I coach, subscribe to, and am a big advocate of stillness, tranquillity, awareness, calmness and ultimately flow when looking to compete on the squash court, and in life for that matter. I believe working on, as well as accessing, these states can lead to achieving high levels of performance on a consistent basis in whatever domain you are operating in.
But there is a big red flag, a relevant and burning question, that needs to be identified and addressed when it comes to attempting to play a high energy, high paced, and variable sport such as squash with stillness, tranquillity, awareness, calmness, and flow.
“How do I access calmness but not lose my killer instinct?”
I have personally experienced this issue in my life and this blog will attempt to lay out my journey with the hope that my errors and errs of judgment along the way can help those that also may fall into the same traps that I did. This reminds me of the Warren Buffet quote:
“It’s good to learn from your mistakes. It’s better to learn from other people’s mistakes”
For some backstory, I was an angry player when I was younger. Overall, I was able to channel my anger towards peak performance. I played on the edge a lot of the time and I managed to keep it bottled in and suppressed. However, there were some horrible occasions when the pressure building up inside me was too much and it exploded in destructive ways that there was no coming back from. I would be a horrible person and one I am embarrassed for looking back on now. I had no balance in my life and this was also indicative of my off-court self. I was too driven by rankings and stats and achievements. These episodes of explosive and destructive anger in my game, and in life, became more and more common and I was spiralling. Everything was reactive.
To help calm my aggressive disposition that was losing me many matches, I started to see a sports psychologist. Back when I was playing you only went to see a sports psychologist when things were going wrong and there was an industry taboo around having to revert to this method. It was seen as a sign of weakness and that there was mental fragility within you. You kept it very secret. Nowadays however, it is very different and is seen more of as a badge of honour amongst players to constantly see and work closely with a psychologist. I am happy about this reverse in trend, and it is a very healthy thing and I only wish this was around a lot earlier to help myself and others.
What this psychologist offered me was an ability to access a state of calmness, stillness, acceptance, tranquilly and overall, a very chilled and calm version of myself. It was lovely and exactly what I needed at the time. Also, at about the same time I was reading The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey and this was closely aligned with the work of the psychologist. I highly recommend the book and most top levels players I have interviewed have read it and found it massively useful.
I had an upturn in my results both on and off the court and for several months I was loving life and my play. I was really finding the sweet spot of this work and playing with a calmness and tranquilly I had never had. We were working on incorporating behaviours such as meditation, gratitude, loving-kindness, acceptance, non-attachment, and visualisation to name but a few. But what ended up happening about 6-months into the process was that I was enjoying this state so much, and accessing this inner Zen, but was having no end-product, no bite, no killer instinct in what I was doing. I got so wrapped up in the feelings and enjoyment of this state that I had lost what had got me some success so far on the court.
I had lost my balance and had gone too far to the other side of the continuum. I enjoyed getting on court and feeling the flow but so did my opponents! The more relaxed I was the more relaxed they were. This was not a good place and felt I was not able to balance this relaxed state I was enjoying and wanting to achieve against the winning and competitive mindset I also required. Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place. I felt I could not do one in conjunction with the other.
To help highlight the point further, I have a friend overseas who uses SquashMind and follows the philosophy, as well as an avid reader of similar books, who sent me a message the other day stating:
“The whole weekend (4 matches) I struggled with “allowing the flow” as Gallwey would describe. I put effort into staying in the moment by focusing (without “trying too hard”) on the ball, as if I was “curious” about the ball etc. had just re-read The Inner Game of Tennis).
My main aim was to try to allow my best squash to flow by trusting self 2 and knowing my body knew what to do, I had done all the training, I just needed to quieten my mind and let it happen.
But on court my best squash did NOT flow and the fear of losing constantly came into my head and I constantly had to tell myself it’s ok, just focus on this point only, score is irrelevant, just make your “best effort in each point“.
I knew my body needed to relax to allow the good squash out. So, I kept telling myself in that match I lost to “relax and release” (a bit Michael Singer).
But I found I almost became a bit passive.
In hindsight, I think I needed to be more aggressive in my squash, but I was so busy trying to make my body relax I couldn’t reconcile getting aggressive.
My question is just that, how do you reconcile mentally that need for a relaxed body and mind with the need to take on a quite attacking attitude/style?
I kind of felt all weekend that aggression couldn’t be a part of the process of relaxing and releasing (I wanted to be all “peace and love“) but now I think I needed some aggression.
Then last night reading my book about Nadal, he talks about his 2008 first Wimbledon win against Federer. In it he is talking about a crucial point in the match and he felt nerves come down and cloud over him and he said “I had to conquer those nerves right now, so I knew I had to raise my aggression a notch“ (he went on the attack from that point on).
So, then I am thinking it must be possible to have aggression and still stay in the flow (as he never left the flow that match)”?
As you can see, she maybe is falling down the same rabbit hole that I did many years ago and the rest of this blog will attempt to give you the tools to help get this balance right. Because at the end of the day it is ALL about striking a balance. Being fully on one side of a continuum is the opposite of balance but this is where I found myself and maybe you may find yourself too at this very moment?
Over or under arousal
Yerkes and Dodson (1908) came out with the very simplistic inverted-U theory for optimal sports performance (see below diagram). The premise of the theory is that at low levels of arousal, performance will be below par, the athlete is not psyched up.
