When we grow up we are surrounded by people praising achievement. People who win elections and win sporting championships get parties and parades thrown for them. I loved squash more than other sports because winning or losing was mostly in my control. In a team sport you can only do so much and I enjoyed having a big part to do with the outcome. When I was young I also loved winning tournaments. They'd make announcements at school after you won a tournament and you'd get some really cool trophy or squash racquet. I remember even making the front page of the local newspaper at some point.
I know from experience it's a difficult balance helping a kid along this journey because most parents want to support their children and embrace success, but also are careful of not pushing too hard on the result side of it. I enjoyed winning and being the best at something and my motivation was 100% intrinsic. If we're good at something we tend to like it, practice it more, become more skilled at it and win even more; the trouble with this process is that our ego can disrupt our progression and the ability to perform at our best because we are only thinking about winning and not necessarily on the process, which after all is what dictates the results. What a tough concept to grasp.
Fear or anxiety of a poor performance and outcome leads many people to avoid participation in tournaments. It's much easier to handle winning than it is losing. Other people love competition and only play their best squash when they're in a tournament. Do you still register for a tournament when you have no chance of winning it? Do you play better when you're a favourite or underdog?
After many years of playing and coaching at tournaments I have a more relaxed approach to competition, but don't let that fool you into thinking I still don't want to win every match I play or coach. It goes without saying that we should always give everything we have to try and win, but winning should never be our goal. I always try and praise effort and preparation over results. If you've done all you can to prepare and leave it all out on the court, the rest will be simple. I believe the outcome focus for tournaments puts extra pressure on you. I've seen it many times where someone plays not to lose and is unable to find their zone and coincidentally their best squash.
Although I've just stated how your focus should not be on winning, there is 1 trait that going into a tournament expecting to win can give you which is desirable and that's confidence. There's a big difference between someone that goes out there not expecting to win and someone who is. This is the difficult balance we need to find as a squash player. How do we step on court each time with the confidence to be successful without focusing on the outcome?
Many times when we play against stronger opponents we give them too much credit and play without belief that we can win and because of this we don't leave absolutely everything on the court. Even at the highest level you don't always see the underdog do absolutely everything within their power to win that match. But again, how can we do absolutely everything within our power to win our match without focusing on winning? It may sound cliche, but it really is about focusing on the process. If we can focus on the process we can concentrate on playing the right shot more often and less about avoiding slightly risky shots and not losing. If we think so much about only winning our current match it can hold back our long term development and we may not give our best effort when there is no chance of us winning. Try your best, play the right shot, commit to it and accept whatever the results may be. It's not just about this single shot, point or match. Maybe your opponent is simply better at the moment, but if so that's just a great opportunity to learn and become better from it.
A little more on playing a stronger player, at least try and keep them on court as long as possible. I see it all the time and people just try forcing the ball short from poor positions hoping to sneak a few cheap points or don't try at all, but that isn't going to beat a better player or allow you to improve; if anything you're just ingraining destructive mental habits. The best chances1 to beat a stronger player is to get into super long rallies and hope that they lose their focus and give you a few cheap points because maybe they are thinking too much about not wanting to lose. They may even get more tired than you expected and all of the sudden you can find yourself creating some more positive openings. That's why you should always give it everything you have and never panic during a match. If something isn't working yet, it doesn't mean it won't at some point. Keep fighting until the last point is over. You see people lose focus at game or match ball all of the time. It's almost like they let their focus slip because surely they can close it out from here. We start thinking about winning, or that we are about to win and we change how we think and play. This nicely illustrates how destructive the outcome focus can be to our squash.
In Canada we don't have an under 11 at nationals because they are worried about early specialization and kids competing at such a young age. I think this is crazy, because I believe it's up to the coaches and parents to help the kids learn about trying their best and having fun at a young age. We all need to learn how to handle both winning and losing. Yes there will be a few tears, but that's okay it's a learning process at this age. It's still a learning process in the under 19 division too! I think all kids will develop better if they can learn the delicate balance between wanting to win, but focusing on the process and development. Eventually you realize just how many areas there are we can improve in our squash game. We can improve our swing, our accuracy, our power, play around with different types of spin, make better shot selections and of course improve our mental game and get fitter, faster and stronger.
