Which side of your feet do you lean and what thoughts are controlling this behavior?
By Richard Millman, Owner – The Squash Doctor Corporation
Whenever I write these articles I am concerned as to whether I am being repetitive. But as a good client of mine is always telling me, hearing things over and over is often the only way to turn a new behavior into a habitual one.
Bearing these thoughts in mind, this month I am turning my attention to the essential issue of how we maintain our physical attention and our relationship with the ball.
What is the primary concern of a human being? To survive of course. Absent that, nothing else matters.
Just so with a Squash player who is equally dependent on survival. How do we ‘survive’ in Squash? By maintaining a lifeline.
Our ‘lifeline’ in Squash is our continuous, uninterrupted connection with the ball.
If our connection with the ball is broken—the ball bounces twice and, in Squash terms—we die.
To prevent this Toss of connection’ or Toss of our lifeline,’ it is essential that we maintain a mental, physical and emotional connection with the ball.
As I have explained before, we humans (as many other animals are) are blessed with two key perception systems that we must use to survive.
One is our direct or primary focus— with which we attend to the task with which we are immediately concerned—in the case of a Squash player, staying connected to the ball.
The other equally important perception system is our peripheral awareness, with which we attend to our environment and everything other than our primary focus.
Both of these perception systems are essential to our survival and both of them must operate, in parallel, at optimum levels.
If we try and use either one of them to attend to the business that the other is intended for—disaster ensues.
For instance, no matter how well intentioned, if someone shouts at you, ‘Get to the T,’ just as you finish hitting a ball, it is a terrible disservice because it results in your primary focus being directed away from the ball (your immediate focus and lifeline) toward something in the environment (a piece of red paint) at precisely the moment that your guard needs to be up and operating at 100%—the very moment that your opponent is going to strike the next ball.
Equally if you try and use your peripheral awareness to track the ball, you will find that with the ball in the ‘periphery’ of your attention it is extremely easy for a deceptive player to disconnect you with the ball. Hence facing the front wall and trying to watch a ball out of the corner of your eye is a disaster as any minor fake of a cross-court which actually goes down the wall will result in you completely losing the ball.
So to be clear, primary focus must attend to the ball with your mind, body and emotions at all times.
Peripheral awareness must constantly scan the environment to ensure you always know your location and (in so far as is possible) your opponent’s location in the court.
And the two systems must never ever switch responsibilities.
Thus we come to the main point of this article—where your balance and weight are focused and therefore carried by you.
What is the primary responsibility of each individual step that you take on the squash court—before or after the ball is struck by either yourself or your opponent?
If you answered, “Getting into position,” you have described an important priority but not the most important priority and, in fact, if you allow “Getting into position” to become a primary instead of secondary concern you will very quickly have a disaster and lose your connection and, therefore, your ‘Squash life’ in that rally.
In fact the primary responsibility of each individual step you take on a Squash court is to maintain your connection with the ball.
Over and above “Getting into position,” which is something that your peripheral awareness will give you guidance for without momentarily removing your balance from leaning toward your lifeline—the ball.
Over and above, “Getting out of the way” or “Clearing” —both of which are seriously flawed concepts and make no logical sense whatsoever, as they have you working on your opponent’s behalf instead of your own and result from moving too late, or without having considered how much time you need to work on your own behalf to get into position before your opponent can strike the ball.
(Never try and “Get out of the way” or “Clear.” Instead always try and start your movement from your shot into position for the next shot fractionally before you hit the ball instead of after you finish your shot-remembering your first priority of, step by step, maintaining your connection with the ball. The results are similar except you are working for you and not your opponent. If you are late off of the ball, make sure you still keep your connection with the ball and don’t start charging off in the opposite direction in your attempts to give your opponent a fair view. It makes no difference whether you are leaning away from the ball or toward it. In the way is in the way. So you may as well keep your physical, mental, and emotional focus on the ball.)
Your body weight must always lean toward the ball, although your movement must offer you equal coverage of all of your opponent’s possible choices of shot from the location that they opt to intercept the ball. This will vary greatly according to how early the opponent intercepts the ball.
There is no rule in Squash that says your opponent must let you get to an ideal position before hitting their next shot.
Nor is there a rule that you have to go to an arbitrary spot that you have been told is an ideal spot, before you retrieve the ball.
When the ball goes, you have to respond and plan your approach and next shot from wherever you happen to be when the ball is intercepted.
Imagine you’ve had to retrieve a ball from the front right corner and you are now recovering.
Where should your mental, physical and emotional focus be?
On the ball of course—not on ‘the T’. Otherwise if some sneaky opponent creeps up and plays a severely early drop volley, you will be merrily on your way to ‘the T’ while the ball is traveling in the opposite direction.
On the other hand if each step of your recovery maintains your body weight leaning toward the ball, with the concept of getting into position being an important but secondary consideration, and your opponent intercepts early—your weight and balance having never left the ball—will allow you to immediately respond instead of falling backwards in surprise toward the T.
You must of course monitor your position in the court, but never at the cost of your relationship with the ball.
To achieve this your head must always be leaning on the ball side of your fulcrum point—the balance point that is where your center of balance would be if you weren’t leaning in any particular direction. If your head is on the opposite side of the fulcrum—then your relationship with the ball and your ‘Squash life’, will be vulnerable.
In order to maintain the physical balance toward the ball make sure you are on the ‘balls’ of your feet or on your toes, leaning slightly towards the direction of the ball, but absolutely prepared to accept that the ball could go anywhere.
You must not, however, sacrifice your ability to defend the entire court and, in order to achieve both a continuous relationship with the ball and your defensive coverage of the entire court, you must learn to move into a defensive position while maintaining your connection with the ball.
Remembering that your interest in defending the court/getting into position must never supersede your connection (mental, physical and emotional attachment) to the ball, you must learn to transition from being the ‘striker of the ball’ instantaneously to being the ‘hunter of the ball’.
To do this you must keep your weight inclined toward the ball as you and it both continue to move, but you must smoothly organize for your right foot to cover the defense of the right-hand-side of the court, while your left foot covers the entire left-hand-side of the court.
Hence if the ball is on the right, your right foot will be directed toward it with your left foot poised and balanced on your left side, to cover the left side of the court and if the ball is on the left the vice-versa.
Your weight is always maintained on the balls of your feet, inclined toward wherever the ball is at any given moment.
To really see this demonstrated with extraordinary polish go to ‘Youtube’ and watch any videos of the legendary Jahangir Khan. This giant of the game was the epitome of a hunting cat—ever poised with his entire being held in proactive attentiveness, awaiting the opponent’s strike of the ball and the opportunity to pounce!
To develop and practice your physical connection with the ball, have a partner or coach who has excellent feeding skills do the following drill with you.
1. Begin in the middle of the court with your feeder behind you in your forehand back corner.
2. The feeder can hit any ball into the front three quarters of the court.
3. You must keep the rally alive while always returning the ball to the back forehand quarter (where the feeder is standing).
4. Have the feeder start out kindly and become progressively nastier—sneaking up behind you to intercept your shots early and using deception to attempt to separate you from the ball.
If the rally breaks down, think how the disconnection has occurred and try and improve your connectivity in the next rally.
Be sure to consider the time you are creating for yourself with the pace of your shots, where your body weight is leaning at all times, whether the primary focus of each individual step you take is to keep your connection with the ball and whether you are smoothly transitioning from ‘striker’ to ‘hunter’ adopting the ‘hunting position’ with your left foot covering the left side and your right foot covering the right side—always with your weight towards wherever the ball is at all times.
Good luck and practice hard!