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Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Are you thinking when you play?

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Back-wall jottings helped players to focus on the tasks in hand
Back-wall jottings helped players to focus on the tasks in hand

A more structured approach to your training improves your match-play
By JOSH TAYLOR – Squash Mad Coaching Correspondent

 

How many times do you come off court having played a match not really knowing what went on?

How many times do you come off court having played a match not really knowing what went on?

Are you one of those players that hasn’t really improved in months or years despite having played countless hours of squash?

Or do you just play weekly and are looking for the winning edge, the improvement to beat your playing partner?

As a coach I see a lot of players looking to improve but, when it comes down to it, they haven’t really thought about improving themselves first, and are approaching to me for help with it.

I also often hear the changing-room conversations that follow the lines of, “It’s oto late for me, I have been playing for X years and I am not going to get any better!”

So, let’s explore that “I” word – Improvement.

I recently took a session with my students at Loughborough University that I found had a profound effect. The structure of the session was very simple – it involved playing squash, and by that I mean simple matches. We all do it a lot but how often do we do it well?

Many times as a coach I have used match-play as a coaching tool, but this was the best session of match-play I think I have led. It was simple. I sent them off to play one game.

When they came back after the first game I gave them all a whiteboard pen, and gave them all a space to write on the glassback.

The first questions were simple: What was your game plan there? What were you trying to achieve? How where you trying to win?

It was alarming how many blank faces there were, and when it came down to it how many were not thinking, and these are good level players! You see it so often that we just play, with no real thought about what we are doing.

So, in game two, they were set the task of trying to work towards a game plan. Now we were starting to see some light bulbs! As coaches, we use a lot of conditioned games and these have a direct correlation to types of game plans that can be used. What doesn’t happen, though, is the link between these conditioned games and the game plans in our players’ minds.

They simply see ‘training’ and then ‘match-play’. So often that link and the specificity to the game isn’t being made. This could equally be coming from them and/or from the coach not giving enough direction to help them see the link. It is something that I probably haven’t done enough in the past.

So onto Game three – to give them a more structured environment that they are more accustomed to, and hence providing the link. For this the players were given conditioned matches as their game plan. This provided even more definition to what they were doing.

The process was then repeated – with one twist. Each player was told that game plan A wasn’t working, they were losing, and that they had to adapt or face letting their team and themselves down. This applied some pressure to the situation! The whiteboard pens were used again to think through their new strategy and away they went.

So where does sports science come into this? I am a big fan of the work on deliberate practice, by Anders Ericsson. His theory of the 10,000-hour rule has appeared in many aspects of popular press, in books such as Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, or Bounce by Matthew Syed to name a couple.

His theory states that how we train and how many hours we have trained has proportionate correlation to our ability level.

Within this theory he describes deliberate practice as needing some essential ingredients.

It requires the task to be appropriate to the level you are at, it requires effortful exertion towards the task directed towards improving performance, it needs appropriately informative feedback towards result and performance, and also importantly these aspects need to be done repeatedly.

It is said that if this is done for 10,000 hours in our lifetime we should have done enough to reach an elite level.

I am not discounting the debate around this theory, however. That would make for a much longer read! More important to us here: what does that mean?

I think what it means to me is that all those hours spent just playing without real thought or focus on the task at hand aren’t giving compelling support for improvement, and equally provides some reasoning as to why we see so many players that haven’t improved for years, despite hours of practice.

When it comes down to it, those hours, although they might have been very enjoyable and fun, weren’t thoughtful enough for true improvement. If we really wish to improve, then constructive thought and focus needs to be placed upon the task – and that’s not an easy one!

So what final messages can we draw from this:

1) Try and give some real focus to what you’re doing when you play, how are you playing, and how might you need to adapt to beat your opponent.

2) We coaches need to draw a more direct link between matches and our conditioned games and practices, even if it is just as simple as introducing them, so that players can see the direct link between them to bring it into matches and out of practice.

3) We are all capable of improvement. It isn’t just playing that can cause improvement; it is how much effort we are putting into actually improving that counts!

 

 

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