We all know and are aware of the importance of the mental side of the game and we hear commentators or players talk about this all the time in regard to sustained success and performing consistently time and again. A lot of the success can be attributed to statements such as; “I just felt completely in the zone”, or, “That was mentally hard but I stuck to my processes“, or, “I’ve done so much work mentally over the last few seasons”.
Shaun White talks about The Zone wonderfully after completing what was thought to be an impossible manoeuvre and landing on his final snowboarding run at the 2008 X-Games to make him 3-time World-Champion, “It’s a combination of being completely focussed and also slightly not caring”.
We are not born with mental toughness or mindfulness; we need to work and cultivate these aspects. After all the brain is a live tissue that can be built up and toned through right exercises and these must be actively reinforced. During the good times, we strengthen ourselves and our bodies so that during the difficult times we can depend on it. It’s our armour plating. It doesn’t make us invincible, but it helps prepare us for when fortune shifts, and it always does.
But how do we embark on training our mind and increasing our mental toughness so we can perform better on the squash court?
SquashMind is a mental skills app and resource that is robust, easy to use, educational, enjoyable and affordable. SquashMind incorporates and links working on your sporting mind with your day-to-day mind. A lot of sports psychology separates out mental toughness and mindfulness and often compartmentalises them as separate entities. SquashMind attempts to interlink and overlap them and the following article will explain how and why. SquashMind is based around 3 core principles: Theory – Visualisation – Mindfulness.
SquashMind aims to build a solid and sustainable base to perform mentally at your best each time and offers players real and practical tools in order to achieve this goal. The app looks to create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible. Much of the battle of building better habits comes down to finding ways to reduce the friction associated with our good habits and increase the friction associated with our bad ones. A new habit should not feel like a challenge. Habits are automatic choices that influence the conscious decisions that follow.
With today’s modern life, we need mindfulness now more than ever. The pace of life, the endless streams of news and information, the myth of multitasking, technology; this is all making us less effective. When we switch attention from one thing to another the attentional systems in the brain go offline for up to half a second and we can miss the information presented to us in that time. A famous Harvard research study conducted in 2010 by Killingworth and Gilbert found our mind wanders 47% of the time, that’s almost half our life we are not present.
When we think we are multitasking we are attention switching and we are actually slowing ourselves down, losing track of what we are doing and creating unnecessary stress. The average person checks their phone 150 times per day. If your phone is on silent and vibrates in your pocket and you don’t even check it, you make 28% more errors in a task you are engaged in.
Similarly, when you are doing something complex such as writing an assignment, and then you check an email, studies have shown it takes 64 seconds to get your attention back fully into what you are doing. All this distractedness is making us much less effective learners and doers and making us less happy.
75% of mental health problems begin between the ages of 15-25 but we are even seeing them in children younger than this. 1 in 7 primary school children has a mental health disorder and by the time they get to high school that number increases to 1 in 4. Tragically, suicide is the biggest killer of young people. But there is something we can do about it.
Mindfulness is about paying attention in the present moment and having the body and mind in the same place and at the same time. Being present and fully engaged and aware in each moment. Meditation means attention training, and with mindfulness, we focus our attention on the present through the senses. We notice when the mind wanders and we are not trying to stop the mind wandering or getting rid of our thoughts, it’s about noticing when the mind wanders so we can bring it back. With practice we can get good at becoming more aware, not to judge, and then we can apply that to anything that we want to do such as studying for an exam or bringing yourself back into the moment under the pressure of a squash match.
“What we practise grows stronger”
We can all learn to grow and change no matter our circumstances. We can train our mind to be here where we already are. Repeated exercises shape our brain. They sculpt and strengthen synaptic connections based on repeated practise. Brain scanning found that meditators brains grew bigger and stronger in the regions related to attention, learning and compassion. This is called cortical thickening, the growth of new neurons in response to related practise. We are practising and growing something in every moment and not just in meditation. Mindfulness works! It’s good for you. It’s been proven to strengthen our immune functioning, decreases stress and helps us sleep better. A small footnote here, we need to be careful of our intentions when practising meditation, it is easy to bring in judgment, impatience and frustration and if we are meditating with judgement, we are growing judgement, if we are meditating with frustration, we are growing frustration.
Mindful meditation strengthens the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus in the brain, 2 key learning areas associated with attention and memory and it dials down the activation in the amygdala, the brain’s fear centre, so we become less stressed and anxious. Mindfulness gives people tools for waking up and being aware. Mindfulness should look to be the source, not the side dish and not just an add on.
Mindfulness is starting to become part of the core curriculum in Universities in Australia due to the benefits it has started to show. Students are less stressed, anxious and depressed and there is better study engagement, increased curiosity, improved social skills, more self-esteem and less procrastination and overall, they are kinder to themselves and others and are overall more productive. In the corporate world, for every $1 spent on wellbeing, you see $2.70 worth of increase in productivity. Mindfulness has shown to develop meta-cognition and awareness of feelings and thoughts. It can get you in touch with values and what’s important and the positive impacts of your actions on others and the world.
So why is this state important on the squash court?
