Squash Player Magazine's Rod Gilmour takes on the PSA’s Nathan Clarke to try out the new player data-tracking system with predictable results……
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“What a match,” jokes Joelle King. “What a mess,” I counter. New Zealand’s Commonwealth women’s singles champion is trying to warm up ahead of her allotted practice time on the British Open glass court but is clearly enthused by what is happening on court deep into my third game. This is not the shock and awe usually seen on the PSA World Tour.
When the door finally opens, I take to the player’s Dunlop chair and stare intently down to the floor, eyes glazed. It is exactly the look I had seen in images of opponents beaten to a pulp by Jahangir Khan.
I had returned from the Commonwealth Games in a fairly unhealthy state. Here, I was taking on the role of a semi-unfit club player against my chosen opponent, Nathan Clarke, the Professional Squash Association’s head of PR and media.
We had reason for our early-morning dalliance on court. Since January, the PSA have been capturing on-court player technological data, which, for the first time, has not only showcased the players’ physical demands but underlined why the sport is consistently seen as one of the healthiest out there.
That infamous Forbes article on squash being the no.1 healthy sport can certainly be put to bed now, for 2018 has been a technological revelation for the sport. Yet the PSA believe it has only scratched the surface in terms of packaging more data to fans and the commercial value it offers.
The PSA first tied up with Silicon Valley-based Sports Data Labs at the Tournament of Champions in New York in January, tracking player heart-rate data and improving the TV experience at the same time.
Now, we are beginning to see context – as amateur armchair viewers – on the screen. Looking at a player’s face after coming off second best in a punishing rally is one thing; seeing heart rates (HR) in real time and their recovering abilities is another.
Coupled with this, the PSA’s partnership with interactiveSquash has also proved beneficial thanks to ‘MoTrack’, the German company's ball and distance-tracking programme.
It’s all very well seeing data from the pros, but I wanted to see how it matched up to a typical club game. In essence, we wanted to replicate a 30-minute match with a decent warm-up and aiming to keep length and the rallies going as best we could.
Technicians were in place as we had our chests hooked up to an HR sensor, while rally and shot lengths were ready to be measured.
I will spare you the blow-by-blow match details – after all, the biometric data would reveal all – but, suffice to say, that hard drives weren’t needed given the brevity of some our rallies! Nathan won 2-1 before King and Camille Serme demanded court time.
The bare facts? Our longest rally lasted 56 seconds, with 31 shots. After that rally we had a 10-second rest. While the rest length would have cut short shrift with the referees on the PSA Tour, it far outweighed the average 25 seconds usually seen on tennis’ ATP Tour. Victory!
By the end of the first game, my HR had maxed out to 189. Given that one’s maximum HR is generally 220 bpm minus your age (in my case around 180), it immediately indicated that my fitness levels were below par.
Tellingly, in our 75-second rest period, my recovery HR was non-existent (down to 156 before the start of the second game). Meanwhile, Nathan was able to recover from around 170bpm down to 121. If you compare that to Mohamed ElShorbagy, who regularly tops 190bpm and can lower his HR to 130 in between games, Nathan was in a good place.
As an active person, Nathan, who has chewed over the pros’ data since January, surprised himself at his own level of recovery, admitting that when he plays, he feels like he is playing at maximum level “a lot of the time”.
The data showed that his recovery in between games and points was better than he envisaged. He assumed that this HR rapidly increased to maximum and stayed there, or that’s what it felt like anyway. It gave him confidence that he could pace himself a bit more.
Over 30-odd minutes, Nathan accrued 911 metres in distance moved against my 851 metres. We hadn’t even covered one kilometre! Watch a PSA World Tour rally and the pros will usually notch that distance over one game.
Over the years, squash fans have long held the view that there is more dynamism – expressed through lunges, short sprints and complex, awe-inspiring changes in movement – compared to other racket sports.
But a greater understanding of the players’ physique and agility was realised earlier this year, when Egyptian Tarek Momen played out a near 100-minute battle with Frenchman Mathieu Castagnet. Momen covered close to 5km over 100 contested points in that match, averaging 49 metres per point over nearly 1,000 shots.
With data retrieval, squash can now go head-to-head with the likes of tennis. When, in July, energy-sapped South African Kevin Anderson finally overcame American John Isner after six hours 36 minutes, the longest Wimbledon semi-final in history, data recorded by IBM’s SlamTracker showed Anderson covering an overall 4,443 metres. In comparison, Momen covered 4,966 metres, 500 more metres than Anderson and achieved in nearly 300 fewer minutes. Take in tennis’ snail-pace time it takes to reset the rally, together with the in-play percentage of the two sports, and squash far outweighs its big brother.
“For a generic sports fan, if you say they are covering 4km in a match over 60 minutes, it doesn’t sound much,” says Nathan.
“Yet when you put it into relativity – which may consist of 200 sprints, 300 lunges, 250 steps forward and back – it is giving us some fantastic figures to market the players to another level.”
All this technology can reach out beyond the PSA Tour, however. From a coaching point of view, as a tool in real time at clubs, it might give a greater understanding on player gains, performances against other individuals and adjustments needed in training.
Appealing to the fan is clearly a key cog. Interestingly, I had gone for a haircut while writing this piece. My hairdresser is a keen motorsport fan and has ventured to the Isle of Man TT races for years in his need for speed. In March he had attended his first live squash experience at the Canary Wharf Classic. He was left enthralled by the match pace and the hollering of the crowd. He will be going back next year.
One man’s converted passion is but a small imprint on squash’s continued growth. But with this new data now accessible to the PSA Squash TV team for the viewers’ benefit, the sport is shining its brightest spotlight yet, enticing the outside sports fan to watch more glass-court battles. But maybe not mine!
I can see straightaway that your initial heart rate (HR) is higher, telling me that Nathan has a better fitness base, explains Kirsty MacKay, of heart-rate monitor specialists Polar.
I can see that when you hit your maximum HR, you struggle to recover from this as efficiently.
Estimating crudely, it takes Nathan 1:20mins to recover back to around 60% of max, whereas, in the same time you would be around 80%. This means that you are working approximately 20% harder have to keep up.
As you start to hit above 80% of your max, your body will then struggle to perform at that intensity for sustained periods due to the onset of lactate production and the lack of oxygen readily available to you.
From a psychological point of view, your decision-making may then become compromised and, under pressure, you may select the wrong shot and mistakes can start creeping into your game, for example.
Having a higher fitness level will allow the professional to endure longer periods of play. They will not be as physically limited and will be in a better prepared mental state to make the correct decisions under pressure for longer.