Squash Mad

Understanding Ramy Ashour: An unconscious hero

Ramy ‘feels’ every shot and every situation, that’s what makes him probably the greatest player in the history of the game
By RICHARD MILLMAN – Squash Mad Coaching Analyst

Overwhelmed with emotion, Ramy Ashour sinks to the floor after winning the World Championship final in Qatar

Overwhelmed with emotion, Ramy Ashour sinks to the floor after winning the World Championship final

At the risk of attracting all kinds of critical commentary I am going to make a bold statement: Ramy Ashour doesn’t know what he is doing most of the time.

That’s right. Not a clue.

If that’s the case, how come he is arguably the best all-round squash player the world has ever seen?

As I understand it, squash is a sport that has multiple elements.

WC14RamcelTechnical skill, physical fitness, strategy, emotional control and work ethic are the key ones by my reckoning.

I would place Ramy in the top one percent of technicians of all time – and when I say technicians I am talking about those whose movement and racquet skills are both at the elite level.

Movement is much more important than stroke work (which should be a facilitator of your movement), but you can’t be an elite technician without being brilliant at both.

His injuries notwithstanding, I would hazard a guess that in the area of physical fitness he doesn’t occupy such a high place in the all-time standings. Excellent, yes, but not in the top one percent.

With regard to strategy, I find it difficult to gauge. He does some peculiar things from time to time, and even seems to self-destruct on occasion. Does he forget the game plan sometimes? I don’t know – you would have to ask him.

His emotional control is an interesting one. He has bouts of self talk which are amusing, idiosyncratic sideshows, but overall I feel he has an edge that few players have ever exercised at the level that we see from Ramy. Namely – fun. Ramy absolutely loves playing squash at the highest level against the best in the world.

He loves the challenge – both from the most excellent opponents and in testing himself.

His work ethic is beyond question. There may have been players in the past who worked as hard. But I doubt that any worked on all aspects of the game more than Ramy.

So why say that he doesn’t ‘know’ what he is doing most the time?

Imagine you are crossing a busy street. You are day-dreaming, you look around and you see an eighteen-wheel truck traveling at speed toward you.

Your subconscious mind kicks into action.

Faster than you can possibly imagine, your subconscious calculates the velocity of the truck, the distance between you and the truck, the distance between you and safety, and the required velocity for you to avoid being flattened.

Provided you do actually escape, you don’t ‘know’ how you managed to do so. You are unconscious of the process that your subconscious used to mitigate your demise.

This is why I say that Ramy Ashour doesn’t ‘know’ what he is doing most of the time.

Rather he ‘feels’ what to do instantaneously. The same as your lightning response to avoiding the truck.

Most of Ramy’s opponents slow the process down by trying to ‘think,’ thereby interfering with the speed of their subconscious, by invoking their slow old conscious minds.

Ramy Ashour and Mohamed Elshorbagy in action in the World Championship final

Ramy Ashour and Mohamed Elshorbagy in action in the World Championship final

For my money Mohamed Elshorbagy – a brilliant player in his own right, is currently getting in his own way.

For instance, in the recent final of the World Championship between Ashour and Elshorbagy, the younger Egyptian made a number of conscious attempts to affect the outcome of various situations. Some see this as clever gamesmanship. In my own opinion it is a conscious distraction that backfires as Elshorbagy directs his attention away from process toward outcome.

Thinking about winning in any way shape or form, simply distracts a player from the process of playing at an optimum level. True, these apparent pieces of strategy may also cause the opponent to momentarily leave the automatic subconscious process and become consciously active in the distraction, but this is usually with players of lesser focus.

Winning is a consequence of excellent play. Not the focus of it.

