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Sports psychologists talk about "Broad" and "Narrow" focus and I thought it might be helpful if I described how this could relate to squash.
I don't claim this is the only "correct" application of this concept, just one that I have used for a while and am comfortable with.
When considering what "narrow" focus could be for squash, or most racket sports come to that, it's useful to talking about the actual process of hitting the ball.
This includes, the way we move to it, the swing preparation, the swing, watching the ball hit the strings, the follow through and the movement back to the perfect spot - probably the T, but not definitely.
If all you think about at that point is the above, then assuming you do the correct things then you will probably hit the ball well.
Of course, if you don't know how to move or swing, then no matter how well you concentrate on them, you probably won't hit the ball consistently cleanly.
There's a school of thought that says that as your level increases the less you need to focus on these things. They become much more automatic (often referred to as "Muscle Memory") and whilst I agree that it is true, I also believe that you shouldn't "switch off" and go into cruise control.
It's clear to me that generally you will do something better if you are concentrating on it. That's said I am also a big fan of the "Inner Game" under the right circumstances.
After you have actually hit the ball, your attention and focus should switch to your opponent.
Now, before we talk more about that, I'd like to address a misconception, and that is: "Always watch the ball". This is just wrong and I am about to explain why.
As I just mentioned, this is the point when we switch focus to our opponent and that's exactly why we shouldn't watch the ball.
Let's perform a thought experiment for a moment. Imagine playing against an invisible opponent. All you see is the ball flying around. How easy would it be to guess where the ball is going? I would suggest it would be almost impossible to do. You hit a beautiful fading boast and as the ball is getting closer to the sidewall you know at some point it is going to change direction, but unless you can see the opponent, you have no idea when - or more importantly, where it is going until it moves.
Now imagine you can see your opponent but you are playing with a ball that disappears just before a player hits it. The ball re-appears a few milliseconds after it has been hit. You can see the position and swing of your opponent, but not the actual impact.
Which shot do you think you would have more chance of reaching? I am sure you said the second one. That's because the player about to hit the ball can tell you more about where the ball is going than the ball itself.
You could describe what is about to happen as a mini-broadening of focus. After hitting the ball, a player should switch their focus to the general area of the player. Not any particular part of the player but the stance etc.
Think of this as a camera zooming out from the ball itself to a view that includes all the player.
By looking carefully at the player's position, their preparation, the swing, racket position, point of impact etc, you can learn a lot about where the ball is probably going.
Over time, you begin to pick up clues or "tells" if you play poker, about the probable location of the shot.
Rahmat Khan, Jahangir's coach, taught me to watch the hips of a player. He felt that they rarely lied or deceived. With today's rackets being so light and players being able to "flick" their wrist at the last moment, this is perhaps less true, but the point still stands: watching your opponent is very important.
Before I move onto the "Broad" focus, I have one more point to make about watching your opponent hit the ball.
Lower levels of player, look up just before they hit the ball in an attempt to keep the ball in view. By doing this, they give their opponent an early warning system as to where the ball is going.
That's why some players occasionally look the other way to where they hit the ball, hoping to fool you. Ideally, you should almost ignore the head when watching your opponent's shot and focus on other things. Very lastly, that moving of the head causes too much imbalance in players and is yet another reason why you should keep your head still when hitting the ball.
The "Broad" focus is not about "how" but more about "why, where and when". In fact, it's probably best described as strategical and tactical awareness. There are three distinct times you can use this awareness: during a point, after a point and between each game.
Personally, I find it almost impossible to do during a rally - at least to the extent of analyzing my opponent's strengths and weakness, shots I should be avoiding and shots I should be playing more. During a rally, I focus on basic shot selection based on some overarching gameplan, devised previously off court.
What I have had success with recently is a technique I call "What Happened?". After each and every rally, I ask myself that question and try to answer as succinctly as possible.
Over the course of a game, I find patterns emerging, either mistakes I have made or from my opponent. For example, a typical process would be..."What happened? I played a weak boast at the wrong time and he punished me". I am then steeled against hitting more weak boasts.
Be careful though, because you must not dwell on things that have gone wrong. Once you identify what happened, you must forget it and focus on the next rally. For me that's actually very easy because I forget those things almost immediately.
Don't try and keep a running total of mistakes or winners etc, just the fact you have internally verbalized your interpretation of the previous rally is enough. during the match and subconsciously, you will become more and more aware of areas you need to improve or areas to hit the ball into.
At the end of each game is the time for you to review the previous game and decide on your tactics. Many times, no changes are required, just improvement in the quality of shots you play. Perhaps, a greater focus on the Narrow is what is required here.
I hesitate to give you a rule, but avoid changing tactics during a game unless you absolutely HAVE to. Clearly, being flexible about tactics is important, but would you trust yourself to make an important decision about your life in the middle of a squash match?
Many times, you won't be alone between each game and somebody will talk to you. When we think about this, it's clear that they have an even "broader" view of the match than we do.
They see it from outside, without having the pressure of running around and trying to think on our feet. Assuming you trust them - listen to them. They can see things you can't.
Being able to change you tactics based on your opponent, the court conditions, the bad calls etc, is often the difference between winning and losing in hundreds of club matches around the world every day. But how can you make those choices unless you are aware of at least some of what is happening?
This is one aspect of the "Broad" focus but not the only one. It can be applied to training and goal setting too. Thinking about your goals may stop you from eating that last piece of chocolate cake when you shouldn't or give you that kick up the bum when you need to get up early to go for a run.
Focus on the right thing at the right time. When it's your turn to hit the ball, focus on doing it perfectly. When it's your opponent's turn to hit it, focus on them more than the ball.
During the rally, try to make your shot selection early and as part of a previously chosen gameplan.
After each point, very quickly observe what happened and between each game review the gameplan, either alone or with somebody.
Hopefully, this will help you but please feel free to disagree with me about anything. I am always happy to discuss everything I write here.
This was originally published on Squashsite.co.uk on 23rd April 2014
© Copyright 2020 Phillip Marlowe