Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Matt's Evolving Backhand -- Update!

When I first saw Matt Levine on the court I thought coaching him could be a real challenge. He is very athletic but had some of the worst squash technique I had seen. No fault of Matt's, as I later learned in talking with him that he never had a lesson. I suggested we get on the court. For some reason, there was something in Matt's movement and hands, even though disguised by so many challenging flaws, that made me want to coach this guy. One big advantage Matt had was he hadn't been playing long enough for all the bad technique to embed themselves in his muscle memory. That can be really hard for a coach to correct things that have become so embedded in a long time player.
I told Matt to first decide what he wants to get out of this. I asked him to set his goals and expectations. His immediate response was to beat Russ, his playing partner, and a student of my son's. I thought to myselt, this could be interesting. I outlined for him a 3 month game plan whereupon we would establish a basic foundation for future improvement and advancement. I almost guaranteed him that he would be beating Russ soundly by then.
We went to work 1-3 times a week. What I first noticed about Matt was how coachable he was. He's very smart and really liked all of the technical approach to the game. He was extremely interested in the cause and effect of squash, for example, I told him that he might hit a decent rail with bad raquets and footwork when the ball is in front of him, but with what he's doing when the game starts moving behind him he won't be able to compete. For most, this is hard to grasp. There are some very decent players who completely breakdown when they have to routinely retrieve the ball out of the back corners. You can see these players all the time they will try and cut everything off and prefer to hit a very bad volley or weak return rather than let a decent rail or cross court past them to play out of the back. Matt picked this up right away as I slowly moved the ball just behind the service box back line on the forehand. He started to spray the ball and the qulaity of his shots deteriorated rapidly. He saw this right away and wanted to know what to do about it. The perfect student -- how does he fix what's wrong. We adjusted his grip on the forehand from a continental to where the "V" of the grip was turned clockwise. He had a tencency to open wide his swing and to slap the ball. He broke his wrist which caused his raquet to drop. We spent about a month on this technique and then started incorporating foot work as well. We worked exclusively on hitting the ball when it's bouncing before the front line of the service box. We focused his feet on lowering his heels more since he tended to almost move on the upper ball of his feet, like he was tip toeing. We focused on distance between the ball and him. We also started doing lunges on the court with straight back, eyes fixed ahead -- he needed more strength in his quadriceps and better balance when bending at the knees. Most critical was to get him strong enough to bend at the knees and drive the ball rather than bending at the waist which kills the back and caused the player hit off balance. Again, the balance is for a better shot but also for recovering back to the "T" from the shot you just hit -- there to prepare to retrieve your opponent's next shot.
Today, for the first time I was able to start hitting balls that bounced past the front service box line. Matt's rails are B level now and he consistantly hits the same rail from the feed over and over. It's now part of his practice muscle memory and getting to the much anticipated playing muscle memory. We will work on cleaning up some residual problems but he's now ready to start cutting the ball off and will soon be retrieving out of the corners. I'll report on his progress in a couple of weeks and see where he is. Great job, Matt, your forehand looks really good.

Matt Levine has come a long way since I last wrote this. The other day I had him on the court and began teaching him how to hit half volleys. he was in the good T position and I was in the front court. To his forehand I hit backhand cross courts that at first bounced off the side wall, simulating short cross court shots. I told him I wanted him to volley every shot I hit like this and then boast it back to me, whereupon, I would drop to myself and repeat the sequence. I moved the ball up and down the court as far back as the back of the service box. I wanted him to get a feel for the ball coming off the sidewall and the distance he needed to maintain to strike and volley the ball well. It was ragged at first but thenb he started to stay off the side wall. For weeks he had been working on lunging and sprinting and building leg strength. It was now paying off. He was starting to move away from the wall and use the lunge to measure and close the distance. He started hitting crisp rails back to himself and I watched with a bit of amazement how deft he was at this. I started sending balls back his way that required him to hit straight volleys or let them bounce to get him to make decisions on which balls to half volley and which ones not to.
Then I started to really get down to business. The shot we all dreaded at the C and B levels was that deep cross court that dies in the corner and forced us to back wall the ball or hit a boast, we marvelled at others who could hit a rail off that shot. I told Matt he now had to change his angle on the ball and approach the ball a bit differently. My great friend and coach Jim Masland always told mean quick feet and slow racquet. there's no better advice when teaching this shot. I watched Matt hurl himself at the ball and like a blind man stabbing his cane in the air.
Whiff. Each time I would show him where he needed to make the adjustment. Don't commit to cutting the ball off and then folliwng behing the ball: Death Valley. don't charge the ball and get to close. Move along the neutral area just outside the service box and folliwng the ball until it hits the side wall: demonstrating to him that the ball doesn't hit the side wall and then drop to the floor. The ball comes off the wall and it is there he needs to gauge and strike the ball. It took about a half hour but he started hitting these shots. then he started hitting them with good length. Occassionally, I would hit the shot that is most difficult that has such a trajectory and soft touch that it hits deep off the side wall and drops and dies. I showed him this is where his lunge, deep lunge, very low to the ball was required. He needed to hit this shot sometimes off his shoestrings. Okay, we accomplished quite a bit and called it a day, played some points and hit the water cooler. Let's see how Matt does in the coming weeks on that difficult volley.
Matt has been working to strengthen his legs by doing lots of lunges and using weights in his lunging. The results have been good he is now strong enough to cut the ball off in the back corners and is learning to attack the ball WITH HIS FEET, he is so much more low to the ball and exudes a great deal of confidence. We're working on staying away from the side wall and lunging more so he can clear better and not create these let or sroke situations from being too close to the side wall.
He's coming along quite nicely.

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