Thursday, November 19, 2015

2015 Season - As it happened...

The 2015 squash season started out promising. My first match I subbed for the Men’s Level 1 team and played a tough 5 games against a very skilled opponent. I lost, but it was close and I played pretty good.

The following week, I played my first league match at Level 2 against another top player and I was shocked that I was able to compete as Craig is a more skilled and fitter player than me. I went point for point with Craig in the first, but the pace was just too much and I slowed down enough for him to run away with it at 9-9, losing 15-9. The second game I told myself I couldn’t beat him at the back so I had to step up and volley and force him to try and hit it past me, I won 15-4. The next game was more of the same, but I was getting gased and I couldn’t tell if he was getting tired. I could feel my strategy of volleying short deteriorating as I was losing half a step and he was getting the ball past me more, I won with a couple lucky nicks 15-12, but the momentum was clearly swinging back into his favour. The fourth game, he picked up the pace and I was just hanging on, I lost my drive to step up and volley and he was burying me in the back and I was forced to lift the ball and wasn’t applying any pressure but I was fortunate to keep rallies going long enough that I could see he was getting tired too. He won 15-13 and I could see that both of us were struggling. The fifth game was purely mental, rallies were short and both of us were trying to end points too quickly, there was a lot of over hitting and loose balls. I got to 14 first and on match ball I hit a loose ball into the front backhand corner, he got on it early, I had pretty much given up and he smashed it right into the tin. I was shocked, but came away with the win.

The following week, I played the UofC tournament and felt the expectation to win my division. I considered my toughest match to be my first round against Todd. I had never beaten Todd and I was determined to play as good as I could. Every game was close but I won 3-0.

Reflecting back on these 2 wins, I really had no expectation to win, my focus was to play as good as I could and give these guys a match and have a fun… sounds cliché, but these were two of the most fun matches I ever played. I moved well, swung smoothly and didn’t worry about the outcome.

The match I played next I tried really hard to have fun, but started to feel that my opponent was playing balls on the double bounce and fishing for lets/strokes. It took away from the enjoyment of the game and I found myself getting angry and spending way too much energy trying to look like I wasn’t angry. Holding it in was sapping my energy and concentration. That match went 5 and I lost badly in the 5th. This may have been the start of my current slump.

I went on to play for 3rd place against one of my training partners, but it was not a friendly match with lots of pushing and complaining. I hated being on court and I could see that he was more frustrated than I was. I really just tried to get thru it and won 3-1. I played well, but it didn’t feel nice as my opponent was a poor sport, calling my ball down, fishing for strokes and complaining about balls he hit out of bounds.

Next league match was against someone I absolutely despise playing against. He is big, hits hard and low and initiates unnecesary contact, it’s a very physical game against this guy and I really don’t enjoy it. It brings out the worst in me. It doesn’t help when the referee doesn’t understand how to call a stroke on someone who hits the ball back at himself or a no let when they run into you and have no chance at getting to the ball. I lost in 4 and was mentally exhausted for days after this one. I really felt that with an informed referee that a lot of this could be avoided.  Another loss to feed the slump, the worst part is the negative attitude that I can feel growing.

Subbed for level 3 the following week and played a guy I hadn’t beaten before, but felt that I should win. It was right after thanksgiving so I was feeling a sluggish and hoped he was feeling it too. I was striking the ball well, but moving a slow and getting tired. I really did feel the pressure to win as I was subbing down and started getting tight, making poor decisions, and I kept thinking about losing. It was a mentally draining match in that I couldn’t focus on just playing. I lost again in 5 and was so physically and mentally drained afterwards I could barely think.

Next week, I had another shot at the first opponent I played this year. I was excited, I felt great going in, but played terrible, I was over excited. I couldn’t place the ball tight or deep, I was behind on every point and struggled to apply any pressure. I got worked, scores were close but lost 3-0. Definitely psyched myself out in this one, I was trying way too hard, lost my composure and turned into a bash and dasher. Tried to tell myself that my opponent just played way too good, but I can see that my court movement and swing become tight and I overcompensate by doing all the wrong things.

Following week was more of the same. I went in thinking I should win, but I’m playing badly so I’ll probly lose. It was an awful mindset to be in, because I could feel it draining me before the match even started. Rallies were short, and opponent bashed the shit out of the ball and I was not hitting well and was moving slow. Lost 3-1 and came off court frustrated with my performance.

OK, so this leads up to the whole point of this… I was in a slump and I didn’t know what to do to get out of it.    

Here’s what I came up with…

The impossible happens every day and becomes more possible with what might seem like a very small step. The end might not be within sight in the beginning, the road is long and there are wrong turns, detours, traps and obstacles along the way. But the road to impossible is not never ending and the road is only as challenging as you perceive it to be. If the road beats you down, it’s because you let it. If the road exhausts you, demoralizes you, brings you to the brink of insanity, it’s because the road is exactly what you need it to be to reach the impossible. My impossible is to be an open level squash player. Squash includes fitness, racket skill, mental toughness and devotion. So my road to impossible must condition me to improve all of those things. The road will tear me apart so that I can build myself back up stronger. The road for me can end at anytime, and there have been times where I have quit, I’ve stopped pursing the impossible, only to start again, renewed. But recently I’ve realized that the road to impossible can be enjoyed. It can be more than a gruelling day to day that may or may not change. I’ve chosen to enjoy my road, to push myself so that the benefits are immediate. To appreciate the time I have on the road, the training, the match play, the company of the people who are travelling the road with me. There are no more expectations and no more negative consequences. Whether I’m training or playing a match, it’s all the same now, trusting in my skills, my body. I cannot rely on anyone else to coach me, I must start to be my own coach, a super positive coach who pumps up my tires and allows me to make mistakes and constantly gives me positive feedback.

