Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Why honesty is always the best policy

By ALAN THATCHER, Squash Mad Editor

Squash is a sport that is frequently played at a ferocious pace, both in terms of the speed applied to the ball and the reaction times required to compete at the highest levels.

Add in the factor of two players both trying their hardest to occupy the same area of the court and you will often see physical contact as the contestants deal with the obstructions that are likely to occur.

Some players are better at clearing the ball than others, but some (hopefully a minority) seem to make a habit of deliberately obstructing their opponent’s path to the ball.

In such a pressure-cooker atmosphere, inside a small box, control is the ultimate, essential factor.

This can have many facets. If you can control your swing (safely) to ensure that the ball goes where you want it to go, and control your footwork in and out of shots, you will go a long way to avoiding any unnecessary contact which may result in stoppages.

The other area of control that is often overlooked is the ability to control your emotions during play.

This might be described in some cases as Anger Management.

None of us wants to lose, and of course it is frustrating when you make mistakes, but anger is neither productive nor attractive.

Some may see anger as a means to gee yourself up when you are in trouble. Usually, in a fast game like squash, it is the surest way to lose the next three or four points before you have calmed down and regained your focus and concentration.

Sometimes decisions go against you ...
Sometimes decisions go against you …

Sometimes decisions will go against you because of human error on the part of the referees, but some players are always looking to use this stuff as an excuse for losing.

Frankly, I am amazed that some of our leading coaches often fail to instil self-control in the players under their charge. They can turn out hugely talented individuals with superb racket skills and immense fitness levels, but fail in this vitally important area of teaching self-control.

Let’s move this debate forward into a whole new area, and tackle the issue of honesty.

Having been involved in the game for many years, from both inside and outside the court, as a player, coach, journalist, commentator, promoter and administrator, I like to think I have observed these issues from a variety of standpoints.

Let me start with this pronouncement: Honesty in squash will give you balls of steel (with necessary apologies to female players, who may wish to employ their own analogy).

There is nothing more annoying (at any level) than watching players pick up double bounces, or try to play on after hitting the ball out, or serving a fault. Or players hitting shots dangerously close to themselves and arguing the toss when an opponent claims a stroke.

If the ball has bounced twice, this means that the rally is over.

Therefore you should give it up and prepare for the next one.

The same logic applies for any of the scenarios described above.

Let’s boil this argument down to the bare bones: if you try to play on after a double bounce, this is called cheating. Get that? It’s cheating. And cheating is dumb.

You will know, five minutes after that incident, that you have cheated, and so will your opponent, the referee, and any spectators. They may also remember that incident in five hours, five days, five months, and maybe even five years.

Just how much emotional baggage do you want to take on court with you every time you play?

With less than one and a half seconds between shots, and even less time if players volley the ball, you need to be absolutely focused on your next shot, your next step, your next sequence of muscle movements.

Accidental collisions will always happen ...
Accidental collisions will always happen …

Angry outbursts, or trying to get away with cheating, will usually disrupt that mental flow.

Don’t get me wrong. Squash is a hard, fast, aggressive sport. To play well you must be totally committed and prepared to play through the pain barrier.

But mental discipline is a major factor, and the need for intelligent decision-making transcends all the running and hitting involved in the game. A totally honest approach will help you achieve that psychological state required for elite performance much quicker than the players who fill their heads with negative garbage.

Like I say, honesty will give you mental strength. This involves calling your shots down, walking away from a double bounce,  and applauding your opponents’ shots instead of moaning about your wrongly-perceived bad luck. This will help you (and your opponent) to enjoy the game more and free up your brain to concentrate on your next move, both physical and mental. Cheating is counter-productive, and will slow down your advancement, both as a player, and a mature human being.

Honesty and sportsmanship will also make you a far more attractive proposition to sponsors and spectators.

I recently joined in an online debate about blocking, and was told by a professional player that my remarks about honesty meant that I wasn’t “in the real world”.

Presumably he meant that a lot of players have benefitted from cheating in this fashion, and that it would continue until referees and authorities wised up and put a stop to it.