I watched the World Open final several times and my friend, world class player Ali Walker from Botswana, who also watched it, messaged me about Ramy’s specific movement technique and we had a fruitful and interesting discussion. This discussion led to further thought and ultimately to these comments:

Richard Millman:
I like the sequential timing of his (Ramy’s) movement versus his ball contact and his control of pace to ensure that he can be in position to cover all of his opponent’s angles of possibility before the opponent can release the shot. If I am thinking of the same movement as you are – I think that creates momentum for both his flow to position and a whiplash like energy wave that he uses to propel the ball. Am I on the wrong track? What is your feeling?

Ali Walker:
(Comment withheld for privacy reasons)

Richard Millman:
I agree with you. Here’s a simple thought that I have been developing recently. Our bodies are also our weapons. We use our body mass to generate force (Newton’s Law Force = Mass x Acceleration). But that weapon can only use the force generated effectively if we have the mass (body) under control. To load the weapon we need to decelerate in a controlled manner, simultaneously loading potential ready to use. The more you extend your body the less ‘loaded’ you are and the less potential you have to utilize.

If you watch Ramy he tries to use small steps as much as possible to retain potential for both movement and stroke production. These he skillfully combines in one movement, thereby achieving incredible efficiency by using his movement to generate whatever stroke power he requires. That little leg sweep is a part of the small steps that are like little cogs in a gearing system.

Like Olympic sprinters, at the beginning of a race and after they have crossed the line, his take-off and deceleration are achieved with small steps that maximize the speed/power ratio – except when he slows down, he doesn’t do so to stop – he does so to proactively prepare for the next power surge.

Additionally, he ALWAYS expects his shots to be returned and so there is no dropping of his guard or reduction in availability of potential as he seems to WANT his opponent to retrieve his shot so he can continue the process of acceleration/deceleration. I don’t believe the rally process for Ramy is linear. I believe – like the Chinese view of time – it is cyclical.

He simply repeats his behavior dependent on which stage of the cycle he is at – acceleration or deceleration in anticipation of acceleration. As such he doesn’t recognize a linear duration and doesn’t feel pressurized by how long he has been going.

In fact if the cycle comes to an end he is more disappointed that the wheel has broken – whether it is he that has broken it or his opponent. Often he seems disappointed that his opponent can’t continue the cycle. Small, rapidly adjusting steps that keep him mentally, physically, emotionally and continually connected to the ball, allow him to play well within his available physical potential most of the time, so he has reserves for the extraordinary.
Thoughts?

(End of email discussion)

The 2014 world champion Ramy Ashour kisses the trophy

The 2014 world champion Ramy Ashour kisses the trophy

I am an analyst. I attempt to consciously study the game of squash and the great masters of the game. That means I have spent years thinking about the game – as can be seen above in the discussion with Alister. But if a player tried to ‘think’ the ideas that I have expounded above during a competitive game – well, I think you know what would happen – they’d be run over by that eighteen-wheel truck!

(In point of fact this is one of the problems for spectators and promoters of the game – the content is so multi-faceted that understanding it becomes mentally supersaturating and spectators have to detach and remove themselves before they get mentally run down by the eighteen-wheel truck of data that they find rushing at them! If it takes a world-class player years to learn and assimilate the subtleties of the game, and these thoughts then get magnified by world class athletes performing them at levels beyond the comprehension of recreational players, then what chance do spectators have of understanding the kaleidoscope of information that explodes toward them?)

To learn the game requires both the conscious mind and the subconscious mind.

The conscious to learn and digest the nuances of the game and to then diffuse these ideas into the subconscious to be able to produce them at lightning speed.

Infect the subconscious with conscious input during performance and the whole house of cards comes crashing down.

There are many squash players who have a range of extraordinary assets.

But unless you both consciously learn and understand the correct nuances when you are learning and then subconsciously assimilate and incorporate them into your automatic behavior, you can easily go off track without realizing it.

And, if you have gone off track and practised incorrect behaviors for the proverbial 10,000 hours – you are going to have spend a lot of time working on corrections – if you are even able to recognize the corrections.

