I hardly ever post about this kind of thing. However, I really like this idea of being in contact with whatever it is that makes you want to get up in the morning. It is not a permanent happiness pill, though. It’s more about what drives and delights you.

Putting my own words into these diagrams is never as easy as I think it’s going to be; and the closer to the center I get, the more finicky and niggly I know the choices are going to get. But hey, it’s a pretty hot day and I’ve got some time…



Bermuda Shorts

Just finished my first ever Bermuda-New York team challenge! Can’t really sit comfortably, but it hurts too much to stand up right now.

It’s been going for years, thanks to an awesome group of individuals in both places, as well as (recently) people from Boston and Montreal. And I’ve more-than-halfway committed to going on the return in November. Thought that might be a good short-term goal to help me get back on court.

Coaching is one thing, but getting out there this weekend really reminded me that this is what I do best, and that I will be sad when it is really finally behind me. So until then, while I have the energy and strength, let me keep learning!  🙂

Summer Squash Clinics

I’ll be running clinics at NYSC Cobble Hill on Thursdays and Saturdays. Three levels, 45 minutes, and room for 4 people.

Each day we’ll start with the Beginner-Low Intermediate players, then the Intermediate players (around 3.0), and we’ll finish with High Intermediate-Advanced.

If you want to join us, just post a comment here and I’ll get in touch with you. Or you can use these Doodle links:

C’mon out and learn, practice, get fit, and have some fun!


Good to be back

It has been a long time since my last post here. Time enough to leave a job to go to grad school, finish grad school and start a new job. And time enough to understand how much I really like coaching this sport. So many people out there who are keen to get better, to get fitter, to keep up with their kids (or beat their parents!). Being able to help just a bit is really gratifying. So thanks, everyone I am going to be seeing over the next few months, thank you for giving me the opportunity. I know we’ll have a great time and that we’ll all be better for it!

The Dynamic Duo

Junior nationals this weekend. The vortex of youth competition has pulled just about every coach from almost every competitive program in the country into New Haven. There, the good hard lessons of being on court against someone you might not even know, wanting to win, not wanting to embarrass yourself, but perhaps only just holding in the emotional blitz are being learned. Perhaps. The bare, one-on-one nature of squash isn’t always pretty or gracious. But it is never dull, either.

As the draws narrow, the levels of confidence increase, the risks get more audacious and the resources that each player has carried with them into the weekend become more distinctive. It’s a distillation. And by the semi finals, a kind of quiet has begun to settle onto the army of players, coaches and families who are there. Some of that is exhaustion, and some of it is fresh disappointment. But a lot of it is the energy surrounding the final competitors, who are now the focus of so much attention. And it’s a thrilling experience firsthand – well worth the trip even if you don’t have a player in the tournament.

And the thing I love most is that on Sunday night, after they’ve driven home and had something to eat, two of those same kids are out on their home courts, playing with new dedication, doing goofy trick shots, rehashing controversial rallies. Committing themselves to next year’s event and already starting to work on their new game.


I reckon that anyone who has taught even a few private lessons has experienced that sinking feeling that comes when your player’s eyes sort of glaze over in the middle of one of your expositions, or when they nod repeatedly in response to your rhetorical questions but fail to make any adjustment as a result. And worst of all, when they actually stop trying. What has happened? What have I done to make this game (which both of us really like, maybe even love) so dull and tedious? It’s a nasty, niggling feeling. But ignore it at your peril. As a club coach, you live and die by one thing: players that come back for more.

Clue: Would you rather do something that is good for you, or something that you enjoy?

There’s no question that being a coach (or any other type of teacher) requires you to play a role. And yet how many of us would want to get up on stage? The difference is that as a coach, you are also always yourself. Your knowledge, your skills, your philosophy of the game and how to teach it. All of these can remain in place no matter whether you are on court with a middle-aged man or a girl in high school. What changes is the way the player experiences those things.

Two or three of the middle-level men that I coach are sort of obsessed with technique. Some lessons all they want to do is hit backhand drives. We compromise. Partly so for my own sanity, but partly because I don’t believe that working on a stroke in isolation is particularly useful. It’s a moving game, after all. Other players – the younger ones in particular – just want to play games. Well and good, I say, but there have to be other stages in the lesson, too. Otherwise, being on court with me is not much better than playing with a friend. At least, that’s the way it sounds in my head.

