Peaking for Performance

By Richard Millman, Director of Squash, Kiawah Island Club

So here we are in late January with Nationals rapidly approaching. Now’s a good time to organize your run in to the event—although if you are a long-term competitive player you may well be into a program of a year or several years that you have designed to try and bring yourself to your peak.

Even the best players in the world, like James Willstrop, practice keeping the ball tight to the sidewall. One way to do this is with a channel game where all balls are played on one side of the court within the width of the service box.
Even the best players in the world, like James Willstrop, practice keeping the ball tight to the sidewall. One way to do this is with a channel game where all balls are played on one side of the court within the width of the service box.

Because we do so many things on an annual basis, it is easy to fall into the trap of treating preparation as an annual event. In point of fact, in my experience, it takes anywhere up to nine years to build peak level performance for a squash player. However, you may not have nine years! So I am going to talk about some things you can do over a shorter term to get you ready for that big event that you are focussing on. Just don’t forget that the program you follow this week should fit into the program you follow this month, which in turn should follow the program you are following this season, which should in turn follow the program you are following this year and finally the program you are following over the next two, three or even five years!

Let’s make some basic areas to target: Strategic, Technical, Physical, Mental and Performance. I’ll focus on the Strategic this month and cover the other areas next time.


Strategic training is one of the least examined and yet most useful Peaking for Performance areas. When did you last video one of your own matches? Here are some things to look for:

Length: What percentage of your length balls are landing on or just behind the back of the service box? And of those, how many are rebounding more than two feet from the back wall before the second bounce?

Width: What percentage of your straight shots are within one foot of the side wall? What percentage of your cross-court shots are targeted wide enough to stop your opponent from volleying?

Serves: How successful are you at using your serve to gain a distinct edge at the beginning of the rally? If you are not as successful as you would like, how many different serves do you use to keep your opponent off balance and guessing?

Return of Serve: How often are you missing the volley? What are you trying to do with the return?

General Play: When you are losing, what is the general reason? Are you being caught out of position? Is it because you are out of shape? Are you hitting the ball too hard when you are under pressure—thereby giving the opponent a chance to intercept the ball before you’re ready? Are you using enough height to build your rallies? Are you hitting too many cross-courts under pressure? How many errors are you making? Why are you making errors? When you get an opening do you try and finish the rally in one shot—thereby putting all the pressure on yourself? Are you static when hitting the ball (using a ‘one shot’ mentality) or are you playing each shot as part of the sequential flow of the rally (a ‘rally construction’ mentality)?

There are so many questions that can be answered by video analysis, especially if you have a good coach sit with you to do the analysis. Once you have completed your match analysis, separate out your strategic errors from your technical, physical and mental errors. When you have broken down your strategic choice errors, then you can start to design some conditioned games and exercises to put you on the path to improvement.

Strategic Practice Games

Length game: everything over the short line—great for improving length, width, volleying and particularly decision making with regard to subtle choices for patience.

Channel game: everything on one side within the width of the service box—great for improving width, height, touch and the mentality of building a rally—moving the opponent forwards and back.

Above the line game: everything above the service line but the ball can bounce anywhere—great for height, width and particularly for learning patience to build a rally.

Short games: there are many of these, here are two that I particularly like:

Short game in front of the short line: Each player stays on their own side—one on the forehand and one on the backhand. To serve you have to hit a boast. After that you can hit any shot to your opponent’s side provided that it bounces before the short line. The ball can go over the short line after it has bounced but players are only allowed to put one foot over the short line (in the back of the court) at any time. This game teaches reaction time, ball control under pressure, deception, mental focus, balance—so many things.

Attacking short game: Similar to the one above but slightly different rules—the serve must hit the front wall first. You can hit the ball in the air or bounce it first (that means that you can basically crush the ball into the nick, at your opponent or even try and blast it by them!). The ball can go to the back of the court provided it crosses the short line below the opponent’s head height as it crosses the short line (it can be above head height until it gets to the short line). This game is a superb teacher of reactions, it helps develop an ability to cope under extreme pressure, hone a player’s awareness of the nicks and the side walls, develops deception, helps balance, turning movements, relevant preparation—a host of things!

Role play games: These are great for working on a particular strategic skill. You can really design them anyway you want, but here are some good ones:

  • One player can only play straight—if they shape for a forehand, it has to go down the forehand side.
  • One player can only play long.
  • One player can only volley
  • One player can only volley if they are in front of the short line
  • One player can only play short.

  Now you can either make the restricted player play against a regular player or you can mix it up so that you have one restriction playing against another.

Conditioned games: You might want to work on a specific area—say lobs. If so, then design the game accordingly. A good one is: cross-court lob, straight length, boast. Both players must adhere to the sequence and a point is scored when the sequence breaks down or a mistake is made. Really you can take any sequence of shots and make a game out of it. Just try and look at your video of your match play and find the sequences where you need to improve.