Movement of the Week: Squash!

The movement of the week is about squash! I love squash, and like most squash players, I would give my left arm to be a better player. Squash is one of those things like surfing or rock climbing or fly fishing that hard core fans get so geeked up about that non fans have a tough time understanding why there is such a fuss. So if you get that impression at some point during this blog post, that's might be why. And with that disclaimer in mind, here's a vid to show you what it looks like.

But first I should give a quick rundown of the rules. Like tennis, you have to hit the ball before it bounces twice on the floor, and you have to hit the ball over a "net", which is the red line on the front wall about two feet above the floor. Unlike tennis, you can hit the ball off the side walls as much as you like.

Below is a good rally between two guys who were formerly ranked #1 in the world, Thierry Lincou and Gregory Gaultier:

Cool right?

I could go on and on about what is going on out there, but to narrow it down a little, I thought I would give a short history of what happens on every point, from the time when one player is waiting for the other player to hit the ball, to the time when the first player returns the shot. I'll try to focus on the facets of the game which are really universal principles of good movement in any sporting context.

1. Relaxed and ready

So you've just hit a shot and now need to get ready to retrieve your opponent's shot. To do that you want to be standing near the middle of the court, which is called the "T". From here you have the best chance to retrieve a ball hit to any of the four corners of the court, which is where your opponent will be trying to make you run. But you won't know which one until he commits himself, so you need to be ready to move in any direction with a minimum of hesitation or other preparatory movement. To do this, your ready position should incorporate all the elements of good posture. Perhaps counterintuitively, this requires that you be pretty relaxed, and you can see from the vid that players are quite relaxed when they are waiting for the next shot.

2. Reading the game - visual processing and anticipation

While you are waiting on the T you need to figure out where the ball is going to be in the next couple of microseconds. This one of the most highly developed skills that elite players have - the ability to know where the ball is going at the earliest possible moment. I am not talking here about the ability to see the ball clearly with 20/20 vision. Far more important is the ability to process and interpret the meaning of that data and make a good prediction about where the ball will be in the very near future.

The most complex and important visual cues to interpret are the movements of your opponent immediately before hitting the ball. In other words, you need to be able to read body language. This skill is absolutely critical in all sports and is just as important as the actual tracking of the ball through space.

For example, major league baseball hitters need to react to a pitch so quickly that they need to make the decision of whether or not to swing (and where to swing) almost as soon as the ball leaves the pitcher's hand. Some of the best information about where the ball will go comes from the body language of the pitcher - the position of the shoulders, the angle of release, etc. The same is true for tennis players returning serve. Studies show that if you hide the upper body of a pitcher or server from a batter or serve returner, their chances of making contact are massively reduced. This is part of the reason why Eddie "the King" Feigner, a famous underhand softball pitcher from the 1950s was able to strike out six of the top major league baseball players of the era in a row. When he was 42. The major leaguers were the best batsmen in the world, but underperformed experienced softball batters, because they had no experience reading the body language of an underhand pitcher.

I have seen the same thing happen on a squash court. Elite athletes with amazing speed, vision and agility cannot retrieve balls anywhere near as well as fat middle aged guys who have prior squash experience. Like most sports, squash is not just about good reactions, its about good predictions. In other words, most of getting to the ball happens before it is even hit.

And it is for this reason that the player hitting the ball has a very large incentive to be "unreadable" as the ball is struck. This is done in several ways. Although squash involves quite a bit of active deception such as faking, most of the disguise used by players is created simply by preparing to hit the ball in a way that leaves all their options open until last possible second. That means having the body well balanced and organized so that the center of gravity is over the base of support, the head is free and relaxed, the body is coiled into a powerful twist, and the ball is located right in the wheelhouse of the swing.

Similar principles apply in all ball sports. When you are trying to defend a guy who gives you visual indications that he has the organization to move in any direction with a minimum of hesitation and preparation, you need to step back and give him some space and respect. In squash, when a good opponent is well prepared to hit the ball anywhere, you have no idea what is about to happen and that is a very bad feeling. You won't feel so relaxed waiting for the ball, and you might mistime your split step, as explained below.

3. The split step

In the instant before you start moving to retrieve the ball, whether right, left, forward or back, you will typically hop a little and then land in what is called a split step - a quarter squat position with the feet about shoulder width apart. The reason for the split step is that it puts all the muscles that will soon be propelling you to the ball on a mild stretch, which helps them explode with greater power in the next microsecond. (This is called the stretch reflex.)

The split step needs to be timed properly - if you move into it too early, before the opponent has committed to hitting the ball to a particular area, then you will come out of it with no idea where to go, which often results in a loss of balance and immediate loss of the point. That can look something like this:

Did you notice how the guy with the dark shorts lost the point because he stumbled? That was caused by his opponent using one of the major deceptive strategies in hitting the ball - use of a brief delay or "hold." This means that you fully prepare to hit the shot by taking the racquet back, then hesitate for just a microbeat before moving the racket forward to hit the ball. In this case, the minor delay used by Jonathon Power caused his opponent Amr Shabana to split step just a bit early, which broke his rhythm and caused him to lose balance. (If I played either one of those guys that would happen on almost every shot.)

4. Moving to the ball

OK you've read your opponent correctly and timed your split step. Now you need to move over to the ball and get ready to hit it. You accelerate a few steps to the ball and then it's already time to start decelerating. Squash players do not "run through the ball" as tennis players do - in other words, at the time they hit the ball, they have already stopped their center of gravity from moving to the ball so that it is prepared to begin moving back to the center of the court after the ball is struck.

In order to accomplish this change of direction, you will need to do a lot of lunging, especially when the ball is low to the floor which is like every other shot. What I am getting at here is that squash is probably the best way in the world to get an amazingly sore ass. Believe me it is miserable. Check out the amazing lunge by Greg Gaultier at exactly 1:03 of the first video. The announcer cringes a little. That stuff hurts.

But as much as the heavy lunging in squash is just a nightmare, it is also very elegant to watch when done properly. One thing I find very aesthetically pleasing about the reaching lunge is the use of the non racquet arm to counterbalance the weight of the reaching racquet arm. As you can see, especially in the above video with Lincou, the left arm extends back as the right goes forward to counterbalance. Very graceful. And a good reason that my plan to trade my left arm for a better game will never work.

OK its time to end this post. But first, here is a collection of some good rallies from a 2003 tournament with some of the best players in the world. Enjoy, and see if you can notice some of the points I mentioned above.

If you made it this far you are a champion! Feel free to ask questions below.

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