Archive for the ‘squash’ Category

Squash: Eye on the ball or eye on the wall?

July 5th, 2016 No comments

Eye on the ball!

I’ve noticed that a lot of squash players at my level, after we hit a shot, we tend to fix our gaze on the front wall, effectively presenting our lovely backside to our opponent.

Why do we do this? Well, I think that we want to see where the ball hits the front wall so we can react to it in time. We know that the ball has to hit the front wall to stay live: if it misses the front wall, it’s dead, we’ve won the point, and it’s no longer our concern. So staring at the front seems to be a percentage play, no?

Speaking for myself, I’ve thought that if I didn’t stare at the front wall after my shot, but instead watched my shot go back to the opponent (now called the “striker”), I’d have to swing my gaze from the striker to the front wall, and there would be some kind of delay as I oriented my gaze to the front wall.

This is not so.

There are at least two advantages to keeping our eye on the ball, and following it all the time:

  • we know where the ball is, and don’t have to “re-acquire” it. If we fix our gaze on the front wall before the ball is actually there, we do not know where the ball is, and we need to re-orient ourselves to the ball as it enters our front-gazing view. This re-orienting delays our response to the ball.
  • we now have some information on how the striker will hit the ball. We can see the angles of the feet, where the striker is looking, what kind of backswing is being used … all of that. Sure, a good striker can still fool us, but if we’re staring at the wall, the striker can do anything and doesn’t have to camouflage their intent.

So. As the books and coaches say: eye on the ball. Watch the striker.

Now, this counts when you’re the striker as well. Sure, you must watch the ball, but if you can, send an eye over to the opponent. Where are they? Are they committing one way or the other? Where are they not? That information can inform your shot, yes?

Just to put a bit of nuance on this … we want to watch the ball and the other player. I wonder if the balance of what to watch is weighed differently, depending on whether you’re the striker or not?  Say, as the striker, you watch the ball more than the opponent, and when you’re the opponent, you watch the striker more than the ball? Discuss.

Image credit: The Racket Shop
(By the way: friggin’ wear safety glasses! Squash balls fit quite well into eye sockets!)

Categories: squash Tags:

Effortless Effort

October 4th, 2010 No comments

You hear about “effortless effort” a lot in the martial arts.

Sure, it’s nice and poetic, but I think that poetry in instruction is only useful after the student has already grasped the term, as a sort of mnemonic. I’ve seen teachers who use terms like that, then merely repeat them when the student asks for clarification, and to perpetuate that teaching technique, I’ve seen students who’ve repeated the instruction as if the poetry of it makes the meaning and application clearer: “oh, I get it! Effortless effort!”

Here’s my attempt at clarifying “effortless effort”, for your consideration: “effective and efficient execution without unnecessary strain”. I’ll try to clarify the apparently contradictory meanings of “effort”: the teacher wants you to practice and pay attention (effort 1) but he/she also doesn’t want you to stress and strain (effort 2), using the wrong methods to achieve the desired result.

For example, in squash, our desired result is to swing the racquet naturally, without getting in our own way and messing up that natural swing by pushing the racquet or muscling the racquet (effort 2). Instead, we should relax and let the racquet swing. Of course, we still need to pay attention and practice (effort 1) in order to improve while in the training phase. This probably holds true for golf and baseball as well as just about any sport that involves a swing with the arm or leg. The result of this should be that we make the best shot we can, without (as previously mentioned), getting in our own way.

When we stress and strain, we get in the way of natural function by tensing muscles unnecessarily. Unfortunately, this is often the result of taking our training so seriously that we invoke feelings of fear or anger, essentially turning this into a life-or-death situation. This is where meditation comes in, to help calm us down, but more on that later.

Another meaning of the desired effort might be simply “doing”, or “action”. “Effortless effort” could mean “stress-free action”, in other words.

Does that make sense?

And … loving it!

May 21st, 2010 No comments

I found a good way to stroke the ball better in squash: pretend I actually like to play squash. Then it feels more natural and more fun. It actually brought back a childhood feeling of play, with no thoughts of proper form or fear of negative evaluation by some authority figure … or myself. It was fun. It reminds me of the Nike commercial showing Tiger Woods bouncing the ball on his club — why would anyone practice that if it weren’t fun? And look where it led him … golf-wise.

This is another mental cue helping lead the student toward the no-mind state. Of course, it’s necessary to be mindful in the training up to that point, but the occasional foray into no-mind state can be quite beneficial. For example, I believe that all music students should be allowed to occasionally venture into a state of play between the more disciplined practice sessions. This would lead the student to develop the ear, something that’s especially important for jazz musicians.

Work hard, have fun. Refine and repeat, no?

