Sunday, October 1, 2023

Lee Witham Part 4: The world is a better place with role models like James Willstrop, Nicol David and Roger Federer

‘Win-at-all costs mentality breeds a toxic, abusive culture within all sports’
By LEE WITHAM (Squash Mad Special Correspondent)

I love to see talented players performing high quality squash whenever I visit a tournament. Equally, I want to see those same players enjoying their work and playing with honesty, sportsmanship and respect.

We are now halfway through the Wimbledon tennis fortnight and it was disappointing to see yesterday’s match between Nick Kyrgios and Stefanos Tsitsipas descend into such a toxic farce with appalling behaviour from both players.

I recently visited the Pickleball US Open in Naples, Florida. In short, I was amazed! The whole buzz around the event was full of good energy, food trucks on hand, live music, and 2,800 entries!

I don’t think many participants really cared who was winning, it was a fun social event with competitive pickleball. The focus was on ALL players having a great experience. Or as they called it ‘the biggest pickleball party in the world’.

I spent a very short amount of time on the World Squash Tour. When it came to competing, I learned some very valuable lessons. Do I focus on my own improvement? Or focus on all those other athletes around me? The latter made no sense.

The lifelong journey should always be focused on self-improvement. Dwelling on where you finished in a tournament is not really going to help. There can only be ‘one’ slot for a winner.

This leaves 31 non-winners. How do we justify this as a positive in our own development? Yet, we are reminded of how we played by a position that has no relevance to where we are in our own development.

If we want to attract children to a sport, surely there’s a better way. For example, telling a child they finished 12th really doesn’t mean anything. Only that there were 11 players better. Finishing in last position could be telling them they really shouldn’t bother.

We are pushing children to win so that another will lose. This does not teach children much at all. When a competitor feels his/her status is on the line with a win-at-all-costs mentality it can lead to cheating, bad on-court behaviour and difficulty with others on and off the court.

Personally, I cannot watch a sport where bad behaviour is accepted. This can include abusive language to referees and fellow players, trying to deceive the ref, and then getting angry at the referee for not seeing the deceit from the competitor! Quite the double standard.

This has made its way into car racing, too, with drivers’ radio messages full of expletives, calling other racers idiots! All in full view on the TV. Can you imagine this in a workplace? Surely it wouldn’t be accepted.

The real problem here is that it breeds a culture, with fans shouting abuse at the other team’s players and fans. This can then spiral into actual violence. There is no benefit to this behaviour; it must be stopped at an early age and reviewed on a regular basis.

Fortunately, there are still sports where players are competitive and show respect to the referee. Squash I believe can generally include itself in this category, but now and again we are seeing more questioning of referees, loud outbursts, and rackets being thrown.

The referees take a hard line only to be criticised for singling out individuals. The question is, how often is the referee disrespectful to the players? Is he/she under less pressure? There needs to be constant reminders to all involved of what we want to be and how we want to be perceived.

Good sportsmanship comes from a good grounding at the grassroots level with reminders on a regular basis. Squash associations, clubs, and parents must set out these rules and adhere to them as a lifelong objective.

The long-term issue with the ‘winning-at-all-costs’ approach is burnout. You fall out of love with a sport. Having longevity in sports has no real chance when having this mindset. It goes without saying, the win-at-all-costs mentality does not bode well in other parts of life.

The subject of losing or being beaten is very misunderstood. Understanding how to frame this is extremely productive but needs to be explained with some context.

Did you not perform well because your opponent did not allow you to perform? or did you not perform when given the chance? The latter is losing.

Being beaten is when you did everything you could and gave your absolute best, but the opponent was just better than you on that day. Unfortunately, most people comment that they lost without really understanding the difference, it takes courage to admit you were beaten.

A mistake many competitors make is to think you need to only review your performance when you lose or are beaten. Very often we win and move on as if it was supposed to happen. Losing or being beaten can be painful and therefore easily remembered.

There’s a great opportunity to learn from winning. Where did I excel? Did I get lucky? What can I take to my next match? Ask yourself the same questions about winning or losing, both are extremely beneficial.

When we look around the sports world, great examples stand out. People like Michael Jordan not only focused on their own performance but raised the performances of those around them. This is the positive effect these sportsmen have.

Roger Federer stands out for the right reasons. If looking back at early footage of Federer, you will see the racket being launched down the court. Absolutely no chance of that happening now.

During interviews, he has frequently referred to the point in his life when he realised that such childish, selfish and negative behaviour was holding back his career, and decided to make instant changes that paved the way for the enormous success that followed.

One of the best examples of a true competitor in squash is James Willstrop. He loves his job, loves the challenge, plays entertaining squash, and above all is always fair on the court. If you want to show your kids a role model, he’s the guy. It’s well documented that James’ father Malcolm was very focused on instilling all the values spoken about.

in the women’s game, Nicol David displayed the same honesty and respect as she dominated a whole decade that delivered eight World Open titles. Again, what an amazing role model who is continuing the do great things with her academy in Malaysia. I bet those kids will carry those traits through life, and not just on the squash court.

At the end of the day, there will always be someone who is faster, stronger or smarter, and comparing ourselves has no value. The purpose is to improve yourself, work to be better than you were yesterday, be respectful to those around you, and find pleasure in this and enjoy the journey. You do it because you love it. We have this terrific opportunity to teach technique, strategy, insight, and respect, as tools for life.

In my 30-plus years of coaching, I emphasised this to my students: let your actions and training work for you on the court. This approach has worked extremely well, and I can proudly say with certainty, that all my students competed well and were great examples to those around them.

We need all coaches and parents to take this approach, part and parcel of this is a big buy-in from the squash community. With this, all kids will want to be part of our community.

Here’s some recommended reading. Everyone in squash, and especially parents, should read this review in The Guardian about the Whyte Report that revealed systematic abuse in the world of gymnastics, leading to a toxic, win-at-all-costs culture.

This passage in the report provides stark evidence of the torment suffered by children who were put under enormous pressure to succeed at such a tender age.

The Guardian says: “Whyte revealed how ‘success’ for a significant part of the elite gymnastics community for more than a decade involved ongoing, systematic human suffering through widespread physical, emotional and mental abuse, frequently affecting children under the age of 12, a majority of whom were female.

“It’s easy to point fingers at individuals but the scale of this requires us to think more broadly. How could the pursuit of a shiny piece of metal regularly include long-term human damage that can last a lifetime? What sort of environments, what kind of culture and what types of leaders uphold a value system where an inanimate object is worth harming a child?”

Amanda Sobhy recently revealed the mental damage she suffered during her time at Harvard and in her years on the professional tour that led to a serious eating disorder.

It is good to see that opening up about these issues has helped her to heal much of the damage and allow her to enjoy what she calls “the process of training and playing” – and she has been rewarded by a rise to four in the PSA women’s rankings.

At all times, an individual’s health and happiness should come first.

TOMORROW: How to build participation numbers while providing genuine community benefits


Alan Thatcher in Squash Mad: Why honesty is always the best policy

The Guardian: A toxic, win-at-all-costs culture runs deep in elite UK sport

Pictures courtesy of PSA World Tour and Squash Mad archive 


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