A Chat with Johnny Williams: A Tribute to a Fitness
By L-J Anjema © June 14, 2006
Laurens-Jan Anjema and SquashTalk LLC
|Johnny Williams – now a coach (photo © SquashTalk)
a professional squash player and columnist for squashtalk.com I have
the unique opportunity to write about things I’ve (so far) learned
in squash, share experiences of my life on the PSA tour or put the spotlight
on (ex) pro players.
These players don’t have to be ‘a’ Jahangir or Jansher
or so to speak, all time greats. They are players who are ‘my’ legends
of squash, players who –either because of their ways, style or
charisma- have had an influence and made an impression on me and hopefully
(after you’ve read about them) on you as well.
When players like Power or Nicol retire, they get
all the attention and respect in the world, whereas players who didn’t
quite become world number 1 but DID make the most of their talent,
leave the game quietly and fade into retirement unnoticed. In my opinion,
they deserve more, much more…
Let me introduce you to Johnny Williams:
|Johnny Williams – fit and enjoying the world of
squash (photo © Squash Finland)
He is a guy who is almost the opposite of your
typical laid-back relaxed kind of Aussie: his quick/short/fast mannerisms
give you the feeling he’s always in a rush or about to go somewhere.
He trained harder then anyone else from the age of 14 onwards, ran
thirty-two 400 meter sprints when he was just 17, became the fittest
guy on the circuit and as a result got the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome,
The 400-meter sprint training is a big part of
this article and was a big part of Johnny’s training, so, for those of you who’ve
never done it, let me describe:
No one else is on the track. Running
a few slow laps on a cold and windy day you catch yourself feeling
nervous. Nervous for training… After having taken off your tracksuit and some
stretching, there are –finally- no excuses anymore and it’s
time to walk up to the starting-point.
You click on your stopwatch and off you go
in a brutal pace towards the first bend. Your breathing is fast but
your legs are still feeling OK… But hey, you’ve only covered 70-80 meters… You
get around the first bend and start feeling your strides too quick
and too big for a small degree of comfort. In other words, your legs
are going too fast for your body.
On the (very long) first ‘straight’ the lack
of oxygen to the muscles causes lactic acid in your legs, a feeling
as if someone put lead in your shoes. You’re breathing gets faster,
heavier and more difficult and saliva is flying all over the place.
You enter the second bend and realize you’re only half way. Still
200 meters to go.
Every second you’re struggling, battling and pushing.
For some reason, with every stride you take, it feels like you’re
about to fall over. When you come out of the last bend, you get a –can’t-go-faster-only-slower-
feeling but it is still 100 meters to the end. “100 meters never
seemed this freakin’ far!!”
Your breath, arms and legs are very uncontrolled
and, finally, after 75 seconds, you meet the starting point again.
Your goal was to stay in between 73-75 seconds so the next lap you’ll have
to run faster. “NEXT LAP?!” Yeah, after 45 seconds of rest
(=trying not to throw up) you have to run another lap.
In Johnny Williams’ case, another thirty-one…
Presently being the national coach of Switzerland, I had a chat with
the 33-year old from Melbourne during the European Team Championships
-How and at what age did you get into squash?
|Johnny Williams – on tour (photo © Squash Finland)
Johnny: My father played squash and was a reasonable level player
in Melbourne. He was the coach at the local squash centre in Melbourne
where I started. He introduced me to the game when I was 5 and was
my first coach.
Then my mother and father split when I was seven and I got a new
coach, my grandmaster of all the coaches I’ve had, Eddie French.
I still keep in touch with him now (he’s 74 years old now). Back
then his son was in the Australian junior team and I can still remember
being in the centre and someone coming up to me saying that he wanted
to coach me. By trade he was a baker. Worked in the morning and was
coaching all afternoon.
-Tell us man, about the infamous 400-meter sprint training…
Johnny: Before I went to the Australian Institute
of Sport I already started doing the hard 400m training, that was back
when I was 15 going on 16, because my mental coach John Larkin was
really pushing me quite hard.
In those days in Melbourne he was well known for his almost military-style
summer camps, running up sand dunes with logs on our backs. He came
from a real hard-training, hard-work-ethic kind of background and he’d
heard stories of Geoff Hunt doing the 400’s and how he got fitter.
