Playing Against A Lesser Opponent
It is a very common trait and behaviour to drop your level to a lesser opponent. I get asked this question a lot and do a lot of work with players around the current mindset to exhibit in order not be dragged down to this level. I think we all find it a little easier to play up a level to an opponent that is better as we need to be focused, be on it from the start and stepping up our level in order to survive with them. It tends to be a little easier to do this as we need to adapt or die. However, when we step on court against a player we think we are better than and expect to beat quite comfortably, problems begin to arise if you fail to employ some of the below tactics and strategies. This blog will help give you some practical tools in order to keep your level high and to not get embroiled in a street fight by dropping your game down a level or two.
Don’t underestimate and respect
Arguably the most common thing that happens when you step on court against a lesser opponent is you underestimate them and think that purely by you just showing up and walking onto court that you will get the win. It’s a little bit of an attitude of “I am owed and deserve this win”. This is obviously not the case; you still need to execute and play the game and going onto court with this attitude can really drop your level. I feel it is a very reactive way to approach a match against a lesser opponent and one that can really drag you down. You are sitting back and waiting to see what happens without any real investment from your part. If you recognise this mindset, try and flip it in your head and give them respect as another competitor. Remember, they are also likely to raise their game as they have an opportunity to cause some damage against a higher ranked opponent and they can see this as a good scalp to claim
Warm up appropriately
One really simple thing to do is to warm up appropriately. So often when you are playing a player that is weaker than you it is very tempting to do the bare minimum and expect to win. Humans can be inherently lazy and skipping your warmup is one sure fire way to not activate yourself and get yourself as ready as possible to play at your best. It is much better to invest in a solid 5-min warm up rather than going 0-2 down and then spending the next 30-mins trying to claw yourself back into the match. This can be no fun! Also, with your warmup be sure to NOT just do a physical warm up to get your muscles activated and your heart rate up BUT perform a mental warm up also. Take time to think about your strengths, how you win most of your points and how you want the game to be played. Do some visualisation on this also to work on and stretch the neural pathways. Do not underestimate the value of a mental warm up and setting your intentions and attitudes before you hit the first ball will really allow you to keep to your usual level of play. Use the SquashMind app for guidance and tools such as visualisations and game planning scripts
Stick to your processes
You need to try and challenge yourself to stay in the moment and stick to your processes. Do what you can control and stay with that. Keep this idea and phrase close to hand when you are playing a lesser opponent and make sure you remind yourself continually about this. Processes can include your pre-serve routine, how you follow through on your shots, your timing of your split-step, the way you are watching the ball and opponent, pushing up the T and hunting the volley. There are many you can choose from and I would suggest to focus on the ones you are good at and know well and can execute time and time again. If you keep giving yourself these little prompts, reminders and mantras during a match it really does focus the mind and keep you in the moment. You are less likely to dwell on the past or forecast into the future and you keep the mind and body in the here and now. This is when players tend to play at their best and reach that beautiful flow and zone state we are all striving for. Keeping it simple but actionable to what you can control is a brilliant way to focus on your processes and help ensure you do not drop your levels
Do the basics at a higher pace
I often see the better player being really successful and not allowing their opponent to get close to them if they set out their stall and intentions early on with their basics and also doing them at a higher pace. This involves no more risk being taken but to be able to do the simple things that are within your control with more purpose and intensity. For example, hit the ball to the back that bit faster, get slightly higher up the court for the volley, get the racket ready that bit earlier, take the ball out in front to take time away from your opponent, play the lob and reset the rally as soon as you feel under pressure, move your feet that much quicker around the court. Doing these things and accumulating them over a period of time really does force your weaker opponent to find something magic and special just to compete with you. They are a bit worse than you as is so why not really stretch yourself away from them by doing these basics at a higher pace? It can really mentally scar the weaker player and they will then become desperate and anxious and will take higher risks just to compete, and when they do this, they ultimately fall right into your trap and present you with errors or loose balls you can pick off
Get your balance right
Try and be sure to get your balances correct. What I mean here is the ratio of basic squash in relation to outright attacking squash. It will be very tempting to look to just attack the lesser player and blast them off court with short and sharp rallies as they may present a lot more looser balls to you. This is ideal if it can happen but if you go too gung-ho you heighten your risk right from the start with maybe very little reward. You may invite a lot of unnecessary pressure onto yourself by doing this too early without building it up. You also don’t want to be basic and plodding and methodical either. This will allow the lesser player to settle into the match at a comfortable level and let them get used to the pace. This tactic and tip is linked a bit to the idea of doing the basics at a higher pace. Keep checking in with yourself if what you are doing is being effective and keeping the lesser player at arm’s length
Move your feet
This is a relatively simple but super effective tactic as it's physical and gets your nervous system to wake up and engaged. All too often I see the better player being a bit slow, a bit slugging and all round just expecting to take the win. A slippery slope and by doing this it is easy to descend to the level of your opponent. It gives them such an in to the game also. If you give yourself the action to move your feet and have a 'mini coach' voice in your own head this can really liven you up. Remember, you are playing a lesser opponent so if you are moving quick and moving well and taking the ball early this will really keep them at arms length. You do not need to panic and rush things of course but being proactive with your footwork and the intensity with it sets the tone for the match and suffocates the lesser player of thinking time
In summary, try and become aware if your mind and attitude assumes you are going to just step on the court and win against a lesser opponent. A very dangerous game to play. If you catch yourself the above tools and mindset shifts can help a lot in regard to keeping your level of play to a high degree. It is quite simple but the above tips and tools need to be done and executed. You may also need to check in on yourself during a match as it unfolds to make sure what you are doing is the right thing and you are doing what you can to keep the distance large between you and the lesser opponent. For practical tools to use for your mental game be sure to check out the SquashMind app on the App Store and the Google Play Store.