristol coach who helps fine-tune a genius
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW By ALAN THATCHER – Squash Mad Editor
On Saturday, (November 1st 2014) Mohamed Elshorbagy takes over as world number one. The young Egyptian came close to being world champion two years ago. Now he has made it to the top of the PSA rankings, overtaking Gregory Gaultier after winning the recent US Open. Squash Mad talks exclusively to Elshorbagy’s coach, HADRIAN STIFF, who heads up the Elite Squash Academy in Bristol, where Mohamed and his brother, Marwan, are students.
Mohamed seemed to make the transition from junior to senior squash extremely well. What do you put that down to?
I first met Mohammed when he was 16 at a BSPA tournament in Edinburgh. Having beaten many good players including Ben Ford and Stacey Ross, he eventually lost in the quarter finals. Watching the way he asked the other players, Simon Parke being one of them, what he could learn from his defeat it hit me that this was not your average 16 year old.
He was and still is respectful enough of all players, past and present, to know that helpful information is all around him. He also has an excellent ability to filter this information and process it to use for his improvement. I feel this aspect of his character has hugely contributed to his junior to senior transition, but also still remains part of his development culture to this day.
Were there any specific weaknesses that required extra work?
He was 18 when first arriving in Bristol and his game was effective but very raw. We have focused on movement fluency and function of his body while adding spark to the first movements to the ball.
Pace variation and quality of length have also been very important over the last few years. Mohamed’s short game can be lethal but in order to pass the worlds best, consistency of length and patience have been essential.
Mohamed seems happily settled in Bristol. Where do you go for a good meal or a great night out?
He loves Cabot Circus shopping centre for the big chain food venues but I am working on introducing him to some of the more interesting restaurants that the city has to offer. We have not been on a night out together yet. I’m not sure if he could keep up Ha ha!
How would you describe your coaching philosophy?
I have always had a holistic view on coaching but over the last 4/5 years my style has evolved a lot. I believe in developing skill and freedom of play as early as possible and holding onto that throughout the junior age groups and beyond, allowing each player to develop their own style and personality on the court.
At the Elite Squash Academy we pay particular attention to the body of the player or group of players and use movement systems and techniques driven by sensory experiences and feedback. If you can’t feel it, its very hard to improve it and particularly when trying to develop skill and movement.
Alongside these themes is a strong focus on fun and creativity from coaches and pupils. It’s a partnership, not a dictatorship from the coach. We want independent players who are natural and confident in their own abilities.
What kind of subtle changes have you felt necessary to suggest to Mohamed, and how has he embraced your ideas?
Working with Mohamed is quite different to the majority of coaching I do. The input is often subtle and will come from a kind of ‘agreement’ between us or suggested by him.
My input is often around his movement patterns and timing of process, helping the ‘machine’ that is him be more efficient and effective. We have also spent time in some areas of technique but all the while leaving his natural way of playing alone to work it’s magic.
Most of the top players have suffered serious injury in the past year or two. How good is Mohamed at taking care of his body when it comes to diet and lifestyle?
He has improved this a lot over the last two years, especially diet! He also takes care of his body well and in particular listens to his body when it needs rest. His movement and body function will be a vital part of his longevity as a champion without a doubt.
As well as being a solid hitter, Mohamed has a naturally creative brain, and seems to be able to conjure up moments of sheer genius just like Ramy Ashour. When it comes to his ability to invent new shots, do you help him in this process or just let him get on with it?
His creativity and variation still fascinates me each time he plays. This is all him and part my role is to help it flourish. And it’s this experience of seeing what creativity and variations of attacking shots can mean on the court which has influenced my view on coaching young players in particular.
Are there any outrageous, extravagant shots that you might suggest he rations?
Not really, this is his squash personality, his expression. He is finding out for himself when and how to use his shots and this is mainly his journey. Of course there are some times between games when the advice could be to simplify things but the weapons are always there for that moment when the opponent may least expect them.
Please share any tactical briefings you might employ against rivals like Gregory Gaultier, Nick Matthew, James Willstrop, Ramy Ashour and Amr Shabana.
That’s confidential 😉
With a large number of top 12 players now aged 30 or 30-plus, the rankings look certain to show major changes over the coming year or so. It’s obviously not a case of waiting for them all to retire, but how do you manage Mohamed’s expectations and ambitions to become the world number one?
Well we now know he has realised that dream. Now let’s see what the future holds and if he can follow in the footsteps of the greats and maintain dominance.
Who else do you see moving up to threaten the established leaders, and why?
There is a wave of excellent Egyptians as we know and I see Marwan Shorbagy having a great future, plus he has inside information on the number one! There are also some interesting young players like Diego Elias, who has such natural movement and seems to have avoided the perils of being over-coached.
Rumours of Mohamed playing for England continue to circulate throughout the squash world. Is that something you would care to comment on?
Mohamed will be playing for Egypt and hopefully his brother, too.
Pictures courtesy of US Open Squash and PSA / Graphic by KRISTI MAROC