Attacking the ball and playing offensively is not something that happens with one shot – it must permeate every shot you play. You can’t expect or act like any shot will be the winning one – or the losing one.
I was working with the Sussex County Squad and we were doing a session on taking the ball early. During a drill that saw a repeating pattern of shots – boast, cross-court length, straight length (aiming to volley the cross-court) – I debated with the players which shot was the most important one of the drill. Of course, all of the shots are important but not one of them initially agreed with me when I argued that the boast was the key shot in the drill. The idea of the drill was to step in and attack the cross-court as high up the court as possible on the volley, meaning that not surprisingly many of them opted for that volley attempt as being the focal point of the exercise. A few of them chose the cross-court length as this would determine whether a volley was possible or not.
The reason I argued for the boast was that if a player played a weak boast, a strong cross-court would follow making it very hard to volley. When a stronger boast was played, the cross-court was almost always rushed or weaker and therefore much easier to intercept on the volley. We watched a few rallies and sure enough a good boast often resulted in a weaker cross-court and the boaster taking charge of the rally. When a bad boast was played, we watched again and again as that player then went on to struggle for several shots, if they stayed in the rally at all, as a result of that one boast.
The boast was in truth no more important than the others but due to the fact the boast is often undervalued, it was treated as just a filler shot by participants as if it was just there to make up the numbers – a subordinate shot to the more glamorous volley. Serves and serve returns are often treated in this manner and it is a mindset we are all guilty of at times. We often look to attack our opponent with just one or two shots out of nowhere, in this case with a fantastic volley no matter the strength of the cross-court, thinking that this will be enough to win the rally or at least make it difficult for the opponent. More often than not when we do this we make errors after trying to force a shot from an impossible position or get disheartened if our opponent retrieves very good shots and we wonder what we have to do to get a point. We very rarely gear all of our shots towards taking the ball early or indeed any other tactic we are aiming to execute. We often just expect to be able to focus on hitting a couple of good shots and up the pressure. In this case, the players weren’t treating the boasts as shots that could contribute towards creating openings but instead trying to force moments of genius on the volley.
I call these inspirational shots or shots from nothing ‘moments’. Being able to produce these ‘moments’ to win points is fantastic to watch and all players should aspire to hit winning shots but this strategy is seldom successful over any period of time if it is not backed up by building good pressure. Winning at squash comes through consistently hitting the ball into open spaces, as England Squash’s ‘Pillars of Squash’ testify.
What we really need is to create sustained or relentless pressure, which was the point I tried to get across to the squad. The boast was part of a sequence or combination of shots and if the pressure was applied by one player through every shot they played, they would eventually tire their opponent, force an error or produce one of these ‘moments’ from a good position.
“Attacking the ball shouldn’t be something that happens with one shot. In order to attack the ball or take the ball early, we must gear all of our shots towards it. The attacking intent must permeate and inspire all of the shots we play. It is no good trying to step up and play one volley. You need to build pressure gradually and work the openings for you to take the ball early if you are to attack it successfully and you do this by making even the most common drives and boasts intense.”
Those who saw the importance of the boast made sure they hit it with the upmost quality or even hit a volley boast and quite quickly they began to create pressure as their opponent was forced to lunge down low very quickly, resulting in a weaker cross-court return. The weaker return was easier to volley and allowed for another attacking shot, which again could heap further pressure on a beleaguered opponent. There were times it took five or six attacking shots to finally break the opponent but it always came eventually. Even when the aggressor made an error or their opponent managed to turn the rally around, they’d been on the end of a prolonged attack and were tired from retrieving during the attack and so made more errors and poor play as time went on.
What I wanted to drive home to the players and to you now is that you can’t rely on just producing that magical shot or winning a rally with one shot. You have to string together sequences of shots and sometimes it might take several really good aggressive shots before you get the winner or force an error. If you focus on making every shot one that will increase the pressure that bit more, you will get the opportunity to hit more attacking shots and you will find yourself capable of hitting more winners as gaps begin to show as your opponent tires. You have to be prepared to up the intensity and the pressure through a number of shots in order to create a relentless cycle of pressure that eventually forces your opponent into submission.
When you play, don’t focus on one shot as being crucial. You might have one very strong shot that your game is geared to but this shot needs other shots to flourish and you must remember that. If you have a superb volley drop, you need to create pressure to force a weak shot for your drop volley. If you just focus on looking for drop volley opportunities, you will often attempt to volley very tight balls or rush the shot. If you focus instead on building the pressure and make every shot a testing one, you will find you won’t need to force the ‘moments’ but that they will flow naturally. If you make sure all your ordinary shots from your serve to your boast have intent, you will quickly be inundated with opportunities.
Make sure even your most mundane drive is testing and dripping with aggression – perhaps you hit it earlier or maybe you hit it downwards so it fades quickly in the corner. If you do that, you’ll find opportunities will open up for you to play any attacking shot you desire.