Coaching & Instruction:
Taking the ball early


Why this article?

The background behind this is: I was reading a couple of magazines whilst in the States recently, one Tennis magazine & one Golf magazine, and I was struck by how many coaching & improvement articles there are in these sport's magazines compared to squash.

People always want tips from the pro's, ie. in the Golf magazine it was 'How to hit the fade like Bubba' or 'How to putt like Tiger' and in the Tennis it was 'How to hit the Forehand heavy topspin like Rafa'. I thought this article could be 'How to volley like Nick Matthew!!'
[And I loved the idea, Fram]

In this article I will be looking at the benefits of taking the ball early in squash [which is usually associated as a strength of his, Fram]. We will look at volleying and half-volleying and the impact of this in the context of the modern game. We will cover deception and technical points, as well as drills and condition games that can help you dominate the ‘T’ and create a successful ‘volleying mentality’.


  

The Importance of taking the ball early

The phrase ‘taking the ball early’ means taking the ball either on the volley or half-volley as far up the court as possible thereby putting pressure on your opponent and limiting their time to react.

In squash fractions of seconds can make the difference between winning and losing and by taking the ball early you are using these fractions of seconds to your advantage. In addition to this, if your quality of shot is good, your opponent will be forced to do a larger percentage of work and therefore prone to tiredness earlier in the match.

Dominating the 'T'

So, what are the key technical components to enable you to successfully take the ball early and dominate the ‘T‘?

Early preparation of feet and racket are obviously important. But it also helps to anticipate early where the ball is going by reading visual clues from your opponent.

Push off dynamically with your first step and begin to prepare the racket, allowing space between yourself and the ball. If the ball is travelling quickly towards you, a shorter backswing may be useful as you will have less time to react and the ball may just have to be accurately directed rather than adding power.

It is also vital to pay great attention to the quality of your shot. This is obviously important on all shots, but having put an extra effort in to take the ball early the last thing you want to see is a poor shot meaning all that energy was wasted. Crucial to this quality of shot is the follow through, which will aid balance and increase poise on the ball, and lastly enable you to push back quickly and regain that all important ‘T’ position.

‘Volleying mentally’

Speed of movement and early racket preparation are both crucial components of taking the ball early, but for me, the most important factor is creating a ‘volleying mentality‘. By this I mean that your first thought is always to look, or ‘hunt’ for the volley.

How many times do you watch a match where you think ‘he or she could have volleyed that’? In my opinion, more often or not, this is because the mentality was to let the ball come off the back wall rather than a technical fault. A ‘Volleying Mentality’ can take weeks, months, possibly even years to create but will be worthwhile in the end.

Starting young

As a junior, my coach at the time, Mark Hornby, used to stand in the service box, whilst I was half way to the front wall, and fire balls off the front wall as hard as he could possibly hit them, challenging me to volley as many of them as I could. We would do this for about 5 minutes on each side about twice a week. Whilst this might seem extreme, and the quality of my volleys certainly weren’t very high to start with, it taught me the important lesson of hunting the volley at a young age.

STAGES OF THOUGHT:

1. VOLLEY
Always ‘hunt’ for the volley as a first train of thought. If you don’t have the mentality to look for the volley a lot of attacking opportunities will be missed.

2. HALF-VOLLEY
If the ball cannot be volleyed, the next thought should always, where possible, be to half-volley or take the ball on the bounce at the back of the service box before it hits the back wall. This not only helps you hold a higher position up the court, but also reduces the time your opponent has to settle on the T. The half-volley is a massively underestimated part of the game. Far too often players let the ball come off the back wall when it cannot be volleyed, and let up the pressure on their opponent as a result.

3. OFF THE BACK WALL
A last resort, if you like, when the length is too good to take the ball early or when you are off balance or under pressure in the rally. Another way to think about it is letting the decision to take the ball off the back wall be YOUR choice rather than it being a habit.

Volleying in a match

Once you have established a volleying mentality, there are many different ways to use it to your advantage in a match.

Obviously there’s the volley length and the volley drop, but what about the volley kill, the power volley, cross-court volley, or even volley boast? When you think about the different speeds and heights at which these shots can be played you have a lot of different options to your volleying.

Add deception to this and you have a greater number of volleying options. Deception is a brilliant thing to go hand in hand with volleying. If you are getting on to the ball early, your opponent will also have to move quickly to cover the potential dangerous situation. Imagine then that on certain occasions you decide not to take the ball quite so early, but hold back, wait for them to sink and then hit the volley. As a result they will be forced to move twice to every single shot. This is a very effective weapon and very tiring for your opponent over a period of time.

Volleying practice & condition games

NO BACK WALL
Play a back-court game taking away the back wall.

In this game if the ball hits the back wall you lose the point, unless the ball hits the back wall before it bounces and then you play on. This game really exaggerates the need to volley, or half-volley; if you don’t, you have literally lost the point. Great for teaching a volleying mentality. Progress to full court game with no back wall.

A POINT PER VOLLEY
Play a full court game but every time you volley you score a point.

For example, if Player A volleys the ball four times during the rally and Player B volleys three times during the rally but wins the point, the score is four-all. Again, this game is great for exaggerating the volleying mentality.

3 POINTS PER WINNING VOLLEY
As simple as it sounds; a full court game and every time you win a point with a volley you score three points - great for encouraging attacking volleying.

CAN ONLY GO SHORT ON VOLLEY
Back of the court length game, where you can attack short only if you volley.

To encourage an element of full court movement the counter to this volley can also go short and then the rally returns to length. Great for practising deception on the volley.

All of these condition games are games I still use today in practice to improve and fine tune my volleying. Even if you consider volleying to be one of your strengths, use these games and other volleying drills to turn that strength in to a match winning strategy or a super strength.

Nick will be working on all of these aspects of his game and more in his first
NM Academy Elite Junior Mastercall, on June 1st at Abbeydale Club in Sheffield

More details on www.nickmatthew.co.uk