The Thinking Game

By Richard Millman, Director of Squash, Kiawah Island Club

If you’ll recall, last month I left you with something to think about after a conversation I had with a top player at the British National Championships. To jog your memory, my very experienced, intelligent, high caliber colleague said: “Richard, I agree that more than 95% of the time right-handed players play forehand shots off of their right foot. But you would never teach that to a beginner, would you?” As I said last month, his statement is a big deal because it doesn’t make sense.

Jahangir Khan was a legendary thinker.
Jahangir Khan was a legendary thinker.

Think about it some more. You tell a beginner that (for right handers) a forehand shot should be played off the left foot. It’s almost certainly the easiest way for a beginner to learn to play a competent forehand. But you’ve left out a huge amount of information, and as it stands you are probably going to do more harm than good. Why? Well several reasons.

Have you let the beginner know that the ball you are feeding him is a gentle easy ball designed to help him hit the shot and that he will never receive a ball like that in a competitive match as long as he lives? Have you let him know the reason that you’re doing that is to start a gradual learning progression and that as he/she gets better they will learn more advanced techniques. And have you prepared the bright mind in front of you (they must be bright—they’re playing squash for pity’s sake) for the confusion and conflict they will experience when they watch every top player play 97 out of 100 right handed forehands off of their right foot? (By the way—if you still aren’t sure about this, buy one of Jean De Lierre’s fantastic DVDs of a recent top pro event and get a piece of paper out and start counting.)

And that’s just some of the damage. Never mind the fact that you are brainwashing the student into a shot-centric mentality in a sport where the shortest period of concentration is a full rally long. No wonder they grow up losing track of the ball as soon as they have hit it. You’ve conditioned them to think about one static shot, not a fluid potentially infinite, ebbing and flowing rally that requires skilled continual adaptation. (By the way, we don’t teach the beginner everything at once. We just let them know that there is a lot more to the story and thereby we make them realize that they will need to learn how to adapt as they progress.)

So back to my top class friend in the bar. Why didn’t he think about this logical progression? Because people accept what they are told, unless they are trained to question and discuss.

Here’s another one. Ever heard the expression from the rules “making every attempt to clear the ball?” What on earth does that mean? That it’s OK to be in the way as long as you are trying not to be? And what an awful piece of advice: “try to clear the ball.” The logic being that you should direct your attention, after you have played your shot (after the horse has bolted more like) to putting every ounce of your energy into working on your opponent’s behalf, forgetting completely to maintain your own ongoing attention on the game and your own position in it. When the rules direct players to behave illogically, well then we’re really in trouble—especially if we blindly accept what we’re told without question. (The correct advice, of course, should be to consider where you want to be next, both in terms of time and position, before you play your shot and to then design it accordingly. Perhaps something more like: Players should make every effort to design their shots to guarantee themselves enough time to get into position for their opponent’s next shot before striking the ball, thereby ensuring that the opponent has both a fair view and access to the ball. The logic of the rules as written is: After you have failed to think about the consequences, do your best to clean up your mess for the benefit of the guy you‘re trying to beat. Hardly constructive or progressive advice.)

I guess my main point is this: Squash is played by intelligent people who when given advice in almost every avenue of their lives consider the advice before acting on it. But for some reason in our sport we don’t hold the ideas that are propounded to us up to the same standard. Why? I am not sure. Perhaps people don’t care. I find that hard to believe, considering the energy expended. But on the other hand, a lot of people put a lot of energy into investing their own and other people’s money and buying homes without really asking enough questions, and look what happened there.

So I ask you, isn’t it worth having a good healthy discussion about your idea of the game once in a while? We’ll all learn more, the more we talk about it.

Skill Level Tips: Simple practice tips for 3.0, 4.0 and 5.0 players
Sit down with a couple of friends and talk about how you might adapt your technique in situations that offer more and less time. How much swing will you use? Why?

Start a discussion with some of your club mates about footwork. How do top players change their movement in different situations?

Invite some players to talk about the pattern of play that they use. Do they move to the ball, then stop, then hit and then recover? Does that make logical sense in a normal rally progression? If not—why not?