Ten Steps to Heaven: How Athletes Move Up a Competition Level

Posted on Feb 15 2016 - 1:18pm by DV

up_clipped_rev_1By Boak Ferris

You have the skills, but you have been stuck at the same level of competition for a year or more, as measured by the players still beating you.  If you could find a program to surpass them, you would have some specific training issues to practice over the next few months.

This article will offer some excellent practice areas for your daily workout.  Embedded in this article is the following idea: you must get on the court (or to the training room) by yourself for at least 45 minutes a day, four days a week, to practice some or all of these skills.  If you do that, you will see a level of improvement in about three months—unless you already have a confident skills-set in place, in which case, you will simply make psychological adjustments to delivering your tactics, and your improvement will come suddenly, overnight.


You need to develop a two-way can-opener shot, one for each hand.  A can-opener shot “opens” up the court by moving your opponents out of position.  For both your dominant and non-dominant hands, you need to learn to kill-pass the ball straight up the same wall as your hitting side, better than 8 out of ten times.  (Count when you practice, and start over if you don’t make 8 or 9 or 10.)  And you need to be able to hit this one shot from anywhere on the court!  Understanding and practicing this simple principle (hitting that same single shot from anywhere on the court) helps you attain the shot, because you will discover that hitting the shot consistently requires the same exact fundamentals and mechanics delivered to the ball, no matter your floor position.  Also note that you will always be hitting from a “closed position,” with your body facing the same-side sidewall.  In order to acquire those fundamentals and mechanics you will need to practice step 2 below.  Meanwhile, to add the two-way option to this, your first choice, you must also learn to hit the deep-v or bounce pass to the opposite side of the court off the same motion required for the same-side kill-pass—with the same 80 + % consistency!  Anything else is not a shot.  So, develop your same-side, low, kill-pass first, and then, using the same motion, learn to delay the leverage and angle of your hitting elbow to finish over your front quads and send the ball to the opposite side wall behind your inrushing opponent.  Example?  Brady has exactly both of these two two-way shots with both hands, for four options, total.  An alternative example?  Chapman, when young, developed the back-wall kill/pass can-opener with his dominant hand, and ran around every backwall setup so he could consistently deliver his strong-side fundamentals to this shot.  He mixed in hops at his opponents off the backwall, in order to add the two-way feature to the shot.  And later, after he aged, he added three-way shots with both hands: the same-side “low-dump” in front of where he was standing, the same-side fist drive up the same-side wall, and the fist-pass to the opposite side-wall with no backwall setup.  Bike also had a two-way can-opener, the low, kill-pass drive up the left wall with his dominant left hand, and the hard hop-pass through the right-center of the court at his opponent’s inrushing body.


1 2 3 Motion

During rallies, learn to always attack the pre-shoot position to hit your first-way can-opener shot.  Your job in every rally is to make sure that you can deliver all of your forward momentum and weight into your first-choice, can-opener shot every single time over the space of two hours, which will require adding step 3 below.  Meanwhile, by attacking the pre-shoot position early, you will be able to slide/adjust your preparatory front-foot, so as to correctly positionally plant the back-foot, and finally to step out onto the front-foot, as your mandatory 1-2-3 step-sequence into every shot.  Once your opponents see you committing to this motion, they will have to recover center court, to move closer to your (hitting side) side wall and protect against your likely low possible kill attempt.  After which, you will be able to mix in the second shot, of your newfound two-way shot, off the same motion, to send your opponent scurrying.  By the way, when you practice these level-advancing steps 1 and 2 here, you are actually building an effective service motion as well.  The solid service motion relies on the fundamentals and trajectories discussed above, and you will be amazed at your serve’s increased consistency of angles and placements.


You will require reserves of energy to attack the pre-shoot position on every single shot and deliver your full body-weight into every single shot.  It’s tiring, especially without training.  To build up those reserves, you will need to do two to four miles of wind-sprints, whereby you sprint for thirty seconds, walk for ten, sprint for thirty, up to two or more miles as measured by a slight incline machine, preferably two to three days a week.  Some athletes think they can develop competition-leveled stamina by simply playing, though the history of handball championships proves otherwise.  I have been guilty of believing this illusion.  The top champions did wind-sprints (for stamina and balance, and for raising their V02), jump-rope (for balance and wind), light-weights (to build up fast-twitch-muscle endurance), and biking (for their quads and balance, over which you finish always for correctly-hit shots.)  Core-centering exercises or dance/martial arts classes are good also, for quickly recovering center-of-gravity.  Note that reliable flexibility is part of competitive fitness.  The research suggests that athletes must maintain moderation performing their stretching routines.  In other words, aggressive stretching prior to match play can be deleterious, while a 7-minute moderate routine that cycles through all of your joints and muscle-groups can improve muscle performance by 30 %.  One routine from Yoga that I like is the “Salutation to the Sun,” which mildly warms up all joints and muscles with precious synovial fluid in about 7 minutes, if you complete two iterations.

