Friday, 13 April 2012

When all things are equal ......

Stick with your strategy!

Shall I say it? Squash is probably the most complex of all the racket games. In fact some would probably argue that squash is one of the most, if not the most, complicated of all one on one athletic competitions.

There are simply so many different strokes that can be played from every position within the court, all thanks to the four walls, that confine, or maybe better said, 'define the game.'

Thinking about it, realizing that it would be easy to come up with eight different shots that could be hit from anywhere on the court, it's clear that we're dealing with a complexity that you would need a computer in order to calculate the permutations of how a rally might be played out.

Fortunately, it is rare to meet a player who under the pressure of a fast moving rally, can actually effectively produce all eight options from every spot on the court. Those kinds of players are usually identified by one of a several two word descriptors: Top Twenty, Top Ten, World Champion.

For most players, even the professionals, in a rally that they are trying to win, there is some pressure being exerted, there is a certain predictability to their positioning on the court, and their choice of shots. And yes, most if not all players have their favorite situations where they are sniffing for a winner. This too has it's predictability.  

Thus, with this understanding let's continue on to a match in progress:

A player, let's call him Billy, is playing a match, with someone he's played with before, and this player (Ricky) is particularly fast around the court, he gets to everything. And when Billy does go to hit an attacking shot, Ricky always gets to the attacking shot, no matter where it is.

In the past, when Billy and Ricky have played, Billy would win a majority of times. But, the matches were hard, the rallies and scores were close. It was always a close call. 

The most recent time that Billy and Ricky played, Billy changed his approach a little bit. He changed his approach to the rallies, by NOT changing his strategy. 

Previously Billy would get stressed by the closeness of the game score, and the seemingly inability to shake Ricky off. Billy is obviously the better player, in particular his positioning, and the accuracy of his shots, but rallies with Ricky always seemed to be a 50/50 bet. 

Being unable to get some distance between them on the scoreline would cause Billy to push harder, going for shots he'd not normally go for. This had not been a winning change of strategy, the games were still close, with Ricky even taking one of the most recent matches.

What Billy did this time, was stay with his normal style, picking and attacking when he normally would, but he was expecting Ricky to always get the ball. And what Billy did was just continue his strategic placement of shot after shot. 

Billy realized that he wasn't losing rallies with his strategy, he just wasn't playing the strategy long enough for it to work. He was changing his strategy, and thus giving up the slowly building advantage that he had been getting.

See there actually wasn't anything really wrong with Billy's shot selection, it was just that Ricky is so surprisingly quick around the court. But what happened in the past is that Billy would hit his attacking shot, and then being surprised with Ricky's speed, Billy was not ready to take advantage of Ricky's next shot. 

This most recent time when they played, Billy played his normal game, hit attacking shots when he usually would, to the normal places, BUT, Billy was expecting and ready for Ricky to get there. In being ready, Billy was then able to not only get Ricky's next shot, but he was able to continue the attack by continuing to build the pressure. 

This time the match ended up with a dominant performance on the part of Billy, leaving Ricky wondering what hit him.

In the past, Billy, chagrined that Ricky was getting to every at attacking shot, would start trying new and different shots in attempting to gain control of the rallies and win the points. In leaving his normal strategy, you could say that Billy was entering an uncharted shallow bay. 

This then actually favored Ricky who could run anything down. The thing was, while Ricky could run everything down, in particular anything hit short in the front corners, his shots were predictable, and not very tight. Thus, once Billy started expecting Ricky to get to those shots, and he knew where to position for Ricky's  likely replies, he was often finishing off the rally with the next one or two placements.

So while the game score was very close in the beginning, Billy in staying with his strategy, just tweaking a little bit, expecting the rally wouldn't end, was ready to continue his normal attack.

Billy shifted gears, but with the same strategy and style he knows well, and thus methodically and simply pulled away from Ricky, and the end score revealed a dominant performance.  

There is another example from Billy that bears sharing, as it illustrates in another way how sticking with one's strategy pays dividends.

Billy soon after playing Ricky, had an opportunity to play a match with Sydney. Now Sydney was from Northern Europe, was very slim, very tall, with an excellent length of reach. In addition Sydney was an efficient mover from the centre court area. 

