Coaching Technique: One Size Does Not Fit All!

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Gaultier AWsome Sports
Gregory Gaultier

Squash technique is an interesting thing. There is definitely a way to make contact with the ball which helps every shot, and for almost every shot that way is to have a slightly open racket face when you strike the ball. By that I mean the head of your racket is slightly facing up toward the ceiling. To explain – if a completely flat shot is hit with the strings parallel to the front wall then let’s say that is 0 degrees. A completely open shot would have the strings parallel to the ceiling, so a 90 degree tilt. For most shots coaches would recommend an angle of 35-45%. However, there are times when some shots have to played with a flatter angle, eg. scraping the ball off the backhand wall in the front corner, or if the ball comes at your feet very quickly; and there are other times when it is beneficial to have a more open racket face, eg. when the ball is behind your body.

For me, this ‘contact phase’ is the most important aspect of technique – not what your arm does before you make contact with the ball. I would actually put more emphasis on your follow-through (what your arm does after you have made contact with the ball) than your arm preparation (backswing). I would put much more importance on movement, balance and body position above arm preparation.

For this blog we will just look at the arm, not the movement.

Nick Matthew Volley Drop
Nick Matthew playing his signature forehand volley drop.

We have just been through a period of time in England where the emphasis of elite coaching has been placed on the wrong aspect of technique, the backswing – leading to a characteristic “England Squash Technique” in many players and especially juniors. Nick Matthew is one of the greatest ever players and I’ve always enjoyed watching him play – but just because his technique worked perfectly for him and helped form his signature forehand volley drop, it does not mean it is the right technique for everyone else. Making ‘clones’ is not the right way to coach.

Egyptian players are a great example of this. They all have different techniques. Their backswings / arm preparations are unique to each and every player. Nouran Gohar differs greatly from Raneem El Welily. Mohamed ElShorbagy has a low, compact backswing, as does Zahed Salem, which I really like. Yet Tarek Momen has a much ‘loopier’ backhand preparation when he has the time. Ali Farag has a loose, ‘wristy’ approach and Mohamed Abouelghar’s forehand preparation looks like he will make contact with the ball ‘too flat’, as often does Marwan’s. But the one thing they all have in common is that they all connect with the ball precisely how they want to and they can execute superb shots time after time.

The key to a “good technique” is a swing which will allow the player to make contact with the ball exactly how they want to – irrelevant of what their arm did before contact. There is not just one “good technique”. Quality shot execution comes from understanding how to play the shot in-terms of the racket face. Expecting to only ever hit a squash shot one way is naive and foolish. Tarek Momen knows when he has time to take a bigger, loopier preparation and he also knows when he needs a shorter preparation – and he can do both. Marwan ElShorbagy recognises when to hit the ball with more slice (a more open racket face) and when to hit the ball flatter (a more closed racket face). This is what makes a great technique – one which functions at the highest level of the game and in every situation.

Squash is so fast often there isn’t time for any preparation. I feel if many of these Egyptian players had been English they would have had their natural techniques coached out of them in their early teens, and they would have developed a solid, but less adaptive style of play. Their ability to hit any shot in any situation would be massively reduced, and hence, they would be worse players than they are now.

If you look at the French players too, many look alike because they move in very similar ways to each other, yet their techniques are different. Gregoire Marche’s swing comes from over the ball height more than Gaultier’s does for example, and they’re both lovely, classy looking players. Mathieu Castagnet has a different swing again, sometimes ‘winding up’ and sometimes ‘poking’ with little backswing. Gaultier in-particular has the wonderful ability to hit the ball hard, to hit soft, to hit with a lot of slice around the outside of the ball, and to hit the ball flat – and all from a very relaxed ‘racket down’ kind of approach – all of which has made him one of the best players ever, and personally my favourite player to watch for the past 15 years.

Malcolm Willstrop has helped to produce some exceptional English players over the years (Simon Parke, Lee Beachill, James Willstrop and Saurav Ghosal just to name a few). He has always seemed to have the right idea, considering shot quality, shot selection and overall style of play to be of more importance than technique. Patrick Rooney who has recently trained a lot with James Willstrop in Pontefract, has a nice fluid technique and can make lightning adjustments to create interesting angles in a rally – he just needs to be confident enough to express himself and not be too conservative / too “traditionally English” in his tactical approach when he plays higher ranked opponents. I hope he can make his move up the rankings soon because he’s already 23.

Occasionally technique goes out the window altogether and you simply need to manipulate the wrist in-order to hit a decent shot – but you need to be loose enough in your arm and your brain that you can react, and that your ‘go-to’ technique isn’t so ingrained that you can’t adjust in a split second.

Technical input is very important if anyone is going to make it to the top of the game, but it cannot be the same rigid input churned out over-and-over again – technical coaching must put forward essential principles but be flexible from player to player.