A long season reached its culmination at the O2 Arena a couple of weeks ago. I lost in the semi finals of the British Open Squash Championships to Egyptian Ramy Ashour. My game wasn't good enough, and his was top notch. Such an imbalance created one of the best matches of the season so I was told, but it certainly was not one of my better performances.
What I didn't do England's world champion Nick Matthew certainly did in the final, and he has not been given enough credit. Ramy Ashour is talented with the racket and often his results are ascribed to him either being 'on' or 'off' that day. This can sometimes do his opponent injustice and in this case it was Nick's overall accuracy and intensity that forced Ramy's errors, and stifled the brilliance. This win confirms that the season has been one of England's most successful ever on the professional tour.
There was a smooth segue from the pressure cooker atmosphere of the O2 Arena into a period of down time and part relaxation last week. During the week off, with a little trepidation, I ventured back to my old school, Ackworth, where I took the morning assemblies for both seniors and juniors, coached some of the squash enthusiasts, and signed some of my books. I wandered around the impressive grounds, swathed in sunshine, and looked back on my time there. As I was re-acquainted with some of my old teachers, I struggled to know whether I should be calling them 'miss', 'sir' or by their first names. In the end I simply settled for calling them nothing at all, filling sentences with silences instead. There is no precedent for this. It's not everyday you bump in to old school teachers, but somehow when it happens it is like being transported back in time, and I was naturally inclined to fill the role of subordinate rather than equal. Quite bizarre I know.
The school itself seemed not to have changed a great deal; the same pictures adorned the corridor walls, the daily lesson timetables were the same, and even one or two of the dinner ladies that I knew were still there. It felt like I'd stepped back in time to the year 2000.
A day later came a trip to Chapel Allerton Squash and Tennis club in Leeds to watch a junior tournament, which showcased some of the best young talent in the country. My manager Mick's son Sam and nephew Elliot were playing, and so too were my nieces. Being a self obsessed sportsman, I get little time to see the superstars of tomorrow but for the odd time after training at my club in Pontefract. I find these junior events fascinating and reckon it is almost as much fun watching the parents, who are often much more intense than the children themselves. I have seen so many get it completely wrong, placing far too much pressure on their offspring for reasons even they themselves probably cannot fathom. Some parents watch their kids play like it is the most harrowing ordeal; their bodies twitch, they cheer for their kids like it is the most important thing on earth and often their facial colour changes markedly.
And what some don't quite see, is how these reactions can have such a huge impact on their children in the short and long term. I see some kids searching their parents' faces for signs of approval, in some cases only getting them when they win. And that is a sad fact. Speaking from my own experience, having forward-thinking parents helped me a lot. I was taking squash seriously from a reasonably young age, but my parents never put pressure on me to win or lose, or to play the game. Winning and losing was secondary, and at a young age it should be. Of course encouraging competitiveness is positive, but effort, decent behaviour and presence on the court or playing field are surely much more important.
My venture to Chapel Allerton showed me that not all were getting it wrong though. Happily, I saw and met some parents who seemed to be doing quite well: taking a back seat, letting their children find it all out for themselves, and keeping... yes relaxed. It was no surprise the children of these parents seemed to enjoy their squash and play better for it.
So, a varied and interesting week. From grand arenas to grass roots. It had it all.
James' book, Shot and a Ghost: A year in the brutal world of professional squash' is available now at www.willstrop.co.uk, amazon.com, or on kindle.
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