Sydney is very adept at moving efficiently and quietly from the back court and mid court, to the front court, in particular when he has sent his opponent into the the front court with a drop. And Sydney would use his long reach to intercept and smartly place for winners, many shots that would usually get past the majority of opponents. 

Billy had only played Sydney once before, and while winning the match, it had been very hard, and very close. Only Billy's determination and fighting spirit had gotten him through that one. Most certainly not a strategic success. 

This time, as the first time, the rallies were developing similarly, Billy was finding that Sydney was often in great position cutting off shots and knocking them away for winners.

The first time Billy had played against Sydney, it was the same story, Billy's shots in the front corners were easily handled by Sydney, and Billy was finding himself under huge pressure, it didn't matter whether he hit short, or tried to hit long. Sydney handled it all.

From outside the court, what one could see, was that Sydney liked to hit short, sending his opponent into the front court, then he would very very quietly follow up the opponent, and be only one nice long step from retrieving any front court shot that his opponent might hit. Sydney is able to do this, hovering further forward than most players could, because his long reach enabled him to still cover (intercept) the majority of shots that might be hit long.

On this day, Billy having recently learned about sticking with his normal strategy even when the game is tightly contested, knew that he'd be better off not changing his game. But then something had to change, otherwise this would be another long and tough match.

This time, pretty well into the first game, the scoreline is very even, it was 4-4 I believe, and Billy noticed something. Hitting out from the front left corner with a crosscourt lob, Billy noticed two things. One, he noticed that Sydney had followed up behind him, and was very near the front of the court, and two, he noticed that Sydney easily reached up and blocked the lob, and hit if for a winner down the opposite side.

Billy had already noticed earlier that Sydney was coming forward, when Billy had been sent to the front corner, but when Billy realized that this gave Sydney the opportunity, with his wide reach, to take advantage, to take control, Billy knew something had to give, but on this day, he was not going to change his normal strategy.

In considering, how to respond to Sydney's ability to intercept and thus control the rallies once they got into the front court, Billy didn't want to start going for shots that were out of his normal range.

So Billy made some adjustments, not changes. He made two adjustments in particular.  He hit the lobs higher, and he hit his crosscourt drives wider.  

Now against normal opponents, these two adjustments would not have been very effective. The higher lob, is dropping in shorter, not going as deep in the court, so normally doesn't pressure the opponent as much unless he was out of position. The wider crosscourt also, is not so effective because it rebounds out  somewhere in the midcourt area.

In this case however, because these two adjusted shots, were able to get past Sydney, and in doing so, the shots took advantage of Sydney's difficulty in turning and moving into the backcourt area.

After Billy had hit a couple of higher lobs, and wider cross court shots (that went for winners), Sydney changed his positioning. Sydney stopped following Billy into the forecourt area, and he stayed back around the T, so that he could cope with the high lobs and wide cross courts.

When Sydney did this, it immediately opened up the front court for Billy, which then opened up the rest of the court too. 

By two small adjustments, Billy had been able to negate Sydney's strengths. Strengths coming from his height and reach, which he used specifically to advantage by quietly invading the forecourt (behind his opponent who had just been sent into a front corner). And thus Billy was able to force Sydney back to a more traditional positioning on the court. Once that happened, Billy was controlling the rallies, and went on to a very comfortable win.


So what is the take away?

1) When you're in a hard match, close rallies, tight scoreline, changing your strategy is not the first answer.

If the rallies are tight, and the scoreline is close, you can take that to mean that at the moment all things are equal. That means you're not losing..... You're just not comfortably winning. So you only need something small, to make a difference, and sway the balance in your favour.

2) Following on the policy of staying with your strategy when the match is close, we do want to recognize that 'adjustments' need to be found, and implemented.

Somewhere in these tight rallies, there is something, there is some clue near the 'edge.' A little tidbit of information, maybe a little habit of the opponent, or a particular strength, or specific weakness. And it's this information, coupled with making one or two small adjustments, that can make a significant difference in the scoreline.

When you're in close matches, it's better to stick with your strategy, and make small tactical adjustments within your strategic framework.

If the scoreline is not close, and you're the one behind, that means you're losing. This is different, and can indicate a needed change of strategy. But that's a story for another time :-)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your comments. I will get your comment up on the blog with a reply as soon as possible :-)