by Josh Taylor 

In the world of professional sport, margins are small whilst the repercussions can be large. The effect of unforced errors or bad judgments can not only result in a poor outcome but can also contribute to increased pressure. Small errors mount up and dealing with pressure is critical to elite success.

Pressure is a subject that I have becoming increasingly interested in and how a player deals with pressure can have a huge impact on the overall outcome of a game, match or indeed a career. As a young player it was an area that I was poor at and didn’t address till later in my playing career. The negativity surrounding the subject as an area to work on and lack of general support makes it hard to tackle. In being poor at dealing with pressure, I had to work hard and read a lot to find ways to improve it. I would now say that off the back of my research that I am better at recognising and dealing with pressurised situations and as a coach I try to ensure that I cover the subject with the players that I work with to support them in allowing them to develop their own coping mechanism.

The effect of pressure is well documented in a breath of topics and here are just two examples.

Fighter pilots, a group of people who I think we could all agree deal with huge amounts of pressure at a fast pace. In work when pressure increases, the pilot’s ability to do external skills outside of flying massively decreases. First goes the administrative capability of a pilot, then the communication and finally their navigation until all they are doing is flying!

In a further study on Police officers in situations when dealing with pressure, their heart rate increased and the ability to function reverts to just the essential tasks required.

If you translate this to a game of squash, the awareness of a player under pressure moves from a broader breadth of aspects to the very narrow focus of just playing and hitting the ball.

So why does this happen?

It’s all in the brain. Just think when you are at work and you are given a lot of tasks all at once. You become overloaded and stressed. This is what is happening in the brain with the pressure. Our brains only have so much attentional capacity. When pressure sets in, it starts to eat up this capacity and reduces the amount of capacity you then have to deal with vital tasks to the ability to perform at your very best.

The best squash players in the world will be able to deal with this better than the average person with their awareness remaining a lot wider for longer as pressure increases, and the effect of pressure setting in is delayed.

So how do you get good at dealing with pressure?

Everyone is different in the way they can use certain strategies and it is therefore important to first understand yourself to determination what will be most effective for you.

For some players, routine gives confidence and takes away the pressure as all ‘controllables’ are controlled. It might be that lucky wristband, the layout of your bag or schedule of your warm-up. Others may try talking to themselves with positive self-talk . Constant reassurance can always help pick up your mood and equally this can come from a significant other, e.g. coach, parent, teammate. Staying in the moment can help others especially during a match. Reassessing the situation, taking in smells and noises can help re-centralise. Imagery can also be a powerful tool, imagining success or past success can always help to settle pre-match nerves. The key is finding one that works for you, these are just a few I have come across. We are all different, so give them a try next time you are in a tense situation.

Not only understanding this and having a mechanism will cut it though. For the majority it is like a straight dropshot or drive, its simple but needs practice in a live situation and constant repetition.

It can be hard for players to expose themselves to these kinds of situations. Within some of our squads we apply pressure training to the environment. This can be done simply by a prize for the winner or forfeit for the loser. This could be money, treats or a test of pride! If you want to really create a pressure, try chance cards with forfeits, situations and rewards in them and pull them out at random from a deck or hat during a practice game at various stages. They certainly spice things up a bit and help with dealing with the unexpected!

How about dealing with the big points? Why not put something more on them, how about a game and if you get to 10 you have to win that game point or if you don’t you have to go back to 5. That certainly prevents you wasting a key situation in a game. There are many ways to do this in training, but these are some of the better ones from my own experiences.

Alongside anything like this, you also need the support mechanisms first talked about. For some, we deal with this better than others. Some people are more hard-wired to deal with these situations. Some players may come from a background of another sport or high-pressured environment and transferring this across is more natural and it is already built in to what they do. These people need less support, probably more times than not just someone to talk to or reassurance in what they do.

Others however will need greater support in dealing with pressure and learning these mechanisms. As a coach the worst thing we can do is write someone off at being bad at dealing with pressure. You need to problem solve and make it an ok area to work on, just like any other technical aspect or skill. The mental side of the game is still massively overlooked and under supported which we can see generally from the many discussions around mental health.

Mental isn’t mental in squash, it is just another skill and one we need to foster, teach and provide an environment to deal with it. Embrace it and make it part of what you do.

Josh Taylor is England Squash National Performance Coach & UNSQUASHABLE Coaching Ambassador.
Josh Taylor uses the UNSQUASHABLE Y-TEC PRO racket which is available exclusively from www.unsquashable.com

UNSQUASHABLE
INSPIRED BY JAHANGIR KHAN
USED BY JOSH TAYLOR
MADE TO WIN

Leave a Reply