After a recent weekend of coaching Junior Squash, I was thinking about what is beautiful about the competitive experience for children and why I love to coach. The daily tasks of coaching are extremely important. Identifying the fundamental skills needed, preparing exercises to build them and test them, helping a child make progress through these exercises, pushing, inspiring, and encouraging a child, validating the strides they make.
But it is altogether different to step onto the tournament squash court with a child where they test those skills in competition, under pressure – in the face of adversity. Here something other than skills come into play. Skills must be there; they must shine forth. But on the playing field, the person of the athlete comes into focus. Here, in the face of adversity, everything a child believes about himself or herself bubbles up from below the surface, swirls about in the psyche, and has to be sifted. Has to be dealt with. The good stuff, kept; the bad stuff, swept away, pushed into a corner and replaced with a positive message. This new message, if repeated and then ratified by real time results on court, can become a fixture of a child’s personality. I know. I have seen it happen.
I have been amazed at how much personal development can happen behind the back wall of a squash court, where a child huddles with their coach between games. The match-coaching process is not ultimately about the match being played. It is really about building a young person’s self-image, their self-belief. It is about laying the building blocks of a personality. There are few fields more ripe for the blossoming of self-belief than the squash court, where a child faces adversity alone, and must marshal the inner reserves to overcome it.
There is a field of psychological insight and therapy called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT aims to help a person think more objectively and in healthier ways. No matter what kind of negative experiences and patterns a child may have developed in the past, one can always learn new ways to interpret present circumstances in a more constructive way. Often a child’s past setbacks and negative thought patterns keep resurfacing when kids face adversity. They often have negative refrains that re-play again and again in their heads. The coach who knows this, and who can patiently play a different tune, when the old song pops up, can impact a moment, can shape a life in a profound way, can lead a child to a place they could not have gone without the coach’s direction. This is athletics as an exercise in facing adversity. This is a squash match that charts a course toward human development. It is something beautiful.
Angela Duckworth writes: “As with any other skill, we can practice interpreting what happens to us and responding as an optimist would.” We can practice, in other words, healthy human behavior. Squash is a beautiful field for this healthy human exercise: here a child can learn to find, in adversity, a path to develop tenacity of pursuit and an undefeatable spirit. The coach’s corner, behind the back wall, is a great place to help kids grow as human beings.
As Duckworth puts it: “If you experience adversity – something pretty potent – that you overcome on your own during your youth, you develop a different way of dealing with adversity later on.” It helps if your response to the adversity springs from a skill that you have mastered, and this skill proves vital to overcoming the adversity. This happens all the time in squash – first it’s a good serve, then good depth, then good short shots, then deception, then mental fortitude – and it’s an incredibly empowering experience for our kids. These experiences help them develop an optimistic attitude toward adversity – and that is a game changer. Optimism in the face of adversity “leads to perseverance and seeking out new challenges” which will ultimately make the child even stronger.
I love facilitating this kind of growth for the kids in our program at The T Squash Academy. It has been an 11-year passion and the light has grown still brighter over the years.