The Subtle Art of Blocking
Rod Symington is on the WSF Referees and Rules Committee and is a consultant on Rules and Refereeing to the USA. He has also been the Tournament Referee for, among others, the Women's Worlds, Pan Am Games, and Junior Men's and Women's Worlds. To contact Rod with questions or to enquire about clinics and his Squash Rules for Players, email him at email@example.com
Once you have hit your shot and completed your follow-through, the Rules require you to “make every effort” to move out of the way, so that your opponent can a) see the ball, b) move directly to it, c) make a full, reasonable swing, and d) hit the ball to any part of the front wall. These are the “four freedoms” that every player must extend to their opponent after every shot.
But what does “every effort” actually mean? This question has been debated for years, and unfortunately, there is no universal and unambiguous agreement on precisely what constitutes “every effort.”
Is it O.K., for example, to move out of the way just enough, so that your opponent can get to the ball, but has to brush past you—perhaps bumping you on the shoulder or stepping over your outstretched leg—in order to play it? The effect of such a bump might well be to cause your opponent to hit an inferior shot—and present you with an advantage in the rally. We have all hit the ball in situations where we afterwards say to ourselves: “You should have called a let!” Those situations frequently arise because our opponent has not made every effort to move completely out of our way.
This kind of behavior is, unfortunately, widespread: far too many players think that it is all right to move just enough out of the way, so that their opponent can get to the ball with a small amount of interference. Very clever players develop this technique into a subtle art: in rally after rally they appear to make every effort to move, but in fact they are only moving at three-quarter speed, perhaps delaying their move of the ball for that second or two that causes the incoming striker to hit a less-than-perfect shot.
At the professional level this behavior can become so subtle that only the most experienced referees can detect it. A top Australian coach announced in public a few years ago: “The best players in the world are the best blockers.” In other words: they are coached on how to block subtly, so as to put the opponent slightly off balance. This is, of course, a pernicious development, reflective of a win-at-all-costs attitude—and it is antithetical to the true spirit of the game of squash.
When the Rules of Squash are finally revised again and reissued, they will probably contain a definition of “every effort”—something like this: “For the player who has just played the ball and completed the follow-through, this means moving with all possible speed out of the way, so as to provide the incoming striker with the four freedoms.”
In the meantime, players should at all times be conscious of their obligation to move out of the way as quickly as they can, and referees should be on the look-out for players who “hang on” for a second or so, just enough to put the opponent slightly off balance. A player who does this should be given a firm warning—and if the behaviour recurs, a penalty stroke would be appropriate. It's amazing how such players are suddenly able to move a lot faster around the court…