Getting to ONE

By Damon Leedale-Brown, Sports Scientist &Conditioning Specialist

In this edition I wanted to share with the readers an article that was written for the Tournament of Champions event brochure in January this year following an interview I had with Beth Rasin—the associate tournament director. The article was simply titled “Getting to ONE”:

What does it take to be the No. 1 player in squash? In any generation, there are usually a number of players who have the requisite racquet skills and athletic prowess to be contenders, but ultimately there are only a very few who get to the top of the rankings and stay there for any length of time. Damon Leedale-Brown, currently the US Squash Head of Sports Science & Conditioning and Director of Squash at Penn Charter School, and formerly the Lead Sports Scientist and Conditioning Specialist for England Squash, has worked closely with Tournament of Champions top seed James Willstrop since he was 15 years old. Damon shares some insights on James’ journey to the No. 1 spot in the PSA rankings, to which he first ascended in December 2011 and where he remained for all but one month in 2012.

James Willstrop (L), with his 6’4” frame, has put in a tremendous amount of work off-court to help him  become quicker and more efficient at changing direction. He also played a number of sports as a junior athlete rather than just squash.

James Willstrop (L), with his 6’4” frame, has put in a tremendous amount of work off-court to help him become quicker and more efficient at changing direction. He also played a number of sports as a junior athlete rather than just squash.

“From an early age a major focus of my training with James was to develop his ability
to control his size on court—at 6’4” he is one of the tallest players on tour. On court the key areas we worked on using very specific and tailored movement and agility drills were acceleration off the mark, deceleration and control of movement onto the ball, and exercises to improve his ability to change direction—especially laterally. A tall player can easily be exposed on court by balls moving low and fast across their body so we designed many different drills with and without the ball that focused on rapid turning and twisting movements to help James respond quickly to pressure situations in all areas of the court,” Brown explains.

A strong foundation in strength and power training off court was introduced from the start of our training together, designed specifically to improve overall athleticism on court and compliment the movement skills work. The strength sessions were always based around sound principles of athletic training with attention placed on correct form and technique to promote optimal body health alongside performance enhancement on court. James would be the first to tell you that he never once did a bench press or arm curl!, and that every single exercise was done for a reason—to make him a better athlete and squash player.

“James is incredibly diligent,” says Damon. “He is very detail-orientated in every aspect of his training and preparation including his diet, ensuring optimal recovery and regeneration between hard training days, rigorously performing pre-habilitation exercises that help maintain body health during key competition phases. 100% focus goes into every one of his training sessions whether an on-court skills practice session or one of many brutal off-court interval sessions— what James would phrase ‘getting to the bottom of himself!’”

The match that propelled James to the No. 1 ranking was his 2011 PSA Masters final in India against Gregory Gaultier, a 90-minute marathon in which Willstrop lost the first game 21-19 after 58 minutes of play, but nonetheless had the necessary reserves of stamina and strength to win the match. “That match truly represented the culmination of years of diligent and focused training, on court and off,” says Leedale-Brown. “It was the combination of James’ passion for
squash, superior racquet skills and dedicated, multi-faceted training program over the course of 15 years that got him to No. 1 and kept him there for nearly all of 2012.”

In my previous article I discussed the physical and mental risks of overly structured early specialization in sports. So how can we relate these concepts to the path that James took to becoming the World No. 1 squash player?

Although James played squash from a very early age, the majority of learning in his initial years was in less structured environments—simply spending time on court playing and being given the freedom to explore and develop his skills and understanding of the game.

As a junior any structured coaching was nearly always under the guidance of his father and coach Malcolm Willstrop in group-based sessions which had a large emphasis on the social and fun side of being involved in the sport as a youngster. In James’ book Shot and a Ghost (which is well worth a read) he quotes, “Few 10 year olds want to be doing tiring and technically based one-to-one lessons repeatedly. They get more out of playing and interacting with their friends, and the hours the kids spend training this way means they hit more balls and improve quicker without the process becoming dull!”

Through his father’s approach to coaching James learned to get the best out of practice with players of varying standards. There was never any sense of hierarchy in Malcolm’s sessions, and Malcolm prided himself on mixing players together. Even to this day James might occasionally
be put on court with a 12 year old who is feeding him the ball, and is quick to remember that as a 12 year old he was lucky enough to practice with players of a far superior standard.

James’ passion for squash was developed at an early age through a nurturing environment where the emphasis was on respectful behavior and sportsmanship, and trying to do things to the best of your ability irrespective of any specific outcome or result.

James continued to play many other sports through school alongside his ongoing development as a squash player.

I hope the last two articles have provided an interesting insight into the potential dangers of early specialization and structure in sport, along with some of the elements that help create a pathway towards success at the very highest level in sport.

Damon is a sports performance specialist and professional squash coach with over 15 years experience training elite athletes and coaches. Damon led the sports science programs with England Squash for over 10 years, and trained 8 World Championship winning teams and 3 Individual World Champions. He works as a consultant coach to professional players including
World No. 1 James Willstrop, and over the past year has been Head Coach & Director of the Dutch Squash National Program. In the US he has recently taken on a new position as Director of Squash at Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, and balances this alongside training many top national junior players, and his position as Promotions Manager for Prince Squash.

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