‘The top pros are permanently connected to the ball’
By TONY GRIFFIN – Squash Mad New Learning Guru
The response to last week’s article was very encouraging, with a number of players, coaches, education specialists and professionals from other spheres making contact. Thank you all. Those conversations have been very enlightening and encouraging.
Reading the book “Deporte y Complejidad” (translation Sport and Complexity, which we talked about in article one) where they discuss the importance of understanding all the small details that make up any particular sporting activity, and the need to understand how they work together, has led me to look closer at how we watch the ball.
Sport and Complexity (Balague & Torrents) also states that all these small details are inter-related and co-dependant on each other. How well we put these details together is a determining factor in how well we perform.
This observation led me to question how watching the ball related to other aspects of our game like our racket movement, our body position, our court movement, how well we hit the ball and the space between ourselves and the ball, so orientation in space in general, or even our general confidence.
The top players are, without doubt, permanently connected to the ball.
Watching the ball is perhaps the part of our game that is most taken for granted and least taught. From what I have seen its teaching is pretty much limited. You frequently hear comments, like, “you have to watch the ball more”, “you’re not watching the ball”, or “I took my eye off the ball”, but very few coaches have ever looked at this process in any great detail.
I must admit, I am still learning, but I am happy to share any new knowledge with Squash Mad readers as we share this journey together.
The most easily recognised examples of not watching are that when, after hitting the ball to the back of the court, the player returns to the T and is looking at the front wall while waiting for their opponent to return it.
Why does this happen? Is it because squash is one of the few rackets sports where the opponent is returning the ball from a position behind us and that the most common example of a waiting position in all the other racket sports is that semi-crouched position staring attentively straight ahead (as in tennis for example)?
Another possible explanation is that the player has a “my turn, your turn” mentality when playing so after they have had their “turn” hitting the ball they are simply waiting for their next turn. If this happens as you learn to play, it can become a habit that is later difficult to change.
Last year I was training with Selena Georgiev, a top European junior player, and we were talking about watching the ball. She said that she had never really thought about it, she just hit the ball.
On thinking about it she said “I’m going to try and serve with my eyes closed”. This idea had never occurred to me. She then went to the service box, closed her eyes and hit a normal serve. I then tried it and was surprised to find that I could also serve with my eyes closed. This experience then led me to some more questions.
How much are we really watching the ball when we are playing?
Can our level of watching the ball be a limiting factor just in the same way that our fitness can be and can we improve it?”
Does how we watch the ball condition how well we hit it. Are we watching it in the moment of impact racket with ball? Is that really important?
Does hitting the ball automatically equate to watching the ball in the moment of impact?
Does the way we follow the ball condition how well we are able to get into position to hit the ball and the way we move? Do our doubts or insecurities affect the way we watch the ball and then lead us to create habits that become our “Oh Shit” moments? (Next article).
Since then I have been paying special attention that moment of impact. Each player knows that sensation of the ball hit well or not hitting it well and this the first reference on the path to evolution.
When you have not hit the ball well, ask yourselves if you were really following it as you got to the hitting position and were watching the ball as you hit it. Another reference can be the sound of the ball against the strings. You can often hear the ball moving off the strings with a ball NOT hit well (the cutting sound).
There also may be a different sound if it is not hit in the middle of the racket. The line of the ball after it is hit is another reference. How often have you seen a ball hit down the wall that touches the side wall around the service box or further forward and seems to slow down in that area instead of getting to the back of the court? When this happens ask yourself if you were watching the ball in the moment of impact?
There are, of course, other reasons that may cause this to happen but other research with multiple players suggest that watching the ball may be part of it. By being conscious of these reference points (and there are others) and understanding how they are interrelated can help you to improve how you hit the ball.
Take a look at the picture gallery above. Not only are the players (both of them) keeping their eyes firmly on the ball, their brain is working out the necessary space between themselves and the ball to allow for a full swing (where there is room). On pictures that show the moment of impact, look at the trailing leg. That’s the starting position for their movement into the shot.