This was still the era of when the 400’s were popular. I
think that pretty soon afterwards the whole theory of running and the
400’s started to fade. But I was still from that era where the
400’s were popular.
-To train so hard at the age of 15 years,
Johnny: Yeah I was pretty young but we were setting
goals that we wanted to go to the top of the world, become world champion
and things like this. You’d always hear about Jahangir going
to England and already training like a mad man 5 or 6 hours a day when
he was 13/14. So it was always the sort of mindset that ‘you
gotta do that sort of work if you want to make it right to the top
otherwise you have no chance’.
I also knew that –in comparison- I didn’t possess the
kind of talent of some of the other players and I had to rely on my
running- counterpunching style of game.
My coach always made clear to me that my strengths
were in the mental- and aerobic side of the game. I was always more
the runner then the shotmaker, so to speak.
-Just to get the numbers right: how many did you do?
|Johnny Williams – versus Peter Genever (photo © Squash
Johnny: Thirty-two 400’s in 73-75 seconds with
45 seconds rest. But at one stage we tried to put the intensity up
and then I did twenty-two 400’s in 68-70 seconds with approx.50
seconds rest which was a lot harder, I think.
-And you were like 25 or 26 years old then?
Johnny: No, I was 17, mate.
-Wow, man. Now you don’t look like the kind of guy who
would get up on stage and sing… My coach Neil Harvey tells me
you’re a talented singer…
Johnny: Oh… That must have been a really long
time ago cause’ I’m
actually struggling to remember! Maybe it was the one time that Paul
Price and myself got on stage after some tournament and did some karaoke… I
was definitely not in a sober state and I’m very much a toilet-singer.
I think it says more about your coach’ ear for musical talent,
rather than my singing abilities!
-I’ve also heard that you have a
|Johnny Williams – at the TOC (photo © Debra
Johnny: Yeah, I’ve always been pretty good
with numbers. Back in the day I was a huge Aussie rules football fan
and I could remember all there was to know about 10 years of football
scores including quarter- and half time scores. When I was still playing
PSA, I knew all the top-200’s averages down to three decimals
so for example 106.768…
My parents thought that if I weren’t a squash professional,
I should have been an accountant or analyst or something to do with
predicting the fluctuations of numbers.
-That would have been quite a different
career, man. So is it a ‘real’ photographical memory
or are you just good at remembering stuff?
Johnny: I definitely think it is photographical caus’ if
for example I’m not sure about a player’s average on the
world ranking, I visualize the names and numbers of players who are
ranked around him, and I can sort of work it out from there…
-No way! When you joined the PSA tour in ‘91,
how did you survive financially?
|Johnny Williams – a fitness fanatic (photo © Debra
Johnny: We didn’t make much money, that’s
for sure. The Institute supported us by paying for our flights and
the only income we got was from PSA tournaments for which we had to
qualify first. We were basically just surviving on scratch because
we had no regular income.
At one time (when I was 21), I can remember going back to Australia
in the summer just to earn some money. I worked for a mate of mine,
who was a concreter. For a month we were laying bricks, building people’s
driveways. I think it’s the only time I knew what hard work was… But
it was good fun!…and my parents (how could I forget) we’re
also there chipping in to help me out at various times also…
-How did you cope playing on the tour (mainly in Europe) whilst
living in Australia?
Johnny: In those days we were still based in Australia.
We were only coming to Europe in the beginning of the year because
there was -pretty much- a European circuit going on from January through
to May. And if there were more tournaments in Europe, they always were
in the end of the year so then we would come over for a second trip
We used Switzerland as a base to stay and train because Reto Donatsch’ (an
ex pro player from Switzerland) family was kind enough to put us all
up and they did it all for free. It was incredible having families
like them around offering us accommodation and looking after us.
-What was your best ranking? At what age?
Johnny: 15 in the world. When I was 28
-When did you get the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?
Johnny: The first fatigue episode was when I was
21 (from 94 till 97). The second was when I was 31.
Johnny: The first time was definitely a result of
the training. Also now when I look back, I was always the kid who had
flues and got ill quite a bit in comparison to other kids and I probably
never had anyone standing over me, protecting me in that sense, making
sure I wasn’t doing
-Did the Institute not look after you in that way?
