Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Vidant's First Tournament -- His Parents' First One Too.

Vidant, one of my students, played in his first junior tournament (BU11) this past weekend at City View. I wasn't able to attend, but I did receive emails and text messages expressing concern over his first round loss (later I learned to the Number 1 seed). Knowing the pain and disappointment of parents when seeing their child loose, is hard, but I think most kids take it in stride. My son was very mediocre in the juniors, but he was always or for the most part I thought one of the better players. He just wasn't fit enough to hang with the usual dashers and bashers who dominate the junior tournaments through most of the ranks. But to really keep it in perspective, what you do in the juniors won't seem all that important unless you stop playing squash. But if you go on to college squash or professional competition, the "juniors" won't matter. Squash players develop differently, but with the emphasis on winning, just learning the game correctly is often overlooked. That correct way will pay dividends down the road because it is the foundation for all future squash endevours. A junior's play, especially at a young age isn't an indication of their character or future successes. Because Vidant faulted on the serve, dosn't mean he'll be a failure for his junior career, nor isn't indicative of what he'll do later on in his real life and squash life. Vidant's mother really means well, his father a bit more laid back on it I think took it in stride. As for Vidant, he's very court smart, and I had him hit with Haadi on the court while I talked to his mother about the tournament. I listened carefully to what she was saying, she picked out all valid points, his shots to the middle of the court, faulting on the serve (it seems he was trying to hit a lob serve for a winner), and generally just being overmatched. While I was listening I was watching Vidant and Haadi have some nice rallies. What I saw was a junior player who was structuring the point extremely well but just not executing his shots. So I turned to his mother and said watch how he plays, look at the structure in his game, rail, rail, deep cross, volley drop tin! But it was impressive because it was squash, not some semblance of squash mixed with 5 other rackets sports. Haadi came off the court and remarked Vidant's shots are a lot better, to which his mom added he's comfortable with Haadie. Yes, tournament play is different, but if you have a structure that is solid you can always impose that structure against an opponent, even one who just happens to hit down on the ball with a two handed backhanded number 1 seed that he is. If Vidant works hard (not to be confused with pushed hard) and continues the way he's doing, somewhere in the 14 thru 17 year old range he'll be a force. I just hope I'm there to coach this really talented junior who is just now beginning to have a dialogue with me -- he is a young lad of so few words, for now.

Monday, March 22, 2010

If It Works, Why Change It? Lob vs Backhand Serve...

I am a student of the game, just plain and simple. I study this game and am always looking for ways to improve my understanding, my technique, level of play so I can pass that on to my students or anyone who listens. I am fortunate because my son is a high level player and I can always pass these things by him and thrash it about. He is also an astute student of the game, but his goal is to pick up things he can use first and foremost in match play.

About a month ago, much to the encouragement of my son I started converting my service to the forehand side to my opponents backhand receiving side from a very effective lob serve to the backhand serve the pros started using years back. My son has been using this server for a number of years. I knew it had an advantage, a significant advantage, in theory but I have a great lob serve so why would I change it? That the backhand serve is a better serve, straight and simple, there's no doubt -- the pros wouldn't use it if it weren't. It eliminates one complete step (this is a game of inches, here we're talking about a foot or more) in moving to the T off the serve and preparing for your opponents return. It's not an eacy serve to hit but with practice and the right technique, it didn't take long to start hitting that serve with a good deal of effectiveness. And most importantly, I find myself early in preparing for my opponents return off the serve.

My most favorite student, Margaret Higgins, started converting to this serve and, while it's only been a couple of weeks, it's coming along nicely. She recently told me she played one of the better players at the club and faulted alot. Her opponent remarked, "if the lob serve works, why change it?" I didn't have much time to go into it with her, but just told her stick with it, it will happen and it's without a doubt a better serve. I should have qualified this by explaining you basically target the ball in the same way you do with the lob serve with a couple of differences, one of which I already described with less a step for early preperation to receive the opponents return of your serve. The other, is you put a slight angle slice on the inside of the ball (that part of the inside of the ball closest to the racquet face), creating a rotation on the ball equivalent to a righthand pitcher's curve ball tailing away on a lefthand batter -- I think that's right. The ball isn't flat nor does it have the underspin of a lob server. The motion on the ball is different.

