Thursday, 2 May 2013

Assessing the opponent, what's important?

A player that I coach came to me with a dilemma. He wanted to know how to assess his opponent. How to decide what tactics would allow him to impose his strategy on his opponent while at the same time counter the opponent's attempts to assert his own game?

Now understand this player has already worked his way into the intermediate levels. He's actually got quite nice strokes. He's got a good understanding of the game, and he has been developing his own strategic style. Importantly, when focused, he can intentionally adjust the direction and trajectory of the ball. He does still need to improve the ability to change the speed of his shots, but it's coming along. (And who doesn't need to keep improving, eh?)

As a player moves up a level, or meets opponents on court for the first time, there is definitely a new learning curve, and almost always that learning curve is very steep. Probably this is one of the appeals of squash, besides the increasing physical demands, is that as we improve, and when we compete against new opponents, we are confronted with new intellectual challenges on how to take what we have (skills and style), and get ourselves another victory on the career record.

Often when players move up in level, or meet a new opponent, it takes time, building up the database of experiences that help the individual to learn which adjustments are needed, to rise up to a new standard of competence, to where one can impose their 'game' in the rallies.

It's been said before, when moving up to the next level, the best path to success is, typically, to go back to the basics. And there is nothing wrong with this. Almost always, when we move up in level, we really do need to improve the quality of our basic shots. If we don't, then we're giving our higher level opponents too many opportunities to cut our game to shreds.

So.... having said all that..... should we then just accept that when we move up, or meet the new challenging opponent..... that a loss is nigh inevitable?

If we don't want to take this negative approach, then what would be a fundamental key to improving our immediate performance, as we step up to the higher challenge?

As anyone who's played squash for even a short time, we know that the long straight drive is a key component of the game. At least that's what were invariably told. 

But, this is not actually enough, when you're confronted with a tough match....

If you can watch your opponent play someone else, great, if not, then you've got to find out during the early part of your own match. You should be looking for two things:

1. What type of straight drive consistently forces your opponent to the back corner? 

2. What kind of crosscourt shot consistently sends your opponent to the back opposite corner?

Generally speaking, most players will be able to comfortably handle certain types of straight drives, and at the same time some crosscourt shots will cause them no angst. Meaning that this opponent is able to regularly, and effectively, cut off and often attack, certain straight drives and crosscourts.

What you must do, is to discover which drives and which cross-courts your opponent is unable to consistently intercept, and is thus driven into the deep corners (or at least forced to hit the ball from somewhere behind the service boxes, or at best can only block the ball back, with no pace or definite placement).

Whatever the combination it is: higher straight drives with low wide cross-courts, or fast medium height drives mixed with low long cross-courts, or maybe short dipping straight drives combined with high slow lobs that cross to the opposite wall......... 

Find the two shots that consistently force the opponent to the back corners, and then use them. 

Doing this will help you to do two things:

1. It will reduce the pressure that the opponent can force upon you, since you've taken him away from the area where he can apply pressure.

2. It will likely give you the time and space to get in front of your opponent, often being able to arrive on or near the T, before they hit the ball, but also frequently putting you into a position where you can use your own tactics to apply pressure.

Note: that this does require that you are able to hit a variety of straight drives and cross-courts. 

Being able to change the trajectory on drives (height and curve of the ball's path), and for the cross-court being able to adjust trajectory, as well as being able to change the direction to, and angle off, the front wall.

Following this advice, my player, having just moved up in grade,  has been able to beat a few players to whom he'd normally be expected to struggle with, and he's played some other players really tough, making them work for their victory.

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