Navigating the Mental Game: Enhancing Peak Performance in Squash Through Mindfulness

by Eric Zillmer & Madeline Barlow
Drexel University Sports Performance Center

Squash has specific features that set it apart from other sports. It is very fast, with the squash ball travelling upward of over 100 mph. Your brain must be trained to make instant decisions; the successful competitive squash player must be able to refocus repeatedly, on command.

So, how does this translate into practical sports psychology tips for the everyday squash competitor?

Yogi Berra famously said: “Baseball is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical.” Unfortunately, Yogi had it wrong. From a neuroscience perspective, sports are 100 percent mental and 100 percent physical. One’s emotions and thoughts are connected to one’s behavior and performance all the time. This fact has introduced the concept of mindfulness—traditionally incorporated solely in everyday life—into competitive sports.

Mindfulness means that one is able to fully focus on the moment on purpose.

Mindfulness means not dwelling on the past or worrying about the immediate future. This is easier said than done. Mindfulness requires practice and discipline and is a prerequisite for the ultimate goal of playing in the mythical “zone.” If it were easy to find the mental place where one is at their best, well, we all would go there more often.

You don’t conquer mindfulness. You learn how to visit.

The fact that athletics is all-consuming is, of course, the beauty of sports. Only the moment matters, and some of those moments last a lifetime. But to be the actor in the play is another matter. World-class elite athletes have to be able to stay in the moment even when others are scrutinizing their efforts and performance, and the stakes are incredibly high. How do they do it?  When it matters most, they lock into being 100 percent present. If you waste even a tenth of your abilities worrying about your opponent’s antics and another tenth worrying about the score, you are now operating at only eighty percent.

Mindfulness in squash means that you learn self-awareness of your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths and weaknesses.

Mindfulness meditation starts with taking a second between points or during practice and being aware of your own physical and emotional reactions. Then… letting them float on by, like clouds in the sky, to reset for the next point. When you are aware of your thoughts, you are performing from a center of psychological strength and are better able to manage the way you respond in any given moment.

Practicing mindfulness requires you to focus on what you are experiencing now. Yoga is a form of mindfulness practiced outside of sport. Controlling the moment in squash, shot to shot, will assist your efforts to shape your next point and play at your best. This is more difficult to do when you are fatigued, which is why mindfulness should be practiced so it is robust even under stress.

How can one get closer to visiting the summit of mindfulness?

  • First practice present moment focus
  • Start focusing on what you can control
  • Ask your inner critic to take a seat and use positive self-talk to set the stage for mindfulness
  • Focus on your strengths. What are you good at?
  • Be mindful of your body language

Create a refocusing cue. Find a physical way to acknowledge letting go of cognitive focus on anything but the present. As examples, between squash points you can briefly wipe your hand on the wall, step on the “T” on the court or bounce the ball a number of times before serving. The purpose is to psychologically reset and to be ready to play the next point from a position of strength. Once practiced, you can perform this with a gesture in one second and not hold up the match unnecessarily.

As with all aspects of sport psychology, you don’t start mental squash hygiene when you are competing, but rather when you are practicing. An added benefit of mindfulness is that it is incompatible with performance anxiety. The two cannot coexist. By practicing mindfulness as fully and regularly as you practice your sport, you have the ability to perform at your best and feel good about your game. Then mindfulness becomes a powerful asset in your squash toolbox.