Saturday, 1 September 2012

Deception: the Flamboyant, the Productive, and the Backswing

So talking about backswings and the development and use of deception. Where do we start?

Well let's first talk about deception. Deception fundamentally is when you create an expectation in your opponent's mind, that you're going to hit a particular shot. Or at least you've have the opponent predicting the odds are in favor of a shot to a certain area of the court. 

Generally once your opponent has begun to expect that you will hit a certain shot, the opportunity to deceive them is now available.

As an observer of squash, the more spectacular type of deception, is when in your preparatory movements to strike the ball, you've caused the opponent to be sure you're going to hit one shot, and then you actually hit another, thus leaving the opponent going the wrong way.

At higher levels of play, deception is generally less about the spectacular, and more about the constant hiding of one's intent.  And this is the 'productive deception'.

When you're playing better players, who have had more court time, more rally experience, outright 'wrong-footing' them is less likely to happen. In this case what your deceptive preparation does, is force the opponent to stop in their tracks, and wait to see where you actually hit the ball. Then, if your chosen shot has been accurate, most likely the opponent is now struggling with time and distance and likely getting to the ball late, which means a potential set up for you to finish off the rally.

This is the true value of deception, to force your opponent to stop and wait, and then let your shot selection and accuracy apply the pressure. At lower levels of play, good deception will often result in an outright winner. As one moves up the grades, deception becomes less about the outright winner, and more about creating time and distance pressure that forces a weak shot, or series of weak shots, out of the opponent. 

Once you have your opponent falling a little bit behind in the rally, then the opportunities to attack become bigger and more obvious. 

At higher levels of the game, opponents you meet are fast enough, or skilled enough to get out of trouble repeatedly. So the deception is used to accomplish several objectives: to maintain pressure on the opponent, prevent them from anticipating, thus maintaining a balance in the rally, hopefully slightly in your favor most of the time.

Productive deception is about keeping a small edge. Being consistently deceptive is not really about the flamboyant misdirection shot that causes the opponent to lose a shoe, or trip over his own feet.

There have been players such as the Wizard of Canada, Jonthan Power, who have the racket and wrist skills to cause an opponent to go in two directions then hitting the ball to a third unfathomable spot. But, Power was not using these gut wrenching deceptive shots on every stroke. They were highlights of games and matches, but they were only spectacular, exhibition-like shots that could be played on rare occasions. 

If anyone has watched numerous full length video of Power's matches what becomes obvious is that his deception is more based on the subtle but constant hold of the shot that forces the opponent to wait, and not anticipate. 

The highlight reels of Power's tremendous racket wizardry are collections of shots that don't happen very often, simply because to hit these shots, the player needs lots of space and time, usually a ball that has come up and is 'hanging' in the air. Time and opportunities that don't happen so often at the higher levels of play.

No, when we look at players like Power, Shabana, Darwish, what one will notice is that these players are very very consistent in always setting up their backswing in a manner that allows them to hit any number of shots all the way up to contacting the ball. The actual biomechanical wrist and racket motion that differentiates between a drop, a straight drive, a cross court drive, a lob straight or cross court does not occur until very very late in the total swing motion of the racket. 

Let's put the idea into percentages. For players such as Power, Shabana, Darwish, we could say that when watching them from behind, quite likely 90% or more of their swing, from  where the backswing was held still to contact of the ball, is absolutely the same (visually) with no difference between all the options that they can play. It's only in the last 10% or less of the swing, that there will be a biomechanical difference in movement, thus a 'visual cue' as to what they are hitting.

As an opponent on the court, often the final portion of a swing can be obscured from your sight, in particular if you've taken up the correct positioning in the T area. Because of the deception (giving no clue to the ball's trajectory) being so complete throughout 90% or more of the swing, players like Darwish can force their opponents to either completely wait for the ball coming off the front wall, or the opponents are forced to start playing a guessing game trying to play the odds and guess, moving early one way or the other. 

And thus we arrive at what makes these masters of deception so qualified to hold our esteem: their developed skill to hit a multitude of shots from the each spot on the court, always with exactly the same swing, and their mental creativity in varying what they hit. 

At the highest levels of the game, for players such as these, the deception is there on nearly every swing of the ball. And it's this potential that forces opponents to wait, and not take up positions that are based on a guess. When you take away an opponent's ability to anticipate, you are actually now creating the prime opportunity to put them under pressure. Once the pressure has been applied, it becomes a swing by swing increase of that pressure, until either the opponent makes an error, or offers up an easy put-away. 

The take away?

When we are on the court practicing, and then when we are playing, we should be approaching the ball with the same preparation and swing for every shot we have in our repertoire. This means for most of us, getting out on the court and 'retooling' our swing. Making sure that we have the same swing from where the backswing stops to just the moment before contact. If we practice and strive to make 90% of our swing exactly the same for all the strokes in the mid court and fore court, then we've started on the path of productive deception.

In our next article we'll be discussing the backswing and the part it plays in deception.

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