Johnny: In those days the theory was very much like:
the harder you train, the better. But at the end of the day I was always
too stubborn, always thought it was my own fault. There were times
when I was tired and could feel I was tired but my personal drive and
allow me to stop. That probably cost me my career quite a bit.
-Why did you get Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for the second time?
Did you not learn from your first mistake?
Johnny: Well, at 28 I really thought the Fatigue
problems were over and behind me. After all I’d been playing
on the tour for 7 years again. So I started to push things again. But
the second time around (living in Switzerland) it was more the combination
of trying to coach, work and live from squash.
-What would your day look like then?
Johnny: I wouldn’t get up too early because
finish coaching quite late the previous night. So I’d get up
at 8:30, have some breakfast and get to the club around 10. Then I
would do 3km in 12 minutes on the rowing machine to get warm, then
do interval training on the bike or a courtsprint session (20 sets
of 30 courtsprints, all in 75 seconds, with 45 sec rest). In the mid-afternoon
I would try and line up hits with Lars Harms or Paul Steel. If they
available I’d simulate a practice match and do maybe 30 to 40
minutes of ghosting or another courtsprint session. Then I would go
home, rest a bit, and be back on court coaching 4-5 hours in the evenings.
But I think I’m walking testament of the fact that in reality
you just can’t do that.
-Were you obsessed with fitness?
Johnny: I think so, yeah. I didn’t focus enough
on other aspects of the game. I mean, if you would have put me on a
bike against anyone till someone stops, or would have let me run courtsprints
against anyone, I would have probably grinded it out and won that.
Mentally I was always pushing myself to the limit. But squash has so
many different components, which make it so fascinating and such an
intriguing sport. And you gotta try to cover and manage all of them.
-If you were 20 again would you have approached training differently?
Johnny: Yeah, with the benefit of hindsight, I would
have given myself a lot more time to regenerate and recover. I also
would have done other sorts of training that aren’t so endurance-based
for example power/weight-training in the gym, more core- and stability
-How did you get over your Fatigue problems?
Johnny: The difficulty about the Fatigue Syndrome
is that you can’t
really put your finger on what’s causing it and how to get better.
So I started looking for more natural ways to get better and Qi-Gong
has helped me a lot. It’s the Chinese art of breathing, relaxing,
controlling your mind and feeling the energy flow in your body.
As a very active guy, I was always on the go, always active, never
very good at resting, for example I never slept during the day. I think
most players now are always taking power-naps during the day. Qi-Gong
has taught me to kind of slow things down, relax, take it easy and
not stress. It has been very beneficial to my recovery.
-What about nutrition?
Johnny: That was definitely another factor why I
got the CFS. I didn’t
know the things I know now about nutrition. Last couple of years I’ve
been cooking lots of vegetables and not been eating too much fat, not
been eating too many things which are heavy for the stomach, and been
eating foods which really help clean the system and give you the nutrients
and vitamins that you need.
-What’s your favorite quote?
Johnny: The difference between a professional and
an amateur has nothing to do with money. The difference is that the
professional is dedicated to the elimination of errors.
-One lesson you can pass on to the readers?
Johnny: Life’s too short to stress about things.
Enjoy your squash. Enjoy your life. Eat well and respect your body.
Oh yeah, and be happy! It’s too short to worry about small things…
Ok, last question: who did you lose to in the 2003 Dutch Open?
Johnny: Hahaha, bastard…
A funny rumour about Johnny was
going around in my Bundesliga team (Johnny’s former team): my
teammates in Marburg let me know that Johnny was supposingly dating
a Danish princess. Thinking they were playing a joke on me, I asked
them again and again, and every time they were more serious about the
fact that our Johnny was dating Danish royalty. In the end, the thought
of Johnny visiting the royal palace every night, got too silly for
me and I called Johnny to casually check up on things. When I told
him about the gossip that was going around on the circuit, he said: “No,
mate, I must have referred to my life-partner as ‘my princess’ who
is, in fact, Danish, and that’s where the language barrier probably
came in!” I burst
out laughing and said: “And here I am, thinking all this time you’re
gonna be the next king of Denmark…”
Laurens Jan Anjema
Interview on the 30th of April in Vienna
19th may, Chingford, Essex
PSA Ranking 11-1-2008: #14
His website (www.princelj.com)