You will also need to hydrate and eat correctly to build up reserves.  Cheap carbos and sugar produce a temporary sensation, like an addiction, of false temporary energy—and they also contribute to the excess production of lactate.  (Note that lactate is the enemy of pain-free, endurance-oriented  muscle tissue.  Also note that over-production of lactate interferes with neural cognitive processing as well, leading to mental errors).  You will need to compute and devise a correct balanced diet of protein, complex carbs, safe fats, and safe oils, for the long haul, best designed by your working with a professional sports-nutritionist for your particular metabolic type (involving your personal degree of insulin resistance, which can be measured).

For you or your opponents, the best sign that a player doesn’t have the required physical (and therefore mental) fitness is a repeated “park-and-shoot” mentality.  “I am good enough, I can park here, and shoot from this floor position without stepping into the ball.”  This detectable and observable attitude signals the onset of mental fatigue initiated by underestimated physical fatigue, poor diet, and poor training.  Another sign that higher-level prepared opponents like to see from an opponent is a player hitting the ball from an open position, indicating not only fatigue, but also likely lack of control, power, and shot-variety over a two-hour match.  These body-language signals give fit opponents added confidence, the intangible that wins matches.


Here’s how you check your improvement after doing 1, 2, and 3 above.  Devote a day to concentrate on step 3, wind-sprint training after stretching and eating a best diet and hydrating.  After two hours of high-intensity wind-sprints, go onto the court and see if you can execute your two-way can-opener shots with the same 88% or higher consistency, with both hands.  Has one hand—or have both hands—broken down?  If you can’t execute at 88%, then one of two things is happening.  Either you have not attained a superior V02 max conditioning, or the lack of oxygen delivered to your brain is causing you to make mental errors in focusing on delivering your fundamentals, or on attacking the pre-shoot position.  Conversely, if you are just as consistent and energetic at the follow-up of your two-plus hours of wind-training, you will never beat yourself, while very few players will beat you.


When you have mastered attacking the pre-shoot positions with high fitness, you will discover a very strange and pleasing artifact: YOU SUDDENLY HAVE LOTS OF SPARE TIME in rallies WHILE YOUR OPPONENT SCRAMBLES.  So, now it’s time to widen the differences, in your favor, to widen the differences between your points-spread and to widen the differences in the numbers of your service-innings: now you should develop and add “fly” versions of your two-handed two-way can-openers to your repertoire.  Get on the court, for forty minutes at a time, and toss the ball up to the front wall and also to the front wall then high onto the sidewalls.  Now, practice attacking a best pre-shoot position from the red carpet area, hitting two-way can openers with both hands, hitting kill-passes and v-passes, but as fly shots this time.  Move to and hover just behind center court, and learn how to modify your fundamentals and footwork to deliver power and consistency to those rally-control two-way shots from the center of the court.


Because 90 % of players hit overhand shots with a top-heavy, rear-shoulder-generated motion, you may similarly find it almost impossible to generate consistent (read percentage) offense with an overhand shot.  Sidearm and underhand shots catapult horizontally, parallel to the floor, from a low-centered core, and thus correctly deliver the controlled trajectory required.  Overhand shots cannot.  Rare players like Brady, Vern Roberts, Naty Senior, Chapman, Monreal, Jim Jacobs, and Paul Haber learned how to hit overhand and ceiling shots starting their motion with a centered core (hip-girdle) rotation, but notice that they never used these shots for offense.  Meanwhile, most non-top-players don’t hit overhands by rotating their hip-girdles first, never learned how, or can’t “feel how to do it.”  Thus, most players’ overhand shots have no offensive reliability.  Rarely, players may try the tomahawk, or overhand drives, but if they tracked their percentages, they would discover that such offensive use of the overhand garnered rally or point rewards less than 6% of the time.  While some great players may get rewarded hitting these shots against lower-ranked or equal opponents, depending on these shots against better players freezes their advancement.  If you can face these hard facts, then accept the idea that the purpose of a well-hit overhand shot is simply and solely to prevent the opponent from achieving an excellent and early preshoot position.  You must practice overhands and ceiling balls so you can deliver just the right speed and pressure to the ball to keep it off the backwall, or to keep it out of the center of the court.  Practice hitting same-side overhand lob-shots about nine to ten feet high with both hands to keep the ball on the same side wall as the arm that’s hitting, while keeping the ball off the back wall.  Next, study how raising your opposite shoulder helps you draw back your hitting shoulder to hit overhands and ceiling balls with effortless power, like holding and firing a bow into the air.  Once you attain that feeling, you will need to adjust your timing and power, but still, no matter what, accept that overhands are defense.  Which leads us to step 7.


