Publishers Note Changing Focus

By Jay D. Prince

It’s taken me 45 years to figure this out, but our outcome oriented society doesn’t mesh very well with sports.

At least not as players of sports. Take just about any sport, and the first question we are asked is whether we won or not. In baseball, “how many hits did you get?” In soccer, “How many goals did you score?” In gymnastics, “What was your score on the vault?” In squash, “Did you win in three games?”

But the clichés we hear all of the time from the best athletes in the world don’t fit those kinds of questions at all. “We just have to take it one point at a time.” Or, “I just focus on one pitch at a time.” Or, “We just have to play four complete quarters.” Those are process-oriented statements. The onus is on us as parents to help our kids understand that viewing results based on “outcomes” is very difficult and can be demoralizing. I know it was for me, and still is at times. But when I’m playing my best squash, it happens when I can forget about the previous point and focus all of my effort on the next one. And then the end result will take care of itself.

If you take a moment to really watch what’s going on the next time your junior player is in the middle of a match, count the number of times he or she looks up at you or their coach after points. I’d be willing to bet that most of the time that little head turn happens after losing a point. Why? Because (a) they’ve disappointed someone (parent and/ or coach) or (b) they “did something wrong.” And with that going on in their heads, it’s got to be very hard to “focus on the next point.”

So why is it that that head turn happens at all? Because we, as parents, and our society as a whole focuses on the result of what our kids do rather than the process of doing it.

Bringing back my baseball analogies, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down with a child that I’m coaching who has just struck out or just didn’t get a hit and explain to them that they aren’t going to be safe at first base every time. In baseball, the kids are trying to hit a round ball with a round bat, being thrown by a pitcher who is trying to get them out and with eight other fielders whose jobs are to keep the batter from getting on base. The best baseball players in the world only get three hits out of every 10 times they come to the plate.

The same thing is true in squash. In singles, our kids can play flawlessly…and still lose. Afterall, there is another player on the court trying to win too. And part of doing that involves trying to make your child make mistakes and lose.

So if the first thing we ask our kids is whether they won or lost, what message are we sending? We’re telling Johnny or Susie that winning is everything, or at least the most important thing. Talk about pressure. No wonder your boy or girl glances into the bleachers when you’re watching them play. And has anyone ever told you that putting pressure on your kids to win will make them play their best? No, I didn’t think so. But then we turn around and tell our kids to relax and play well. Yeah, right.

I know that lots of parents are nothing but supportive of their junior players. But I’ve often wondered what it might be like to have a truly “closed” junior tournement in which the venue was “closed” to the parents. Ever seen the movie, In Search of Bobby Fischer? The best scene in the movie is when the parents are locked up in a room, completely separate from the area where the kids are competing in a chess tournament so that they are nowhere to be found. And the kids play some of their best chess. I wonder what would happen if junior squash players were able to play a tournament in similar conditions? I’ll bet they’d have a blast.

But to be honest, I don’t think such drastic steps are really necessary—especially if the kids are simply encouraged to have fun, give their best effort, and let the outcome take care of itself. I guarantee you the kids would still play hard and try their best to win—but with a lot less stress.