Will’s World: White Elephant

by Will Carlin

In 624 BC, Nepal was called Lumbini. The king of one of Lumbini’s tribes was a warrior named Suddhodana. Known as the “King of Law,” Suddhodana reigned according to the rule of the land, and he was widely honored and respected for his fairness and judgment—both by his tribe, the Sakyas, and the tribe next door, the Koliyas.

The daughter of the king of the Koliyas was a princess whose beauty inspired her parents to name her Maya, or “vision.” As she grew up, she became known as much for her intelligence and piety as she was for her loveliness.

The two tribes were united in celebration when Suddhodana and Maya were married. A few months later, on a night with a full moon, the new queen had a vivid dream. In it, she felt herself carried away by four spirits to a lake in the Himalayas. After bathing her, the spirits dried and dressed her in heavenly cloths and lay her down in a bed of divine flowers. Soon after, a white elephant, holding a white lotus flower in its trunk, appeared, went around her three times and bestowed the lotus. Eventually, the elephant disappeared, and the queen awoke knowing that earlier in the evening, she had conceived her first child.

The child would be named Siddartha. The Buddha.

Because of the dream, white elephants (and lotus flowers) historically have been considered sacred in Buddhist countries like Siam (modern-day Thailand). As such, white elephants were not allowed to do any work, and they had to be well cared-for.

Not surprisingly, white elephants required a tremendous amount of effort and resources to maintain. If the King of Siam was pleased with one of his courtiers, he would give him a white elephant, along with land and resources to take care of it; if, however, the King was displeased, he would gift only the white elephant. Because of the large cost required to care for it (and without being able to put the sacred beast to work), the courtier would soon be ruined and, ultimately, dishonored.

And that is how the phrase white elephant has come to mean an unwanted gift.

For many squash players, being number one is a white elephant. If you have been playing long enough, you have probably been number one at some point: on your school or league team; in your club, city or state; in your age or skill division; or you’ve been the top seed in your draw in a tournament.

It’s hard being number one.

Of course, it’s a great honor at first. When you attain the number one ranking or seed, there is immense satisfaction. You don’t get it if you haven’t worked for it, and it feels terrific. But, at some point, you have to defend it. This is where it gets complicated.

Everyone is gunning for you. There is much truth in the aphorism that it is easier to be the hunter than the hunted. Though it’s sometimes true that opponents are intimidated playing against a number one, at least as often they play better than usual.

In a one-off match or an early round in a tournament where you are the top dog, it can be unnerving if your opponent starts to play well. You know you should be focused only on the match, the game, the point, the rally, the stroke, but insidious thoughts begin to creep in.

“I’m supposed to be winning easily; what’s going on here?”

“This would be so embarrassing.”

“I won’t be number one anymore.”

“What are people going to think?”

Your ego now has a dilemma. The easy answer is to compete as hard as you can. But if you do that and still lose, you have no excuse: the other player was better. You weren’t up to your top seeding or ranking. So, your ego seeks other alternatives. Less risky options. Other explanations.

The refereeing was terrible. My opponent cheated. My sore hamstring started acting up. I was working on something. I wasn’t really trying.

These are seductive. They imply (to your ego, at least) that you aren’t worse, but that outside circumstances are preventing the “right” outcome from occurring. Easy as that. Even better, you can use these explanations when people ask you the common (but awful) question after an unexpected loss: “what happened?”

Ego spared.

What’s hard—really hard—is to decide mid-match to try, to give it everything you have and risk losing. You aren’t playing well; your opponent is. Maybe one or more of those “explanations” is partly true. And yet, instead of giving in—instead of giving up—you dig in. You fight, you fight, you fight.

The risk is high. It would be wonderful if it always worked. It doesn’t. Sometimes you lose, even when you were “supposed” to win. There’s no excuse now. You tried and you lost, but you put yourself on the line. That’s what champions do.

Think about how many times you’ve watched Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams, Mohammed Elshorbagy, or Nicol David play far from their best against a much lower-ranked player who is playing out of their gourd. When any of these players lose, the world notices. But more often than not, they dig in and compete. They do not always play well, but they almost always compete hard. They risk losing without excuse, and that’s one of the many reasons they all got to number one and stayed there.

For these players, the white elephant of the number one ranking was an honor that they had the mental equivalent of land and resources to care for.

Do you?