By Richard Millman
Our wonderful game is filled with nuance and subtlety—enough to last a lifetime.
As you work on developing your game, especially if you are fortunate enough to have access to an expert coach, you will often spend time working on the finer details and challenging techniques.
Equally, you will be confronted by competitive matches where you feel that you need to dig deep into your resources in order to give your best and do that thing integral to the survival of human kind—namely, trying.
Over the eons humans have developed a response to these situations where we are confronted with a challenging test and are required to try.
It is called the fight-or-flight response, and typically results in us requiring massive energy and strength.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always beneficial in squash when it comes to learning and executing subtle technical skills, or indeed, in competition when we need to deliver precise control.
When you are working on a new skill or playing a competitive match, here are some important tips that will help you to be successful:
1. Learn to separate mental effort from physical effort
A subtle skill requires great mental focus in combination with relaxation. Often when we try hard, the resulting effort produces muscle tension that desensitizes the body, replacing sensitivity with locked, contracted muscle that cannot produce the fine control required. Take care to monitor your muscular tension while learning and practicing new skills.
2. Breathe! Another unfortunate side effect when confronting a demanding challenge is the tendency to hold one’s breath. This also results in unhelpful tension and in addition will increase the rate of fatigue that the athlete experiences.
A little simple research into good breathing techniques and mantras can help to remove this unhelpful tendency: http://www.perfectbreathing.com/better-breathing-athletes/ and http://greatist.com/fitness/most-inspiring-health-and-fitness-mantras.
3. Attack with relaxed precision! The very word “attack” can lead to muscular tension as the excitement of the moment pumps the body full of adrenalin. But, as everyone knows, a muscle that is already contracted cannot contract further. This is a particular problem during drop shots, drop volleys, volley boasts and volley kills. All of these shots require a high degree of accuracy and control. Tightening up when attempting these shots is a sure way to produce an error.
4. Let your legs do the heavy work! However much you want to transfer your bodyweight into a shot, use muscles that are designed to work with a heavy load—your legs.
In addition, when players like Ramy Ashour and Nick Matthew use their legs, not only do they alleviate the tension on their arms, but their movement to a strategically advantageous position is also much earlier than those that start their movement after they begin their swing. Most errors result from the wrong sequence of the use of the legs and the arms and the resulting negative muscular tension that debilitates fine motor skills.
Leave your fine control machinery such as arms, wrists, hands and fingers relaxed so that you can feel. Once these tools tense up, you can no longer control their output or—equally important—the feedback they receive on contact, from which you can divine important information for subtly developing your skills.
Work on separating physical effort and mental focus.
Monitor your muscular tension and breathing.
Develop good breathing habits.
Find a mantra that helps you to relax and focus.
Use your legs for the heavy work and your arms, wrists, hands and fingers for the fine control.
Commit to this process for ten to twelve weeks and I think you will be surprised at how your skill development and competitive control will improve!