The great thing about squash is that it is constantly evolving, changing, as a number of outside variables come into play and pro players adapt to changes in fitness levels, speed, racket technology, even changes in the ball composition. Students of the game learn from the pros, learn by observing and understanding what they're doing and why they're doing it.

During our club round robin the other day Margaret served from the backhand side to her opponents rightside forehand and faulted. A few points later, she served with the backhand serve to her opponents backhand and faulted and shot me this dagger of a look, as if to say, "you're making me do this!" and being the fierce competitor she is, she doesn't like to give any points away. When she came off the court I remarked how well she played, and then paused, and reminded her matter-of-factly that she earlier faulted on the forehand side of the court as well. No explanation needed. She got it.

I will be surprised if her opponent who remarked on why 'change her serve' isn't hitting the same backhand serve in 3 months, certain then that Margaret was only too happy to show him how.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Be Careful What You Wish For -- Squash Alive and Well at LA Fitness

What a difference a year makes -- I've written before how squash at the Lake Success, NY LA Fitness club has gone from empty courts to a solid squash membership. A year ago the courts were empty, few people played, and whenever I'd call for court time and ask what was available the front desk taking racquetball and squash court reservations would laugh, "any court you want anytime;" followed by "what exactly is squash?" It was around that time that we heard rumors that one of the two squash courts would be converted to a racketball court (sort of like devolution if you ask me). That was really worrisome, because it would be first one court then the other and then no squash for us, except playing in the City. My son and I spent years playing and paying in the City to the tune of thousands of dollars in court time, tolls, gas, driving and parking.

My son and I both coach so we decided to start making some things happen at the club. It's worked out so far beyond what we expected. We have literally an influx of players from racketball who have converted to squash. Some are really good. and will no doubt be even better as they play more and take some lessons. We match up players and I was doing many lessons each week and spending hours on the court, often hitting and just pointing things out about someone's game. And then people watch me and my son play and the fierce battles (in my own mind -- my son is playing in his head conditional games) we have and they like that, especially when I come off the court drenched in perspiration and breathing so hard I think my lungs will burts, "quite a good workout," they'll ask. To which I say, "the best there is."

We have a very active Saturday afternoon round robin that is very competitive, especially now that we've implemented a handicap system. The better players have to really play the points hard, because with a 5 point disadvantage in par scoring anything can happen. The energy is great and we don't charge -- it also gives me an opportunity to see my students play and see what we need to work on for the next lesson time. We've just now put together a league of our own fielding 5 teams of 3 players and 1 alternative. Juniors are assigned to a team and play the junior member of the opposing team. It's worked out very well and you can see players stepping outside their usual circle. The round robin has also spawned match play among players who played well against each other. Pooya and Faraz had a great round robin match last weekend, both solid 3.5 players +, they had long rallies, very structured points, they just fed into each other's games and it was very fun to watch. We also referee the match because my students came back from a tournament asking rules and referee questions, so best to just do some hands on refereeing with them during these matches.

So with all this activity, wouldn't you believe you just can't get a court now, they are booked 6 am until 10 pm every night! People are complaining, is this a good thing? We're beginning to eye the racketball court next to squash court 7, can you imagine now, "can I reserve a squash court for next Wednesday, 7 or 8 pm?", the front desk says, " Court 8, 8 pm is the last court available." I book it just happy to have that court. In the long run those complaining will welcome what's going on ... there will be a bigger pool of better players, better matches and better play. Wishes do somtimes come true.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Haadi Takes the T and Margaret Glides

