Parenting & Performance

I’ve been thinking about parents and kids and the junior squash scene. What is the role of parental love vs pushing for performance; and how does this impact the way kids grow through advanced squash experiences? This is a tough one for squash parents (for reasons I’ll describe). What parent among us has not felt and expressed the desire for his child to perform better on the squash court? Who among us has not lost our patience or raised our voice when we’ve seen our child show mediocre effort or play a lackluster match? Is there a higher way we should walk? What’s the role of love and performance in parenting advanced squash players? What is the balance between love and performance?

First: a disclaimer. I have been the coach and parent of national level squash players for the past 8 years and I have pretty much made every mistake. I won’t be preaching from the pulpit here. But I’ve thought a lot about this and can share what I’ve learned.

Here’s how I see it. One of the keys is to distinguish between the role of the coach and the role of the parent. To advance in squash, a child needs a caring and competent coach who can identify the right skill inputs and challenges for the child, the right memories and metaphors to call upon in match time, the right tone and reassurance to provide when a child is fragile in the face of adversity, the right kick in the pants when the child’s commitment levels are flagging. A coach has the special grace of being able to provide all these things in such a way that the feedback will only relate to squash itself. The critiques won’t descend to the level of the person. A coach’s domain is the domain of racquet and court, just as an art teacher’s domain is that of canvas and brush. When an art teacher talks to a child about paint colors, the child’s identity is not in play; it is the same when a good coach speaks about squash. A caring and competent coach will speak in the domain of sport, a domain of expression, freedom and creativity. As such, the good coach can push a child to perform without stirring up feelings of inadequacy or questions of self-worth should their performance come up short. This is very important.

With the parent, it is different. A parent’s squash criticisms or admonitions have the power to cut to a child’s core identity. Am I loved? Am I worthy? A parent’s words at a squash match can reach this level. From their parent, what a child needs is love - steady, calm, like a flowing stream, always present to the child. The child needs this love in the dark valley of close losses and bad days; and needs it at the mountain-top of breakthroughs, both small and large. This is what the parent can provide that a coach cannot.

Squash is a unique sport. The crowds, and hence one’s parents, are sitting right there behind the glass, directly in a child’s peripheral vision and awareness. This means that if there is any residue of a parent’s stern expectation or visible displeasure, the child will sense it and it will register as an unnecessary layer of emotion and psychology that a child must process while playing, whether they wish to or not. If, during the psychological intensity and complexity of a squash match, a child also has to process whether a parent is displeased or not, it is a load unnecessary and inconvenient to bear. If that weight is increased by a parent’s vocal and pointed rebuke between games (God forbid) or right after a match, or in the dreaded car ride home, the child begins to perceive that their standing in their parent’s eyes is conditioned upon squash performance. This is a heavy psychological burden for a child to carry. This will neither help the child’s deep emotional security nor enhance their capacity to perform on court.

One of my favorite memories as a squash Dad was at US Nationals, at Harvard University in March 2017. My son was in his down year, playing the #1 seed in his division, who had recently returned from injury and was not at the top of his game. In an upset, JP edged out that match 3-2, narrowly clinching the 5thgame. I was thrilled for him but felt the pain and disappointment of his opponent, whom we had come to know well over the years. It was a crushing defeat for this boy. After the match, I saw him sadly climb the stands of Court 4 in the Harvard gallery and walk toward his Dad and grandparents. They had made the trip to Boston to watch, hoping to see their grandson become a national champion. The Dad said nearly nothing, just tenderly grabbed his son’s head between his hands, pulled him close and placed a loving kiss on the top of his head. That beautiful gesture is the thing I remember most about that entire squash season for JP. It was love in action.

From my perch, I say let the coaches coach to performance, let them call forth strategies, tactics and elevated effort. Let them cajole, prod and push. But if you are a parent (even if you have to be a parent / coach), let your love and warmth and support be evident and let it be constant. A strong hug with few words after a loss, an understanding “It happens, it’s OK” after a bad day at the office; a joyful embrace after a breakthrough. Whether it rains or shines on the squash court, let your interactions with your child be a place on earth where they know the steady sunshine of your love. For what will matter at the end of your child’s junior squash career is the emergence of a young adult personality, secure in their self-worth, humble about their limitations, capable of taking a loss with grace, confident in their strengths, ready to take their place in the next challenge life brings them.

Your child can’t carry trophies with them to college, but they can carry a heart that is confident and secure because it has been loved through all of life’s valleys, both light and dark, both victories and defeats. In the grand scheme of life, the squash court is a garden where we as parents can drip love, like seeds, into the hearts of our children. Let’s take up this loving task; the harvest will be beautiful.

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