I´ve always loved competing. I played my first tournaments at the age of 13 and since then I´ve had unforgettable moments on and off court. Butterflies in my stomach before stepping onto the court. Beating an opponent nobody expects me to. Hearing my team mates´ cheering in the 5th set, exhausted. Cheering my team mates in their matches, all nerves. Having a bad day and playing poorly, thinking of selling my rackets but then learning from it. Watching top squash. Being hit in my thigh by my opponent, leaving a blue mark for weeks. Winning my first nationals title. Seeing new places and making friends. The list goes on and on, and I wouldn´t change a single moment. Going to tournaments teaches you not only about squash but also about yourself.
Some people are better at playing competitive matches than others. They reach their limits and beyond when they´re competing. They fight for every ball and look strong but relaxed. They´ve been training hard and they know they´re in good shape. They´re confident. Others always perform well in training sessions but for some reason fail to do the same in competitions. It could be the nerves, or wrong type of preparation. How to get the best out of yourself in tournaments? Maybe you´ll find some of these tips useful:
Make sure you´re not tired from training
Most players take a day or two off before a tournament to make sure they recover physically from training. Personally, if I start a tournament on Saturday, I like to rest on Thursday and do some light training, such as solo practice or a few drills, on Friday. The fact is that you learn to know what your body needs. If you feel tired in the first match on the first tournament day, you´ve done something wrong. Sometimes what you need is a short but hard training session before the tournament. Listen to the signs of your body several days before the tournament and plan the training sessions according to them.
Food is fuel to your body
The day before, make sure you eat and drink enough, and have a good breakfast on the tournament morning. It´s not good to have a too heavy meal before a match, because you´ll easily feel sick, but your body must have enough energy. I know someone who once had 10 potatoes and a huge steak one hour before the match. Not surprisingly, it was an agony to watch and I guess even more painful on the court. For example, I like to have a good breakfast (bread, porridge, some fruit, etc.) on the tournament morning, about 3 hours before the first match. Then I might have a banana, an energy bar or something similar about an hour before the match. If I have several matches on the same day and I know I´ll need a lot of energy, I use recovery drinks (I prefer the ones you mix with water rather than the sugary stuff they sell at normal supermarkets). I have one right after the match, then shower and then eat a proper meal before the next match if it´s not until 2-3 hours later. If you play on the next day, have a good dinner with lots of good carbohydrates. Make sure you don´t give any advantage to your opponent because you haven´t paid attention to your nutrition.
Establish routines and warm up
It´s important to feel that you´ve done everything you can do to be well-prepared for the match. Establishing systematic routines helps. Nearly all athletes have their routines. What to have for breakfast, when to pack your stuff, how to warm up, whether to listen to music before the match… Routines equals optimal preparation, both physical and mental. For example, I know what to have for breakfast on a tournament day and what time. I´ve packed my stuff the previous evening and made sure the rackets and grips are ok. I go to the club around one hour before the first match. About 30 minutes before the match, I find an empty court, warm up and do a few solo routines. If there´s no free court I find a quiet corridor and do my warm-up routine. I think positive. I tell myself I´m in a good shape. All this helps me be in control of everything I can.
Warming up is important, don´t waste the first set for that purpose. I like to do something that takes me out of breath and sweat a little bit. My warm up routine also relaxes me. Personally, I don´t like listening to music before a match, but lots of people do, and if it helps you to reach the best possible mindset, include listening your favourite music in your routines.
Another thing are so-called rituals and superstitions, such as wearing a certain wristband, or blue socks, a white T-shirt or stuff like that. That´s not really part of preparation but lots of athletes rely on their little, magical rituals. Again, whatever makes you feel as ready and confident as possible, do it.
“Spy” your opponent
If you know little or nothing about your opponent´s way of playing, try to watch him/her play or practice before the match. Having at least some idea of his/her strengths and weaknesses helps you figure out what kind of tactic might work best.
If you´re losing, change something
If you lose a game, you have to do something differently. If you´re making mistakes (hitting tins), do lift the ball higher. If your opponent is attacking all the time and you´re running around, slow down the pace by hitting the ball softer but higher. If your opponent volleys a lot, try to hit straight drives and avoid loose cross courts. Try to change roles with your opponent: you want to be the one controlling the T and attacking. Step forward, be brave to volley. Experienced players analyse all the time what to do. Good players don´t get frustrated because as long as the match is not over there´s hope. Neither do they think the match is theirs until the last rally is over. Great athletes never underestimate any opponent. A good tip is to think of every rally as if the game was 0-0.
Whether you won or lost, it´s useful to analyse what went right and what went wrong. Ideally you´d do this with your personal coach. Every match is an opportunity to learn, but surprisingly few players actually bother to do any analysis. So, sit down with your coach or a friend who watched you play, buy a nice drink and go through the match and how you felt.
Tournaments are fantastic opportunities for you to show yourself how much you´ve improved. If you´re training regularly it´s very rewarding to see the fruit it bears. Remember, it´s not so much about winning or losing as it´s about enjoying this amazing sport with other like-minded people. However, don´t underestimate good preparation, because it helps you make the most of the tournament and really see how far you can get. Whatever the result, you can always learn.