The wisdom that “Squash is a mental game” has been heard by anyone who has ever played an organized match in this sport. Motivation, psychology and tactics are all integral parts of the game. This is a squash truism and needs no further discussion. Rather, I want to look at one of the lesser known mental aspects of the sport; an internal psychological battle that not many players have experienced. I am referring to the challenge of being a pro player trying to climb up the rankings from the bottom and having mediocre results. In my opinion this is one of the most interesting aspects of the game, but it is rarely publicized.
Allow me to provide some empirical evidence from a few months ago. On a Thursday in early November, I received an e-mail saying there was a spot available in a PSA tournament happening in Vancouver starting the following Tuesday. Despite the extremely short notice I jumped at the chance to play in a $20000 tournament and arrived in Vancouver the day before qualifying began. This was a huge opportunity to get a rare win and serious ranking points. I was drawn to play fellow Canadian Tyler Hamilton in the first round. Before the match I sat down and had a chat with myself, which went something to the tune of “It cost almost a thousand dollars to come out here. This is a huge opportunity. This is what you train for. Go out and play like your life depends on it.” With this deep motivation, I won the first two games with blowout scorelines and was poised to make the upset. I was playing my best squash ever. After dropping the third, I regrouped and had a 9-6 lead in the fourth. I remember thinking, “You’ve got this won. Two points. Easy.” I was finally going to break through and having a big win. You can imagine what happened next. I lost five points in a row, and the fifth game wasn’t even close. Feeling the match slip away was a sickening feeling; certainly one of the worst I’ve had in my career. Of course, comebacks do happen and I had to credit Tyler for staying calm under pressure. But when squash is your job and life, a loss like this is ten times harder to stomach. You work so hard for these rare opportunities, get yourself into a winning position, and then manage to lose. Instead of making decent prize money and ranking points, I left with 0 dollars and 0 points. This can be crippling for confidence, especially for someone like me who already struggles with self-belief.
My small-time example pales in comparison with other chokes. John White and Greg Gaultier have both had matchball in the World Open final and lost. Surely that is the ultimate disappointment you could ever have in squash. One of the great things about this sport though is the tendency to have great performances immediately following poor ones. Two weeks after my Vancouver experience, I was at a PSA tournament in Saskatoon. In the fifth game of the qualifying finals, I was 6-0 and 8-2 up against a better player. Needless to say, the Vancouver incident was at the front of my mind I would have been devastated to blow it twice in as many weeks. My hands were shaking between rallies and I felt a rush of anxiety and desperation, something that had never happened to me before. I managed to finally win the fifth 11-9 and record my best PSA win to date. The result went down inconspicuously on paper amongst dozens of others from that night. But on a personal note it was probably the best feeling I’ve ever had after a match. I liked squash again.