In a book written by Malcolm Gladwell the celebrated author outlines how this result, and many others like it, were not upsets but actually truly deserved wins, calculated to perfection to place the perceived underdog, in the public’s eye, into a position of strength.
So let’s turn to squash. This Wednesday just gone was a fine example of how to do just that.
The scene is Nottingham University Men’s Firsts vs Loughborough University Men’s Firsts, Quarter Finals of the BUCS Championship, the pinnacle of university squash in the UK.
Unlike most sports Loughborough were firm underdogs: a small coaching budget, 20 times less than Nottingham’s, facilities that have seen better days, and a recent record not comparable to that of the success Nottingham have seen.
So how did it go ? A hugely unexpected 3/2 victory to Loughborough!
Every Loughborough player performed above their normal capabilities, whilst showing an increase in playing standard from the start of the year. Now link back to David and Goliath, how did Loughborough overcome these odds, just like David did in turning the battle into a match in which he could succeed?
The art of planning, mentoring and coaching is how. Go back to the start of the season my goals as a coach were simple and that was to gain rapport with the players. This is the only way you can get them to buy in to new ideas and trust their skills when it counts, under match pressure. The way I personally aim to do this isn’t from above, prescribing or dictating a regime, it’s from on the same level. The art of building rapport is being able to be at the same level as your players, have a laugh, join in at times, and fundamentally be seen as human. From there you can lead them not as an external motivator but in fostering internal drive and desire in your players to succeed for themselves and their peers. It is possible to help create a close knit environment where each player cares and works for each other, as a team.
Once you’re there it is possible to know your players, their personalities, and motivators. When you know this you can afford to try things as a coach, as you know when you can throw the spanner in the works and take a calculated risk received by an open mindset to change.
So what in terms of the nitty gritty of the training for high pressured environments and getting them ready for the big game? Loughborough needed to build a team of big game players, ones capable of a big task. The approach we adopted as a team was to use something called punishment training. This has recently been researched in the academic world with the sport of cricket, and made aware to me on England Squash and Racketball workshops. The principle is that the use of punishments such as fitness exercises, forfeits, and being placed on the spot can recreate this real life tense atmosphere in the big game. We used this regularly for a period of time in order to prep our players to deal with pressure and learn to handle it when it came.
As a team the boys had become more able to deal with pressure and it was now a case of planning for the event. As soon as the draw came out we realised when we would need to peak to succeed in the tournament. We used the match as the drive for the training and peaking for the event. Using the budget we had as a coach I carefully crafted the coaching, fitness, and match play schedules to give us the best chance.
On the day it was case of controlling the team’s emotions. A subtle morning text to each player was sent with a rough game plan and reminder of the motivators for each of them, to get them pumped up and looking forward to it. Before the game we had a team meeting where each player could give input to each other’s game plans and a reminder of key aspects as a team in terms of the momentum and support they can give one another throughout. From there, time to reflect was built in, and brief chats to each player were given to remind, settle or pump up the player dependent on the person.
During the match most of the real work is done, and as a coach it was now about rolling the dice and seeing how it unfolded, and not being afraid to ask more of the players you are working with between games. But really when it came down to it, it was the players on court that counted and the work that they had done before to get them to that point.
And it worked for us! Now I am not saying this is the way to do things or the best way but it worked for us as a team. Equally so, it wouldn’t have worked for every match we had played as that emotional buy-in has to be invested where it is most needed and it isn’t infinite.
The true test now is crafting the response from this, and seeing if we as a team can do what your giant killers of the past have failed to do and back up one big result with another. It’s fair to say this is a team, and club as a whole that have developed a great drive, and it would be interesting to see what would be possible with parity of funding for the club as a whole.
Next up for the Men’s firsts is the toughest task of all in the shape of UWE of Bristol, meanwhile the Men’s 2’s take on Nottingham seconds in the cup and the Men’s thirds fight for promotion alongside the seconds. Wish us luck!
By Josh Taylor
Loughborough University Head Coach,
ESR East Midlands Regional Lead Coach