In the 2016-17 season I spent some time helping Borja Golan. We spent a lot of time looking at the tactical details of his game, and watching him closely and being on court with him added to my understanding of the importance of how we watch the ball.
Before starting work with him, I thought that some aspects of his game were not exactly textbook stuff but I very quickly realised that the intensity at which he watches and follows the ball allowed his body to auto-organise itself so that he is constantly hitting the ball at an optimum level.
It is really a pleasure to be on the court with him, listening to the way the ball sounds when it comes off his racket and then seeing how it flies down the wall hardly touching it or in a straight line to where ever its target, whatever it is.
It made me realise that my focus on the technical/tactical areas was perhaps incomplete and that there are other details that need to be added to the mix to help players evolve in a balanced way.
Another part to watching the ball is how it can condition body position when we get to the ball.
Doing a clinic a couple of years ago a middle-aged club player told me that he had a lot of problems hitting the ball out of the back corners, that he was always too close or too far away from the ball and was almost never comfortable there.
I hit a couple of balls into the back corners for him to return and I noticed that as soon as I hit the ball and he saw roughly where it was going, he would rush to the corner to return it. I realised that as soon as he knew that the ball was going to the corner he stopped watching it, so when he arrived in the corner he had to reconnect with the ball before he hit it.
I asked him to try and watch or follow the ball closely (from my racket to the front wall and then to the back corner) as he moved to the corner and to everyone’s surprise (mine included) he immediately started to have a comfortable distance between his body and the ball and hit it better.
Since then I have seen that many players stop watching the ball between the service box and the back wall. Once the player consciously watches the ball through this area their bodies generally and instinctively find the correct distance or space to allow them to hit it well. It is also interesting to see how a player’s body language changes when they reconnect with the ball. It goes from insecurity and sometimes near panic to calm or noticeably more relaxed.
It is important to differentiate between having the ball in your field of vision and watching the ball. When the ball is in your field of vision, although you are seeing it, it is in the same perspective as every other reference point, so the same as the lines of the court, the floorboards, the marks on the walls, your opponent, and the back wall.
If you are watching the ball well, it should be like a photo that has the focus on one object and everything else within the photo is behind it and out of focus, so you are still aware of everything but the perspective has changed.
In reality this is what the top players are doing consciously or subconsciously, so allowing them to move and hit the ball earlier.
When you start to experiment with this there can be an element of insecurity or fear. For example, you can be worried about running into the other player or wondering whether you will get to the ball in time.
This weekend I gave a Gevolution course for players in Asturias. Juan Carlos from the Squasturies Club said: ”I have been playing squash for over 20 years and have just realised that I have not been watching the properly.”
More about watching the ball next week, folks. Thanks for staying tuned.
COMMENT: We are enjoying the interaction and conversations with our readers. Feel free to comment below.
I would go even further than ‘watching the ball’ and say that I don’t think giving 100% focus to the ‘ball’ is very good for developing the ability to read the game. Players I work with are taught to restrict their opponents replies as the 1st element of reading the game. Next, the ‘watching the ball’ starts with your own shot – anticipating it’s arrival point, and this known (already quite early after hitting it), the main focus is not the ball anymore (still care, but not watching it) but what the opponent is going to do with the ball. This entails attention to ‘cues’, which are obvious for high level players and pros, but not so for juniors or developing players. For those interested, search for Bruce Abernethy, a world renowned researcher in anticipation, who was my lecturer at Uni of Queensland. Lots of research into tennis, and not squash unfortunately, but the principles remain the same – attention to the right cues at the right moment.
Hi Mark, I agree, there is so much more to watching the ball, so much to try and understand… could watching the ball and reading the game be 2 separate areas but completely interdependent and interrelated? I’m sure that for reading the game you need to be collecting clues as you say from your opponent’s body position and movement etc. You comment “attention to the right cues at the right moment” sounds like working in the present which is part of differential learning and a huge challenge to help people built this ability. I’ll definitely try and find some of Bruce Abernathy´s work online. Thanks, Tony