Not much fun, right? It’s true that I am not a joke-around sort of person, but I do get very happy and enthusiastic when my players make breakthroughs. And sometimes I don’t pick up on the signs that what we are doing on court has become more about me than about them. The player knows almost instantly, however. And that’s lousy.

So here are three types of questions I use whenever I realize that I’m being kind of a benevolent bully out there.

  1. Can the player do what I am asking them to do?
  2. Who’s doing the talking? Who’s asking the questions?
  3. Does what we are doing now “fit” with the rest of the lesson? Better yet, does it move us forward? Or is it just killing time, just more of the same?

The answers are obvious, but I tell you this: my lessons are much better if I run through them before the lesson, and use them to shape not necessarily the content or activities, but the way the player experiences those things.

Get Ready

A couple of years ago, a club pro asked me if I thought it was possible to teach the split step as a way of moving off the T. I said yes and he said no. Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of video of top players and working with couple of students on their footwork, and although I still think I’m right about the teachability aspect, I’ve come around to the idea that the split step is not the most important factor in moving off the T. Whether you are successful in teaching your players to use it explicitly, as opposed to simply moving to the ball in their own way, the critical factor is not how, but when.

The split step, to refresh your memory, is a footwork technique. It refers to a particular way that some players come out of the crouch and begin the explosive movement that will allow them to intercept the ball at the most advantageous moment. In practice, it means that the off-side foot – the one away from the direction in which the player is going to go, moves first. It is picked up and put down with a very short, almost stutter step in the opposite direction, as the stop against which the player’s motion towards the ball begins.

It’s a great technique. One that I see over and over from players (Shahier Razik, for example – one of the lightest and quickest players around). But it is just that: a technique. The important thing is how to train your players to make the transition from that ready, slightly crouched position, through the rise onto toes that accompanies the opponent’s downward swing and into the first two driving steps towards the right place on the court.

Myself, I use several drills where I move my player on the diagonal with a volley position at the T in between. Initially, they move to these in sequence, but once they’ve got a sense of what the drill is about, I take the option, so that they have to stop wherever they are and be ready to go in one of three directions. And to help, I will shout something helpful, like, “Get set!” or “Watch!” as I start my stroke. This is the cue for them to stop that mad rush back to the T, or over to the side they think I am going to choose, put both feet on the ground, sink, rise as I strike the ball, and then drop again to push towards the intersect point.

How they take those first two steps isn’t so much of a concern for me any more, as long as it’s not leaving them facing the back wall trying to hit a cross court, or bunched up in the forehand front corner. We’ll take this one thing at a time…

Decision-training in Squash

Over the last week or so, I’ve been going through Joan Vickers’ book, “Perception, Cognition and Decision Training“. It ties in with some of the themes in ‘The Inner Game of Tennis“, Tim Gallwey’s groundbreaking work which first came out in 1974, as well as with what I’ve been hearing about the new style of play exemplified by Egyptian wizards such as Amr Shabana and Ramy Ashour.

What it boils down to is that the world’s best players (in every sport/activity measured) uses visual cues more effectively and makes better decisions faster than the next best players. This makes sense –  someone asked Mickey Mantle how he batted so well. He said he just watched the ball hit the bat. Try that next time you’re in a batting cage. The cool thing is that Vickers has developed methods of training not just the ‘quiet eye’, but also the ability to make better decisions in real time, and that these can help players at every level to improve their performance.

The other aspect of this that I find both interesting and helpful as a coach is how it echoes an ESL methodology called the communicative method. This has been the standard way of teaching adults to speak a new language for the last twenty years or so. It aims to teach meaning before form, to use context and situations, real language and communicative tasks to accelerate the acquisition of new language items. And it trains students to identify and correct their own errors – just as native speakers do.

I have started taking this approach on court, asking even the youngest of my players to start making strategic decisions about where to put the ball, calling out when they have seen the ball that split second before impact and when they think they’ve reached the optimum spot in the court to respond to my next shot. And it is starting to make a difference.

And I have reconsidered my style of giving feedback. I think there is definitely a place for very technical correction, but it is also critical to ask the players to tell me what they are feeling, thinking, noticing. And just as you wouldn’t want to be graded on speed during a spelling bee, it is critical to the coach-player relationship that feedback be relevant to the task that was assigned. If I tell a 3.0 player to hit ten forehands into the service box and she does that, I should want to know what she felt at the start and at the end, what she noticed about her footwork and stroke and if she thinks she can improve her accuracy. Those are the right questions. It is not the best time to fiddle with her grip or stroke – although we might agree to work on those things as a follow up to the activity.

