Friday, July 25, 2014

Winning & Losing

Today I'm going to discuss a popular sport topic. I'm going to discuss competition; winning and losing. Now I'm the first one to admit that I do not like losing. It is a difficult thing to accept that you are not as good as someone. I didn't play squash when I was 7 because I would win or lose. I played because my whole family did and it was a lot of fun.

It was just by chance that my home club (Pickering Recreation Complex) was hosting the Canadian Junior Nationals in 1991. I didn't have any expectation. I was only 9 playing in the boys under 12. I ended up winning the consolation and got a fancy trophy I still have somewhere. This was the first time I realized I was actually good at squash and if I played more regularly, well maybe I could even win some tournaments. This is what started to happen. Getting a taste of winning at that age was great, but I also hated to lose. It would be hard to imagine if you know me now, but I had a bit of a temper. At one tournament a rep for A Henkel was there and told my parents they wanted to sponsor me. I was already using their red Chris Robertson model. I can't remember what exactly I did, but it was because of my poor court behaviour they didn't sponsor me. And this was an adult tournament when I was about 11 or so.

I did get better at controlling my temper, but never handled losing very well (maybe externally I did but not internally). So what could I have done differently? Would I have had better control of my emotions if I didn't play competitively until I was older? Is this just something that is unavoidable for some kids?

I believe that withholding kids from competition is not the answer. I do however think that all of society praises winners more than those that tried their best but didn't succeed. It is much easier to win a match than to lose and handle defeat with a good attitude. I've used and heard many excuses for why we lose a match...and sometimes theses excuses may even hold some truth. To me that doesn't matter. If a kid wants to impress me, they won't do so by simply winning a match or a tournament. What impresses me most is when someone loses a match and potentially they could have used some excuses, but they don't. They congratulate their opponent and thank the referee.

I've also experienced a different aspect of good sportsmanship. I remember playing a tournament when I was a kid and my parents went out of their way to point how this older kid (Dave Phillips) had overruled the referees decision of a let and gave his opponent a stroke. I could tell this really meant a lot to my parents and in my next match I spent the whole time trying to recreate a similar position so I could overrule the referee and give my opponent another point. Even though this was a kid I would normally beat, I wasn't even competing or concerned that I was losing. I eventually got my chance and overruled the ref and gave my opponent a stroke. That's always stuck with me. It was clear that I wanted to make my parents proud and I believed that winning everything was the best way. When I found out there was another way that seemed to make them ever happier I jumped at it. It was easy to give up a point when I'd already given up the match, so this is clearly not the example I want to see from my athletes. It is when you are in the heat of battle and competing that it can be hard to think straight and call your own shot out or overrule a refs decision to give your opponent a stroke.

This is a generalized example but is one that I'm sure most of you can relate to. We play better against stronger opponents because we don't worry about winning so we can relax and just play. While many of us don't enjoy playing payers that we feel we should beat; as if we have more to lose and nothing to gain. This is a troubling way to think about your opponents. You should be more focused on your own game and the process, playing to the best of your ability and not the outcome. When we start to think about winning a game before it's finished this is often when we let leads slip away.

These are just a few of my examples over the years. I think that even without knowing it we all congratulate and make kids feel better for winning a match and succeeding. If you want them to stick with the sport and be able to handle the outcome it is crucial that we give positive feedback for effectively handing a defeat. And this doesn't mean that I want all my kids to lose just so they can prove they are good sports. I just mean that when they do lose a match they can handle it the same way as if they had won.

Remember that your kids played squash originally because it was fun. When things become about winning and losing, it gets too serious and they no longer have fun. This is when they are more prone to having difficulty handling defeat. Trying their best and competing should make you proud, but your kids may feel like they've let you down.

Kids should also be placed in a proper division for tournaments (especially when starting out). If they are grossly overmatched they may shy away from further competition. Nobody wants to be embarrassed. I also don't like it when kids win games 11-0 or 15-0 and brag about it. That is another example of poor sportsmanship.

Simply avoiding competition is not the answer. Encourage smiles, high fives, and good sportsmanship. If your kid is really misbehaving then of course they shouldn't be playing. But this may be something that you can improve by talking about. Maybe they perceive some pressure from you or their coach to win.

Controlling Your Emotions: When your mind is filled with anger you are no longer in the right mindset for playing your best squash. Here is a little trick I learned from a book called Zen Golf that I've tried in the past. If you are having trouble controlling your emotions when you play. Try a practice match and have an erasable marker at the back door (assuming you have a glass back court). Every time you get angry, just put a tick on the back glass. Don't judge yourself and be honest about this. Repeating this a few times has shown to help people learn to handle their negative emotions without trying to make changes. Often these are just subconscious bad habits that have developed into our game over time. I also feel it's important to always look on the bright side of a rally. Try thinking 'good choice' instead of 'bad error.' If it a really awful rally sometimes all you can is laugh it off.  Keep it light and positive when you play.

On a final note. I like to tell my athletes to imagine that they are coaching themselves when they're playing. Listen to some of the things you are saying to yourself. Would you ever say these things to a person you were coaching or watching play? Of course not. Don't be so hard on yourself. You are only making things harder on yourself.

The emphasis of the outcome is something that is learned from a young age. We praise out kids for getting an A and ask what happened when they receive a B. We celebrate when the Leafs (hey I'm from Toronto!) finally win a game and mock them in defeat. Even though we may not take their results too seriously, our kids pick up on how much importance we place on the outcome. And for young kids I feel that too much winning can be just as dangerous as too much losing. This reminds me of another one of my favourite quotes, 'never let a win go to your head or a loss go to your heart.' Kids need to learn how to handle winning and losing and I truly believe that avoiding competition is not the solution it's about learning how to accept wining and losing. We must learn to acknowledge our effort and your opponent regardless of the outcome. And if you are able still play squash for fun then you probably don't need to worry about any of this.

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