Technique: It starts with the feet! Part 3

By Damon Leedale-Brown, Sports Scientist & Conditioning Specialist

In the last issue we talked about some of the common movement errors seen in both developing and relatively high level players. In doing so, hopefully you have a better perspective of how to analyze strengths and weaknesses in your own movement on court as a player or, as a coach, where to look for errors in a players’ movement which could be the cause of technical inconsistencies with their shots. Here, we will discuss training solutions that can help any level of player improve movement technique and footwork skills.

For our purposes, we will focus on training drills and exercises without the ball.

The three training areas that I consider most valuable in helping a player develop their movement skills on the squash court are:
• Strength
• Agility
• Specific Movement Training (‘Ghosting’)

I have recently spent 3 days training with Laurens Jan Anjema (current World No. 9). Building on the specific and focused training work we set up in the summer and fall of 2011, the main goal of our training was to develop progressions and variations in training exercises to help LJ’s ongoing improvements in movement technique on court—all done using a combination of the three training areas highlighted above.

During summer training sessions in Colorado, James Willstrop and Vanessa Atkinson took full advantage of agility ladders.
During summer training sessions in Colorado, James Willstrop and Vanessa Atkinson took full advantage of agility ladders.

This is an area of training that has now become a standard component in any elite player’s program. When we see an elite player moving with great control, balance and softness on court, this is a sure sign of the strength they possess through structured and consistent conditioning training over many years. Strength training plays a critical role in helping keep an athlete’s body healthy; helping them withstand the high levels of pressure and stress placed on the body with the movement demands of squash.

A player with well developed strength is better able to control speed under pressure; move quicker off the mark; be more balanced on the shot; and get into lower and deeper hip positions when necessary—particularly deep in the corners of the court.

A balanced strength program for squash should emphasize multi-joint movements (e.g., lunges/squats, etc.) which, initially, can be done purely with a player’s body weight and then progressed with external resistances such as dumbbells, free weight bars, medicine balls, cable machines, etc. I generally recommend staying away from machines which have little if any carryover to sports performance for an athlete, and spend most of your time on your feet as opposed to sitting or lying on a bench involved in very ineffective exercises for a squash player, such as bench presses and biceps curls!

For good examples of strength exercises for squash, refer back to the series of five articles on ‘Strength Training for Squash’ in late 2009, or the series of six articles on ‘Core Training for Squash’ starting in late 2010.

Critical to squash movement is the ability to move quickly in all directions (forwards, sideways, backwards) with control and balance; to demonstrate good control of movement when changing direction at speed; to be light and reactive with the feet and able to make valuable last minute adjustments in position on the ball.

Effective agility training can be set up with three simple pieces of equipment: a jump rope; an agility/footwork ladder; and cones. When choosing a jump rope make sure you select a lightweight speed rope that allows you to focus on speed, agility, quickness and explosiveness rather than a heavy rope which slows all these elements down.

Jumping rope can be a fantastic warm up activity, and more advanced progressions in foot patterns and speed can be used within a movement skills training circuit. All the pro players and junior players who have been working with me for a number of years are excellent jump ropers! Agility ladders can be used as a component of a dynamic warm up for squash, and also as an integral part of a movement skills training circuit. There are hundreds of different training drills that can be done on an agility ladder focusing on areas such as linear and lateral agility, rotational speed, deceleration, etc. Ladders can be great fun used as part of a group warm up on court during training squads and camps, and can quickly allow the coach to identify players who have more developed movement skills and those that need more work!
Cones provide the freedom to set up all types of different agility training exercises that can be tailored to suit the level of athletic ability of the player and, where necessary, accommodate large groups of players on one court. I have run sessions before using a series of cone drills where I have had 10 players working together on the same court.

Ghosting is a term that most squash players are familiar with, referring to movement training on the squash court without the ball. Performed well, ghosting is probably the closest you are going to get to simulating the actual demands of movement on the squash court without actually hitting the ball.

I have seen some very interesting demonstrations of ghosting in my years working with squash! Players charging around the court with no control or thought, not even swinging the racket or doing so in a way that has absolutely no bearing on how they would actually set up and strike the ball (e.g., running to the front corner—completely turning around and then sprinting in a straight line to the opposite back corner!). Clearly there is a physical element to ghosting but there should always be an element of technical, mental and even tactical thought to the movement training. This will ensure the greatest level of carryover from the training to the game itself, which is the whole point behind movement training.

Ghosting sessions can be set up in numerous ways using variations in duration, intensity and patterns of movement. This should be determined by the athletic level and movement skill of the player, the particular training or competitive phase they are in, and aspects specific to that player that they are trying to improve (i.e., specific areas of the court, speed off the mark, racket preparation, flow and fluidity of movement, etc.).

If done correctly and consistently, strength, agility and movement training will make a huge difference in your ability to move technically well on court and, in doing so, improve your overall performance as a player. If you have not done so already, make a start by buying a jump rope, agility ladder and cones and have some fun without the ball during your next session on court!