I love this!

Howe to Succeed in Squash

There is a fierce battle on court 12 when I walk up. The players have been on court for almost an hour, trading point after point, making each other stretch for every ball, pushing themselves to work harder, be smarter and tougher. The shouts of encouragement from teammates drown out the marker’s calls, but the players are silent as each looks for a way to attack.

Each hard-fought point in this match has led to this awesome exchange at 7-9 in the fifth. And it is almost over. But not yet. Another superb get, a smashing cross-court, a punishing drive to length. …

There is nothing except the ball, the court and the will. Neither player is thinking about the miles covered in the last four games, nor the other matches played in the last two days. She is here, right now. Locked in. Unyielding, resourceful.

This is the squash I was privileged to see over and over during this year’s Howe Cup. Thirty-six teams of five, in four singles divisions, and fourteen teams in two doubles draws: it is a huge event – one that Peter Heffernan and crew at Meadow Mill Athletic Club managed with exceptional skill. But, although this is the largest women’s event on the calendar, that actually doesn’t tell you why it is so important.

Why am I here? Well, I am coaching five fantastic teams from New York. We’ve had almost two months of practices and now it’s time to let them play. For three days, the players come off court and tell me what they need, and I tell them what I see. They come off court confident, bewildered, receptive, chatty, distracted, and I try to get them back on court ready for the first serve with a plan and a relatively clear head. Then, somewhere between the 40th and 50th match, I begin to see real changes in these players.

Some of them started the weekend tentatively, dipping into their first few games but not sure how hard they should – or could – play. Others soared in, bright, determined, already hunting. By Saturday, everyone has found her feet, won a few, lost a few, gained awareness and confidence, scraped off the rust. I can see them starting to grin in anticipation of their next match, even while they are urging each other to give more, try again, not let up.

A national team tournament like this matters so much precisely because it is a women’s event. This is not about affirmative action, although it is true that there are comparatively few opportunities for women to gather in such a large group, to be both the focus and the creators of a remarkable event – particularly in sports. But it is simpler than that: this is community building. The women who play in the Howe Cup go home and spread the word. The juniors go out and tell their friends about it. The WISPA players vow to bring in a few more next year. And so it goes. So it grows.

Consider these: a recent college graduate at the top of her game, a highly skilled elite athlete; a grey-haired woman, strong and sure, whose name is engraved on a dozen plaques and trophies; a teenager who first discovers and then tries to push past her own limitations: a 30-, 40-, 50- something woman thrilled by the physical and mental challenge squash continues to present her.

These are all the same woman. Howe Cup is the place she comes to see herself ten years ago and twenty years from now. It is where she finds friends, support and encouragement. Where she teaches and learns the great life lessons of winning, losing and never giving up, never making excuses. Oh, and where she dances like she is 16.

The future of the game is not tied just to juniors bound for college or the success of national teams: it must involve and support every player, at every level, no matter what her age, motivation or potential. Howe Cup is where you can see what that looks like.

Kudos to the participants, the organizers, the volunteers, the staff, the friends and relations. Howe Cup is unique, not just for its wild mix of competition and camaraderie, but also for its long-standing commitment to all of the women who play this game.

Just one more thing. This year, we were joined by 12 girls (and one very dedicated staff member) from Streetsquash, one of New York’s urban squash programs. Thanks go to New York Squash and Scott Wilson for covering the entry fees for the singles events – and to Scott again for stepping up for the doubles teams.These young women went on court again and again, against much more experienced opponents, and played with all the poise, determination and desire they possessed. Even when they were discouraged by the results or other circumstances, they tried to stay open and positive. They watched dozens of matches and saw how the best competitors dealt with unforced errors, questionable calls, difficult opponents, winning and losing; they learned and they tried to do the same. Point by point, game by game, we all saw them get a little wiser, a little more grounded, and a lot tougher to beat!But this is their most awesome achievement: they have inspired a high school teacher from Toronto to go home and create the first urban squash program in Canada.

Hat off to those girls. I have never, in 20 years of coaching, had so many compliments from opponents and spectators about my players. They really are the ones I most want to see on court in five, ten and twenty years.

David Hughes

P.S. The range of ages is something I think should be celebrated and acknowledged by the tournament organizers in the future. That’s not really going to embarrass anyone, is it?