‘A sequence of exercises that allows the player to recognise the sensation of hitting the ball well and understand why’
By TONY GRIFFIN – Squash Mad Coaching Correspondent
This is Liam’s Story. It’s a case study in breaking the mould with regards to coaching. It’s about changing the way we do things, to be inclusive and welcoming to everyone who shows an interest in the game, not just those who aspire to greatness.
So, here we go with Liam’s Story, a Gevolution Squash case study.
In 2014, Liam’s mother enrolled him in a summer squash camp for two weeks. On seeing Liam on the court, the club manager commented: “This boy is not going to last the two weeks and we won’t see him here again.”
Liam did want to continue and that’s when I started coaching him regularly. Here is a little background information.
Liam was born prematurely and spent the first two months of his life in an intensive care incubator. At one stage his parents were told that he was not going to survive. He has a mild case of cerebral palsy and a Strabismus (lazy eye). The Cerebral palsy affects his right side and causes an over tensing of the muscles on that side.
Note that in normal day-to-day situations many people would not notice this condition. In Liam’s case it meant that in moments of tension, stress or fear the muscles on his right side can seize up slightly so affecting his ability to move in a balanced way. For this reason he has always favoured his left side.
The Strabismus, (Lazy eye). Each eye sends an image to our brain and our brain puts one image on top of the other and this allows us see in 3 D, appreciating depth and distance. When the eyes do not work in a coordinated fashion this interposing of images can give blurred effect like a badly printed picture.
The subconscious reaction to the blurred picture is to use only one eye thus giving a clear picture which is often only 2 D. This complicates the process of calculating distances and are often referred to as orientation in space issues. These two factors that are definitely not conducive for playing sport let alone squash
During his first 10 or 11 years of life he had done very little physical activity or sport. His two conditions meant that he was prone to tripping up or falling over when running or even simply walking on uneven surfaces.
When someone does not use their eyes properly, as in the case of Liam, they sometimes lose the perspective/sense of depth. For example, a line on the floor could create insecurity because he did not know whether it was a step or simply a line on the ground.
When he was just about three years old he was sitting on the edge of a small grassy crater, he stood up and ran straight into it, and ended up tumbling to the bottom. We now understand that he was seeing a two-dimensional, flat green area…
Whenever his class had Physical Education and there was a running activity, his teachers were sweating for fear of him stumbling over and hurting himself again. He was like a fish out of water when it came to ball games.
He did enjoy participating but wasn’t able to follow any game at the same level as his class mates because he couldn’t catch, throw or kick a ball with any degree of fluency.
Over the years he was constantly doing various motor neuron and eye therapies with quite limited results.
Liam’s first squash challenge was to get to the ball. This was not only the physical challenge, there was also the challenge of knowing where it was (orientation in space). This meant his beginnings in squash were an extreme mix of situations. Sometimes hitting the ball quite well, sometimes swinging at the ball and hitting it badly or missing.
Often he had managed to get to the ball comfortably, swing and not connect with the ball. Sometimes the ball bounced twice before he had seen where it was, and had not even started moving towards it. Sometimes he would move to the ball and stop half a metre before the ball and swing, missing it completely.
Liam is left handed. For two years I trained him weekly (during that time I published “The G Spot A book About Squash”). Although as he got older he got stronger, and doing squash was helping his physical well being, muscle tone etc, it was frustrating for me because he only made minimal improvements and most of the above mentioned realities of Liam’s start in squash continued to be present in similar proportions.
I saw quickly his instinctive use of his left leg was the basis of every body movement and an added complication that conditioned every movement to the ball. His reliance on his left leg was understandable given that when he used his right leg in a slightly difficult situation it felt like it might seize up or give way (like having a contracted muscle). So on the left hand side of the court, his forehand, where we normally lead with our right legs he would always instinctively use his left leg.
There was a ray of hope, I saw that very occasionally he would or could use his right leg. I tried to understand these situations to try and reproduce them, with the idea trying incorporate this specific movement into his game. For a long time we found no solution, and I felt I failed miserably.
Often he would get annoyed with me, insisting that I should feed the ball faster to him because he needed to get used to the speed and rhythm of squash as that was the problem. I saw that as soon as I increased the speed slightly he would lose it (I can now say “fall into chaos”) and the above talked-about difficulties would quickly appear. I also saw that the more we insisted with something the more the often the same mistakes would appear.
