Mechanical Engineering

Target practice

I’ve played squash since I was a teenager.

Squash is a highly aerobic indoor racket sport that’s overshadowed in the US by racquetball in the same way the 100 meter dash dominates the marathon. The goal of squash is very simple – to win points (and games and matches) by making the ball bounce twice or making your opponent mess up.

Over the years, I’ve developed a vague idea of how to achieve that goal through a combination of speed, fitness, strength and repetition of a few “kill” shots. These techniques turned me into a decent player, capable of competing against other decent players.

When I am matched against better players, though, these techniques fail. My speed and fitness turn me into a human yo-yo. Hitting the ball hard just turns my shots into bullets that ricochet back at me with lethal speed. And my kill shots, when rushed, become mistakes.

Enter Jonas Laursen, Danish squash pro. Jonas is the rare pro that understands the power of analogy and demonstration to teach a skill. In five minutes he was able to watch me and give me transformational tips. I want to focus on one: target visualization. Jonas pointed to a place on the floor where my bread-and-butter shots should land to put pressure on my opponent. Actually, he didn’t point at the spot – he placed a shoe there and asked me to hit it. He also recounted that his coach did the same with him when he was a kid, placing shoes along the wall, baskets in the corners and comic books near the front wall. Jonas still pictures the cover of a Spiderman comic book when hitting a drop shot.

The shoe also becomes the center point of a drill where that bread-and butter “rail” shot is practiced. If you win the point conventionally you get one point. If you hit the shoe you get two points. And if you land inside the shoe, Donkey Kong falls from his perch … Actually, you get three points.

This well-placed shot puts your opponent is in an uncomfortable position. She will likely let the ball continue to the back wall, giving you extra time to prepare for your next shot. I fundamentally understood this goal, but given my techniques, I simply kept hitting the ball harder, trying to force it past my opponent.

Unfortunately a hard shot is an inconsistent shot and what usually happens is that the ball comes back fast, but way out in the middle of the court… easy pickings for a put-away shot

Having a target in addition to a goal revolutionized my game this year. I’m winning more points, games and matches. Isn’t that wonderful? Thanks for reading my blog. The end.

In a general sense, to succeed in design and engineering you have to develop your skill, pick a goal, and then define a target to hit.

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