No-one (yet) has so completely assimilated, automated, practiced and perfected the subtleties of the game as Ramy Ashour. The amalgam of this fact and his other assets has produced a unique individual.

And so hail to Ramy.

An unconscious hero.

And perhaps the most complete squash player the world has ever seen.

by Richard Millman: November 28, 2014

 

Pictures courtesy PSA 

Posted on December 1, 2014

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About The Author

Richard Millman has been a Squash Professional since 1977. Eight times Norfolk Champion, British US and Canadian Masters Champion and former US National team coach, he is the author of Angles - A Squash Anthology and co-author of Raising Big Smiling Squash Kids. He lives in Charleston SC.

13 Comments

  1. Barry November 30, 2014 at 12:34 am

    As Yoda once said in Star Wars “You must unlearn what you have learned”

    That seems to demonstrate what Ramy does during his games. He is so well prepared and so talented that he can now rely in instinct and feeling. Which is what makes him seem like an artist on the court.

  2. Alex Wan November 30, 2014 at 3:44 am

    Awesome piece Richard. Truly enjoyed your analysis and thoughts on Ramy. In many Chinese kung fu films, part of the training is to spar blindfolded, so the point on him not knowing what he is doing and instead feeling what he does (and what he has to) hits the spot!

  3. Simon Crowther November 30, 2014 at 5:50 pm

    Great article, Richard. I particularly like this bit:

    In fact if the cycle comes to an end he is more disappointed that the wheel has broken – whether it is he that has broken it or his opponent.

    To play like this at elite level is remarkable. Few people achieve it, though many juniors experience pure enjoyment of the game for a time (usually until they are infected by adults who understand only conscious, often negative thought processes).

    The subconscious can derail though – that is probably why you see Ramy doing strange things sometimes. His self discussions are the conscious behaviours intended to correct the errors made by his subconscious (fast) mind and you are right that this is dangerous. The correct input is critical and it is crucial that the subconscious is not overloaded by too much conscious (slow) information. The two are incompatible. However, the right input at the right moment can put the subconscious back on track and allow the player to regain a safe and effective mindset. This could be a piece of well-tailored advice, or just a well-timed shout of support that provides a mental reset.

    There are many players out there whose conscious mind is constantly overrunning their subconscious, some who are able to play at the highest level; but you see them suffer and it has a noticeable impact on their performance. Playing in ‘the Zone’ is not an easy thing to achieve under pressure at any level and there are few sports as telling as squash in this regard. Cultivating an enjoyment of the game as well as reinforcing the subconscious (both through training and mental approach) is a very effective route to this condition.

    Have you read Daniel Kahnmans’s book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’?

  4. Richard Millman November 30, 2014 at 6:14 pm

    Hi Barry, Alex and Simon. Thanks so much for the feedback. And thanks Simon for the ‘Thinking fast, thinking slow’ recommendation. You are the second person to mention it to me recently and I now have it firmly on my list. Cheers!

  5. Dan Korn November 30, 2014 at 8:16 pm

    Hi Richard, thankyou for an outstanding article. I have enjoyed reading your articles for years in Squash Magazine . As such I recognize the concepts you have been expousing in this Analysis of Ramy. As I read thru the article, my mind bears the question: How does a player or coach translate these ideas into a typical training regimen?

    • Simon Crowther December 1, 2014 at 5:37 pm

      If the main impediment to ‘flow’ is the desire to win the match, how about a regular session of rallies between players of a similar standard, without scoring?

  6. Joseph Mann November 30, 2014 at 8:55 pm

    Just read this and very much enjoyed it! Though in all honesty I wasn’t that surprised by the conclusion – there’s a psychologist named
    Mihály Csíkszentmihályi that made the concept of “flow” quite popular http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology)
    and the similarities are striking. In fact, every time I can’t remember what the score is in my own matches I attribute it to “flow”, as opposed to, say,
    early onset dementia …

  7. Daniel Massaro December 1, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    I enjoyed the article and it reminded me straight away of this…..

