Behaviour off court – a cautionary guide for parents

 As a parent of a young nationally ranked junior squash player I am proud of my progress so far: he is a junior county player, county tournament champion, England squad. Haven’t I done well? What’s more, as manager, chauffeur, sponsor, I made sure that he has had exposure to his peers from other parts of the country by participating in tournaments from the West Country to Derbyshire. All very satisfactory! But wait, who has been putting in the major effort? Right, the young player himself. Who is next on the list for congratulations? Me, surely. No, his coach. On court promptly and patiently sorting out how to strike the ball, how to select and execute the right shot, how to warm up, stretch and train.

 All this may be true but surely I come into my own at tournaments. Ah yes, I am there to give the valuable encouragement during matches and give the much-needed advice between games on strategy and maintaining concentration. But who am I kidding? At every match, we parents can be heard calling to our loved ones from the balcony such constructive comments as “Come ON, Jamie!” (or Geraldine, Harry, Monica etc), “JEEsus!” (for a few months my baby daughter whose pram used to be a familiar sight on the balcony, thought Jesus was in my squash league), “CONCENTRATE!” or “WATCH THE BALL!” As our hearts race and we imagine how we would have played the superb drop shot whereas our hapless child has just tinned a boast, we hear ourselves calling out “Oh NO!” Do we imagine that Jamie has deliberately handed a stroke to his opponent, that Geraldine actually wanted to hit the ball out of court on her 9-9 service, that Harry realised that the ball was dropping quite so close to the foot of the back wall for his drive or that Monica knew that her opponent was moving forward on to her slightly loose drop shot? We delude ourselves if we believe that calling out negative remarks or shouting after an unforced error aid our child’s concentration. In fact it is one more distraction and more likely to produce another error, not part of the original game plan. So, for parents, Rule 1 is: No negative shouting.

Rule 2 is the corollary: Applaud the good shots. This should apply to either player but it is only natural to applaud the more to your own kith and kin.

Rule 3 is trickier. Avoid the ‘puppet on a string’ call. The parent who precedes every rally with a reminder to their child that he/she is safe because Mum/Dad is still with them. (“0-0”) “Come on, poppet!” (“1-0”) “Come on, poppet!” (“2-0”) “Come on, poppet!” (“Hand out 0-2”) “Come on, poppet”!…and so it goes on throughout the match. These monotonous mantras are not against the official rules but sometimes irritate the opponent and are guaranteed to drive the opponent’s parents to distraction.

In one or two national open tournaments recently parents have been spotted giving instructions to the child during the match. Being from overseas it was not thought that officials would realise what was happening. They did, however and the young player was penalised. Rule 4, then, is: do not try to coach your child during the match.

Rule 5 is not to dispute a call by the marker, however woeful and earnest the appeal from your child might be. Markers are only human (almost) but are also very experienced and it is amazing how much a desire to see your child’s shot as “in” or the opponent’s shot as “down” can affect your perception. The role of the parent should be to defuse the child’s annoyance with the marker, and certainly not to reinforce it.

Rule 6 could be: if you cannot contain your emotions, don’t watch the match! My great aunt in Canada used to turn off the TV when she considered that a baseball match was getting her 80 year-old husband too excited. He was resigned to this arrangement, turning on the TV again after a few minutes until excitement built up and the cycle would be repeated. At least one father I know, whose son is way up the rankings and who plays a very consistent game of squash, cannot bear to watch him play in important matches so goes out and sits in the car until the end of each match, an excellent demonstration of self-knowledge.

I know of no courses on match behaviour for parents of accomplished young squash players. We carry our own enthusiasms and competitive spirit on to the balcony and play them out vicariously through our sons and daughters. Perhaps the final rule should be to imagine, at the start of each match, how we would liked our own parents to have behaved if we ourselves were playing in a major tournament. I suspect the most encouraging sight would have been a glimpse of a quietly confident Mum or Dad, applauding a good shot and ready to support, console or congratulate us between games, with a sip of water, far more welcome than a ritual ear-bashing.

A guilty parent

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