After reading Tracy’s blog posts about doing the impossible, I was inspired to try something I’d been thinking about for a while: returning to playing women’s competitive squash. I played in a Massachusetts women’s squash league in my 20s and loved it. The camaraderie, the competition, the rush from intense physical activity—it was all great. After finishing grad school and starting my first faculty job, I played recreationally with male coworkers, but it wasn’t as fun or organized, and I gradually stopped.
About 2 years ago my boyfriend Dan and I started playing squash together (he’s a tennis player and all-around zippy athlete), and we both enjoy it. However, I became curious about how my current skills would stack up against other women in league play after 25+ years. I found information on the Massachusetts Squash Rackets Association, contacted Lisa P, the local women’s league coordinator, played with her, joined her club and team at Boston Sports Club in Waltham, MA, and boom—I’m on a squash team!
For those of you not familiar with squash, here is the lowdown: squash is a racket sport played on a closed court (a bit smaller than a racket ball court) with different markings on the floor and walls. Squash rackets look like a tennis rackets on a slimmer scale, and the ball is a bit larger than a ping pong ball, made of rubber and not bouncy. You have to warm it up to play, and also hit it fairly hard. You play either to 11 or 15, score on every point, and must win a game by 2 points. Whoever wins 3 games wins the match.
Squash is a precision game, with a variety of complex shots, using all 4 walls. It’s also a power game, with hard serves and low kill shots and deep forehand and backhand strokes. And it’s a nuanced game, with high lobs that die in the back of the court, angled shots (called boasts) designed to hit the intersection of wall and floor (called “the nick”) and roll, and drop shots that just dribble down the wall. Finally, it is a super-intense game—while not technically a contact sport, you’re very close to your opponent, fighting for dominance of the T, which is the middle of the court. Position is all-important in squash.
I love basically everything about this game. Except for one thing: I’m having a hard time with winning. Now, I don’t mean that I’m losing all the time and want to win more—that’s not it. I love playing. I love competing. I love the intensity of going all-out to try to win a point. And I like winning. As Tim Robbins said in the classic baseball movie Bull Durham, “it’s, like, better than losing.” But I don’t love focusing solely on winning to the exclusion of all else.
Why not? Well, I think it’s complicated. I want everyone to have fun, and I don’t want my opponents to feel bad even if they’re having an off day. So when I’m on and the other person is off, I find myself easing up a bit—taking some speed or loft off my serve, or not killing the ball but instead just returning it. I don’t intentionally muff a shot, but I do find myself slowing things down. It’s not even always conscious, but it happens.
In bike racing (road and mountain), I sometimes had the same issue. In one crit and one road race, I pulled teammates when I could have gone much faster and dropped them. In a mountain bike race, I rode with a non-teammate for several minutes before accelerating to my race pace and passing her. Why did I do this? A combination of factors: I felt sympathy for the people who were tired, enjoyed having company in the race, and didn’t want to focus solely on myself. That’s not always the case: when there’s fierce competition, I turn inward and focus and really love that feeling of being one with my performance. But when others are more vulnerable or weak performers, it’s hard to focus on trouncing them.
So how was my squeamishness about being a squash killer going to play out, now that I was officially on a team again? I found out last Tuesday.
December 2 marked my official return to league squash play. Our team was playing at the Tennis and Racket Club of Boston. It’s a venerable old and fancy Boston club with a wood-paneled bar, locker rooms with 19th-century engraved prints on the walls, and a long tradition of court sports, including court tennis. I was playing fifth position (on a five-player team), pitted against a very nice woman named Magda. Magda told me she had just returned to squash from a brief hiatus, having played tennis and golf recently and having some wrist troubles. We warmed up, both of us a little nervous—this was her first league match this year, and my first in 26 years (I had actually played at this same club 26 years ago!).
In game one, my lob serve was on—it was lofting high and dropping low in the back corner. My serve is my biggest strength, and I tend to win a bunch of points with it. Also, I felt more in control of play, and had overall better position. Yay for me! However, even during the game, I started thinking: do I really want to destroy this woman in 3 games? Maybe competition like this is not for me. And I actually changed my serve a bit to keep the game going. I still won 15-10.
Game two was a different story. Madga had apparently warmed up by then and I am guessing was not harboring any misgivings about beating me. I lost that game 15-5, but it felt like 15-1. I had lost focus, lost control of the court, and was lucky to get out of that game with my shorts intact. Ack.
Game three was not pretty, either. I was castigating myself for my previous thoughts, finding them arrogant and self-defeating. Why in the world was I on the squash court in the first place, if not to compete for every point to the best of my ability? But having an internal argument with oneself is not compatible with focusing on actually playing, and I soon found myself down, 10-2. Well enough of this. Time to get serious. So I did, and clawed my way back to losing 15-9. Not great—I’m down 2—1, but am focused for game four. Which I won, 15—11. I didn’t ease up on my serve, didn’t hesitate to put the ball away when I could, and finally figured out how to read my opponent better. We were in deep competition, and it felt invigorating, tiring (we were both breathing hard), and all-consuming. Yesssss!
Game five was fun and hard, and we traded points and control of the court. In the end, she beat me 15—12. I definitely would have preferred winning, but the last game was well-played by both of us; we left it all out on the court, and enjoyed ourselves immensely. All in all, a respectable showing for my first league match.
I talked with teammates and Magda about my hesitance during the first game. To a person they all said, “NOOOOOO! You have to focus on winning every point. That’s your job. You can feel sorry for the person later on.” I get that. But I don’t think it will be easy. I hope more experience in competitive play will help me develop some strategies for dealing with weaker players or exploiting weaknesses in my opponents and carrying it through to winning, while still enjoying friendly interactions with my opponents.
So I open it up to you, dear readers: any thoughts on competitiveness vs. pulling your punches, so to speak? I welcome any stories or suggestions. And I’ll report back at the end of the season!