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!