Sunday, October 1, 2023

Tony Griffin: That “Oh S***” moment when you miss the ball!

Nour El Tayeb keeps her eye on the ball as she digs a difficult shot out of the back corner

‘Faced with a familiar problem, many players shut their eyes, swing and miss’
By TONY GRIFFIN – Squash Mad Coaching Correspondent

I want to continue the theme of hand-eye co-ordination, and look at what causes players to repeat a pattern of familiar mistakes when facing a familiar problem.

Being a New Zealander living in Barcelona, I was asked to help out when my son’s class were doing Rugby. As with any new activity some of the group were more comfortable than others passing and catching the strange shaped ball. I noticed that there were some who were not comfortable with catching the rugby ball and reacted reacted by putting the hands out in front of their faces and closing their eyes. They had obviously not developed the same hand-eye coordination that many of the others had.

This observation led me to the question: “Do we disconnect our eyes when the situation is possibly more difficult than we are prepared for or used to?

This in turn took me to realise that, in squash, many of us have “Oh, S” moments and that we disconnect our eyes from the ball in that.

On one hand, “Oh, S***” is the reaction I for one have when I make that annoying mistake that I really should not have made. It could be any shot, a boast, a drop shot, a volley or even when the ball is just close to the sidewall or even something simpler.

I then noticed that many players have a tendency to make or repeat the same mistakes in similar situations. Are we recognising previous OS moments, and this is then conditioning how we react when a similar situation appears?

When doing the boast and drive with two different experienced players I coach, I saw that they occasionally but regularly completely missed the ball when the boast hit low on the side wall close to the nick even though they were right there. They were swinging and not hitting it. Watching more closely, I saw that their rackets were actually swinging though the air just above the ball. Seeing this, I could only deduce that they were not watching the ball properly.

Why weren’t they watching it? This thought took me back to the observation above about disconnecting our eyes when we have a moment of insecurity or doubt.

At some stage in their squash evolution, they had created the habit of just taking a swipe at the ball when they saw that the boast might hit close to the nick and be difficult to return. This was the birth of their OS moment and it then became a habit in that situation.

Their OS reaction starts to appear when they see that the ball may be difficult and before they actually hit it. From then on, often, when the ball appeared to be going to that area they swiped at it. This solution did allow them to return a lot of difficult balls, but was it because the ball bounced into the line of their racket swing or were they were watching the ball?

Both players had spent a lot of time trying to improve how they return the boasts by doing a lot of exercises like boast and drive, boast and crosscourts, so basically a lot of repetition, yet neither of them achieved any clear improvements and the problem persisted…

Nour El Sherbini keeps her eyes on the ball as she serves. A lot of club players fail to do so and get beaten by the return of serve.

The first step in fixing this OS moment is recognising that it exists and that it is a little more than simply playing the shot correctly. Then they need to be conscious of the fact that in this moment they are perhaps not watching the ball properly as they had always assumed.

As the objective was to watch the ball and to gain confidence in that situation, we reduced the movement to the minimum. They waited in the front corner with their rackets prepared and I played the boast so it hit the sidewall close to the nick and they just had to return the ball straight down the wall.

They started returning difficult balls they had been missing earlier almost immediately. We then slowly added movement but, importantly, they maintained the focus on watching the ball with their rackets prepared. They now do not have the habit of swiping at the ball in that area of the court and return many shots they would have missed previously.

Since then, when working with players with a lower level of orientation in space and co-ordination difficulties, I have learnt that the priority for them must be to practise without insecurity.

So for returning difficult boasts, in some cases we reverted to simply catching the ball on their racket and not playing a shot after it hit low on the side wall. The next step was that they could choose between catching the ball on their racket or simply touching the ball up on to the front wall.

Here is where the first surprise appeared. The players started hitting some balls that were previously “too difficult” for them. The fact that they had the option to catch the ball instead of the obligation to hit a good shot seemed to help them reconnect their eyes to the ball.

And they started hitting balls that they were previously missing.

It is important to do just a few repetitions and then change the exercise, with the option to repeat later if you wish to do a little more. Now, I would say that 10 repetitions at the most is enough. I’ll explain more about the low number of repetitions when we look at differential learning.

Difficult balls in the back corners, or when the ball is close to or touching the sidewall can also be OS moments where players can disconnect their eyes and swipe at the ball.

