Welcome to Coaches Corner – a column for CSA coaches to provide insight, advice, and anecdotes. This week we welcome Columbia’s Assistant Coach, James Wyatt. Below, James explores key factors that help players perform in the heat of battle including pre-performance routines, regulating self-talk, and practicing.
What makes the pressure of playing college squash different?
I would argue, being able to perform under pressure is the biggest factor of being successful in college squash individually and as a team. The level of stress when playing in college is extensive compared to other formats of squash. Some players may compare the level of stress in college squash to playing in the PSA, but I would argue there is more pressure in college squash as you’re competing for a larger team. With the depth of college squash improving in recent years, the ability to perform under pressure is a more invaluable skill than ever before. This is because there are more 5-4 and 6-3 matches between a larger group of teams. For example, at this year’s men’s and women’s nationals in the A division a quarter of the matches ended 5-4. The difference between winning and losing these tight matches may come down to who can handle the pressure more effectively.
Two of the biggest reasons for higher levels of stress when playing college squash are:
- Not wanting to let your teammates down
- Headspace being clouded by hypothesizing about how teammates might be doing (e.g. I expect X,Y & Z to win but not Q & R)
This article aims to explore the key factors that will help players perform in the heat of battle when it counts including pre-performance routines, regulating self-talk, and practicing.
Why is a pre-performance routine essential?
A pre-performance routine is the series of activities that an individual engages in prior to performing a specific task. It is a deliberate and systematic approach that helps to create a sense of familiarity and control in otherwise uncertain and unpredictable circumstances. A pre-performance routine can include physical and mental preparation activities such as visualization, breathing exercises, and stretching. The routine can also include a set of specific actions that an individual performs before the match, such as putting on certain clothes or accessories, checking equipment, or listening to specific music.
One of the key benefits of a pre-performance routine is that it can improve focus and concentration. When we are under pressure, it can be difficult to maintain focus and concentrate on the task at hand. By following a pre-performance routine, a player can help to block out distractions and focus their attention purely on their performance. The routine can serve as a mental anchor, helping the player to remain focused and attentive throughout the match.
A pre-performance routine can also help build confidence. When an individual follows a routine, they are engaging in a set of activities that they have practiced and are familiar with. This can create a sense of confidence and self-assurance that can be carried over into the performance. The routine can help to establish a positive mindset before going into a pressure situation and provide a level of comfort in a stressful situation.
A player’s pre-performance routine should be highly personalized to the individual. Some players will need to be pumped up whilst others may need calming down. Finding the right pre-performance routine can only be found through trial and error. Therefore, testing out pre-performance routines in lower stake situations where there is some pressure but not the team’s result on the line can be effective. One example of this would be challenge matches as there is internal pressure to perform to your level, but not the anxiety around letting the team down.
A unique part of college squash is that you want to support your teammates but you also have to prepare for your individual match. I believe it is critical to step away from the match to get into the right headspace without distractions from the crowd, teammates and matches going on. Teammates understand that every player has to take responsibility for their performance and therefore needs to do what gets the best out of them.
What is self-talk and why do you need to regulate it?
Regulating self-talk is critical to being able to perform effectively under pressure because the way you talk to yourself can significantly impact your performance. When you are under pressure, your internal dialogue can either help or hinder your ability to perform effectively. Negative thoughts such as “I don’t want to let my teammates down” or “I don’t want to feel embarrassed when I tell my friends at college that I lost my match to a rival college” can be crippling to one’s performance.
These thoughts can amplify feelings of anxiety, stress and self-doubt. Often these negative thoughts are inevitable in high-stake situations such as a match being 4-4. But the skill of observing these thoughts and letting them go can be learned through deliberate practice. This skill is often referred to as mindfulness, defined as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations, used therapeutic technique” in the Oxford Dictionary.
This skill can be trained and improved the same way you train to hit straight drives. This idea of mindfulness can seem abstract but there is substantial scientific evidence that it can improve performance. A study published in the Journal of Health Psychology showed that the results of meditation/mindfulness are associated with reduced stress levels in addition to decreased levels of stress hormone cortisol. Additionally, the study shows practicing mindfulness improves sleep patterns and speeds up recovery from injuries and illness. Practical ways of beginning to incorporate this into your routine are apps such as Headspace or Calm which many athletes endorse namely Lebron James.
Another aspect of self-talk which was useful for me when playing was having something small that was tangible to focus on. For example, making sure I was hitting the back wall with my length, or I had my racket up, or thinking about being quick with my feet. These cues may sound overly simplistic, but having a few conscious process keys to fill the mind can displace thoughts about the outcome. Focusing on the process rather than the outcome is the essence of performing under pressure.
Why does “practice make perfect”?
Positive self-talk is a great tool for helping to perform under pressure. However, without the conviction that what you are telling yourself is true, it will lack effectiveness. This is because there will be internal doubt about what you are telling yourself. The confidence to perform under pressure comes from having an undeniable stack of proof that you have prepared well and you have been in similar circumstances before. Therefore, how you practice is a large determining factor in how likely you are to perform well under pressure. So how do we practice to perform well under pressure?
The common response is to do more training volume. Training volume is necessary to improve but it will not directly improve your ability to perform under pressure. This is because there is often a large disconnect between the actual match behavior exhibited on game day and the average day at many practices.
In his book, The Pressure Principal, Dave Alred outlines a behavior matrix in which sports can plot where on a continuum where their sport lies in terms of match behavior. Using the matrix can help make practices more realistic by replicating the behaviors players will perform on match day. The matrix can also be used a checklist to see how closely your practice is matching the behavior you want in a game.
In a week’s cycle of training, asking yourself how many times did the you exhibit match behavior can be very informative. If the match behavior is being exhibited, you are rehearsing for the game.
Working on technique and doing controlled drills should be a part of your training, but if the goal is to perform better under pressure, making practices uncomfortable is essential in order to make game day feel easier. The guiding principle is making practices more uncomfortable so that you are better prepared for high pressure situations in matches.
Challenge matches are the closest you will get to a real match because there are greater consequences of winning or losing. They provide a competitive environment in which players can test their skills and abilities under greater stress. By inoculating players to a similar level of stress to matches in ‘challenge matches’ they can learn to manage their nerves and perform under stress.
However, playing challenge matches are not the only way players can make practices more game-like. By using the matrix above practices can be made to resemble match behavior more closely even when not playing a match. For example, practicing skills such as volley drops at the end of a session when you are physically tired can be beneficial as this may be required in a match at 9-9 in the fifth game. Other practical ways of adding pressure can be adding constraints such as targets or conditions. As well as increasing consequences such as losing 2 points for hitting an unforced error or court sprints for the loser of a game.
In summary, performing under pressure is a highly valuable skill in college squash as tight matches have become more frequent. Performing well under pressure is a skill that can be improved with the right tools and deliberate practice. By having an effective pre-match routine players can build confidence and self-assurance before performing in an otherwise uncertain and chaotic environment. Player’s pre-performance routine should be highly personalized, meaning finding the right routine for you comes from your intuition as well as trial and error in lower stake circumstances. Being able to regulate your self-talk and be mindful of your thoughts can allow you to be more present, executing more effectively under pressure. This is a skill that can be learned and improved with deliberate practice. Focusing on conscious process keys such as hitting the back wall with my length can help displace thoughts about external factors such as the crowd, referee or match score. Lastly, exhibiting match behavior more frequently in practice so you are rehearsing the behavior that will be required in a match will allow you to be better prepared for pressure situations.