Learning to Struggle Well

I’m in Philadelphia. At a Girls U11 Gold Squash Tournament. A glass door opens and my daughter, Ellie, exits the court, eyes downcast, shoulders slumped. She has just played a third game in a critical match against a close rival. The score: 1-11. A whitewashing. She had managed just 1 point in an onslaught of pace, placement, volleying and retrieving. I was waiting for her in our little spot where we did the between-game coaching, but she sped right past me, scurried around a corner and stood there, looking terrified. Spirit broken. What happened?

What happened was Ellie stood face to face with adversity and it scared her. It made her feel inadequate. It made her doubt herself. It made her want to run and hide. I walked over and said: “Why are you standing here?” I tried to draw her out.

She hit me with a zinger about her knee hurting and didn’t I know it and why didn’t I do anything about it? An evasion, a projection. I wasn’t buying.

Ellie and I had talked about this tournament. We knew every match would be a challenge. I had encouraged her to consider not going. I was worried it would be too tough. The top 6 entrants were all ranked in the top 25 nationally. There would be no free lunches. I wondered whether she was up to it. She takes losses hard. She’s a perfectionist. She’s a little fragile.

“But, Dad, I always like tournaments,” she said. “I think I’m ready for it.”

It would be the toughest tournament she had ever played, but I reluctantly agreed. “OK, we will just prepare ourselves for it, so you know what to expect.”

One of the primary aims of our program at The T Squash Academy is to bring children face to face with adversity and teach them to engage in the struggle, to struggle well. As a protective Dad, I might have sought to spare my daughter this struggle. But as an observer of children and of this sport, I knew that if Ellie embraced this experience it could teach her valuable lessons.

Since she had chosen it, knowing what was in store, I accepted. I hopped online, clicked the buttons, signed her up, paid the entrance fee and then started a dialogue, on court and off, aimed at preparing her for the experience of going up against players whom she could not beat, no matter what, and against players with whom she would have to rise up, tall in stature, if she wanted to compete. She would need to go with a spirit that was brave and free. She would need to lean out over the cliff and take risks.

I was afraid for her. Once I entered her in the tournament, there was no turning back. I felt a little like my daughter was being wheeled off to an operating room by a team of nurses and now a process was in motion. She would face a risk of harm and loss; but she also faced an opportunity for growth. We marched ahead with a spirit of optimism.

Round 1. A bye.

Next match: Quarterfinals, against the #16 ranked player in the nation. A steely competitor. All court game. Opportunistic short game. Savy player who knew how to use mind games and psyche out opponents. Ellie started the first game strong, but faded at the end in the face of the gamesmanship and skill this girl had in tandem. Then Ellie got shellacked in game 2. She walked out of the court stunned.

Here was a moment. Her lungs were heaving, her eyes teary, she was plaintive, ready to sob and throw in the towel. “Ellie, we’re not gonna do that,” I said to her, past her heaving chest and tears. This was not a time for softness. Ellie would need to find resolve. “This is why we came here. To play a hard match and not give up. You don’t need to win out there. Just don’t give up. Keep trying!” Ellie gathered her nerves and summoned her courage, took some water and some deep breathes and went back out. In that game, she stood toe to toe until the score was dead locked at 8 – all. Best game of the match. She fell that game, 11-8, to her seasoned opponent, but she had found an unfamiliar gear. Courage and belief in the face of adversity.

Next match: the back draw. Here Ellie drew another strong opponent. 24th ranked player in the US. Tall, solid from both wings, effective short game. I muttered: another great player? Darn! Two back to back losses would be tough for her to take. First game: neck and neck. Ellie made 4 errors and narrowly lost 11-9. So she was in it. But she was fragile. Doubting herself. Afraid. Not free. She kept at it the next two games but couldn’t shake this fragile, uncertain spirit and it hampered her play. She fell in three: didn’t give up, but she didn’t roar. I wondered whether she was ready to roar in an atmosphere like this.

To help her loosen up, I set up some practice games with some of her friends from Texas. This would prove to be the key. She played 4 or 5 games that afternoon and then started hopping on every available court, hitting, running, smiling, laughing, sweating. A little bird spreading her wings. This kept up the next morning, right up to her next match. I was worried she might tire herself out, but figured I would let it play out.

Last match: 7th / 8th playoff. This would be Ellie’s shining moment. Her opponent was from Houston and is an all court player, a heavy hitter who had beaten Ellie 4 weeks early in the semis of the Midwest Regional Championships. She was at a similar skill level to the other girls Ellie had played, a top 30 ranked player. But Ellie was not the same today. In the last 24 hours, she had acclimated to these waters; her limbs were loose; her feet light; her swing strong and easy.

In games 1 and 2, she asserted herself, got out front, struck her serves with confidence, was the first to crack the ball deep, shuffled, stutter-stepped and lunged, took the ball short when there was an opportunity; took the initiative; rallied and defended. Always maintaining a 2 or 3 point lead, she took the first 2 games and led 2-0. Unchartered territory!

But in the 3rdgame, her opponent roared back. Down 2-0, with her back against the wall, the Texan produced a whitewashing, a display of excellence Ellie had not seen all tournament. Power, speed, retrievals, volleys, stinging serves and attacking shots. Ellie was down 10-0 before she really even had a foothold in a rally. She lost 11-1.

And here we regain our story at the introduction. During the break after that game, Ellie was lower than at any previous point in the tournament. She was back in the valley of doubt, only this time she had been dropped there from the height of feeling like she might win a match. She was dejected. She sped past me and semi-hid behind a corner. I followed her. “Why did you come over here, Ellie?” I asked her. She stabbed me with a “I told you my knee was hurting and you didn’t do anything about it!” As she spoke, she began to sob. Here was a moment of truth. Should I meet her in her emotions or call her out of them?

“Ellie, deal with it,” I said, calmly but firmly. I knew she had the stuff inside of her to rise out of this surge of emotions. I would call her out. She muttered something else plaintively, wanting to crumple into tears. I said, “Ellie, we’re not doing that. It’s tough out there. I know. But what do you do when it’s tough?”

“Show my heart,” she said, recalling a phrase we had practiced as we prepared for this tournament and previous ones. When it gets tough, I’m gonna show my heart.

“That’s right,” I replied, “placing my hand on her heart. Show your heart. Get out there and show your heart. It doesn’t matter who wins or loses, but you go out there and show your heart.”

That was the gist of it. I don’t remember much else, and there are only 90 seconds between breaks anyway. Ellie regrouped, took in some water and some deep breaths, and went back. Resolute. She was the first striker in the early points of that 4thgame, first to hit deep, quick to volley, speedy in retrievals, strong in body language. She never led by less than 2 points and at 7-4 and 10-7, key points in the game, she produced the goods. She won 11-7, 7th place in the event. She overcame her feelings of inadequacy and fear, and rose up to adversity, as if to say, “I see you and I fear you not.”

She walked off court, over to me. I beamed. She radiated joy and confidence, like a child transformed. I put my hand over her heart - it was pounding like a drum, roaring like a lion - and said, “You did it, Ellie, you showed your heart.” And so I knew, in this concrete moment in time and space – in this little cube of the universe that is the squash court - that my little Ellie had put her entire self out there, risked it, and discovered the joy that her wings could catch the wind.

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