I could see his point, but from my perspective, in my real world of promoting tournaments and “selling” squash to sponsors, I hope he might take the following issues on board.

When players open court doors to argue with referees, do they ever stop to wonder who is most likely to be in the best seats, directly in front of the match officials, and therefore directly in line with their protests?

Let me tell you. The people who are in the best seats have usually paid a premium price to be there. There is every chance that those seats are occupied by sponsors, who may think twice about investing in a sport that allows cheats to prosper and players to offer foul-mouthed rants at referees.

I know this for a fact, because I can recall dozens of conversations like this down the years, with sponsors who have questioned their investment and with spectators who have been appalled by such behaviour right in front of their faces.

The path to enlightenment, and maturity, may be a long one.

But if you study the best squash players in history, you will realise that they usually rise above such nonsense.

I am including this gallery of pictures to show the total respect that most of the top pros have for each other. One of the most joyous sights in squash is when two top players battle through a tough rally, using all the skills at their disposal  to hit winners, and then producing phenomenal retrieval powers to get the ball back and keep the rally going until its conclusion.

One such moment is captured in the image below taken by Patricia Lyons at the North American Open in Richmond, Virginia. Ramy Ashour and James Willstrop had worked each other to all four corners of the court in a brilliant rally until Willstrop was presented with an opening at the front.

His trusty backhand drop shot clipped the top of the tin. Willstrop was devastated. He was bent double in despair. Ashour, ever the gentleman, came over and tapped him on the shoulder as the applause echoed around the Westwood Club.

Other moments of mutual respect are captured at the end of matches, great battles won and lost that will live in the memory of all who watched. This is the essence of squash. These images are bottling that essence for all time.

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Most of our great champions are magnificent role models, with their sportsmanship and work ethic regarded in equal measure to their skills and achievements.

So let’s salute those great players and hold them up as a shining example to all as we march through 2015 with high hopes of squash becoming an Olympic sport.

Let’s make sure that, when squash takes its rightful place in the Games, the sport’s aggressive, exciting, gladiatorial appeal goes hand in hand with sportsmanship and honesty, and can truly uphold the finest of Olympic ideals.

Feel free to comment below.

Pictures from Squash Mad archive 

First published in February 2015. Gallery updated in June 2017.

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  1. Great article Alan
    in my opinion it all starts with parents and coaches of young juniors….some coaches let it slide at a young age only for it to develop into a problem.
    In my squad sessions I stop the rally immediately when I see someone pick up a double or play on after hitting it out and challenge the behaviour on the spot.
    Do that a few times and they soon change their ways!

  2. Blatant cheating is a disgrace even in the amateur game and it’s always amazed me how much I have seen going on in the pro game at times. Sponsors new to the game, are being educated in how not to play the game.
    There is nothing wrong with the occasional discussion with the ref, and with video analysis on site, players must realise that this is the only way forward. I am glad PSA are weeding out the bad behaviour now with bans and fines.
    Jon Power used histrionics and verbal discussions which he for the most part got away with, but only because he could hold and captivate the audience like no other in the game since.
    This takes as much skill as that required to play the game itself. You are a missed magician. Come back and play a few low dollar tournaments for fun!

  3. Great article Alan!
    Allow me to suggest that beyond violating the code of conduct or sportsmanship there are very practical consequences for the games and performances of those who indulge in this kind of behavior. That is within limits of the levels at which 2 players perform! It drops the level of sustained pressure on the legs/body that continuous play exerts, it reveals a Psychological vulnerability on the part of those who are indulgent, it retards the frame of mind required to make the toughest of ‘gets’ in the toughest of circumstances (e.g. Nicol David recovering 4 Match Points to win the last World Championship!), it retards the ability to rapidly re-equilibrate the balance between muscle fluidity and tension necessary for the huge range of strokes and moves that Squash Players must engage and it is a plain distraction from the ebb and flow of hand-eye coordination at its zenith! And as you point out, it generally lowers the standard of play and so the potential for growth and maturing as a top player.
    Regards, Ferez

  4. All well and good that cheating makes the game less attractive for spectators and sponsors, but I’m unsure which player in the game today this is directed at, other than maybe some unscrupulous league players. It’s certainly worth reminding the juniors coming up to play with integrity. But all the pictures in the article make it seem like pro squash guys are rampantly cheating, which I don’t believe is the case.

