“I never lose, I either win or learn!” – Nelson Mandela
I am certainly not one for submitting to defeat before walking onto court but there are times when being realistic and honest about the level of your opponent is appropriate. There will be occasions in league matches, tournaments or even friendlies when the odds of you beating your opponent are extremely low. Again, I want to emphasise this is not a defeatist attitude but rather evaluating what is in front of you and what you can really get out of the experience you will encounter.
Many times in my career I knew I was going to lose before I stepped on court. It is hard to say and admit this fact as a professional, but there were certain matches where the outcome was not the priority but rather the learning experience was of high value. If players can start to use some pre-match goals before they step on court with an opponent that is better than them, huge improvements can be made overall. With the implementation of the below tips, you also give yourself the best chance possible to cause an upset and get an unexpected win. Here are a series of tips that I advise my players on when competing with someone a good few levels above them.
SPEND TIME ON COURT
One of the key things I tell players where there is a significant level difference is to make it a goal to spend a lot of time on court. Being in the present and being in the battle with a better player for as long as possible gives you valuable insights. Being able to experience this environment for as long as possible and under lots of pressure only adds layers to your game. Being smashed off court in 15-minutes will not allow for deeper learning and appreciation of the game at this level. If you could extend the match to 20, 25 or even minutes against a high level opponent this will only benefit you in the big picture.
Be determined to not go for the cheap and quick option. I often ask my players to "lose by doing the right thing". This may seem a bit out there but I’d prefer a player losing 11-3, 11-3, 11-3 by really sticking to their plan and attempting to do the right shot at the right time, not taking unnecessary risks and not opening the court up too much. The score line may be better if you take loads of risks and open the court up as often as possible. You may catch the better player by surprise them on the odd occasion and you may even sneak a game but this seems very short term thinking for overall big picture improvements. Sticking to your plan and doing the right thing will reinforce this for future encounters.
DEFEND LIKE A KING
Accept that for long periods of the match you will be playing at full stretch and trying to retrieve balls that are glued to the wall. Accept your place and situation here and attempt to soak up this pressure and absorb it as much as you can. You have to be willing to attempt to soak and reset the rallies multiple times over but getting in this right headspace will be important in regard to your learning process. When willing to defend like a king and for long periods this can add a level of frustration to your opponent who may then start to take risks earlier and possibly give you some cheap points themselves because if this. High levels of accuracy in your lobs, push drops and boasts will need to be a high priority here.
TAKE YOUR OPPURTUNITIES WHEN THEY ARISE
There is no doubt you will get some opportunities to attack and apply pressure to your better opponent. When they arise be ready for them and try and seize them. Very often when they do arise, as they will, the lower player is shocked they have a chance to apply pressure and end up snatching at it and losing a good situation to apply pressure. You will have to be aware and look for these opportunities and it’s about being confident, relaxed and focused when they appear. You may have to string together multiple good shots of quality to get the point and do not expect to win the point on the very first attacking chance you have. I often tell players you need to win the point 3, 4 or 5 times over against a better player and be willing to do this again and again if you have to.
EMBRACE THE BURN
Get yourself ready and in the mindset to run, run and run again. Be willing and ready to embrace the burn as physically you will be tested to the max if you are attempting to apply all the above tips. Use the fact that you will be on the court and under pressure for long periods as a way to improve your strength and your fitness, as when you drop back down to playing people your level or below it will feel so much easier. It is hard to accept and get into the mindset of this but once you get used to this it can become quite enthusing and a bit of a sick thrill to work super hard as the benefits are huge.
TRYING V EFFORT
Of late I have been talking about the difference between TRYING and EFFORT. My definition of trying is that it is the bare minimum I expect of anyone stepping on court to play a match. Trying is the chasing, running and putting yourself on the line physically for the whole match. For any squash player worth his salt this should be a pre-requisite and a non-negotiable. When I look at what effort is, I believe effort is one level deeper than trying. In my opinion effort in more about the mental side of what you are doing. Effort involves you accepting the burn and the hurt you will feel physically but deeper than that effort is using your mind to be aware, to stick to a plan, to play the right shot, to be able to adapt when necessary, to not allow negativity to spiral, and ultimately, being highly present and focussed in the match with your brain and your body in the same place at the same time. Try and challenge yourself to stay mentally engaged and to be aware of your inner voice. Recognise if there are negative or defeatist phrases coming into your mind, catch yourself in this moment, and then reframe them into a positive action you know you can control.
In summary, there is a huge amount to be gained and learnt from losing. Linking back to the Nelson Mandela quote at the start of this blog (I never lose, I win or learn) rings very true and when you can get into this mindset your improvements in your game will appear. There are so many positives that can be taken from losing to a better player and if you go about your business in the right way you will be able to use these skills gained when you drop down a level or two and get some scalps you may not have been expecting to.
Also to note, there will be the few occasions where you will be able to beat the player you had no expectation of beating if you go into the match with the right attitude and mindset. If they are having a slightly off-day and you are making yourself a nuisance and being difficult to beat then they could start to tense up and take unnecessary risks. Also if you are willing to be on there for a long time (mentally and physically), the better player is looking to get you off as quick as possible and this could add frustration and bad decisions to the better players way of playing. You need to try and put yourself in a position to do this and the above tips are a great way to try and achieve this.