By Peter Nicol, former World No. 1
So you’ve done the hard work, you’re physically fit and technically better than ever but you just cannot convert these qualities into your match play. This has got to be one of the most frustrating aspects of sports and truly tests your mental fortitude.
I’ve been in situations where my training has gone perfectly, travelled seamlessly half way across the world and then played an ok match and gone out in the first round. I didn’t choke as such because I played well enough, but I could have played a whole lot better, especially considering my training and traveling circumstances. The art of bringing all aspects of your game together at the right time is an ongoing and challenging issue. I learned a lot about the need to peak, or at least hit certain standards, mostly from these early round tough defeats and some lucky wins.
My ideal scenario was to win 3-1 in the first couple of rounds in a tournament, not playing my best but well enough to get through. I’d then improve for the quarters onwards. However, as mentioned above, this can be tricky if you come up against an opponent who is on and when you need to be sharper than expected. What techniques can you use to be in the right frame of mind and/or be able to adapt and improve performance if need be?
The first aspect to look at is preparation: it’s not about the hour before the match but from the evening before, including what you eat, how you sleep and what your mental state is. Recognizing what works for you and trying to get into that state before you’ve started the final lead in to your match is crucial.
Coming into your match try to understand your needs. If you are physically tired, adapt your warm-up to help you feel as prepared and ready for the encounter ahead. Make sure you are well-fed and hydrated. Being ready in this manner will help you be able to change your tactics and level of performance if necessary. Without this preparation, a bad start can easily lead into a very poor performance—I’ve been in matches that have spiraled out of control, which of course is really not enjoyable.
During the warm up try to understand how you are feeling and engage with the situation you are in. If you are not hitting the ball well, don’t panic; try a few different pre thought-out techniques to make the necessary adjustments. Am I too close, too far away, hitting too hard, not focused, etc. These should help you end the warm up ready to play the best possible squash in the match ahead.
In the match, try to focus on both good aspects of your play and areas that need improvement. Focusing solely on negative issues can cause levels of performance to really sink. Maybe pick a couple of areas you can improve and make the changes. Be positive! Understand what you are doing well and keep those areas strong, maybe even playing to them while you improve the poorer areas of your game.
This is a very general overview of how I would prepare for a match. In short, try and be as well prepared as possible before playing—physically, mentally and technically. This will allow you flexibility to change your style and to simply improve your performance if need be. My biggest tip would be to start working on being aware of your day to day issues in your play and try and work on strategies you can implement quickly in match play to combat these. This will go a long way to taking your worst performance a lot closer to your outstanding one!