Coaching Blog : The Middle Third
I was coaching a few days ago and a pupil said to me their strengths and weaknesses in terms of area of the court. He said that he felt he was good in the back half of the court but average at the front. My reply was – ‘What about the middle?’
He hadn’t even considered this, which alarmed me, especially given the years and years of coaching we’d done focusing on volleys! This brought to my attention that a lot of club players will look at the court and break it into two halves, either front and back, or forehand and backhand. This is too simple. The middle of the court, the area spanning across the half-court line, is THE MOST important area, and it seems it can be over-looked. Even if it is addressed in coaching ie. practicing volleys, it can still be missed in the players psyche.
Strength in this area is crucial. A player who is strong across the ‘T-Line’ can, and will dominate the rallies. As the opponent, if you cannot get the ball past the other player, ie. get the ball into the back corners, you’re basically screwed! Everyone knows (I hope) that you need to move your opponent away from the ‘T’, so an opponent who is always looking to volley and ‘cut the ball off’ one or two steps either side of the’T’, will pose to be an almost immovable wall, and one that can’t be beaten.
To do this, to be that player who dominates th Middle Third of the court – of course you need to be a competent volleyer as well as being quick and have good side to side movement, but what it really comes down to is MENTALITY. You need a Volleying Mentality. This is where you are constantly looking to volley the ball, and even if you think it would be easier to let the ball go to the back and hit it from there – don’t! Important lesson – Only let the ball go past you into the back if you cannot volley.
This needs a good ‘T’ position in the first place, which requires more effort : forcing yourself to move to the ‘T’ quickly instead of ambling toward the ‘T’ because you have the time to. This is why people don’t dominate and volley as much as they should – because it involves more effort! It is easier to walk to a position a metre behind the ‘T’, than it is to sprint to the ‘T’ after every shot. A truely great volleyer is one who is willing to put more energy into every single movement to place themselves on the ‘T’, time and time again. They know that hurting themselves in the short term has huge long term benefits, and that their opponent will do 5 times more work chasing their shots from every corner of the court when you’re just covering a few steps to the side of the ‘T’. They also know, more effort at the start of each rally to reach the ‘T’ after every shot (and in turn go on to dominate the rally in this middle third), will potentially lead to shorter rallies, because you’ll win them quicker (so there’s where you save your energy).
The real beauty of dominating this area, and in particular, volleying a lot, is that it makes your shot selection easier and less risky. It may sound crude but a volley smacked hard and low, running into the back corner, played from the middle of the court where your opponent is stuck behind you in the opposite back corner, will be just as effective as a drop shot played a centimetre above the tin. If you are the this middle zone, then your opponent cannot also be there, as you both can’t take up the same space. So…. if your opponent is not in the middle of the court (because you’re there!), then they must be towards one of the four corners (whichever corner they have just come from), which means there must be a larger than normal space on the opposite side of the court. Good advice in squash is to “hit into space” (an area of the court where your opponent is not). Dominating the Middle Zone creates these spaces earlier on in the rally.
Obviously all top professionals can dominate this Middle Zone, but two great examples of this Middle Third tactic – two extremely stubborn players who always look to dominate at any physical cost to themselves are Thierry Lincou and Nick Matthew. These two players would always look to volley, even at full stretch, and even when it would have been easier to not volley. Whenever you get the chance, have a look at some YouTube clips of these two players in particular, to see the efforts they go to dominate the Middle Zone. Enjoy.