What's On My Mind
by Matthew Munich
March 18, 2014

Recently, I was talking with a friend about a problem he was having with his tennis game.  He had come back to competitive play after a brief hiatus.  In the conversation, he identified the problem of his wandering concentration, of large, multi-game gaps where he went somewhere else, much to the detriment of his play.  So, we talked about drills he could use to stay focused, to sit the straying puppy mind.  Then, he wrote me an email saying that he thought the problem was connected to his fitness level, and I wrote back agreeing that as fitness wanes, so too concentration.  Then he wrote again saying that he thought that what the problem really needed was a thorough assessment.  Again, I had to agree.  So, since that conversation, the issue of assessment has been on my mind.

    Most club-level, or even league-level players tend to solve problems in their games with an equipment change. It's the easiest, least invasive procedure, promising the latest “game-improving” technology.  But a quick peek into any golfer's closet will reveal many such quick fixes: discarded putters and drivers by the dozen that were going to be The Answer.  These rejected solutions hint at a truth we all know too well: retail therapy feels good in the moment, but doesn’t go very far in solving more pervasive, underlying issues.  So, I have had the following thoughts for squash players looking to move up on their club ladder, beat their nemesis, and reach new levels of prowess:

    Fitness.  At any and every skill level, fitness will be a major factor in winning or losing.  While we have all been spared the tremendous fitness burden of 9-point scoring, squash still remains a very anaerobically demanding sport.  Most players use their regular matches as their fitness regimen.  But, if they were to dedicate even one workout slot per week to improving their anaerobic capacity, they would be amazed at the result.  It's not just concentration that frays with fatigue, but everything does.  Everything.  Another way of saying this is that without a good fitness base, every problem in a close match will be one of fitness.  So, get that problem out of the way.

    Willingness.  The next most important skill in assessing problems is really a frame of mind rather than one of technique: a willing attitude toward hearing or seeing the problem as it is.  I recently read an article that reviewed findings from a study on self-assessment.* The bad news was that it turns out we are pretty bad self-assessors, and further, we tend to inflate our abilities in just those areas in which we have a weakness.  Experts call this problem a problem of metacognition, which is, in essence, the ability to get some distance from our own thoughts.  An additional dimension to this syndrome is how entrenched it is.  We don’t give up our incorrect assessments easily.  We tend to believe what we believe.  So, in order to assess problems in our games we have to be both willing to be wrong about our own thoughts about our game, and willing to hear what the real problem might be.

    Data.  Much as we like to complicate it, squash is a fairly simple game.  Therefore, our data collection does not need to take on the same nutty statistical analysis as golf or baseball.  But if the article I referenced above is correct, we do need outside eyes.  Take a lesson from your pro, videotape a match, or have someone track your match with a score sheet.  How many tins do you hit?  When do you hit them?  Do you go through highs and lows?  Can someone give you insight into your shot selection?  Your footwork?  Any data point will help, as long as it contributes to seeing the problem for what it is, not for how you think it.  You may notice that some problems are brand new to you, while others are ones you actually knew about but were somehow avoiding bringing to your fully conscious mind.  The more interested you can be in discovering problems, the more open you will be to their remediation.

    One unifying feature of successful assessment is the absence of ego.  Generally, you will find that greater ego investments yield fewer dividends in truth.  And every skill I’ve discussed above requires a diminishing of ego investment.  I will close with a personal anecdote along these lines.  During the time that I was playing in a great deal of tournaments, training hard, and fancying myself a pretty good player, my work took me to Washington, D.C. for a year.  As it happened, Ken Hiscoe (“The Bear”) was also living in D.C. that year, and giving lessons.  Figuring that you rarely get the opportunity to get on court with someone who was once #2 in the world, I signed up for some lessons, hoping to add some fancy new tricks to my quiver.  Well, after about ten minutes into our first session, The Bear turns to me and says, “your length is really not that good.  Needs to be much better.”  My length?!  The most basic of all squash skills!  Well, though it took a bit to choke down, I signed on to his program, improved my length throughout the year, and went on to meet and surpass many of the goals I had set for myself.  Or, I guess I could have just bought a new racquet.

*Kruger, J. & Dunning, D.  1999.  Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  1121-1134.

Matt Munich: When Matt is not torturing himself over the perfect sentence to craft for his current work of fiction, he is a clinical social worker helping children and adults recover from traumatic stress.  He is also starting a sport psychology consultation service for which he writes a blog, often hosted on The Daily Squash Report, on the cognitive challenges of sport to help athletes of all ages and skill levels achieve their full potential.  Matt has  been involved in competitive squash at all levels since middle school, and has been a teaching pro and coached several high school squash programs.  He is still at it, harboring delusions of grandeur despite what has been generally recognized as a modest degree of natural ability and the wages of cruel time on his already blunted reaction time.  He lives in Jamaica Plain, MA with Melissa, his wife and muse.  His blog can be seen at: http://altiusperformanceworks.blogspot.com/

What's On My Mind is a column by rotating authors.
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