By Steve Crandall
Vice President, Sales & Marketing
Ashaway Racket Strings
I was delighted to learn last fall that David Palmer had been named head squash coach at Cornell. Palmer is unquestionably one of the best technicians to ever play the game. I wondered how he would adapt his talents to teaching in a college environment. So when I saw him at Harvard in February for the College Men’s Team Nationals, I asked if we might talk about his new position and the process of developing younger players (and, of course, how proper strings can help).
Steve Crandall: First, David, how are you finding the weather in upstate New York compared to Florida?
David Palmer: A little different from Florida. But it’s been good, a nice transition and a pretty mild winter so far. Overall I’m excited about this long-term opportunity. This first season was a really good learning experience, getting to know the team and the procedures and how college squash works.
SC: You’ll be able to continue your involvement with Black Knight and you’re relocating your squash academy to Ithaca?
DP: Yes, part of the agreement was that I could bring my academy with me and use the facilities at Cornell, which are really good. Long term, I still plan to work with pro players and do the junior summer camps, all based out of Cornell.
SC: How do you find the transition from working with junior players to college age players?
DP: It wasn’t a big transition. I’ve worked with all different ages, with pro players who were eighteen or nineteen, with older, more established guys and also with younger kids. The difference has been in trying to appreciate the system, the training hours and utilizing the time I have with the kids. The biggest challenge has been trying to get the most out of the training time with the kids.
SC: What are you seeing in terms of development needs?
DP: Squash in the U.S. is coming along, in part because US Squash has done a great job. The number of players is growing now, especially in the under-eleven and under-thirteen age ranges. In terms of development, every kid is different. Some are real natural athletes that have played a lot of sports and some are brand new at sports. But at the end of the day it’s about fitness, speed, agility and technique. Technique at an early age is really important. Any kid can learn to play and improve if they work hard enough and are fast enough. But if they don’t have good technique to control the ball and don’t understand the tactical side of the game, then at some point they’re going to get stuck. I’m adamant about technique: racquet technique, proper grip, holding the racquet up, just really the basics. I see a lot of kids who are good because they’ve put a lot of hours in, but a lot of the basic mechanics are missing. And it’s difficult for kids to improve when they get older if they don’t have good technique and a good understanding of the game.
SC: So you start right out working on fundamentals?
DP: Definitely. The grip and the basic swing, hand-eye coordination, body position. I do a lot of skipping and jump rope to get the kids light on their feet. I do a lot of mechanical coordination skills, like catching the ball. I then work on flexibility and movement. At some point the kids will have growth spurts and it’s important to make sure their flexibility and strength is kept up so they don’t get injured.
SC: Do you continue this emphasis right along with college age and pro players?
DP: Yeah, the basics never go away. You look at all the top players in the world. They make the game look easy but if you look at the fundamentals, they’re doing it every single rally, every single shot. And they’re doing it without even realizing they’re doing it because they’ve been taught well from a young age. That muscle memory is what triggers a kid to keep his racquet up, for instance. Most kids hold their racquets down and you need to find something to trigger their brains to keep that racquet up automatically. The pros do it without thinking about it, and it’s about trying to find that trigger for the kids.
SC: What about our favorite topic: string for younger players? Do their stringing needs change as they grow, in terms of the type of string, tension and set-up?
DP: At an early age, when kids are just starting, string is not important. I think a proper racquet is important, nicely balanced, not too heavy and with the right size grip. String comes in a little later, I think around fifteen or so, when they are starting to improve and the skill level is getting better. That’s when they can do more attacking on the court. That’s when string type and tension come into play.
SC: What do you recommend for kids then, a regular nylon string as the most economical until they start developing a better skill set?
DP: Exactly. One big selling point we have for new people getting into the sport is that it’s cost effective: it’s not as expensive to get started in squash compared to other sports. You wouldn’t want to put a thin string into a kid’s racquet, because they tend to mishit or catch the ball on the frame, where a really thin string would break very easily. But as they develop, string can become more of an asset. That’s what is so good about Ashaway. They have such a great diversity of string: colors, styles, types, gauges. I think Ashaway has a real monopoly on the different types of strings they offer. Whatever type of player you are, Ashaway has a string that can fulfill your needs.