By Jay D. Prince
One of the most gratifying things about being involved in sports is watching the development of young players as their games and attitudes mature. I believe that, for the most part, kids playing games of all kinds do in fact get the notion of good sportsmanship, including the often-times unspoken part about being respectful of the game and their opponents.
Eighteen months ago, I launched a rant about this subject in this space that was squarely aimed at a particular junior squash player in my hometown of Seattle. Though I withheld his name, I’m quite sure that he (and anyone else who witnessed the league match we played that compelled me to write a column rife with vitriol) knew who I was targeting.
While the details of that match don’t need to be replayed, suffice to say that I felt this particular junior player was essentially trying to cheat his way to a win—by playing me instead of the ball; by physically holding my lower back to limit my movement; and by fishing for strokes.
During the match, and afterwards, I made it very clear to him how I felt about the way he was playing. Fabulously talented, both with outstanding racquet skills and speed, this particular 14-year-old— who I’d beaten several times the previous summer—had clearly rocketed by me in ability. That I can handle. And while it takes a lot to get me riled up, I felt it was my responsibility as someone who loves the game of squash (and every other sport I’ve played in my lifetime) to impart a bit of wisdom on the kid. So I walked up to him afterwards and said, point blankly: “Don’t call me to play again until you grow up!”
Later that evening I received a text from the junior apologizing for his behavior. While I welcomed the gesture, we did not play again until our next league encounter a few months later. That experience was, well, awkward—which you can probably imagine. Gone were some of the antics, but it felt “forced” rather than natural.
I have watched this kid continue to develop as a player at local events and in U.S. Junior tournaments. He’s creative, lightning quick, and seems to improve exponentially every time he walks on court.
A few days ago, I had reached the final of our club championship, and I would be taking on the same junior. But I’m here to tell you, this was not the same kid. Yes he still sports crazy curly hair, and he’s still so fast that my eyes got tired just watching him move around the court. But unlike that league match in the fall of 2010, I enjoyed every moment of our match!
Realistically, my goal was simple—to score a few points in every game. I tried to get him to bite on the idea that since I am three-times his age, I ought to be spotted two games and nine points. Had he gone for it, I’d have won because I somehow kept breathing long enough to win two of the first three points.
Regardless of how hard or easy a match is for me, my primary objective is to play well and to thoroughly enjoy every minute. Unlike before, the junior laughed when I gave him light-hearted grief; he overruled the referee who had denied a let to me when he didn’t have to; he played hard; he never once asked for a let that wasn’t deserved; and he played to beat me into a pulp.
While maturity certainly has something to do with the vast improvement in the kid’s attitude on court, what I think is that he gets it now. He is playing the game the “right” way. Heck, we even played three more games after our match was over, whereas in the past he’d have been done.
Dude…you can call me anytime to play, I just hope I don’t have a heart attack trying to keep up!