Years ago I was present when one of David Chapman’s primary coaches, Lew Morales, a Southern California Hall-of-Famer, told David, “If you want to win national championships, you can play offense only on offense, and always play 100 % defense on defense.”  Chapman was 17, listened to his coach, and stopped gambling during handball rallies.  He even became characterized as a “defensive player,” though many observers noted he had an elite offensive game, built around his 100 % can-opener shot, the back wall kill/pass with hop, and built around his “jab”-rekill.  A won game leads to a won match, which in turn leads to won matches, and then won tournaments.  Coach Morales also said, “Players never win games by earning all of the 21 points, because their opponents always give away free points by gambling on defense.”  Offense in traditional handball occurs only when you’re serving, so, when on offense, attack the pre-shoot position to earn a point or gain “time-control” over your opponent.  If you have grooved in your two-way can-opener kill-pass, you can aim two inches up from the floor.  Take responsibility, do the work, and earn those points.  Help your opponents defeat themselves by inducing them to gamble.  If they are stubborn—or lazy about training, they will accommodate you.

Once you have lost the serve, however, recognize that you cannot give away a single free point, so every single one of your shots, begun by attacking the preshoot position, must result in a successful pass, a non-backwall opportunity, making the opponent swing overhand, or a REPLAY.  Fred Lewis has noted that, for champions, “Every single shot has a purpose.  That’s what focus is.”  Listen to Mr. Lewis.  Always miss up, and not down, when you kill-pass or kill back at yourself when you are receiving serve, or, better-stated, on defense.  To illustrate the power of knowing, remembering, and playing accordingly when on offense vs. defense, allow me to cite the finals of the 1996 USHA four-wall men’s singles nationals in Mile-High, Lakewood, Colorado.  I was rooting for Chapman, but greatly admired Bike’s preparation and skills, in that match.  Bike beat Chapman with percentage handball in the first game, working the rallies (and ceilings!) patiently until earning backwall opportunities, and then crushing the backwall setups with his personal can-opener, the low, left-side, kill-pass.  After game one, Chapman got medication for a pulled muscle, and then fought hard in the second game, sticking to passes and well-placed ceiling balls, and working on Bike’s legs, as those were his best tactics for reaching and winning the tiebreaker.  The tiebreaker remained super close, with Chapman winning 11-8, if I recall correctly.  What was the difference?  Bike, abandoning the percentage handball that earned him game one, shot 4 low-percentage kill attempts while receiving serves, giving David four free points when the ball “floored.”  (David shot two low-percentage floor-shots, while on defense.)  Mental and physical fatigue can cost games, and even championships, though no one can say what would have happened had Bike followed step 7 here.

But the example is illustrative.  You can modify this advice if and only if you are well ahead on the scoreboard, but note that this kind of “counting on scoreboard pressure” often allows a bad habit to set in, such that, if and when you fatigue, you may find yourself forgetting if it’s offense or defense, and then gambling without knowing it.  Work to attain an unbeatable competition “psychology,” which derives from always recognizing when you are serving and on offense or receiving serve and defense, while knowing your differential on the scoreboard, while also knowing exactly where you are in your mental and physical stamina during a match or during a tournament week/weekend.


