Angels and Demons

By Richard Millman, Owner – The Squash Doctor Corporation

Which of these two are whispering in your ear when you are under pressure?

Before you ever step on to the competitive Squash court, a competition has already started in your mind.

There are two teams. Your personal Devil versus your personal Angel. Your personal Angel needs to keep your personal Devil in check if you are going to be able to maximize your performance.

How do these spirits manifest themselves? A good question—and there are many answers. But for the purposes of this particular article, I am going to pass on some of the ideas and experiences that I have had, when dealing with these two competitors for your mental focus.

Pre-match nerves—don’t you hate ‘em?

Your personal Devil loves this situation. You can hear his voice in your ear: ‘You’re not fit enough. The other guy is better than you. You haven’t done enough practice. You’re sick. Your grip doesn’t feel right. Your knee is hurting. You didn’t eat right. You didn’t drink enough. You can’t hit it tight enough. You aren’t good at altitude,’ and a thousand others.

So how do you stop these thoughts from distracting you from the job at hand? Well, the answers vary. Some of this can be dealt with a long time prior to the match or tournament.

For instance: Plan your competitive seasons well in advance—up to three years if you are really serious. Look at the dates of your major target tournaments.

Then plan “peaking tournaments” that compliment your build-up for the target tournaments. Next: Once you have a competitive plan, orchestrate a practical training and practice regime. How much time do you have? What age are you? A training plan for a 25-year-old will often-times actually ruin the preparation of a 35-year-old. Whereas a properly designed plan for your age will possibly get you better prepared than you have ever been in your life—better than when you were in your twenties.

Once you have your competitive, training and practice plans make sure you follow through. Nothing silences that old Devil in your head like delivering on a plan. There you are in the fourth game, two-one down and 5-all—if you have done the training, the Angel will gain the upper hand in your head (you can hear that silvery voice now: ‘You’ve done the training, you’ve worked hard, you deserve this!’)

The Devil doesn’t get a look in if your preparation has been thorough.

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At moments when the Devil tries to rear its ugly head, take a moment to summon the Angel that knows you’ve put in the preparation to perform at your best. It worked for Laura Massaro at last year’s U.S. Open.

Not that this is about winning and losing. It isn’t. It’s about good work bringing its own rewards. Win or lose you want to walk off the court with your personal Angel whispering in your ear: ‘You delivered on your promises. You performed your best. Now, what steps can we take to move forward from this?’ Because we can always improve and, after taking a moment to assess the performance and take the positives out of it, we have to start looking to the next performance.

But what if it’s too late to work on the plan well in advance? The match is starting in an hour and you are shaking like a leaf.

Hopefully you did eat and drink correctly. And you rested appropriately. But what if nothing went right beforehand?

Clearly you can’t rely on a three-year plan now. So what can you do? First and foremost you can warm up like a champion. If you are a player who struggles with pre-match nerves no matter what preparation you have done, there is no better antidote than a serious and vigorous warm-up routine.

In my experience, your warm-up ought to be more than half of the time that you think you could possibly be competing. If you think you are going to play for 45 minutes, make sure you warm-up strenuously for 30 minutes. If it could be an hour, probably more like 40 minutes.

And don’t hold back. It is almost impossible for a Squash player to do too much warming up for an important Squash match. You’re not just warming up physically. You are throwing that old Devil out by showing him that you are ready for anything. Every movement you make, every shot you practice, you are visualizing your game plan.

Next month, we’ll talk about how you can shut out that Devil in your head.