COACHES CORNER: Transitioning from Junior to College Squash

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Welcome to Coaches Corner – a column for CSA coaches to provide insight, advice, and anecdotes. This week we welcome Princeton Women’s Assistant Coach, Hesham Aly. Below, Hesham offers a helping hand in facing the challenges transitioning from junior to college squash. 

Junior squash is a uniquely exciting period in any player’s career. As rewarding and enjoyable as that time can be, it can also be filled with stress and heartbreak.

Squash opens up a world of opportunities – offering the chance to meet new coaches and friends, grow as a person and an athlete, and be recruited to represent some of the top academic institutions in the world at the varsity level. However, as with all other big milestones in life, transitioning from junior to college squash comes with its own set of challenges. 

Therefore, my goal is to provide insight on some of the challenges players face in college squash and give a few useful tips geared towards optimizing your performance so that you can come into college feeling prepared and motivated to tackle the challenges and transition with ease. 

Challenge I: The Mindset

  1. Burnout

Over the last 10 years, the level of junior squash in America has improved dramatically. This growth combined with the increasing presence of talented international players in U.S universities makes competition for recruiting spots at the top institutions fierce. In such a competitive and high-stakes environment, the recruiting process can be extremely stressful for many high school students and even leave some players feeling burnt out by the end of it.

During the time between receiving your letter of acceptance and the start of university, it can be easy to fall into a passive mindset. Once the stress of recruitment is over and you know where you are heading, it’s natural to want to take your foot off the gas. While you should celebrate your accomplishment, it is important to take steps to continue improving your game and prepare for your college squash career. 

2. The Growth Mindset

Even though the particular causes of burnout are different for each individual, the effects of it are somewhat the same. Identify and do what is required in conquering burnout, and work on getting your passion back! Develop the growth mindset necessary to be best prepared in tackling the challenges ahead. As a growth-minded player, you should: 

i. have a training plan set towards a higher goal and should follow through with the established plan 

ii. be eager to take command of your own progress and to actively adapt and improve

iii. get excited thinking about opportunities to improve, such as training or competing

To meet the expectations set forth by your coach and the aspirations of your team, you will require an active growth mindset to ensure that you are improving with your team. Ultimately, maintaining behaviors that will help keep up your momentum will allow you to hit the ground running when it is time to be a university student-athlete!

Challenge II: Adapting to a New Workload, Coaching Style and The Tools Needed

  1. Training smarter

So, you made it to the start of college! Some of the next challenges you will likely face are differences in workload and coaching styles between junior and college squash. With the busy schedule that accompanies being a full-time student, the time allocated for training is fixed and may be shorter than you are used to in juniors. This means that training “smarter” will be necessary for your ongoing improvement. 

Training smarter means devising systematic training plans that will allow you to achieve higher long-term goals more efficiently within a restricted time period. Goals such as winning a national title or even moving up your team ladder get broken down into smaller, shorter-term milestones which are then further divided into several focus points that are achievable within individual sessions. There are nuances, however, when it comes to assigning goals for each session.

A common mistake that players make is that they try to achieve too much within a short amount of time. In addition to inducing a negative and self-defeating mindset, this often slows down their long-term progress and removes the joy that should come from practice. Instead, you should focus on a maximum of two or three points per session and adapt your focus points to take into account your physical and mental conditions for each day. This is important because you need to notice yourself moving forward towards your goals. Trying to achieve too much in one session will scatter your attention, and you will end up only noticing what is going wrong, failing to give yourself credit for what is going right. While improvement is by no means a linear process, having a focus in each session will make sure that you are making progress towards your goals.

2. Visualization 

Visualization is another skill that can help you train smarter. Your college days will be incredibly busy with classes, homework, friends, and the general stress of settling into a new place. One way to use the skill of visualization is before practice. Visualize yourself in the upcoming practice session achieving your session’s focus point. It will help sharpen your mind and allow you to train with more intensity because you are attempting to recreate the simulation from your mind. Visualizing before practice will also help you to recognize the school day is over and that it is now time to think about and play squash. 

It is a skill that gets better the more you practice it and can completely transform your ability to concentrate your efforts and allows you to review yourself by acting as a point of reference. Any time you spend visualizing will be time well spent. It could be your activity while walking to the courts before practice, you could incorporate it in your warmup, or you can visualize before going to bed to prepare for the next day.

 3. Attitude Shift

In college squash, practice no longer revolves around you as it did in junior squash. In the new team setting, you will need to adopt a more mature attitude that incorporates your role as a team player. While it is a lot of fun to always have great players to hit with, you will not have a coach commenting on your every shot as in 1-on-1 sessions. On days where you are not feeling your best, you will find ways to motivate yourself to give your practice partner a good hit, and they will do the same for you. 

Adopting an attitude of personal responsibility and learning to hold yourself accountable for each session’s quality are what will mainly determine the speed of your progression and what you extract from each session. A simple example of personal accountability could be running for every ball regardless if the coach is looking or to self-assess your performance during water breaks. On particularly tough days, it might be enough just to prove to yourself that you can get through the session, and that will be a great accomplishment. “Just getting through” should not happen every practice, however, and often you will feel better having played and leaving what you can on the court. 

4. Maximizing Practice Time and Habits

If you have properly worked on the previous points, then you should be able to make any assigned drill work for you by finding ways to work on your focus points within those drills. Squash is a game that relies heavily on a player’s habits. The more skills you are able to automate through daily repetition, the more mental space you are able to free up for more pressing matters, like being present-minded when it is match day. 

It is in your best interest to create strong and reliable habits technically, mentally and physically. Sessions are normally 2 hours in duration, which includes the warm-up, cool-down, water breaks and the coach explaining each drill, so only around 75 minutes is actual play. Maximizing what you gain from that time is up to you. Optimize your warm up time by including some visualization as well as your cool down with a quick self-review of your performance in that session. Joking around with the team should be kept in the locker-room; practice time should mean business to you! 

5. Adjusting to a New Coach

Many players coming from junior squash have mainly worked with one squash coach. Adjusting to your new coach and understanding their training philosophy will take some time. However, the faster you build synergy and trust, the better your practices will be. I advise spending some time getting to know your coach, communicating your goals and being open to the coach’s changes and suggestions to your game. Ask the coach what their short and long-term expectations are of you and use these as motivators.

Challenge III: Time Management

You made it to the end of the semester! Unfortunately, you now have 100 pages to read, 2 papers to write by tonight and a presentation tomorrow. It feels like too much of a stretch to think of squash right now. While college will have periods of higher academic workloads, this situation can be avoided with a variety of time management strategies. Successful student-athletes plan out their semester (months, weeks, and days) and adhere to their timetable. 

Finding a balance between academics, sport and social life is not easy to figure out. However, based on your priorities, it should motivate you to complete each task in the assigned time so as to not interfere with the next. If you are serious about squash, set weekly time slots for lessons or extra ghosting sessions with your coach, and get more direct feedback. An interrupted training schedule due to poor time management, procrastination or exhaustion from lack of sleep will affect the quality of performance and if this becomes a regular occurrence, then it will ultimately affect the trajectory of your long-term progress.

Overall, college squash offers an experience like no other, providing world class education and the chance to continue growing and competing in squash alongside some of the most talented student-athletes in the world, who will most likely be your lifelong friends. Despite having its own set of challenges, the pros of college squash far outweigh them and are definitely worth it. Coming into this new chapter with an enthusiastic and growth-based mindset will be imperative in facing these challenges and making the most out of your college experience. By having a proactive mindset, optimizing your practice, and effectively managing your time, you will be better equipped in transitioning from junior to college squash.