As arousal increases so does performance, up to an optimal point. After this point, further increases in arousal lead to declines in performance.
Each athlete has their own optimal level of arousal. Optimal arousal is higher for more simple tasks i.e. weightlifting or tackling in rugby or football and lower for more complex tasks i.e. putting in golf or snooker shots.
An increase in arousal causes improvement in performance up to an optimal point (moderate arousal level). After this point, increased arousal leads to deteriorated performance.
There are some relevant critiques of the model. For example, does the optimal performance state occur always at the mid-point of the curve? Furthermore, one curve does not explain the different optimal levels of arousal needed for simple or complex tasks, as well as athletes’ different personality styles and traits. But for the sake of this blog let us use this simple theory to make the point.
As highlighted in the above examples, both myself and my friend got our balances wrong. I, for example, swung from one side of the continuum right to the other (which was maybe needed at the time). It took me time to recalibrate and find that sweet spot. My friend may be too focused on finding the flow and zone state above being aggressive and taking the game to the opponent.
It is constant work-in-progress to find this balance, the peak of the inverted-U, your own personal sweet spot, and this is a never-ending quest. You need to continually recalibrate at different times and in different situations. You need to have high levels of self-awareness to know if you are over or under aroused as well as how to energise or calm yourself. And all this needs to be embraced with a willing, non-judgmental, and motivated mind. This is the real winning and losing, and the essence of the journey you are on.
“It is the moment-by-moment effort to let go and stay centred in the here-and-now which offers the real winning and losing, and this game never ends” – Timothy Gallwey
The competitive mind
One of the most definitive chapters in The Inner Game of Tennis is called The Competitive Mind and I’d like to highlight a key message at this part of the blog. For me, this is where the real magic lies and the sweet spot for peak performance. Getting the balance right posed in the above question of, “how do I access calmness but not lose my killer instinct?”
I have a mantra and a call to action at the end of the blog on A Definition of Mental Toughness which goes:
“Today I play every point to win.
I don’t worry about winning or losing the overall match, but whether I am making the maximum effort during every point.
Because this is where the true value lies”
The above is my attempt to answer that question and to strike the balance between calmness and aggression. Keeping this way of thinking close to hand should help strike the balance you are looking for. This way of thinking gives you a directed and purposeful approach (play to win every point) and then also addresses and brings forward the relaxed, calm, and tranquil state (I don’t worry about the overall result). By not worrying about the overall result, you can let go. Your identity is not tethered to whether you win or lose.
Alongside this, being in the moment and attempting to win every point gives you that edge, that killer instinct you need. The above mantra encourages you to be wrapped up in your individual process and to not let your thoughts run away with you. The thoughts can often turn to the desperation to win or the embarrassment of the loss and these can make you overly aroused and play with too much emotion. Equally so, thoughts can dwell on the past mistakes or missed opportunities, and this also is destructive.
Play every point to win but don’t worry or focus on the result.
In summary, playing with pure aggression and on the edge may lead to explosive and counterproductive behaviours. But alternatively, being too relaxed and calm offers up no resistance at all. You need to walk the fine line between these two states and avoid being too far at one side of the continuum or the other.
Having a heightened awareness of yourself and what makes you tick is fundamental. Try and avoid being purely reactive to each situation and see if you can be more in the moment and present in all you do. If you can do this then you will know whether you need to give yourself a mental wake up call and get at it more when you are being too passive. Or alternatively, whether you need to take a moment, breathe deeper, and calm the over-excited and aroused state you may be in. This takes constant work and the ability to check in with yourself time and again. Become aware of the power of mindfulness and how this skill really helps your self-awareness.
- Meditate and grow your mindfulness. You need to know yourself and starting a meditation intervention helps this. You need to practice meditation on a regular basis in calm situations and in your daily life, so then when you need it most, under the pressure of a match, you can access this state. You cannot rely on “switching on” awareness, calmness, and mindfulness under pressure when none of it has been practiced elsewhere.
- Journal. Part of heightening your self-awareness is journaling. Journaling forces the mind to slow down and be present by sitting with your thoughts and reflecting on your previous actions and behaviours. Not only this, but journaling helps set your intentions for your future self to make positive changes.
- Seek out players you like and admire. Watch them. Study them. Observe their body language in difficult situations. Emulate the best parts of their behaviours and attitudes. Visualise yourself being that person in those moments when you want to play your best. Become your own version of that role model.
- If under aroused, become aware of this state and acknowledge it. Now begin to mentally wake up and tune in. Take the next ball slightly earlier. Move your feet a little quicker. Get higher up on the T. Bounce on your toes between rallies. Hit right through the ball and let your follow-through go a little more. Remind yourself of your mantra. Hit the back wall three times in a row.
- If over-aroused, become aware of this state and acknowledge it. Take longer between points to slow the mind and body down. Breath deeper and longer through the nose. Use physical sensations or triggers to bring you back into the here and now. Talk to yourself in a calm and measured voice. Focus on the next moment you can control. Roll your shoulders and feel the tension evaporate. Close your eyes. Notice something unique about the court. Play the next point to win but without any focus or attachment to winning or losing.
Want to learn more from Jesse about mentality?
Check out Jesse’s series where he introduces the 4 A’s, a psychological concept developed by legendary coach, George Mumford, which helps athletes deal with any situation that may arise, no matter how tough.Watch now