My two most favorite students, young 14 year old Afghani warlord descendant Haadi and ex-Princeton Captain, Margaret (aka Grace Kelly/Pitbull) reached some incredible milestones this week. For weeks, or what seemed like an eternity, Haadi, struggled in the rotating rails drill. He hung back, missed shots, and spent 99% of his time up against the backwall. I kept telling him over and over again to step up, cut the ball off and take the T. He would hit his shot, stop and watch, and then move towards the T as I struck the ball he'd have to scurry to the back, after awhile, the mind and body kept telling him, just stay back, why bother, your pinned back there. But his coach is telling him no, step up, move up, cut the ball off, hit a better shot and take the T! We'd repeat this over and over again...maybe it was because I told him that if he broke another racquet in anger, threw a tantrum when he was loosing, yell in frustration, I wouldn't coach him for a month. I meant it. I gave him my Hotmelt Pro last night, we drilled a bit, played the short game, did ghosting, he was moving well. We went into rotating rails, and just like that, it clicked, he stepped up, cut the ball off and moved me off the T. I could see by the expression on his face, he knew what I knew, he took another step towards becoming a squash player.
Prior to Haadi's lesson, I had a session with Margaret. We'd recently had some difficult sessions, but tonight, when we were doing these ghosting drills with Haadi, I observed a woman who really just is smooth, who can really glide on the court. We did some drills, mostly getting her to cut the ball off in the back by vollying of the side walls or stepping up and cutting the ball off -- I play cross courts out of the front court, she retrieves, volleys, to herself and boasts back to me. She struggled a bit, but then started to pick it up, lunging towards the ball, cutting it off or taking it early off the side wall. But what so impressed me is that while she lacks strength in the quads and whatever that muscle in the achilles that makes you explode on your first step, she moves beautifully. We talked about what she needs to do to strengthen those quads and calves/achilles like lunges and skipping rope. She has three children, her life is incredbily demanding, so it's hard to train and devote that kind of time, she said. I showed no sympathy, and reminded her I was a single parent with two small kids and a demanding job and trained relentlessly. I hope she took it in the vein I meant it, encouragement. I do believe she can be a national champion, and it is for me to push her and if she wants that to get her prepared for that level of competition.
What was most rewarding to me was the next day receiving an email from her telling me she didn't know how I trained her, got on the court with Haadi, all in a day where I trained my son at 530 am and worked on my tech project --my answer was simple, it's so darn easy when I watch Haadi step up and strike that ball early and see Margaret run her star drills, move around the court so smoothly, and above all, to know and recognize that it is those two who raise the bar, not me.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Angles of Both the Squash Court and Real Life -- To Oleg Pakidoff

I've often wondered what makes this great game of squash so incredible and yet so immensely challenging. I won't say I've come to any conclusions, because that too, in squash isn't always the best thing to do. But this has been quite a week...I was on the court hitting with my new EyeRacket 120, I finally found a racket to switch to, never thinking I'd give up 6 years of Dunlop Hotmelt Pro use -- but I did. Anyways, I just loved the feel of this racket and the forehands and backhands I was hitting, great control, nice on the follow through. Of course 15 grams or so lighter did make a difference in racket speed. As I started to move the ball around from rail to cross to rail again, I found myself moving to the ball extremely well, great distance, good preparation and great length (the ghosting drills are paying off). I picked up the pace a bit and then the aforementioned elements began to break down a bit. It sort of just hit me, my shots were better, so my retrieval of my own shots were more pressured and then the angles began to move around which is really the source of the challenge in this game. I stopped and just looked at those simple, elegant, red lines that dip on the side walls to lower on the back corners, it opens up so manyu possibilities, almost endless. It introduces so many different variables where the ball hits and at what pace -- in combination with movement, distance, quickness, racquet preparation...well, you sort of get the hint. I thought about this all week how this came to me and how I might have intuitively known it, but when I started playing with the new racquet, it made sense. But another event much more incredible to me than what I just described happened to me outside the court. My beloved uncle, Oleg Packidoff, from Russia called me late last night through Skype, remarkable, because I lost touch with him and my Grandpa Igor and the family there after the fall of the USSR. I have been searching to reconnect for well over 20 years and here, in an instant, through a phone call it just came to me. His life, their lives, spanning wars, exodus, and this most wonderful uncle who was once orphaned for two years after the war and my Grandpa finding him in a post wore torn Russian orphanage... I met him years ago when he came to visit and we wrote once a week to one another for years until communication just stopped. What does this have to do with squash? Not much, except these angles in life, infinite in possiblity, are no different than those on the squash court. While I have been frustrated in squash and equally in life, for example, losing my Russian relatives as well as enduring a few years of injuries on the court, things change, the angles become different. What was once hard on the court now is easier and what was once unfathomable on the court now seems possible. The same with my Russian relatives, what once seemed so futile finding them amidst all the chaos, now seems so simple, it was Skype, we both just needed to be on Skype. As for my Eyeracket, maybe like Skype that brought me and my uncle together over a vast array of different angles in our lives, it just took me hitting with a different racket to get a different feel, a different angle(s) on the court. As long as I can connect the dots to life and squash it will always be just something to shake my head about and smile widely inside at this good fortune.