Many years ago, when I played tennis in a little Tennis and Squash Club in north west London, a new player joined the tennis section. He was pretty good and soon started to beat some of the better players. One Sunday afternoon, he faced the club number one and beat him. The number one, was relaxed about the whole thing and simply said he had been working on some aspects of his game. The new player said that he should just accept that he lost and not make excuses.
That was the only time he beat the number 1. He never beat him in the club tournament or club nights. I asked him if it were true that he was working on his game and he told me that practice matches only matter for people’s egos. Sure, we all like to win, but he said he would rather improve during practice matches than “win”. The only time it’s important to win is in real matches. Whether that was bullshit or true, I don’t know, but the lesson has stayed with me these last 35 or so years.
Are these squash players trying to win or improve?
You Either Win Or You Learn
The above phrase is definitely bullshit! Yes, you probably learn more from losing, but you can still learn a lot from winning. The point is that when you are training, you are trying to improve. You can’t “win” drills unless they are scored and not every drill should be scored. When you perform solo drills, you are not trying to “win” rallies. You are focusing on improving your technique, which in turn improves your shots. Take that same attitude into practice matches, club nights etc.
Before you even walk onto court, you should know exactly what you are trying to improve, what you are going to work on and what you hope to achieve at the end of the session, whether that’s with a coach, a partner or even alone.
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What About The Psychological Aspect?
There’s no denying that there is a psychological aspect to practising and some times you should play as seriously as in real matches, but when you think about it, all you are doing is trying to improve your concentration or tactical awareness during those practice matches. Essentially you are focusing on the mental aspect!
Also, there is the element of opponents feeling confident against you if they beat you during practice games, but I believe this is over-thinking things. Just to be clear, I am not suggesting taking practice matches less seriously than real matches, I just want you to focus on different things: improvement over score-success.
Some Realworld Examples
So what kinds of things could you work on during those practice matches? Well, a lot depends on what you have been doing in your training, and ideally it would be something related to that. However, playing less defensive boasts is always a good thing to do, aiming to volley a kittle more than usual is also beneficial. Perhaps playing lobs from the front, even when you are not under pressure. Less crosscourts, better serves, committing to volleying every serve or you lose the point. Honestly, the list goes on, but the previous ideas should be enough to get you started.
If you wanted, you could also be more abstract with things like “Play more shots that open the court up," or more shots that create opportunities. Rush my opponent, or slow the game down. Mental aspects should also be considered, things like “Stay focused during longer rallies” or “not become angry about lets and strokes”.
The question you should ask yourself after these types of sessions is not “Did I win?“, but “Was it beneficial to me in some way?“. Improvement might not always come during matches, so asking “Did I improve?” might not be helpful. Practice matches should not be used to boost your ego, but boost your abilities.
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