Categories: interdisciplinary, squash Tags:

Got a grip?

January 25th, 2010 1 comment

I like it when East meets West. Or when squash meets Tai Chi.

Here’s a description of the squash grip, from Smart Squash, by Austin M. Francis: “My first squash coach used to quote one of the great French masters of the foil (as in fencing) who said he held his instrument like “un petit oiseau” — firmly enough so it couldn’t fly away but gently so he wouldn’t crush it The lesson my coach conveyed was how important it is to begin the point with a firm but relaxed connection between you and your racquet “.

And for the East, Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming, in his book Taiji Sword, Classical Yang Style writes: If the grip is too tight, you will lose flexibility and inhibit energy flow. If the grip is too loose, you will not be able to wield the sword swiftly … The sword should be held like an egg, neither broken nor dropped. The grip should be alive.”


Categories: East meets West, squash, Tai Chi Tags:

The best technique is no technique.

January 12th, 2010 2 comments

Another squash lesson, another blog post. This time Barb was trying to teach me how to swing the racquet properly so I wouldn’t hit anybody. Haven’t done that yet, so this is a preemptive stroke, as it were.

Once Barb got my swing in the ballpark (or in the court), she basically asked me to relax, use a delicate touch, do less, and just chill. I thought I was relaxed. Go figure. But she was right of course, and the swing improved to the point where I got some nice, relaxed swings out of the lesson. It seems that I get stressed out over doing things right, and that makes me tighten up. So some technique needs to be applied to correct that and bring me back to a natural state. Once in the natural state, everything flows, and no technique is required. Now I don’t have to put my racquet back to a specific position, I should just get it back to a position where it would do some good. And that’s different for each shot, high, low, volley, whatever.

Once reaching that state, the reaction seems to be “oh, is that all? That’s not so hard.” But I need to apply technique to bring me to the state of no technique.

I think this is very “Yiquan”. And very “Alexander” … right, Caprice?

(update: The characters represent “wu wei”, or “non-doing”: an important concept of Taoism.)

The sweet spot

November 4th, 2009 No comments

As I was bashing a little black squash ball about a big white room (not padded) I made a discovery.

As you all know, one gets more pleasure from an activity when one does it well. Although some activities can be pleasurable even when flailing about aimlessly. But enough nostalgia. Coach Barb had once told me that one of the ways to hit the ball well in squash is to feel the ball on the racquet — not to just get rid of it as soon as possible. Give it time to feel the percussion, feel the spring, make it last. When you feel it, you stroke it, you don’t whack it. And she was right (of course), on the odd occasion when I was able to make that happen.

But … that cue (to feel it) didn’t stick with me well enough to ensure consistent success. My fault. So, after many weeks of accidental whacking (don’t go there) I found the cue:

The Sound.

And there it was. Just as a musical instrument has a “center”, a place where you get the best sound out of it by blowing or plucking just right, so does a racquet. They call this the sweet spot, and though tennis pundits seem to spend more time on it than squash pundits, it exists nonetheless.

So, I made the Sound, and made the stroke as a result. Though not yet A-player-worthy (maybe E), a lot of other components of a decent stroke fell into place. Or at least they started to fall into place, since making the sound resonated (sorry) with me, allowing me to practice the other components of the stroke with less stress. If I faltered, I could always come back to the Sound. It was reminiscent of the Jedi mind trick which helped me play trumpet a little better.

What’s the point of this?

Well, there’s more than one way to teach something. Everyone has affinities (e.g. music, golf) which influence the ease with which certain cues resonate with them. For example: I was showing Caprice the Push posture in Tai Chi, which looks like you’re doing a calf stretch, or pushing down a wall. Pretty much. So she could feel the whole-body push, not just a triceps push, I asked her to “inflate her sacrum”. Immediately she got it — whole-body feeling with ease. Now she’s used to being body-conscious and knows what a sacrum is, but that was just the right cue for her. Other teachers might say “drop your tailbone”, “sink your ch’i”, “relax”, “expand”, but in this case, “inflate your sacrum” worked.

So if you’re working on something and having trouble internalizing it, try to find another cue — one that works for you. It could be focusing on a less-used body part (often the sacrum), imitating a marionette, imagining yourself in a fluid, or whatever applies to what you’re doing. Sure, try the existing imagery suggested by your teacher, but feel free to find another. We’re all different, and as adults, it behooves us to take an active interest in our education. Though we may have the best teachers and coaches, they can only go so far.

