Compounding Time and Pressure

By Richard Millman

In the recent FS Investments U.S. Open at Drexel University, the final between Ali Farag and Mohamed ElShorbagy was spectacular, stylish, extreme, athletic, skilled and strategic. It was instructional on many fronts.

Time is the commodity in which we chiefly deal in our sport. There are multiple systems and methods of managing time on a squash court: from our movement efficiency and technique; to how early we prepare the racquet and thereby read the ball’s movement; to our physical fitness and or fatigue; to our capacity to maintain our attention on the ball; to the pace that we elect to hit the ball; to the accuracy with which we hit the ball; to the relevance of the shot selection we make.

All of the above are variables that we can use to manage time. There are so many of them, that it is difficult to observe their skilled usage in a world-class tournament match unless you know what to look for. In fact it is far easier to see when they haven’t been used than when they have.

In the U.S. Open final, it became apparent to spectators that, towards the end of the match, ElShorbagy became so disconsolate with his inability to make progress that he almost gave up—something that is not in his DNA. The reason for his frustration was that he simply didn’t know how to make progress against Farag. In his desperation, he started trying to force the issue, which resulted in him trying for too much and making mistakes or leaving himself desperately out of position.

As I sat very close to the court watching this uniquely instructive squash match, I conducted a small experiment that I would recommend to everyone to try. What I did was to for eight or nine rallies carefully watch and note Farag’s physical behavior and attitude when ElShorbagy struck the ball and then reverse the experiment to note ElShorbagy’s physical behavior and attitude when Farag struck the ball.

The results were striking.

Almost without exception Farag was on his toes, actively hunting and waiting for ElShorbagy to hit the ball before ElShorbagy hit it. When I reversed the experiment, although ElShorbagy was often ready and waiting, he also frequently wasn’t able to get ready and waiting before Farag played his shot. ElShorbagy quite regularly wasn’t even primarily interested in being ready for Farag’s next shot as he was so invested in trying to hurt Farag with his own shot that he over-invested in his own shot and the time he spent on it, to the detriment of his ability to be ready for Farag’s next shot.

Farag’s prioritization of tasks is unshakeable: he wanted to make sure he could be in position (hunting) before his opponent hit his shot—always. He never let his desire to hurt his opponent supersede his own care in looking after himself. The result of this prioritization was an extraordinary compounding of pressure and time which had an incredible effect.

Imagine you and I are playing, and I move into position to defend the entire court before you are able to hit your shot. Let’s say I am ready 2/100 of a second before you play. Then let’s say you play your shot and I am able to intercept your shot 2/100 of a second before you recover. You are now 4/100 of a second off the pace of the game.

Not much huh? Except if I can do that consistently and compound the effect, after fifty shots I would be a full second ahead and you would be a full second behind—more than enough for a ball to bounce twice before you get there.

And imagine that you didn’t know why this was happening and yet you could feel it happening to you, even though you are really fit and have great technique.

How would you feel if, despite every endeavor, it seemed as though I was always ready before you could hit your shot and that I was always playing my shot before you were you were able to recover?

You’d feel like Mohamed ElShorbagy. And not in a good way.