When you are able to practise mindfulness constantly, i.e. away from the courts and in day-to-day interactions, this allows the body and mind to learn to relax and manage stressful moments in a healthier way. In addition, it helps to create a more positive and proactive mental approach to difficulties and problems. It allows you to be aware of your inner voice and to help bring you back into the moment. All very good assets to have on the court in the heat of battle don’t you think?
When you are competing, you need to trust your training has been adequate and let it show itself in the match. Being mindful and present gives you the ability to maximise your play by keeping you in the moment and to keep bringing you back into the moment when your mind has drifted. If you watch Ali Farag for example, he is brilliant at resetting himself and bringing himself back into the moment time after time and this allows him to perform near his maximum in each and every match. This is no random event, and his mental practices away from competition allow him to achieve this state when required in a match. Could you begin to do the same?
Benefits of visualisation
Studies have time and again shown that our brains cannot tell the difference between an actual physical event and the vivid visualisation of that same event. When we experience something and when we visualise the same thing, we activate similar brain circuits. Being able to visualise effectively and to be taught how to do it in an easy and accessible way creates powerful habits that are transferred into performance.
Visualisation is like a form of meditation. Where it differs is that meditation is about being aware and paying attention to thoughts, feelings and sounds. Visualisation is a more directed practise bringing in images, scenarios and situations. Effective visualisation has been compared to watching a movie in high definition on a massive screen with a clear and precise sound system. Everything should be vivid with a lot of attention to detail including sounds, smells and emotional feelings. Even being as detailed as visualising the feel of what muscles are activating is recommended when performing a task or skill.
Brain scans of London taxi drivers have shown that the posterior hippocampus, a part of the brain related to learning and memory, is physically larger and has grown after they acquired ‘The Knowledge’. The gruelling memory test requires these taxi drivers to learn and remember 320 routes within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross and covers a mind-boggling 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks. This shows that the human brain remains plastic even in adulthood and adapts to learn new tasks.
Studies go on to show that there seem to be 8 key benefits when you practice visualisation. They are; confidence, motivation, focus, movements, strength, reaction times, rewiring of the brain and epigenetic change (a change in your DNA).
Athletes talk a lot about visualisation and the impacts they have on their performance. Connor McGregor replays his fight nights thousands of times over in his mind including everything from his walk on, to the smell of the arena, to the sound of the crowd, to all the colours in the ring, to his opponent’s movements as well as his execution. So, by the time he is there, it is so familiar to him and he is so relaxed and confident in what he needs to do nothing feels that it will upset his focus and concentration.
Michael Phelps comments that he used to use visualisations all the time and used it, in particular, to prepare for competition and to motivate himself.
Alex Honnold, who became famous from the film Free Solo, would sit for hours and hours visualising every single move and everything that could possibly happen when scaling the face of El Capitan with no harnesses or safety equipment. He believes all the hard work was done in the months leading up to the event and once he was on the climb, he says “it was just a matter of executing”.
More lab-based and scientific studies also show the power of visualisation. In a study of 200 martial artists, it was found that visualisations and self-talk increased reaction time by roughly 10%. This amount in a fast-paced sport is often the difference between winning and losing. This should really resonate in a sport like squash where players need to be able to keep up with the pace of the game, be able to make multiple decisions in a split-second of time and to take in and absorb a wide range of information and variabilities.
A Harvard study found that participants who only visualised five-finger piano sequences for two-hours a day for five-days made the exact same brain changes as those participants who physically practised the same activities. Furthermore, Dr Biasatto at the University of Chicago conducted a basketball experiment whereby he had 3 separate groups of players tested for free throws in basketball. He then split the participants into 3 groups. Group 1 practised free-throws every day for one hour. Group 2 didn’t practise any basketball or free throws but only visualised them. Group 3 conducted no basketball practise and no visualisation. After 30-days the groups were all tested again. Group 1 improved by 24%. Group 2 improved by 23% and Group 3 showed no improvements. It is fascinating to see that the group who only visualised the practice were able to improve almost to the same degree as those that practised throwing daily.
In summary, SquashMind is breaking new ground. It’s the first of its kind bringing together knowledge and studies in both the mindfulness and visualisation arenas and designing lessons and learning to improve both these areas of one’s life. For the price of 1 single session with a sports psychologist, you can get a full year of access to the app.
SquashMind is for everyone, whether you are a seasoned club player looking to create more consistency in your team matches against unexpected opponents, an aspiring junior aiming to be selected to play for your county and beyond, a professional player looking to improve that small percentage to break through to the next level, or simply a social player that is interested in knowing more about how the mind works and how to train it for life and sport. There are some great mindfulness and meditation apps and also lots of good sports-based mindset apps out there but none that really bridge this gap, and this is what SquashMind is designed to ultimately do.
SquashMind attempts to be as simple and effective as possible with minimal friction for each user. A simple way to begin a journey with mindfulness. A simple way to strengthen neural pathways with visualisation lessons for situations on the court. A simple way to learn about our brain and the power it holds. A simple way to make life-long and sustainable habits that can become powerful when performed regularly and become a part of day-to-day life.
Presence – paying attention, and to keep bringing you back, to the moment you are in.
Process – tools to use to form long-lasting and sustainable habits.
Persistence – continued and prolonged training of the mind to deal with all obstacles.