One way is to run a systematic strength, power, speed and agility training program for our athletes – we know that a good 4-6 week program can improve our athletes speed and power up to 10%.
An alternative and more efficient way however is to work on improving your players’ anticipation. In an on-court field study conducted almost 20 years ago, motor learning specialist Bruce Abernethy demonstrated that “A” squash players initiate movement towards their opponent’s shot before the ball is even struck, while “D” players do not depart until after the ball is struck. This creates a situation where better “anticipators” get the equivalent of a 3-4 meter head start in a short 10 meter race. The conclusion we can draw from this and other scientific studies in the area is that better players rely on pre-impact cues (in other words they anticipate) while lesser players rely more on post-impact cues (i.e., the flight of the ball).
Imagine how quick your players would be around the court if they knew exactly what shot the opponent would play before the ball was struck – especially useful retrieving balls played to the front. It appears that frequently, many of the best anticipators have learned this ability from unstructured observation and play, probably during one of the two golden periods of childhood learning that usually occur before the age of 12-13. Some athletes appear to be naturally very good at anticipation, and respond well to brief verbal coaching to “watch out for this shot when she is here”, or “when the ball is here, he will probably do this”.
Problem: what do we do with the players who do not anticipate well (many or most of our high school, college and even younger national team players) and do not respond to verbal directives to “get on his or her shot quicker”?
The answer is to develop and implement a systematic anticipation training program. The squash-specific learning techniques I have developed are based on following Abernethy’s research over the last 20 years (although he gives no practical information on how to use this research), and the tennis (yes- tennis!) coach training I have received (workshops, courses, manuals) from Louis Cayer, former Canadian Davis Cup Coach recently hired by the LTA to improve their coaching system.
Here are a few of the most effective training tools to improve anticipation:
- Recognize and work on three different types of anticipation: technical – based on pre-impact racquet and body position cues; tactical - based on opponent’s likely shot choices determined by tactical factors like court position and difficulty of the ball or memory of what the opponent tends to do in similar situations; partial – focusing not on what the opponent will do, but on what they cannot do (for example hit a good cross-court off a tight ball that is against the wall).
- Make it a priority to use a “tactics first” approach to your practices, running mostly open training, and minimizing the use of closed drills. Since there is no anticipation or decisions to be made in closed drills (e.g., length only down forehand side) your players cannot improve in this area. Make sure your drills feature options and choices where a player is forced to anticipate and make decisions (length down forehand side with option to boast).
- In every drill or game direct your player’s attention to anticipatory cues such as the opponent’s most likely tactical choices in a given situation, and technical cues from body and racquet position. For example encourage your players to cheat over if they have hit a tight length (forcing them to evaluate the quality of their own shot and their opponent’s options), or in a boast-drive drill, give the player in the front the option to hit a very obvious drop with low racquet preparation (for D or C players), or the option to straight drop or cross-court flick from a low racquet position (B or A players).
- Develop a hierarchy of game or tactical situations, specific to the developmental level of your team or program, where there is a payoff for anticipating well, and integrate this hierarchy into your season or annual training plan.
- Deception and anticipation are two sides of the same coin, so from an early age (or early in the season for older players) encourage and give your players the opportunity to develop their shots and deception so that they automatically improve their anticipation when the play with each other (e.g., conditioned game where you win two points for a wining shot that involves deception).
- Help your players stay relaxed when they they play as this facilitates the “broad-external” focus of attention that is required in order to anticipate well – angry, anxious or frustrated players who are preoccupied with their own thoughts do not anticipate very well – teach them the mental skills to be able to do this.
Remember that despite their best efforts even the best anticipators will occasionally get faked out: