The first time on court against new players creates a lot of emotions; nerves, excitement, curiosity, confidence, doubt, and hope, to name but a few. For some players those emotions, plus the challenge and hopefully the win is what makes squash fun for them. A few players thrive in that sort of environment and others fade. Assuming that team matches and graded tournaments pit players against each other who are very similar standards, those matches can really test your mindset and mental strength.
I knew a guy who won 90% of his first matches against new opponents, but them lost 90% of the follow up matches. It was fascinating. Let’s call him Jack for the sake of this article.
What skill set did he have that made him so successful the first time he played anybody? BTW, those 90% figures are just estimates. But he really did win an overwhelming number of first encounters and then lost most of the rest. He was the perfect team player for either the first or second have of the season, but not the whole season!
I wish I had paid more attention to him in the years I knew him. I might have learnt a lot about squash in a short space of time. Anyway, here are some thoughts about what I think happened.
Not this Jack
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Set The Tone – Part 1
The first thing he did was “set the tone”. In this context it means he decided what happened in the knock up and first game. For example, he always got on court first and was the first to hit the ball, and always three or four shots to himself. Next, when asked if he were ready to swap sides he would say “no, just a couple of hits more”. Then switch sides when he was ready. He spun the racket to decide serve – obviously he didn’t win the spin every time, but he was in control of the spin. Next he decided when he was ready to either serve or receive. Still within politeness, but in HIS time.
It took me a while to understand that he wasn’t trying to “psyche out” his opponents or be domineering, he was doing it for himself. He wanted to feel in control. It gave him confidence. Some opponents might have been slightly intimidated by it and that was a by-product.
Set The Tone – Part 2
Once the first serve came, the next thing he did was give 100% on every single point of the first game.He played sensible squash, never panicked and kept the ball mostly to the back. He hit the ball quite hard, but not as hard as he could and played as if it was a one-game match.
Now you would think that the above paragraph is true of everybody and in all games, but the reality is that it’s not. Players sometimes give up points when they see they have lost it, players give up games when it seems they can’t win, for example being 2-8 down. Players go for winners when leading thinking they can afford to lose a point or two, players play all their best shots in the first game. Players play a huge variety of shots too. In short, for them, the first game is a chance to learn about their opponent and try a few things out.
Nor this one, although it would be fun watching Jack Sparrow play squash!
Not jack, oh no. Jack just wanted his opponent to lose the first game, not him win it. At least that’s what it seemed like. Often Jack’s first games when longer than any others that night. He didn’t always win them, but probably most and if you can win more games than you lose, then you probably win more matches than you lose and as boring as that sounds, that’s part of being a great player – winning!
Keep The Tone Going
With the first game over, won or lost, Jack just kept going in the same vein. He imposed his tone of his opponents. Let’s be clear, and sorry Jack, but his shots weren’t that great. But his approach and mindset were like waves on a shore – never ending, eventually they would win.
If he lost the first game, then he did lose some confidence, but worked just as hard to keep things simple, and play his game. If he won the first game, then his confidence was high and he plowed on. His victories were all about strength of character rather than great shots. He rarely won matches in five games. Either three-love or three-one, but almost never three-two. He gave all his effort in the first four games. The idea of “saving himself” in a game never entered his mind.
But What About His Actual Squash?
Jack was competent at everything. he didn’t have a signature shot, didn’t play many nicks and rarely hit flashy shots. He was “good” at everything, but not “great” at anything. Players didn’t really work out how to beat him until it was too late. That’s why the second time he played people they had the advantage.
His swing was fine, no weirdness that made it difficult to guess where he was hitting his shots. He rarely played volleys, except of service returns, which he always volleyed – I attribute that to being “on his terms”. His boasts were ok, his straight drops were tight and soft. In short, he did everything textbook style and there lies the key.
Nor this one. Although I suspect his enthusiasm would compenstate for any lack of technique!
His Achilles’ Heel
Jack had no flair, no imagination, no disguise or deception. I say that with kindness because I am very much like jack, and no, I’m not Jack. When players first played him, they kept thinking he was lulling them into a false sense of security. Kept expecting that last-moment flick across the court when playing a drop shot. Kept expecting something that never arrived.
To beat Jack all you had to do was understand the best percentage shot and cover that, because that’s what Jack played. Jack was predictable, but his shots were good enough to still make life difficult for every opponent. Many people beat Jack second time around, but few beat him easily.
Don’t over-think gameplans, tactics, mind-games etc, especially when first playing a new opponent. We often try to impress opponents with our great shots, especially in the knock up – you often see it; people showing off their kills. Jack never did that and was oblivious to it when opponents did it to him.
Keep it simple, play YOUR game and fight for every single f*%king point.
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