In the back corner, when facing OS moments, they sometimes add extra power, hitting the ball harder in the hope that this might help solve the problem. So when the player is practising boasts, I again asked them to simply catch the balls on their racket when they think it was too difficult to return.

Taking away the obligation to return the difficult balls when practising boasts again appears to help take away the insecurity.

By trying to simply catch that ball on the racket meant that they started to watch the ball more closely. Because they were watching the ball better, within a short time they started returning balls that they had been catching not long before.

In essence we are first creating a clear solution that can be stored in the memory in the hope that if the body has a clear option at the end of the rush to get to hit the ball, there is more chance that their brain organises itself and so has less insecurity.

I would like to differentiate between swiping at the ball and playing or stroking it. Swiping at the ball is almost as if the player is throwing their arm and racket at the ball in the hope of hitting a particular shot, so it is an action based on insecurity.

Perfect precision from world number one Mohamed ElShorbagy: Eyes on the ball, superb balance, with the feet providing a solid, wide base as opponent Ali Farag has a split second to react to Mo’s choice of shot

Playing the ball is when the player is maintaining a uniform racket movement, calmly hitting a specific shot and normally watching the ball at all times. Identifying and becoming aware of these two different ways of hitting the ball is important, although the actual racket movement is often similar.

Once aware of this I have seen that players can start to see the imminent OS moment, still rush to the ball and then revert to playing it, as opposed to continuing with the rushing sensation and swiping at the ball.

The drop shot can also be an OS moment. Here there are different OS reactions. Firstly, the body often stops moving in a coordinated way with the ball, so they are not quite in the right spot for the drop shot when they have to hit it. It’s a bit like the reaction of an animal that freezes in a spotlight.

Players also become less grounded in the moment of hitting the ball, so it is like they are hardly touching the floor or almost up on their toes and are often still moving their feet as they are playing the shot. It is a bit like the floor has suddenly got hot.

Some players loosen their grip on the racket; again it is like it has suddenly got hot. The OS reaction can also interfere with the swing, with a pushing motion, a little flick at the end of the swing or stopping (or slowing) the racket movement part way though the shot.

There are not any magic solutions. Each player has to identify their own OS moments and understand that it is more than just a bad shot. First, experiment with consciously watching the ball and keeping the body moving in those difficult moments.

Professional players spend a large part of every match trading straight drives up and down the backhand wall. Here, Richie Fallows displays ideal preparation, good balance, racket ready, eyes glued to the ball, and his arms subconsciously involved in the “scissor” movement that helps to maintain control and balance throughout the swing, despite the ball being close to the side wall – an issue that causes problems for club players who fail to spend sufficient time mastering this essential basic shot

I have also seen that developing body awareness, being conscious of your racket preparation and movement, body position in relation to the ball and clarity of shot selection, can also add to resolving each OS moment.

To start improving the way you follow the ball it is important that you keep in mind that it is a gradual process. If you are told that you need to improve your fitness you don’t expect to be fitter the next day, so don’t expect to watch the ball better tomorrow.

To try and get fitter, you automatically understand that you have to gradually increase your workload over an extended period of time to obtain changes in your physical level. Improving the way you watch the ball is just the same. Here are some ideas that may help.

The first experiment is to see if you are capable of consciously following the ball for one whole rally. If you manage to do this, look to repeat the exercise a couple of rallies later. If you don’t manage to do it for a whole rally, try to remember in what moment and why you got distracted. As with any training programme, you have to do it at least once every time you go on the court and progressively increase the times you do it.

It’s possible to see the yellow dots on the ball just before you hit it or the way the ball is spinning through the air. Look for them every time you hit the ball for one whole point. Another idea is to look for the dots when you play a particular shot, for example when you play a drop shot. When have managed to do this with one shot, try to do it with another shot.

You could make a conscious effort to follow your serve after you have hit it. For a lot of people, the second after the service is the first moment they stop following the ball.

Does your opponent occasionally surprise you by hitting a winning return of service? Was it a great shot, or was it because you had not watched the ball? If you are following your own serve you should have less chance of being surprised

OS, I’ve finished for today….. 

Pictures courtesy of Patrick Lauson, Kelley Holmgren, PSA and Motor City Open


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