Squash is a canvas where I paint beauty into the world.
In recent months, I have worked with a few talented athletes who all share one thing in common. Gifted players, hard workers, lots of potential, but when they step on stage to play what for them is a big match, something happens. Their spirit sags. The brave, driven, confident person I knew in practice suddenly looks scared, timid, hesitant, even frightened. What is going on here?
I’ve watched this happen ten times in just the last two months, so it got me thinking. What’s the common denominator? How can I coach a child through this?
I have a hunch it boils down to this: at some point, a child with talent begins to identify his talent and the results it yields with his identity. So a squash player who wins a lot comes to think his identity is tied up in winning; or that winning or losing is tied up with the person he is. When this happens, and when the possibility of losing looms in any given match, the child feels a kind of visceral fear. Losing cuts to my core identity. I can’t lose . . . I can’t lose . . . what will people say about me if I lose? Then a child plays not to lose, instead of in freedom, instead of with an I’m-willing-to-risk-it-creativity towards the win. And when a child plays not to lose, something is lost. Either they lose the match, or they just don’t play to their potential.
So I’ve been trying to find a way to coach a child out of this psychological mis-perception. Here is my take. If I’m good at squash, it’s not true that squash is my identity. Then what is it? How can we get gifted kids to think about squash?
How about this?
Squash is a canvas where I paint beauty into the world. It’s not my identity, not a duty, not a prison where I serve my time. Squash is my passion. If I misplace a few brushstrokes, or even botch a whole painting, I don’t let that stop me. I’ll just paint over it tomorrow, or paint a new canvas altogether! Anyway, in a great painting, there are shadows just as there are vibrant colors in light. My losses are like this; they have a place on my canvas; they are the shadow, in the larger picture, against which my wins stand out in relief.
Squash is not my identity; it’s a place on earth where I make beauty, where I express myself; it’s a track where I run at dawn, in the crisp morning air, when no one is watching. Or this: have you ever seen hawks soar in the wind? When I play squash, it’s like that. It’s gusting winds where I soar just for the hell of it. Because I can and because it’s beautiful. Squash is a big wave, and I’m a surfer who loves to ride big waves, who searches for the kind of waves that knock me off my board, but which, on a good ride, I will crest a long way toward the shore.
Squash is not my identity. It’s my passion. I don’t have to win; I GET to paint beauty on court, I GET to compete. When I play, it’s not about winning, it’s about making something beautiful, it’s about competing, it’s about bracing myself against a big wave, the kind that will either beat me or be tamed by me. When I do that I feel my spark. I feel alive. I feel alive! That’s why I play this game.
There is nothing quite like the joy of getting a child to shift their thinking and find the freedom to create beauty on court. It’s sport as a bridge to learning about life.