by Mitchell Greene, Ph.D., Sport Psychologist
The biggest change in my sport psychology practice from ten years ago to now is the number of requests I receive to work with squash players twelve and younger. They are, for the most part, highly ranked, very well adjusted, and excited to practice and compete. Yet, with the rising expectations facing younger and younger players (and with what some call the professionalization of junior sports in America), it’s clear that kids of all ages and abilities can benefit from working on these top five mental skills:
1. Setting goals
2. Bouncing back from mistakes
3. Managing expectations
4. Enjoying the competition
5. Avoiding negative thinking traps
When parents join in these conversations and make these mental skills goals their goals too, they develop what I call a player contract, based on the premise that playing squash is only worth it if the fun of trying to win isn’t completely overwrought by the fear of losing.
Even kids and families who aren’t having problems report that the benefits of creating a “player contract” can go well beyond on-the-court performances. Frequently, squash families notice an immediate dividend being paid during times when excessive player-parent tensions tend to ruin the fun. Here are three examples of areas we focus on:
1. Pre and post-match family dinners
2. Hotel stays during tournaments
3. Car rides to and from tournaments
Squash parents and their kids appreciate that learning how to do car rides and figuring out when it’s an okay time to discuss the match can be tricky business, and once those terms are agreed to, everyone wins. Let’s face it, if a parent is having nervous tics watching their eight-year-old play, or are giving their son or daughter the silent treatment after bad matches, it’s going to be a whopper of a challenge to keep the lid on things when the family makes the trek to Silver Nationals with their now college-bound teenager!
Here’s an example of a family I worked with where a “player contract” helped resolve the tension between a junior player and her father.
Gail was a twelve-year-old squash player, who started losing matches she was used to winning. Her high ranking had been a source of fun and excitement for the entire family but her deteriorating performance alarmed her parents.
When we met as a family, Gail was convinced that she would never be as good a player as she had been in the past because she had lost in the first round in two of her last three tournaments. As she voiced pessimism about her play, her father jumped in, saying, “You see, that’s the kind of negative attitude that drives us crazy. If she feels that way, why do we bother traveling to matches every weekend?” Gail’s response was a typical kid escalation: “Then, maybe I’ll just quit playing altogether.”
At some point, predictably, Gail dissolved in tears, admitting that she really didn’t want to stop playing, but that she felt guilty about her parents spending all that money when she would “never be more than an average player.” As the session continued, I asked Gail why she would want to keep playing, giving that it was causing her and her family so much distress. She said, “I just love squash. I love to compete and, of course, to win. But I also love the friends I have made through squash, the places I get to see—the whole squash scene. That’s why I keep playing. It’s also fun. Well, it used to be fun.”
Gail’s parents had never heard her talk that way. Their conversations were almost always about how she could fix mistakes and improve her performance. Her father admitted that he often lost perspective, feeling as if he was the one out on the court.
I worked out a plan to meet separately with Gail to discuss managing her distractions, and how rituals can help her prepare for each point. The family also agreed to meet again as a group, with each person having written down two or three things they personally wanted to work on.
Gail and her parents came back the following week and surprised me by announcing that they had decided to take a break from tournaments. This was apparently agreed on during the ride home from my office. They all realized that squash was pushing them to relate to each other in ways they had come to resent.
In the following weeks, Gail’s parents lightened up a bit, agreeing to consult with her before they schedule a season worth of tournaments. They also made it a point to talk about something other than squash at the dinner table.
Gail enjoyed this newfound freedom, and at Gail’s request, her father started coming to matches again, following their agreed-upon code of conduct. The rule for car rides home was that only Gail could bring up the match. I knew we were on the right track when Gail’s mother said she had gotten back her daughter and husband.
Some real magic can happen when parents and kids learn the communication skills to prepare for the emotional highs and lows that accompany the world of competitive junior squash. Even a very talented and precocious young player can benefit from mental skills training. Undoubtedly, It’s best done in concert with parent education, so they can evaluate if they are serving their ultimate purpose, which is to help keep the fire burning inside their son or daughter to stay active in sports for as long as possible.