I recently served as a referee at the match up of two very highly ranked college teams. It was a great deal of fun. The level of squash was something I practically did not recognize from the last time I saw collegiate squash. Here are the country’s top level amateurs: deft of racket, swift of foot, rife with grit, fire, and flair, but not at the expense of good conduct, directed both at their opponent and the referee. All in all, it was three hours very well spent. But, what was so remarkable was not the level of talent, but the stark reminder it served of some simple basics of the game. In fact, I came away from the afternoon thinking of that book title, “All I really need to I know I learned in kindergarten,” because the stuff that won on this particular day is the stuff that wins on any given day, the stuff you’d pick up in an introductory clinic on what constitutes good, which is to say, winning squash. Here’s the stuff:
Fitness: Given that these players train five days a week, you’d expect that they’d all be in super shape. And, they were. Nevertheless, you could definitely see that there were certain players that were fitter than others. And for those who were less fit, that weakness got revealed and exploited through the match, and, in fact, could have been the deciding factor. For the less fit player, he didn’t seem to understand that he was breaking down on that level, though from this side of the glass, it was obvious. So, remember: you have to be willing to play a succession of very long, very hard points, and be just as physically able to play the next long, hard point without blinking. There’s no long half time in squash, no tagging out to someone on the bench. Essentially, there’s nowhere to hide in that ruthless, relentless, well-lit little box. Everything falls apart when fitness does.
Fireworks from the racket: These players could do almost anything they wanted with the racket, digging the ball for improbable retrievals to send it anywhere in the court; cross-courts to the nick, soft, feathery drops, recovery shots between the legs, behind the back, and over head. Nevertheless, the most punishing place to put the ball, the place that coughed up the loosest balls from the opponent were the basic, straight rails, those balls that hung tightly to the wall, and bounced well behind the service box. Good, long, consistent length was the foundation for every other bit of flair from the racket. It was all predicated on being able to hit tight rail after tight rail.
“Don’t hit tin.” Hashim Khan’s famous dictum is as salient today as the day he uttered it. It was astonishing watching how detrimental hitting the tin was: a momentum killer, a spirit suffocator, and a gift to the opponent that just kept on giving. Invariably, the player who lost the match had hit the preponderance of the tins, and each tin further sealed his fate, rendering a comeback, new life, and hope impossible. Of course, I was not privy to the heated strategy sessions that team mates and coaches had with the player during the game breaks, but I had the strong urge to barge into the losing player’s confab and say, “hit fewer tins!” As always, some tins are forced errors from an opponent’s good shot, but it seemed like more often, the tin was the result of poor shot selection, going for too much, and therefore examples of poor sport cognition, a message of desperation that was clearly sent to the player who reaped the benefit. So, DON’T HIT TIN.
Vocalizations were usually bad for the vocalizer. I find it’s best to simply keep your mouth shut, no matter the intensity of the emotion you are feeling. Again, it was usually the player on the losing end of the battle who was yelling or muttering. Such utterances do not help the player, and only send the signal to your opponent that you are having a temper tantrum inside your head, and not adequately focused on right thinking. Simple, “nice shot” to the opponent, reasonable appeals to the ref, and maybe a spirited “c’mon!” suffice. But, generally, a cool head is the one that does not vocalize anything, and also does not say mean spirited things internally to the self if a mistake is made, or when under extreme pressure. Keep the landscape of the mind cool, self-compassionate, and widely observant for the best results. It is a great, beautiful, and necessary thing for an athlete to have fire. The trick is to keep that fire as a smoldering, motivating heat, and not let it become an immolating conflagration. Harsh and loud vocalizations fuel the fire toward the direction of a bonfire. Save the vocalizations for the off-court celebration after your victory.