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Mental Agility & Strength
Practice, Physical, Movement & Matches from Peter Nicol

We all know improving fitness is an easy way of becoming a better squash player. However, one area and element of the game that we forget about that can also dramatically improve your standard is mental agility and strength. You have to remember that the person who gets the ball up on the front wall last in a rally wins the point. Therefore, if you're stubborn, strong enough physically and technically, then you'll be able to win more points in this manner and thus win more often. I know this from the early part of my career when I had a very limited game and relied heavily on physical and mental strength.

So how can you get mentally tougher?

A very simple way is that every time you go on to court, pick your racket up, train, warm-up - do it correctly. It sounds simple but is rarely done at any level of squash. An accumulation of doing everything well correctly gives you mental agility, more options in your tactical locker and greater resilience and mental strength. And the reason that should give you strength is because you see everyone around you making mistakes, taking shortcuts, not warming up properly, not doing the physical training (or doing it but doing it halfheartedly), not getting back to the T every time in practice. If you can do this you're doing everything better, harder, smarter than anyone else therefore walking into play a match against those same people you're going to have more confidence in your own abilities and less fear of theirs - all because of the level of mental focus you've shown yourself that you are capable of.

Practice - every time you step on court to practice be very particular about starting well from beginning. Start from your grip, understand what is happening with your swing, get into the correct position every time you get the ball, strike the ball with purpose every time and then finally what is the focus of the routine and are you doing it correctly. If you are practising boast/drive make sure every boast goes up on the front wall even if the shots are looser than maybe you'd normally hit. No mistakes means the onus is on your opponent to beat you. I've seen too many boast/drive routines where 30% of the boasts are going in the tin just purely out of a lack of mental focus. If you cut those errors out, all of a sudden you've done everything the best you possibly can, maintained the practice and you will undoubtedly gain mental strength from this - not to mention physical conditioning as the practice continues longer with less stops and is harder work!

Physical - it's so easy to do physical activities with poor form or not to your actual maximum. So, if you do 10 press ups you do 10 press ups, don't do nine or eight or seven good ones and three poor ones you do 10 good ones. Set the goal so it is realistic, no point in attempting 1000 court sprints if you will have to stop after 251. However, once you've set the goal, stick to the task, work hard, maintain good form and push through right to the end giving maximum effort. If you find yourself in the middle of the 5th game and both you and your opponent are exhausted, that is when all the physical sessions should kick in and you know you can get through the next period. You are capable because of the mental focus you put into the physical sessions.

Movement - sometimes practice your movement to the extremes. In practice or during ghosting exercises, move to the T every time, even when it is not necessary, practicing moving further to make it harder on yourself forces you to mental challenge. Your body will go back to finding the shortest route to the ball if you let it but by forcing the extra distance out of yourself, the benefit if huge. You are moving faster (necessity if going greater distances in the same time), aware of your position more, physically work much harder and finally you end up playing the appropriate shot relating to the pressure you are under. Using movement practice in this way can really boost your confidence as you will be surprised how much better you can play/practice moving in this way than meandering around the court. Practicing different ways to move and getting into different strike positions - left foot forward, right foot forward, two footed stance, etc - is also a great way to give you confidence. Practice all these different techniques to understand what is the best one to do in certain areas of the court at specific times. By doing this you are learning for yourself more and that understanding should give you more mental strength/confidence stepping onto the court.

Practice matches - in practice matches, do exactly that, practice aspects of your game. Maybe don't try to win; practice your technique, movement, ball striking, tactical aspects of the game that you're trying to improve. You are going to lose some of those practice matches but donšt worry about that as when you come to an actual match and you're playing exactly the way you supposed to in order to beat that particular opponent, you can do so because you've learnt to play in different manners through the practice matches. You've learnt to play different styles and you can choose the one that fits to beat your opponent.

Competitive matches - to know that you've actually done all the work in different areas of the game when you come into a match is a really exciting and positive experience. You are putting together all the different aspects you've worked on to become the best player you can be in that match to win and when the match gets tough you have the ability to adapt because of all the practice you have done, to fight and do exactly what's needed to try and win the match. I think this is where the training, all that mental toughness begins to show because you are able to adapt your game not solely because of your movement or ball striking practicing for example but what you are really showing is the mental agility and toughness you have attained through the weeks, months and years of practice. Working and training correctly and to the best of your ability, gives you so much faith and confidence in what you are capable of.

So there are lots of different ways to work on becoming mentally stronger but for me a very simple one is to do everything on court, off court, around your squash to the best of your ability and with focused attainable goals. Continue to practice to improve in every aspect of the game and that will give you the mental strength, toughness and agility to understand what needs to be done from a mental standpoint at any given time in a game to help you win matches.