    I watch a lot of PSA matches on the web broadcast, and every player I have seen is undoubtedly fair. A couple may be a bit slow off the ball or blocky, but that is what the ref is for at those levels of play. Borja Golan of 6-18 months ago comes to mind as a notorious blocker, although he seems to have broken that habit lately.

    I don’t know of any professional player who won’t honestly call a double bounce. Can you name some names so I know who to look out for? What matches? On lets and strokes, that’s certainly an area up for judgement calls – a large enough percentage of initial calls is overturned by the fourth official on video review to make that plain to see.

    As for arguing with the official, that may be a bit unseemly, but as you point out, it’s usually detrimental to the person arguing as it takes them off their game. Squash is as much mental as physical, so I see the ability to keep your wits about you as a key trait of a good squash player. It should be coached as players come up not to argue with the ref, but having a word with the ref is not cheating by any stretch.

    As far as I see, squash is a fair and honest game – worth pointing out to help us squashers preserve our reputation. Perhaps what’s limiting attention and sponsorship is that squashers don’t cheat enough – the Super Bowl in the US was even more highly watched after the Patriots were accused of deflating their game balls to win their way into that game.

    • Well put. Putting Nicol David at the head of the article gives the impression that the article is about the Professional game, and I agree with Brock in HK that “cheating”is the last action that I would associate with the pros.
      Blocking, of course, is another matter altogether, and has to be dealt with under a heading other than honesty. Referees have to be complicit for Blocking to succeed, so factors other than honesty are involved.

    • Brock: You write ‘all the pictures in the article make it seem like pro squash guys are rampantly cheating.’
      I think you are looking at the wrong article. This article is about the enormous mental benefits of approaching each match with absolute honesty.
      All the pictures in the Gallery show the total respect that most of our top professionals have for one another.
      One other action picture shows an accidental collision, another is a wonderful image showing a player desperately appealing to the referee after a massive rally (I was there as tournament promoter and saw it) and the other picture shows the great role model Nicol David enjoying another richly deserved tournament victory.
      As for Mr Seshadri’s comment about the selection of the image of Nicol David, the article is quite clearly aimed at both professional and club players.

  5. Great article.

    To Brock in HK, it is easy to see who the problem players are in the professional ranks. Just look at the number of stoppages in the games and very quickly, a pattern can be established on who looks to play the man and not the ball more than others.

    What I would say is that when Ramy plays Shabana, the viewer gets a free flowing game with very few stoppages and no major arguments. Same goes for lots of other players.

    However, there are a few that seem to block and fish more than others and they could do with taking a leaf out of Ramy’s book, not least the current world number 1. Or dare I say, the current CEO of the PSA!

  6. I actually saw this post shared by Omar Mossad. He said it was ‘interesting’.

    I’d say, perhaps controversially, that there are a lot of players at top at the moment who are generally fair, but when things aren’t going their way can adopt gamesmanship. I think most recent world number ones with the exception of Willstrop and Ramy could fall into that category at times.

  7. The unique game where you are in the same space as the opponent where their position is frequently hidden and the ball can return at angles unprepared for can cause poor movement and be perceived as blocking. A referees judgement on effort, a tired person not moving as they managed earlier, the bounciness of the ball… goes on. Everyone when playing knows who the cheats are, personally it drives me on to beat them without questioning their cheating. At club level they will be avoided. Keep up the brilliant writing Alan, regards Don.

    • Thank you Don. Let’s talk about the etiquette of the knock-up. The other day I played a racketball league match and my opponent frequently hit half a dozen shots back to himself before condescending to knock the ball across to me. He then wondered why I won the first game 11-1 ….

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