Monday, March 14, 2011

Squash Coach as Architect

I've often asked myself what makes a really great squash coach? Over the past few years my opinion has varied significantly from being a good player exhibiting great technique to being able to feed the ball well at any level. Recently, I've begun to believe that a great coach isn't a great player, isn't an exhibiter of great technique, isn't superbly fit, doesn't have a room of trophies, hasn't competed at the highest level...a great coach is one who has the vision of an architect, who can see all the components needed for a specific player's ambition, skill and talent. A vision that is often not realized for years, a great coach is one who can patiently architect for a player at any level what he or she needs to do to become the best player a player can be given his or her level of talent, skill, work ethic, speed, quickness, intelligence and so forth. As a squash architect, squash architect above all else requires high squash IQ, the coach can see the beginning and end result and all else in between to accomplish and meet a players ambition and expection. Along the way the architect can make adjustments for the unforseen; a really great coach as architect can assess a player and create a blueprint for squash success. Squash success as in playing great squash... eventually. This is a difficult game, it takes a lot of time and patience to realize success in this game.
The architect can't make a player win or train, he can give the player the technique, the methods and the strategy to be successful in playing great squash. The blueprint is criitcal to building a squash player and fashioning his or her game according to capabilities.
Like any architect, the architet surveys what he or she has to work with. In the case of the squash architect, the assessment would include:
Hands
Feet
Intelligence
Balance and Coordination
Movement to the ball and away from the ball
Temperment
Most would agree that great hands are critical to great squash. I recently started working with Jenny Wang, a busy mother of 2 children, a business owner, who never played squash in her life, and within 5 minutes of our first ever lesson I was stunned. I had never seen someone with hands that had such a great feel for the racquet, I marvelled at this to her, and told her she was born to hold a squash racquet in her hand! She looked at me and seemed to think I was crazy, but I could see she would pick up the racket technique very quickly. After listening to what she wanted to accomplish, I began outlining and architecting where she would go and how I would take her there. I thought I would focus initially on lots of footwork and playing and let the stroke evolve on its own for awhile. After a couple of months everyone she plays marvells at how good she's become. Now that she rallies and strikes the ball pretty well, I'm working on her balance, and getting her to begin cutting the ball off and taking it early. We've started working on her fitness as well. She's fit but not squash fit and, as her technique and footwork evolve rapidly, she's going to need a level of fitness to sustain her quick racquet and playing development. My assessment within a short time was that this was a woman who probably could have gone as far as she wanted to in squash -- maybe 25 years ago -- but now can become an A level player provided she puts in the work and continues her techinical and strategic development. Would another coach have seen just a 38 year old beginner squash player who wanted to take a couple of lessons to learn the rules of the game, not sure. And my assessment isn't much until she's reached that goal, but she was game and has gone far beyond just learning the rules and hitting. She's easy because of her obvious skill, but what about Haadi Khan who came to me two years ago 45 lbs overweight and 13 years old. I would have coached him for free (and often have) because when I first went on court with him I saw a very overweight kid who moved like he had no weight and who had hands that were special, hands I've only seen in my son. I've had to work really hard with him, but he's coming into his own right now and technically is getting better and better and his footwork and quickness has gone to a different level. His temperment is still immature for serious competition, he gets frustrated and angry, but we've architected his squash that mentally and match savy and strategy will fall into place. I believe more than even the day I first came on court with him that he can be a top junior. He is now pushing to run the 5 court sprints in the 9 - 10 second range. In the last month he finally broke the 11 second series and runs them in under 11. Soon I see him running in the 9:50 second timeframe. This is huge for him. His game has followed, he's found himself quicker on the ball and his stamina better. He's beginning to break his opponents down by attacking the ball more with his feet.
If I'm now a so-called squash architect, It's not to say I haven't been wrong. I have been dead wrong but when I'm wrong I'm really wrong. Amanda Sohby is a good example. She used to come with her mom, her brother Omar and her younger sister to hit with Ron Karn, the club's professional at the time and their "step father". I thought Omar was fiercely competitive but technically not sound and was developing some bad habits that later on he'd have to come back and fix. His fitness, dedication and perseverance would only take him so far. Technically he wouldn't be able to advance beyond a certain point. I saw Omar at some tournaments a few years later and you could see where he would have trouble. Amanda was really strong for her age but I didn't think she moved very well, didn't have the great footwork and balance, and was in my judgment not that gifted a player. I don't follow either one now, but I know for a fact I was wrong about Amanda based on all her success, most notably the first American born to win the World Juniors The one I thought was really gifted and would make an amazing squash player was her younger sister. She had only recently started playing squash when I first saw her, was 7 or 8 years old, but had those intangible gifts, a very special player.
But a great coach or even a good one doesn't create success, he creates opportunity, just as a good building architect creates a place to live and work. So too, the squash architect builds a player's game, how that player uses his or her skills has little or nothing to do with the architecture of his or her game. And then there is my son, so gifted with his hands and feet and intelligence and now finally his fitness level. He's the smartest squash player I've ever met, one of the smartest people, but has had no success in the game that is the standard measurement. He has worked tirelessly on his game and his fitness and as often as he wanted to give up he's pushed harder. I looked at him and coached him when he was 50 lbs overweight and always believed in his talent. I thought, it might be a blessing in disguise because he compensated for his fitness by really studying the game and devleoping professional level technique. He's fitter than ever now and I've always said that he just needs matches to succeed. He will find his way, his whole game was architected on his brilliant hands, feet and sense of the game. Whether he ever wins and pushes through the losing to players he shouldn't lose to is part of something no coach can help him with. And certainly he cannot criticize his squash architecture.
I must be on to something because I realize that most of my students stay with me for a long time. We share in the vision of their game...I don't coach success, that I can't do, but I do try with every effort and bit of knowledge to get the best game possible for what the player has or can acquire. Should my players or my son achieve measurable success in this game I will be so happy for them, because their goal was always to play the best squash possible, win or lose. I hope for them alone, they experience that success, but mostly I hope they play for years and years great squash and pass this game along to others as it was passed on to me. Jim Masland was the first architect I met, while he must have seen that I would never achieve a high level as a player, he must have seen something in me where he spent countless hours passing along his great wisdom about this game. I was like a sponge. I absorbed everything he offered. In fact, every coach I've had I've absorbed every bit of their squash wisdom. I might not feed the best, or hang for more than a couple of games at the A level, and I might not follow the conventions of many coaches, but I want for every player that I come across to play the best squash, because when you play the best squash, this game is magical. There's no certification for this, no real measurement of success, as a building architect doesn't know why the building he's designed is a success other than to know that people live and flourish or work and thrive in the structures he or she designed and had built. I want a player like Haadi of my son, especially, to have the option of doing whatever they want with their game we've architected...that for me might just be the measure of success of being a good coach.

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