Sunday, January 10, 2010

Challenging the Gifted Squasher

I first saw Vidant hitting with his dad one day and it took all of 10 seconds to see this 11 year old had something special. He was hitting the ball as if his arm was a slingshot, but this ever so slight, thin young man from Bombay, had some of it right and was crushing the ball for decent length. I thought to myself, this kid could be really good.

I spoke to his dad, Ashok, a urologist, who, in watching him play, exhibited great hands and deft touch when striking the ball -- no doubt a surgeon's hands.

Vidant proved a challenge, because he already had some success in the way he hit the ball, but his technique was wrong, and I was concerned with how he might eventually hurt his shoulder or elbow. He had come from CityView Squash and they are pretty good there, but he was doing things only partly right. He brought his racquet back, but not back enough, and then turned his torso and with a slingshot motion spun around to crush a backhand cross court.

We spent months on feeds and playing points and the improvement was slight. I couldn't get him to adopt a technique that would get him to control the ball and retrieve the ball better. He was still hitting comfortably everything in front of him, but struggled with balls he had to cut off or play out of the back.

What's most interesting to me about coaching is the challenge of really reaching your student on a level that they buy into. The smarter the pupil (and I don't mean book smart), the harder it is to reach them at that level where they will really improve. Vidant was attracted to some of the fun stuff in squash, the trickery, behind the back shots, reverses, nicks, etc. but wasn't all that interested in the fundamentals. How do you get an 11 year old who likes all that flashy stuff to understand that it takes years of what amounts to drudgery in drills and thousands of basic shots before you can successfully do that stuff. Did Michael Jordan start dunking his first year in high school? Probably not, but what he did do was begin a path to understand and perfect the very fundamentals of basketball -- not all that different from squash: balance, distance, focus, speed, stamina, technique.

I started trying to provide some targets for Vidant and to challenge him subtly with suggestions and comments, that while encouraging him, suggested he might be struggling with other things, like better length, changing the pace, and covering the back court. It wasn't until recently that I finally found the angle I had been looking for. We were working on his better shot, the forehand, and I had been spending the past 4 sessions on hitting for length, taking pace off and retrieiving and cutting the ball off out of the corners. Other, less talented students, had by now picked this up, but he hadn't.

In this past session, we again faced this hurdle, he just wasn't buying into it. What I did was say to him that if this is too difficult let's practice something else. I used my other really talented student as an example and said, "Haadi had trouble with this as took him awhile to get it." That wasn't true, Haadi had actually picked it up pretty quickly. What transpired in the next half hour was eye opening. Vidant started moving to the ball, cutting off the angles, and striking the best forehands of any of my students, including Haadi. The balls were A level length and tight to the wall. I started moving him deeper in the court and he was having trouble striking the ball but I could see he was looking to me to help him figure out how to fix that. I suggested he fix the angle of his approach to the ball and also wait for the ball to come out a bit if it came off the back wall. His footwork was the best, his preparation excellent and he started hitting some tough shots.

I was absolutely ecstatic at what he had done at the end of the session, and was so proud of him. As a coach, the obvious reward is helping a student achieve a goal, however big or small. But what was best about this was I found a way to reach him on a level that seemed to tell him, he can trust me to make him a better player. I learned from this as well, because I'm often not the most patient coach (my son can readily attest to that), and I expect a lot from those who have a gift for this game, but from Vidant, so incredibly talented, I learned that a coach has to prove himself to the student. He seemed to challenge and test me as if to say, prove to me you know how to coach me...

But you're only as good as your last success, we will see how it goes as we start preparing him for tournament play in the coming months. Bring on the backhand, time to fix that too.

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