The “jab,” a quick motion, requiring no 1-2-3 footwork or set-up time, is just nomenclature for a specialty quick-shot you must hit when you have no time to attack the pre-shoot position.  A good opponent will hit or hop the ball into your body, or send the ball to a floor position where you have no time to deliver your fundamentals, so you need to think “jab” to push the opponent back or, even better, to neutralize the opponent’s likely control of the rally, and thus reset the action.  Brady’s jab involves his effective and well-rehearsed recourse to the Irish Whip which he can hit when he can’t surge into the ball, and he has learned how to two-wall pass, kill, and power the ball using this quick habituated motion.  Chapman used his jab as a weapon, when he played rallies to tempt super-strong players to kill, and then dove for and then stroked or jabbed a rekill.  While opponents were still recovering from their follow-throughs, he controlled their time by intercepting their predictable shots early with his “jab.”  Haber could “punch” the ball to the ceiling to the rear corners from anywhere on the court, using an underhanded pendulum motion requiring little energy other than working to “push” his fist under the ball.  Your own jab can be a quick motion you like, but be sure and practice it so that you can hit it from anywhere in the court.  And quickly remember, whenever you jab: are you receiving serve and on defense?  Yield no freebie points or floored shots.  Or are you on offense?  Do you have time to go for it by attacking the pre-shoot position with better fundamentals?!


Too many players who develop expertise may get complacent, while some elite players may get so good they may think that no one else can advise them further. (Not true with Killian Carroll.) We all need a set of external eyes or videos of our play.  I have been playing handball for 30 years, but l learned how to hit a handball correctly only last summer.  I have never trusted my fundamentals.  One of my handball colleagues, now 77 years old, has enjoyed phenomenal accuracy whenever he has a set up, and he can still roll the ball from almost anywhere on the court if he has time to stride into the ball. Phenomenal hands!  I finally (!) thought to ask him last summer, “To what do you attribute your accuracy on your setups?”  He said, “Boak, if there’s one thing I know about watching you all these years, you need to always make sure that ____________________ when you hit the ball.”  Darn!  I could have asked him this same question twenty years ago!  Please note that he batted 475 playing college baseball, and batted better than 370 in the AAA minor leagues, so he may just see a bit differently than ordinary people.  But after hearing it, I immediately implemented his simple seven-word-piece of advice, and my accuracy stats moved noticeably up overnight, an observation corroborated by handball acquaintances and opponents.  (I have also since noticed that Brady has applied this same skill since about 2007.)  If you want to move up, you must talk handball.  If you remain unwilling to talk handball with anybody and everybody, then you deprive yourself of multiple sources of knowledge and wisdom.  Some stubborn players may think they are too good to improve, an attitude which often keeps them at their one level.

Some stranger or non-acquaintance sitting next to you may have that one tip you didn’t know you needed to “turn the lights on” and accelerate you out of the current darkness to the next level.  Obsessive, yes, but I talk handball to anybody and everybody who is willing to talk back.  Last year, at a tournament, I asked a stranger sitting next to me, who turned out to be one of the Irish handball coaches, if he knew how the ball traveled through Brady’s hand when Brady hit the ball well, and this nice man actually knew the answer—and told me!  I learned another phenomenal tip.  So now, if I can safely say that I exhibit any special “skill” that Brady also exhibits, I must announce that it may be “an obsession with handball.”


If the other player is beating you, you must try to adapt, or lose.  If you stay stubborn, and keep hitting what you’re hitting, then obviously, this strategy will have no winning effect on the opponent.  Accept your spot on the ladder.  Otherwise, you must respect what opponents do well and not give opponents their preferred shots.  Conversely, when you never tire; when you can hit your favorite shots with full power with both hands from anywhere on the court; when you can prevent opponents from serving or scoring or both; when you control your opponents’ time and running; your confidence surges and fills every area of your being, eclipsing and eliminating all doubt.  You feel great.  Who could beat you?  Only you.  And consider, even if you were to lose under these conditions to a better player, you would still feel great.  Nothing feels better than executing what you can do, carrying out your plan, and playing confidently at the top of your game.  I have played some of my best handball losing against better players, and I must thank them for those experiences.  They motivated me to improve.  And notice, all of this relevant discussion gets lost if no handball existed, or if it disappeared or failed to exist for some reason.  Athletes put in thousands of hours to excel at their skills in their favorite sports.  So, if they wish longevity of competition, and if they wish to move up a level, their sport needs all the support it can get, so that their possibility of leveled advancement becomes possible in the first place.  Do whatever you can to give back, to support, to coach, to encourage others, to compete, to observe, to exchange, and to inspire with your enthusiasm.