Thursday 12 September 2013

The meta-game of squash

The tactic behind all the tactics - The meta-game.

When playing squash you definitely know how to move and play, also having a general knowledge of the tactics is important.
Yet there are some typically recurring situations that you have to be aware of.
What I'm referring to is not some sort of "content", the actual shots you play or the patterns you use, what I mean is that all squash matches go through some phases which I have identified as the following:

Begin: Study of the opponent.
Development:  Building the game/ Stamina challenge/ Asserting Dominance.
Closure: Keeping the nerves cool.

These are not defined by a specific moment, this are like big picture phases that occur during the game.

Beginning: Study of the opponent

At the early start you players don't know each other and have no idea what to expect. Even when you know a player, you should treat as if you had no idea how he plays, especially during a tournament match.

When studying the opponent you tend to play in a neutral style just to see where the boundaries are, to time your opponent's response time and generally his tactical style.

The two most important things you need to test against your opponent are his skills in being defensive and those at being offensive.
By understanding how he mixes those two facets of his squash you can categorize him as a:
  • Solid player
  • Sneaky player
  • Aggressive player
  • Defensive player
You will also be able to understand if he relies on running in order to keep himself in the game.
This is crucially important because against a great runner you can never take for granted that he is going to get tired, instead you should use the pressure to force some mistakes on him.

Development of the game:

During the development of the game both players will have a pretty accurate idea of how the opponent plays and what are the standard situation that results in a point been scored.
This middle part is where the game is actually played, because little by little one of the players is creating a gap that will inevitably result in him winning.
The gap I'm referring too is not based on the scores, it is a psychological gap.

In fact little by little one of the players is going to get the upper hand on the other not only by scoring more points or having more energy but also by having discovered more of the opponent's weak spots.
This process can be recognize when one of the players has a standard response to a certain situation, by understanding this mechanic you can use it to your advantage since you already know what your opponent is going to do.

At the same time as both players are building the game, another mechanic is taking place: The stamina challenge.

Except in rare occasions one of the players is going to have more stamina than the other. This forces the game into a particular dynamic: One of the players has to play quick points, whilst the other can go on at nauseam.

The fact that one player can last longer than the other will cause the least trained to be more aggressive and try to close more points.
At the same time, being more trained doesn't mean that you are going to be more accurate or smart in game, that's because even if you have more legs or breath you don't necessarily have more focus (even tho breathing properly cause you to have more oxygen in your brain, making you smarter and more accurate) this leaves the other player the chance of reverting the more trained player's advantage by forcing mistakes.

In fact the worst thing a highly trained player can do consists of forcing the rally to speed up.
If you have more stamina you can obviously maintain a high paced rally longer, yet by doing so you will give your opponent a chance to counter attack you and score quickly. Instead if you keep a normal pace and just wait for your opponent to make a mistake you'll have higher chances of winning and you won't risk anything.

On the other hand if you are the least trained player you should try to engage your opponent in quick rallies just to force him to make mistakes, allowing you to score quickly.

Obviously the more trained player will have the upper hand yet you can beat him at his own game by being smart and having great technical skills.

Sealing the deal: Keeping your nerves cool.

This bring us to the end of the match.
This is the time for the clutch comebacks and surprisingly long rallies with players that have no energy with the exception of the will to win.

For a deeply rooted psychological reason the last one or two points of a match have much greater importance than all of the others.

This has to do with our entitlement and our self-image, which determines what we think we should be able to do and what we think we can do.

Entitlement and self-image of course have a great importance throughout the match as they determine how are you going to perform in every moment of the rally.
That's because our mind tend to use concept as beliefs, self-fulfilling prophecies and habits to determine our behaviour.

Another factor is motivation, that is influenced by our skill, our likelihood of winning and our willingness to give it all (which is modulated by self-image and entitlement).

The last and more situational factor are the entitlement criterion: What we think we should have done (and have or haven't done) in order for us to deserve to win.

This are just some concepts that I'm surely going to expand in the future in order to apply them to squash and make sure you get the best out of them.

In the end keeping your nerves cool requires that you have the energy to play and the knowledge (whether it is proved by facts or sustained by belief) that you can do it. And, as always,  the only way to get result is to train and play hard.


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