Volleying was a lottery where the majority of shots were not hit well or completely missed. The drop shots were similarly inconsistent; Liam had always found fine motor skills difficult. I can say honestly say that adapting normal training exercises for Liam produced almost no improvement.
Over this time he played in a few Catalan junior tournaments and other junior activities. He was frustrated because he was the only player who never won any games.
In parallel and after writing my Book “The G Spot, A book about Squash” I had started experimenting with the sports science concepts from Barcelona Sports University (INEF) based research group called Complexity in Sport.
My experimenting was mainly with players of different ages and levels. I was not experimenting a lot with Liam because the exercises are quite different from normal training systems and he already had a strong sense being different so at the beginning I wasn’t sure that the new exercises would be good for his already hurt self-esteem.
In July 2016, encouraged by the surprising changes the other players were making, I decided to test them by working exclusively these ideas with Liam.
He started to make small changes almost immediately. The Gevolution process is a sequence of exercises that allows the player to recognise the sensation of hitting the ball well and understand what they have done to have achieved this sensation and by connecting the primary movements to watching the ball in a situation without chaos. With this formula we have constantly added new simple variations of exercises to work specific areas and shots of Liam’s game and movement.
One of the most challenging aspects of Liam´s evolution has been his initial reaction to new exercises. His reaction was often “I can’t do that”. Part of this reaction was because the exercises were different and he had not seen anything similar or that with being very simple, it made him conscious of his reality.
We would do just a few shots of the new exercise, normally under duress and then we would move back to an exercise that he was familiar with. In the next session we would always do the new exercise and I saw that invariable he would do it without resistance and better than on the first day.
Liam´s reaction to change was completely understandable if we take into account his years before squash and Gevolution. Any new activity was very difficult for him and automatically created insecurity or fear. His real life experience with normal teaching processes was that very often he was unable to acquire the new skill.
During 2018 with Liam, I have become more aware of how insecurities can condition the way we move, and then these movements become habits. It appears that habits based on insecurities can be limiting factors that interfere with our learning of process and progression.
For example in the warm up Liam would sometimes hit the ball straight and well, and then it would come back and hit his body. He almost never hit two balls in a row/succession in without collecting the ball and restarting. When Liam started playing squash and he tried to hit a specific shot, he did not know if he was going to hit the ball or not, let alone hit it well or to a the place he wanted to.
With this reality, it meant that when he hit the ball well, he was relieved and perhaps surprised. This relief meant that he relaxed only to find that, the ball had come back and hit him. His insecurities about hitting the ball had not allowed him to create the instinctive reaction of following the ball and moving accordingly. Once we became aware of where this habit came from, it started to change and improve.
Understanding the reason behind a specific habit or movement has become part of helping the players change.
At the beginning, Liam´s progress with Gevolution was gradual and constant. In 2018 changes have been faster coinciding with reduction of repetitions and becoming conscious of how insecurities condition our movements. In general we have seen vast improvements in his fine motor skills and coordination with the ball.
He has probably achieved more changes in the last 2 years than with all the different therapies he had done over all the previous years. These changes are also apparent in his daily life. With the Gevolution process, he now has a path to follow.
Liam is my son.
Here is a link of Liam on the court. We do not have any earlier videos because back then I thought that he may not want to see how difficult squash was for him and at the beginning we did not expect to have such wonderful changes.
Talking with Liam, he confirmed that he at the time would not have been happy to be videoed on the court.
Liam and I would like to thank The Catalan Squash Federation and the following clubs who have all helped to make these changes possible, Malibu Esportiu, Club Ciudad Diagonal, Triops Banyoles, Montjuic Squash, Squash Project, Nats esportiu, Marconi Squash Club.
We would also like to thank Ferran Trinidad, Professors Natalia Balague & Wolfgang Schollhorn for their patience and sharing of their work (Complex Systems in Sport and Differential learning) without them none of this would have been possible. And Alan Thatcher of squashmad.com whose willingness to think out of the box has allowed me to share my research and findings.
We have been following closely Tony’s work with Liam and we have been surprised by the unexpected changes in him and with the other teenagers with different motor neuron / coordination issues he has been working with. We are working together to develop this facet of squash that can help youngsters with different learning difficulties. Joan Casahuga, President Catalan Squash Federation.
*After this initial observation Santi the Malibu Club Manager has since been a constant support to Liam over all these year.
Pictures courtesy of Tony and Liam Griffin