The Practice Environment

12th December 2018

The entire purpose of practice is to get better and there are different ways to achieve that, depending on how much better you want to get. Not everybody wants to be a professional and take their sport incredibly seriously and their practice will be a reflection of that. Some will have a desire to improve and be willing to push themselves in order to achieve the improvement that they seek. A very small percentage of people will want to be professionals, so their practice needs to prepare them for the demands of professional squash.

This implies that the time we spend practising will vary in quality and effectiveness and that is exactly right. Not all practice is quality practice, so you need to be very clear about what you want to achieve when practising so your expectations and objectives are crystal clear. Once you know what you want to achieve you can select the appropriate type of practice.

I like to break practice up into the following types:

  • Playing games
  • Deliberate Practice
  • Harder Practice, and
  • Pressure Practice


Playing Games

For club players who just enjoy playing the game, this is the most common form of practice that they engage in. They turn up at the courts and just play games with their practice partner. There’s no focus or interest in working on a particular element of their game, they just want to play games, run around and get a solid work out in.

There is nothing wrong with that if those are your objectives. Playing games certainly helps with match fitness and helps you stay physically fit, to a point, as this depends on how evenly matched you are with your practice partner.

The downside of this form of practice is that it provides the slowest rate of improvement because all you are doing in reinforcing your existing habits and tendencies when playing matches. This means that you can’t expect large gains in your performance, so don’t get frustrated when they don’t come if this is how you want to practice.

Part of the reason for the limit in improvement is that you are not focusing your attention on a specific element of your game and using the practice session to focus just on that part. This is a skill acquisition task but playing games involves a skill-execution focus. Hence, just playing games for practice will not help you acquire better skills, you will just get better at executing the existing skills that you have.


Deliberate Practice

The term Deliberate Practice was coined by a psychologist by the name of Anders Ericsson who wrote a research paper in 1993 titled ‘The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance’. This is where the 10,000 hours concept came from, which was made popular in Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Outliers’, because let’s face it, no one reads academic journals other than students and academics. (If you want to read Ericsson’s article Google it. You can download it!)

Ericsson studied musicians and chess players and was able to track the amount of time it took for people to reach a level of expertise that was considered ‘expert performance’ in that field. In chess, it was found to take people between 9.5 and 10 years to become a grandmaster in chess. When looking at the practice times and playing commitments of players who achieved this level it was observed that it took around 20 hours of dedicated practice per week, 50 weeks of the year, over 10 years. When you do the math that’s 10,000 hours.

Now Ericsson notes that it wasn’t good enough to do just any old type of practice. He observed the type of practice expert performers engaged in and noted some key features which inspired the term ‘Deliberate Practice’. The features of practice that count as a deliberate practice are:

  • Breaking the skill down into components
  • Focused attention on specific elements of the skill
  • Practising the skill at more challenging levels
  • Seeking to master the skill being practised

Ericsson was a firm believer in practice being difficult and hard to complete as this is what demands the development of the skill level necessary to achieve mastery, which according to Ericsson was the whole reason we practice.


Harder Practice

Harder practice refers to making the practice environment more challenging than your competition environment. By spending time practising your sport under these conditions you become more equipped to handle the competition environment because you know that you have trained under tougher conditions and been successful. Competition seems easier because your practice environment is so hard. Usain Bolt is a great example of this. Competition time for Bolt was party time and he was able to be this relaxed at the Olympics because he knew he had done the hardest work already in practice.

So how do we make practice harder for squash players? By placing restrictions and limitations on the player, changing the rules of the game for one player or adding physical and mental load onto the player.

For example:

  • We can restrict a player by taking out an element of the court. This means the player can only play a shot that bounces in the front of the court or one of the sides of the court behind the service line. The box you serve from is the side that is eliminated from the rest of the rally, so every shot has to land in the same box the serve landed in or the front section of the court. This cuts out cross courts and long drives down that wall as possible shot options.
  • You can change these rules for just one player and allow the other player to have access to the full court. This stacks the advantage towards the player with full access and forces the player with limitations to overcome the adversity. You can have one player on a point-per-rally scoring system and the other on a handout system and you can also apply different rules when refereeing to create some adversity for the players by not giving strokes – everything is a let only or no let. Some poor decisions really help because these come during matches so having your players suffer some poor decisions in practice is a helpful way to build their resilience so they don’t sulk or spit the dummy during competition. Recently a foot fault was called in the final of the Hong Kong Open against Ali Farag and he looked so shocked by the call he didn’t win another point that game.
  • Adding physical load or mental load involves increasing the physical and mental demands on the players during the session. The physical load can be increased by having the loser of each point do squats or a court sprint between points to create additional fatigue. The mental load can involve things like playing music or having distracting sounds being played on court. Crowd noise, construction noise, clapping, cheering or any form of distraction can increase the mental load on the players.

Harder practice plays a role in the practice schedule, but it doesn’t occupy 100% of the available practice time. Finding the right amount of time to use this form of practice will likely involve a discussion between coach and player until a consensus is achieved as to an ideal amount of time spent on harder practice.


Pressure Practice

Pressure practice is a practice that involves consequences and practising with consequences builds mental toughness. The consequences apply the pressure and help to replicate the competition environment as much as possible. When we make errors in competition it hurts us and we have to deal with it. When we make errors at practice it doesn’t matter, unless we make it matter!

Some ways you can add an element of pressure practice to your practice environment are:

  • Add physical penalties for errors, such as 10 squats or lunges after errors.
  • Have ‘In-a-row’ targets, such as 20 drives ‘in-a-row’ within a set area.
  • Outcome targets, such as must win 3 consecutive points before stopping the game or drill to replicate tie-break situations.

Players need to be competing during their practice so they become accustomed to the demands of competition. Constant competition, on drills, reps, court sprints, points – basically everything will help build the resilience your players will need to consistently perform at their best during competition.

We all value the ability to thrive under pressure and the only way we grow and develop that skill is being exposed to pressure so we can learn how to thrive.


Maximising Your Practice

The purpose of practice is for you to get one minute of benefit or improvement for every minute of practice time you spend with the overall goal for you to be able to perform your best when you compete.

Not all of us are like Simon Rosner, who plays delicate drop shots and touch volleys deep into a game with a heart rate of 190 beats per minute, so our practice environment doesn’t have to replicate that and prepare us for that level of performance. Unfortunately, for Rosner, his practice environment does!

For competition players and those aspiring to do great things in squash, your practice environment needs to be tough and challenging so it mental conditions you to meet the challenges and adversity that competition play provides. Your practice environment needs to help you compete under pressure and provide you with opportunities to hold your nerve and go for your shots under scoreboard pressure and physical fatigue.

By using the above 4 types of practice you can create a practice environment that provides you with the hard work that you need to do to get the best out of yourself as well as the subtle variations that enable you to maximise the quality of your practice time so it easily and seamlessly transfers into the competition environment.

Shayne Duncan

Performance Psychologist 


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