    “I’ve always tended to achieve my success by consciously willing myself (rather than just letting it happen). I work on myself all the time. Whereas the Inner Game luminaries talk about Self One and Self Two and make a point of not allowing the intellect to interfere with what the body is doing, my intellect has interfered constantly, and been indispensably helpful. A voice within me saying ‘Your wrist!’ after I’ve wrongly executed a stroke puts matters right in no time. … On the other hand, when I consciously do this, I don’t play as well as when I just flow.”
    Jonah Barrington , Murder in the Squash Court, P151, 1982

    Understanding the’ zone,’ “taking your thought as the thought of no thought” will forever fascinate. What I like about Jonah’s interpretation of it all, with his time with the INNER Game movement in the late 1970’s is that he is wise enough to know both states need eachother. I like the way Richard alludes to this at the end of the article.

    Nobody can explain how Ramy lost a 10-5 lead or how Mohammed almost had the greatest comeback in Squash World open History. Or how Ramy then played 4 unbelievable rallies. Conscious, or not? Wanting the win or focussing on the process? Who knows? Who cares? It was just Magic.

  8. Seshadri December 2, 2014 at 11:43 am

    Hi Richard,

    I really enjoyed this article, as indeed I do all your articles in the technical section of Squash Magazine.
    The only point where I would disagree with you is the part about Ramy’s physical fitness. He may not have the six-pack abs of a Walker or Anjema, but I have never seen him lose any squash match because he was tired. He has won innumerable matches against Gaultier and Matthew, and of late Shorbagy, that lasted well over 90 minutes. If that isn’t compelling evidence of fitness, I don’t know what is.
    More than any other player, Ramy puts maximum effort into clearing the ball, an activity that drains you out physically. Cumulatively, his energy spend during a long match will be more than that of his opponents, even though you wouldn’t think that seeing his comfort level on court between rallies.

  9. Richard Millman December 2, 2014 at 8:27 pm

    Hi Seshadri
    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.
    A couple of thoughts: At the risk of seeming to be a contrarian, I am going to tell you that I don’t believe that Ramy puts very much effort at all into ‘clearing.’
    And I will explain why: ‘Clearing’ is a flawed psychological concept in Squash because the word ‘clearing’ relates to behavior pertaining to the shot that the ‘clearing’ player has just played. Additionally the concept of ‘clearing’ indicates that the ‘clearing’ player is working on behalf of the opponent. In my opinion Ramy does neither of these things. Rather than ‘clearing’ and getting ‘back’ to position – both of which are retrospective behaviors, I believe Ramy proactively starts to move into position momentarily before he plays the ball, making sure that the time he needs to get into position to defend the court against his opponent’s next possible shot is les than it takes the ball to travel from his racquet face until the opponent intercepts. The reason Ramy is rarely in the way is because he wants to be in position early not out of some desire to offer his opponent access.
    On the second point of fitness I agree that Ramy is excellent but I don’t personally believe that when compared to Geoff Hunt, Jonah Barrington, Jahangir Khan, Jansher Khan, David Palmer, Peter Nicol and David Palmer he is necessarily in the top one percent. This is not to say he isn’t fantastic – just not at the same level as he is technically where I believe he is without parallel.
    Thanks for contributing though – it is only by actually thinking and talking these things through that we all learn.
    Hi also to Danny
    Thanks for the appreciation and also the enlightened commentary Danny. The more I study this game the more I am convinced that the subconscious mind doesn’t suffer the frailties of emotion that are born by the conscious mind. I believe the subconscious when properly triggered rapidly assesses the immediate challenge and a-emotionally provides a menu of options to the frail conscious mind to select – if there is sufficient time. Often I think even this process is superseded by the immediacy of the need to act and the subconscious simply overrides the conscious decision making process in the interest of that greatest of all human requirements : survival.
    Again a fascinating discussion and great ammunition for all of us who hope to move forward with the evolution of this amazing, organic sport.
    Best
    Richard

  10. Seshadri December 2, 2014 at 11:28 pm

    Hi Richard,

    Thanks for responding in detail.

