Thursday, December 7, 2023

Tech Week: The online video squash coaching innovator

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and the idiom has certainly proved true for Ahad Raza. When Covid-19 wiped out his squash coaching income overnight, he switched on his laptop and innovated.

He started producing home-made videos of pro players, visually analysing their tactics, movement and technique with a depth and clarity that really resonated with viewers.

Raza’s YouTube channel, AR Proformance, now has almost 3,500 subscribers and each new video elicits effusive feedback from users.

The man behind AR Proformance, Ahad Raza

When lockdown regulations gradually eased and courts across the world started to re-open, a few of his online followers asked if Raza would apply the same level of insight and analysis if they sent him videos of their own matches. He eagerly agreed. Two years on, his online coaching analysis now takes 50% of his time, with the other 50% being face-to-face lessons at Ontario Racquet Club in Mississauga near Toronto.

“When you send me your video, I break your game down from a technical, tactical, physical and mental perspective,” he tells SquashMad. “It’s not for everyone, it’s for people who are very keen and committed and appreciate premium services. I hope the ton of free content on my YouTube channel means that everyone can take something positive from what I offer.”

Raza had a Masters in Economics and a decade working in finance under his belt when, aged 30, he took a sharp (some might say crazy) career pivot to have a crack at competing on the PSA Tour, while coaching as a sideline. He reached a peak of world no.276 before Covid put paid to his top-level playing exploits, but his coaching is now flourishing.

Ahad in action on court

“I never had a coach as a junior,” he explains. “I taught myself how to play so I am providing the content for my 15-year-old self. I have always aspired to be the mentor that I never had. Creating these videos was a way of doing that. Helping people is my motivation.

“My analytical side comes from my Masters and my personality. I have always liked to go deep on specific subjects. I have always wanted to know ‘why?’ So when I watch squash matches and I understand why one player did something and why it worked, I enjoy explaining it and helping others understand it too.

“To begin with, I had no aspirations to monetise this stuff. It never crossed my mind. People just started reaching out to me organically to say, ‘I love your videos, can you help me?’ When you add value and make a difference in a positive way, people appreciate that and good things come out of it.”

As well as his in-person lessons, Raza has eight to 10 online clients at any one time (ranging from juniors to his oldest protégé aged 73!). He typically works with each player for several months.

“A consultation always begins with the lowest hanging fruit – easy corrections we can make to get 20-30% improvements in your game,” he explains.

“The most common one is the serve. A pro stands right at the edge of the service box closest to the middle of the court, steps out as they hit to get to the T quickly and they minimise the angle of the serve so the ball doesn’t bounce sharply off the side wall. It fades and dies in the back corner.

“Most people don’t realise this. They start nearer the side wall and create this massive angle which sends the ball popping out into the middle of the court. They also don’t step through as they hit the serve, which affects their momentum and energy flow.

“Other basics include not watching the ball or not rotating their shoulders in the backhand so they don’t get power and their contact point is inconsistent.”

Raza takes a “layered approach” by creating a roadmap to improve each client’s game step-by-step. It’s not just technical content, there is tactical input on setting up winning patterns and shot combinations, guiding players on how to learn more efficiently, re-structuring their practice sessions and mental preparation.

Sample reports that Ahad gives his clients

“I have become almost like a therapist with some of my players!” he says. “There have been deep-seated issues holding them back. As soon as they’ve conquered that stuff, their game has escalated dramatically and they’re playing better than they have played in their entire lives.”

He adds: “I create reports for each client on PowerPoint, we have a Zoom call, I share my screen and go over my findings. There’s no template, it’s a bespoke approach. I create something from scratch every single time I’m with a new student.”

His online work goes even further. Some clients have sent videos of upcoming opponents for him to study and look for weaknesses, common shots or combinations they can anticipate and nullify.

With less advanced players, he has even given live lessons online, with his player setting up a camera on court and Raza offering real-time corrections and advice on their technique whilst sitting at his desk at home. “I previously didn’t think it was possible, but they have been learning rotation, wrist position, stepping into the ball etc, very effectively remotely,” he says.

There will be those who look upon his hi-tech work with scepticism – and the 36-year-old understands those viewpoints completely.

“I would have probably agreed with them three years ago, but I have a very, very different perspective now,” he smiles. “The results are speaking for themselves.

“I love the phrase, ‘Everything that exists today was once in someone’s imagination’. If we stay closed off to new ideas, we forego our evolution. But if we leverage our creativity and passion in the face of the unique problems we’ve been presented with in the last few years, then anything is possible.”

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