Understanding the Human Machine

By Richard Millman

As I have said before, I believe that our sport is in the very early stages of its development and we, its students, are somewhat akin to the doctors of the middle ages, attempting to fathom mysteries as yet un-proven. Hopefully we don’t just bleed or stick leeches on the ills that we, as yet, don’t fully understand. Effectively we are trying to make sense of an extraordinarily complex pursuit that has received relatively little specific empirical research and so we are all dependent on so called ‘ expertise.’
The problem with ‘expertise’ is that relatively little of it is based on empirical logic but rather is based on opinion—albeit experienced opinion.

The Squash game is a game of survival, and the mechanics of propelling a projectile whilst ensuring one’s own survival haven’t changed all that much. One of the most vulnerable times for a human being is whilst they are engaged in attacking. This time, space is sometimes ignored because the attention of the attacker tends to be on attacking and the defensive guard—so essential for survival—is often dropped.

In illustration of this I want to relate a conversation that I had with Hisham Ashour. We were discussing James Willstrop. Hisham told me that he and Ramy always liked it when James went for his backhand dropshot. Strange, you might think—as Willstrop’s drop is possibly the best in the world. However, as Hisham went on to describe, it was at this moment that Willstrop’s guard was at its lowest—as his confidence was at its highest—and so they would look for counter-attack opportunities—knowing that he was less likely to be prepared.

All those hours spent hitting multiple shots with the focus on targeting—without corresponding and pro-active defensive movement—is actually going to decrease your capacity for survival as you are simply enhancing the dropping of your guard. Sir Isaac Newton in his work on motion, gravity, force, acceleration etcetera hit upon a law that is of particular relevance to the competitive sports person, particularly those involved in ball sports and the like. His law: force = mass x acceleration is the one of which I speak. Of course if we look at Newton’s law, this mass will only provide force if accelerated and only then force in proportion to the volume of mass 1) accelerated and 2) accelerated in a controlled/directed manner.

Confidence in his drop shot may leave James Willstrop unprepared for the counter attack.

Confidence in his drop shot may leave James Willstrop unprepared for the counter attack.

Obviously if the mass accelerated is only the mass of the player’s arm then it is going to be a tiny amount of Force as compared with the mass of the entire body. Equally if the mass accelerated is not under the control of the player then the amount of Force potentially available is not going to be so effective. So in order to become an efficient user of your mass and therefore an efficient provider of potential Force, squash players must understand how to manage their mass.

The first step in this process is to understand that old sports concept of ‘weight transference.’ In my experience this idea is only vaguely understood. Here is a simple exercise to help you begin to develop your management of your human machine:

Stand on the court with your feet approximately the width of your shoulders apart, with your knees slightly bent. Then shift most of your weight onto the ball of your right foot. Having controlled your weight on your right foot, push up from the ball of your right foot and shift your entire weight across to the ball of your left foot. Do this repeatedly back and forth in a rhythmic and balanced fashion.

What you are doing is taking control of your “weapon”, the extraordinary force potential of your weight/mass that you have at your potential—if you learn to control and direct it. The force has to be channeled into a dynamic process that is both defensive and offensive. In other words, before you start channeling Force into propelling the ball, you have to channel that force into movement to ensure that by the time whatever shot you choose to use gets to your opponent, you are already positioned to retrieve whatever shot the opponent decides to play.

If you are able to start this acceleration marginally before you strike the ball, you necessarily have brought your mass under balanced control, making your potential force available both for movement and propulsion of the ball—a dynamic process that is actually a SINGLE COMBINED activity—rather than a sequence of two separate events.

You opponent also has a powerful weapon and your assumption must be that your opponent’s weapon will be more than equal to your own. Only with that assumption will you be proactively ready to defend or counter attack the counter attack to your attack. Of course, every once in a while you will be successful—and that unknown is what we are all striving for.

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