Anyhow, people have suggested I get a sport psychologist, but I don’t need anyone to tell me that I am awful to myself, I’m negative and my attitude stinks. Being positive is the toughest thing to do when you feel like everything is going wrong. Remembering that good decisions are made when your mind is thinking positively, your body responds when your mind is in a positive mindset. So how do I get myself to be more positive. That’s a question that I think is very individual. But thinking about things that make you happy is a good start. Like Julie Andrews in the sound of music, think a few of your favorite things and then it wont feel so bad.

Almost immediately after writing the first half of this post, I took action. Discussed with my coach, really put together a plan to change what I do on court, physically and mentally. Step 1 was do the fundamentals better. For me, that starts with court movement and racket preparation.  

Training a few days later, was all about racket preparation. Exaggerating my racket prep to simulate doing a hadoken from Street fighter, looking to have my racket prep so ready that I could volley everything. The thought of racket prep has changed for me, because thinking racket prep was not enough, it brought my racket up to where I thought was enough, the thought of hadoken, brings my racket back to where I think a hadoken would start. The result is my racket is way more ready, it feels excessive, but the reality is that now I’m ready. The consistency is building, but there is still a lot of effort once I’m under pressure. But the result is there, in my match the next week, it took a bit to get going, losing the first game 5-15. But once I figured out how to move forward with my racket ready, I was able to control my re-drops and throw in great drives off loose balls. Footwork forwards was ok, but I need to bend more in my legs and less from the upper part of my waist. The following 3 games were close, but I was able to be consistent enough to squeak out the second game and run away in the third and fourth games with my fitness. Racket prep gives me precious time, time to see the ball, time to make the right decisions and time to execute a better shot.

More training on racket preparation is key to building my skill set and elevating my game. I felt like I’ve hit a plateau the last few years but now I know that I can still improve. Training sessions have been mainly focused on improving racket prep and conditioning my footwork movement to the front court. I feel like I’m able to hit a much better ball lately and I need to play more with this hadoken mindset so that my racket is ready. My most recent match put me up against a player who was coming off a really big win against an opponent I had lost to previously. I was nervous in warmup, playing tall and lanky hard hitters is always tough. At the start of the first game, I couldn’t believe how well I was hitting the ball. My opponent didn’t stand a chance as I played precise shots that forced him to hit loose and tactically I was able to keep him off balance. The second game was more of the same and I could feel his energy dropping. In the third, I tried to finish him off too quickly, making several mistakes early on. I still felt confident, coming back from 14-10 down to lose 16-14, but the momentum was clearly on my side and I won the fourth 15-2.

More solo hitting and I can see that racket prep is allowing me to really lead my swing with the butt end of my handle and control the direction of the ball with more precision and less effort. I’ve got a tournament this weekend and I am seeded number 1, my focus will be on early racket prep and efficient court movement. Tactically, my basic game plan is always the same. Starts with hitting a tight shot, then start to bury my opponent behind me with tight length, step up to pick off anything loose with a volley and be ready for the loose short ball to get on it early, and either hold for a hard length or take it early for the re-drop. Really loose shots, look to step back and open up the court and play the cut off boast or hard cross court. But again, my focus must be on racket prep, it’s still too early in my training to just swing, the muscle memory will eventually get there, but I have to continue to exaggerate my hadoken so that it will become engrained in my swing.     

There are a couple people that I have been coaching lately also, and it has become so obvious to me now how poor most people’s racket preparation is. It has been awesome for me as I get to practice my racket prep while helping them improve as well. The next steps for me will be to increase the pressure of my training so that I can sustain a great hadoken while sprinting around the court and getting exhausted.

I guess the gist of this post, is that several weeks ago, I was playing well, feeling fit, but not winning. Losing 5 matches in a row is demoralizing and it becomes inherently more difficult to find the motivation to train and even play a match. I was lost and frustrated because I didn’t know if I would ever win another match. I was agitated by my opponents behaviour on court and considered just not caring anymore whether I won or lost, or played well… it was becoming blah.

The change came from my coach, he never said it directly, but he helped me to focus on the things that I could change. He addressed how I deal with what my opponents do, people’s behaviour on court is not something I should be looking to waste my energy on, it shouldn’t be something I lose my focus over. The truth is, I will avoid playing people I don’t want to hit with. It’s just not fun for me and that’s something I can control. The other things I can control are my racket preparation and my footwork, 2 things that I am currently working to improve. The focus is not on winning or fighting or anything other than playing better squash… the results are merely an indication of how much more I need to train.

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