Balls to the Wall: Stroke It, Don't Poke It
by Alan Stapleton

November 27, 2015

Wham-Bang-Thank You-Man! Moer-en-soek stuff. That’s what we, South Africans are good at.
South African sportsmen are labelled for their physicality, their passionate drive, and tough defensive systems. Skill , out-of-the-box tactical thinking and flair, is definitely there, but  is somehow ground out of us as somehow, that competitive drive to win, forces our coaches and sportsmen into safety-first thinking. Never was this more clear than in the recent Rugby World Cup, where, after flirting with an expansive game-plan, we resorted, with backs-to-the-wall, to a boring, lumbering, defensive, no frills, system/structure-based game plan. We came close, but there was no cigar. The sad thing is that most South African rugby, schools included, is entrenched into this mind-numbing game plan

20-20 cricket has also opened a can of magical worms for our cricketers, where AB de Villiers could arguably be dubbed, the most innovative, skilful batsman ever. But when it comes to bowling, whatever the wicket, we haul out our quickies and attempt to blast the opposition into smithereens. Skilful, arty spinning spin bowlers are rare jewels in South African cricket. And when they are found that flair is defensively boxed out of them and they become doer, tie-up-an-end, take-no-risks, slow bowlers. And as a result, our batsmen are equally as clueless when we are faced with skilful spinners. If ever transformation is needed, it is here. Schoolboy spinners should be forced into bowling a quota of overs per innings.

Similarly, South African squash players are labelled for their bull-doggish, I’ll chase-and-fetch-till-you-drop mentality. Leading South African Squash light, Steve Coppinger, when asked what South Africans need to do, to get themselves up to international level of play, answered, “We have heaps of good juniors, but they seem to … disappear after school. But South Africans are known for guts/determination/mongrel. Effort and commitment are never short. I think what is missing is a closely linked combination of skill levels, of exposure to world class squash and the belief that we can BE world class.”

South African Squash players who add touch, guile, delay and deception into their games are as rare as those Shane Warne spinners, those Dan Carter fly-halves who spin a web of masterly genius over our smash-and-grab artists.

Watch our top players practising, and you will see the reason. Plenty of time will be put into endless driving down the wall, thoughtless closed-mind boast-and-driving sessions and even more, mindless lengths of jelly-leg running. Maybe, just maybe, a squirt of time will be spent on developing their touch games

Watch a game of top level junior squash, and you will seldom see the drop shot being played from the middle or back of the court. You will see plenty of predictable pokey counter-drops played at the front of the court with minimal margin for error. As the errors increase, so the confidence erodes, and so the shot is played less, and less. And our player reverts to the tried-and-tested “ala-Heyneke” drive-to-the-back Defensive Game Plan.

Developing the touch skills of the svelte, teasing drop shot and flirty, parabolic looping lob is difficult, time consuming and maybe, even boring.  For many South Africans, the measure of a successful practice session is one where the player has sweated hard, panted, puffed, and come out drenched and exhausted. But to achieve mastery of the touch game, one needs time, calm, quiet, the fore-playing soft hands of a lover, the balanced movement of a mystic ballet dancer. The practising skills need to be coached, and then hours on hours on hours of lonely practice ploughed into honing those skills to a level of mastery that seems to “just come naturally”.

But before that, they need to understand the WHY of the shot? For too many, the drop shot is seen as the coup de grace. The shot that ends the rally. That wins the point. No pressure!

But see it as an opportunity to move your opponent deep into the front corners, and the violin-string tension of the shot dissolves. Then, understand the WHEN? If you play the shot from the tee, with your opponent behind you, having played a loose, short drive, or sloppy boast, there is even less tension. The soft, practised hands now come into play. Gently, as if stroking a cat, you feel that rubbered  blob of hotness on your strings,pulling your opponent, puppet-like out of position. You now await his even weaker response, and NOW, you look for that killer blow, to end his misery. And you smile.

Touch is built around good technique. To develop that, it is key that players do not focus on the result of their shot in practice. Rather focus on the technique. The technique of bended legs shortened but defined back-swing, soft, relaxed hands, an open racquet face to impart backspin, a contact point at the peak of the bounce and a controlled follow through. There is no quick route to developing Touch. It takes time. On your own. That is where touch is born, quietly dabbling, experimenting, feeling your way.

And so , as Summer Leagues collapse to an end, and the 2015 Squash Year closes, most of us will be resting our racquets as we bronze and beer our beautiful bodies into the Christmas season. To all who have waded through my whirlpool of squashy ideas, - thank you for your patience. May your Christmas stockings be filled with Squashed surprises, and the subtle joys of a drop shot.  May the time spent away from work, with loved ones and special friends, revive and rejuvenate you and allow you to drop back, bright-eyed and full of bushy-tailed ideas of how to take your squash to another level of FUN in 2016.