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!  🙂

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.

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…

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?

A Backhanded Compliment

Lefties are lucky. In singles they have the advantage that most of their opponents are used to playing most of their own shots on the backhand, which means a southpaw gets to play on their forehand. Power, reach, strength are in our favor on the smaller court, where the crucial movement to the back corners to retrieve a ball – and the stroke that is produced – must be a near perfect blend of speed, balance and technique. But I have a nascent theory about doubles.

Invariably, and logically, if someone sinister has a dextrous partner, they will each play their forehand side. And when the players are very skilled, the ball moves around the court at hyperspeed. But is that the same as good doubles? More to the point, is “good doubles” now the same as “good doubles” will be? Consider how much the singles game has changed since the early 90s. Will the young players be content to play the way their coaches and heroes do? Not likely!

So, here I am lying on my back watching the clouds. And what do I see? That same doubles team on court, toe-to-toe in front of the short line. The ball’s ripping around the court just as before. But something is different. Something about where the ball is coming from. And then I see that these two players have switched sides. They are both playing their backhands. What difference does it make? Well, here’s what I see (admittedly, these are fluffy clouds I’m looking at, and it’s a warm summer day): they have a more open stance, which allows them to take the ball ahead of their body; the natural torque produced by their legs and torso provide excellent balance and stability; if they take the ball a bit later, their shot is just as well disguised as it would be on the forehand; and, most of all, the pace is slower. Better shot selection, more variety, great reverses.

And if they have to go back, that’s fine. In fact, when their partner covers, they get to crunch a forehand! Ditto for those nasty divide and conquer line drives up the center: two forehands to lash out and deal with those.

Now I don’t claim to be an expert on this, of course. But here’s where the idea came from. Imran Khan at the Far Rockaway Gold Racket Tournament last December. Every shot was hit with a purpose, intending to cause as much trouble as possible for the other team. Pace when he wanted, sure, but it was his ability to select the right shot that impressed me.

And, more recently, a fun game at Cityview. One of the players, a good 5.0 in singles, had never been on a doubles court before. Instinctively, he chose to play on his forehand. And he was pretty solid over there. Not comfortable, but he stayed in the game. However, after about 45 minutes and a break, I suggested that he switch to his backhand. I guess after skipping around the back of the court, dodging the weird spins and whacking the tin on shoulder height volleys, he was ready to try something new. And what a difference. His court movement sorted itself out, his anticipation improved, his accuracy and consistency went up and he started hitting with very definite pace.

I watched this and thought, Hmmm. Is this a future I am seeing?

Who knows. But in August, out there in Southampton, I am going to ask a few questions and watch a whole bunch of doubles…

Where’s the Floor?

OK. Yes, like most players, I’m in holiday recovery mode, which means unexpected twinges in my shoulder, a hot message from my Achilles and all that.

Fine. It’s just for a week or so.

But levitation? That’s something else again.

We were playing doubles last night. Struggling to put our game together, or at least look like we’d done this before. Not much luck: our opponents won very handily. Then, in a fit of indifference, we switched sides.

I am lefthanded and don’t get to my backhand very much, but whatever. At this point we weren’t in it for the glory. Anyway, I was up at the short line when the ball went past. Knowing it would come of the back wall I started to turn around to get it. But I turned towards the T instead of towards the wall. Pivoting on my left foot – except my left foot wasn’t on the ground, so it just floated away and there I was hanging in midair. Briefly.

Then there it was. Reassuringly solid. Unfinished birch. Very hard wood it is, too.

Posted on the run!

Location:New York (where else?)


I guess it’s old news now. Players as young as 25 are doing it, so it must be, right? To me, it looks revolutionary, but maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s just a refinement of what the best shotmakers and touch players have always done, an extension of their instinctive compensation for a physical constraint.

The backhand.
That carving. The reaching for the far outside surface of the ball and then the simple, straight follow through. Sure, it’s obvious now, but when I first saw it, I thought it was something extraordinary. I’d watched Graham Ryding and Jonathon Power working each other on that side of the court for hundreds of strokes, but I hadn’t really seen it.
Now, of course, it’s de rigeur, which means everything has shifted slightly. Footwork, upper body, head, free hand. It’s so much more open now, so much more about what your hand is doing than what your arm is doing. Honestly, it is finally starting to feel like my forehand!

Kudos and Challenges

There are great contributions being made to the theory and practice of squash in the US by a number of individuals and organizations. Off the top of my head (currently attached to my body and wandering around New York City), I reckon we all agree that CitySquash and StreetSquash are dynamic, effective and worthwhile programs which deliver far more than the sum of their components.

Personal development. That’s what I’ve always thought was the most valuable result of a squash program. No matter the age, level or aspiration of the individual player. It’s a game that teaches self-reliance, while rewarding hard work, creativity and good judgement.
As with any untelevised sport, we worry about how to keep interest alive. The answer is simple: more, more, more! High school programs, college teams, recreational and competitive tournaments, leagues and challenges, ongoing training series for league players. Generous portions of opportunity at every level. Without these, there are too many cracks for players to fall through. They disappear for months or years or forever, even though they love the game.
Imagine the kid who starts out on the old American courts at Fordham, plays for a bunch of years, gets through school, gets to college and plays for the second team there. Is she done after that? Probably (sadly), but not necessarily. Maybe if there’s an affordable club with a pro running a good variety of programs, if there’s a city league up and running that gives her a team to play on, and beer and pizza after her matches, and if there are open clinics she can get to to help her move up on those teams or in the house leagues at the club, she’ll make the transition smoothly. Perhaps she’ll continue to grow into the game instead of out of it.
Big picture.