Blood, Sweat & Tears: Kids building character playing squash

There were lots of tears shed this weekend at the Halloween Bronze Tournament at The T Squash Academy. There were no major injuries (though there was a spectacular bloody nose), however we discovered that building character through the sport of squash does not come without an emotional price. Here is our story:

While driving to the tournament Saturday morning, I asked my 9-year-old Oliver if he was nervous. This was only his second tournament since he started playing the sport last year. He said, yes, he was a little nervous about playing but that he was more worried about winning. He said that even though he really wants to win, a part of him feels badly when he is beating an opponent because he knows how bad it feels to lose too.

This, like many other parental dilemmas, stumped me. Oliver is definitely a kid who puts high glory in winning, so I didn’t know how to formulate this variation of a pre-game pep talk. I started to ask questions. What is the point of a competition if you’re not going to do your best? If you do play your best, how do you want to beat your opponent and have compassion for them at the same time? Should Oliver “give” his opponent some points if he happened to be crushing him? Should he not play his best so that his opponent feels less humiliation at the loss?

In the end, we decided that nobody really feels like a winner when they don’t earn it on their own skill and strength. Honoring yourself and your opponent means that you must always play your best, even when the skill level is unbalanced. “Giving” points away is ultimately an insult because it means that you don’t think the player could ever do any better. We decided that the most honorable thing to do, should he be fortunate enough to even be in this situation, would be to play his very best despite the wide point spread, but to be sure to call out when his opponent hit a great shot. This at least would give the opponent something to be proud of and know that there was no humiliation in trying their best too.

As it turned out, this strategy did not apply the first match. Oliver played well but lost and was out of the medal contenders for the tournament. He was devastated and there were tears of frustration, which he poured out in a hidden corner of the squash club with his dad and me consoling him. After a few minutes, Oliver rebounded and persevered into the next three consolation matches.

In the last consolation match, Oliver was winning and it looked like the match would be over in 3 games. The boy he was up against was younger and playing well, but Oliver (after playing all weekend) had finally gotten his squash mojo going; he was using strategy and playing the best he’d played all weekend. After Oliver scrambled but couldn’t get to a well-placed shot during the third game, I heard him call out an earnest, “Nice shot!” to the boy. Afterward, the boy’s mother made a point to tell Oliver what a good sportsman he was. I was so proud of both of them that I had to shed a few tears myself.

Squash is often called a “Gentleman’s Sport” and I always thought that had more to do with the fact that historically, many players in the US are in the blue-blooded country club circuit. But this weekend, I saw marvelous moments (not just mine) when the kids played their best and with real sportsmanship. I saw the parents modeling this behavior as well: Good shots were cheered by everyone watching, not just the parent whose child won the point. In the middle of a grueling match I saw one boy smile excitedly at his opponent as if to say, “man, we’re killin’ it here!” rather than a menacing glare. Squash, and definitely squash at The T Squash Academy, is a sport that is teaching my children to be healthy, strong, fair, and dignified people. That’s definitely worth a few sentimental tears of joy from this mom.

Contributed by Margot Madisonbuild

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