Winning happens if we improve all of our skills and become the best player we can be. It's nice to see your hard work pay off in the form of wins and rankings, but this is where fitness and technical testing can help too. If we can measure our improvement in our training sessions, we will have confidence we are improving without the need of specific outcomes or rankings. If we increase our confidence in our ability to play longer and harder railer or hit specific shots more accurately in our matches we will have a better chance of being successful.
You probably have heard the popular term, 'focus on what's under your control.' In sport this is so critical to playing your best. If we waste our energy getting upset about a lucky shot our opponent hit or a bad ref or a tough draw we are setting ourselves up for trouble. All of these things are out of our control and this is what makes life and sport so fascinating. It's learning how to handle adversity and focus on doing our best which this journey is all about. I love the challenge of trying to find the optimal mindset for playing my best squash most consistently. If you can do this and stay hungry to become the best you can possibly be you will get your share of results so don't worry about this area.
Wanting to win is fine, but focus on the process and on improving your game. When I ran a provincial junior camp before nationals this year I worked with some amazing young players. I had a questionnaire and the first question was what are there goals for nationals? Many had to win or make semis, etc. There's a lot that goes into winning such a big title and it's great to have such motivated athletes, but I also felt they were too result oriented. How are they going to play relaxed squash, especially when games are tight if they are focused on the outcome only? Again, you never know how the draw is going to be and how the other kids will play. Squash isn't like a class in school where getting an A for everyone is achievable. In squash there is only 1 winner, but that doesn't mean many of the kids competing shouldn't leave happy with how they performed and where there game is at. It's the fact that they (their ego), their coaches, parents and peers all want them to win too. Kids can easily attach their self-worth to their sporting results. If someone leaves absolutely everything out on the court and plays to the best of their ability that is as good or even better than someone who won the tournament. We need to learn how to feel satisfied with these areas regardless of the result. As I've already mentioned praise effort and preparation not results.
A competition is simply a tool to measure your game and how much you've improved and what you need to work on going forwards. If you come up a bit short you may be hungrier than the person who won the title. If you won the title you may put too much pressure on yourself to repeat this the performance the next time. These are the lessons that I love about sport and I wish I had someone to help me rid my ego and outcome focused squash brain when I was young. If I knew how damaging it could be to solely focus on the outcomes I'm sure I would have changed it because I wanted to be the best I could be, but I had no idea that my winning every single time I stepped out on court mindset was also causing damage to my development. Nobody wins every match and if you are you aren't getting challenged. And I know there's people out there saying that this is a soft Canadian way of thinking, but I disagree. I am all for trying to become the best you can be, but I think there is a healthier process of getting to this place.
I just got back from playing in the 35+ Canadian Nationals. When I was playing in the 30+ a few years back I played to win. One time I did and another year I was the runner up. The year I lost it bothered me a lot; I kept replaying in my mind how I could have won. But even now at my age I've realized how debilitating these goals and mindset can be to my performance. Yes I did finish 2nd this time around too, but I didn't leave the tournament constantly thinking about how much it sucks that I didn't win. I know how I can prepare a bit better next time and that's that. If I only played in a tournament when I knew I had a really good chance to win I may never play tournaments again; that's part of the beauty of sport. I used to always be asked 'what happened?' or 'how'd you lose to that guy?' if I didn't win a match or a tournament. That puts a lot of pressure on you, so it's really about learning to not care what others think about your squash game and letting go of your ego and focusing on what is under your control, the process and getting better. Yes I wanted to win this time around and I had a shot at it, but it just didn't happen. I tried my best I can live with that. Maybe I'll win next year and I'll give everything I have to make that happen, but that's not my goal.
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