    I differ from you on what constitutes clearing, as I do believe that it involves working on behalf of your opponent, or to be precise, on behalf of fair-play.
    Ramy’s timely clearing after playing shots that could cause interference if he were slow to move away from the opponent’s direct path to the ball, is the main reason why his matches are free-flowing no matter who his opponent is, and the reason why every player looks forward to play him or Shabana [another player who clears brilliantly]. When Golan stated that Ramy is a fair player, he wasn’t referring to Ramy’s honesty regarding double-bounces or “carries”.
    Anyway, let’s agree to differ, as I’m sure you have an honest difference of opinion.

    Keep the articles coming, they make for great food for thought!

  11. Chris Hanebury December 2, 2014 at 11:46 pm

    I love analyzing and watching Ramy as much as anyone, which I find a bit ironic because as you suggest Ramy feels the game. We spend more time trying to understand Ramy than he does. In my opinion what separates Ramy from everyone else is that regardless of the occasion he appears to be able to play with ‘throwing caution to the wind.’ This is what allows Ramy to have such soft touch and feel which means he has very little tension in his arm when he hits. I find it fascinating that Ramy can focus on the process, as if he has learned how to shut off the part of his consciousness that most of us can’t ignore. We all want to win and perhaps we try too hard. Ramy’s psychological skills are as wizardry as his racquet ones. Ramy plays one way all the time and maybe this makes it easier because he doesn’t get indecisive or change game plans regardless of the score. Ramy knows if his game is off track it’s because his mind is interfering.

    The intensity of his rallies are tougher than anyone else. Ramy has adjusted to it, all of the other pros are not. They normally play in a rhythm. As you mention, Ramy has his own separate rhythm and never allows his opponent to dictate the tempo.

    To further comment on his movement. I agree with you Richard. I don’t think Ramy is the strongest or fittest player but he anticipates and gets out of trouble better than anyone I’ve ever watched.Some is probably a natural gift, but has also flourished because he plays such an open style of squash. Simply, Rmay had more time learning to read his opponents from the front of the court. I don’t know the stats, but i’m certain Ramy wins more rallies after a backwall boast than anyone else in the game. It’s almost like it’s an advantage for Ramy after he hits one. We also all know how quick his wrist is, so Ramy doesn’t need much time at the ball and has more options than anyone in the world. Ramy is so great for squash.

    Lastly, it’s just exciting watching someone transcend the sport. We play a game in a box. Who would have thought that someone could play and become a world champion with such a unique style? I know that I speak for everyone when I say that I hope he can stay healthy for many more years to come!

    ‘Hail to Ramy.’

  12. sat seshadri December 4, 2014 at 7:23 pm

    Great article, truly well written. Here is something that is mind boggling: I had the honor to train with him two weeks before the world open in NYC, we did drills with me just feeding and him getting a feel of the ball and some very light movement games. I was worried the whole time if I was moving him too much, if he would get injured etc. However,never at one point did he complain about being twisted or turned considering all the rehab work he was doing with his doctors during the day. He was definitely uneasy in his movement but I think the hunger to just play after 6 months was beyond anything else.

    His ‘touch’ and passion for the game is so great that I do not think we will find many squash players at his caliber, just like Fed in Tennis, Messi in Soccer and LeBron in Basketball, these are natural players who love what they do, hence their talent go beyond one’s imagination.

    In your article you had mentioned “Ramy absolutely loves playing squash at the highest level against the best in the world”, Yes but also with anyone and everyone he plays with. When I played with him you could just see the noises of how he would appreciate a good shot. A True legend and master of the game. Players like him are the ones who will help increase the popularity of the game, he plays for the people and does not think much about winning all the time, that’s what differentiates him from the rest.

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