Categories: fitness, interdisciplinary, squash, Tai Chi Tags:

Mindfulness, part 2

October 14th, 2009 No comments

My squash coach, Barb Cooper, recently shed new light on the concept of mindfulness. She told me that on the court, it’s more important to be mindless, rather than mindful. Of course, she’s right, and this led me to refine my understanding of the two concepts:

1. There are different levels of mindfulness. Depending on the task at hand, too much mindfulness can be detrimental. For example, on the squash court, we need to mindful of the flow of the game, not tonight’s supper. However, in the midst of a point, being mindful of every little detail (stroke, breathing, posture, foot position) can lead to a lousy game. So we need to add a certain amount of mindlessness, or “no-mind”, which is described in Japanese as mushin, or loosely in Chinese as wu-wei (non-doing).

2. We do need to be mindful when training, or when programming new habits. In a coaching, training, or practice session, we can be mindful of a detail on which we are working, such as proper foot position. In a tai chi context, we could choose to be mindful (gently!) of our breath while practicing. Or, if we wanted to create a new walking habit, we would be mindful of walking with our feet slightly closer together to avoid moving from side to side when we walk. Once these habits are ingrained, we don’t need to be mindful of them.

3. I think the general idea is to be mindful of what you are doing at the time. Given that while walking to work, we may be seeing, listening, walking, breathing, holding a coffee, anticipating traffic and so on, we might want to define what it is we’re doing. If “walking to work” is the task at hand (not “thinking about lunch”), then we can choose to be mindful of the group of tasks which come under “walking to work”. This would mean that we would assign different levels of mindfulness to the individual tasks within that group, choosing one as a priority: presumably we can walk pretty well, so being mindful of the direction and surroundings might be assigned the higher level of mindfulness.

The challenge comes whenever we want to change a habit. All of a sudden, we are asking ourselves to focus on something that we haven’t given much thought over the years — such as walking. Recently I realized I needed to change a few things about the way I walked, and wasn’t looking forward to it. I have to change the way I walk? Many people would balk at this, but I thought I’d give it a shot. It takes more work to apply some attention to something habitual, but it’s paying off.

4. As I mentioned, mindlessness is also important. That’s where an action has been programmed into our subconscious to the point where it has become quite natural or reflexive. When we catch a ball, do we think about every detail of how each joint of our arm moves, or how each finger opens then closes? No, we catch the ball. Does a jungle cat think about the details of catching its prey, worrying about proper form? No, it probably thinks “prey there, go now”.

5. One key to aim for  a state of “no-mind” regarding a task is to imagine that you’ve already mastered it and relax. Of course, if you really want to master it, you need to be mindful of it on occasion, but if a detail is distracting you from the task at hand, imagine you’ve mastered that detail for now.

– train mindfully, execute with no-mind. Refine and Repeat.
– be mindful when changing a habit, eventually to perform in a state of no-mind.
– determine the key task at hand, be mindful of it, and enjoy the fruits of it.
– try imagining you’ve mastered a detail (for the time being) if it’s distracting you from the task at hand.

Categories: squash, Tai Chi, Zen-like stuff Tags:

Tai Chi and … squash?

February 14th, 2009 No comments

Yin and Yang are everywhere. The push and pull, give and take  can be found in nature, relationships, negotiations, traffic flow and Tai Chi, of course. But squash?

When I took up squash (seriously) to burn calories and keep potential diabetes at bay, I thought it would complement my Tai Chi by adding something hard and fast to something soft and slow. I also wanted to see what would happen if I brought a Tai Chi player’s perspective to a game generally played by Type A executives.

Then something happened. Barbara Cooper happened. Barb is the Pro at Mayfair Lakeshore club, and The Squash Coach. Not just at the club level, but at the National and World level. We’re damn lucky to have her.  I took a lesson with Barb a few months ago, and aside from the gems she shared with me (in that lesson) that have taken six months (it seems) to gradually incorporate into my game, she showed me a very important thing when stroking the ball:

How to relax.

It was stunning. Instead of tightening up, I should relax into the shot. Drop into it. Use gravity.

Sound familiar?

For anyone who swings a bat, racquet or club for fun, this should come as no surprise. Swing it, don’t push it. Relax. Then comes power. When I relax and stroke the ball, it feels bloody therapeutic. There’s a smooth flow to it. I feel the ball on the strings as it sits there just a little longer, and I get to know the ball. And to have that kind of power without excessive tension … what a revelation.

One more thing. The best position to be on the court is in the center, on a spot called the “T”, because the lines on the court make a “T” there. Naturally, both players want to be there, but they can’t be there at the same time. As a result, they perform a complex dance as they make a shot, retreat to the T, avoid the opponent, make a shot, and so on. When viewing two expert players doing this from above, they remind me of …

… a fluid, dynamic yin/yang symbol.


Categories: interdisciplinary, squash, Tai Chi Tags: