Park Life: Does sport build character? Dissects it, more like

IT IS commonplace to suppose that sport is character-building. The Victorians, who were behind the idea - and who invented most of the sports we play - believed it bred every virtue you can think of: self- confidence, respect for the rules, a sense of fair play, physical bravery, grace under pressure, equanimity in defeat and magnanimity in victory. Sometimes it seems that the opposite is true; that sport takes your character apart, bit by bit, dissecting it like a mad and cruel scientist.

This realisation struck me dramatically this week in the crucible of the squash court - a rectangular white space more like a cell in an imaginary lunatic asylum than any other room I frequent, where sounds and emotions bounce back at you off the walls like the ball itself.

I had returned to the court for the winter season last month, feeling fit, confident and raring to go after a summer of outdoor activity. But my matches have already resumed a wearily familiar pattern. I have lost them all (and if losing is supposed to be better for you than merely winning, why does it feel so grim?). You may suppose that I lose simply because I'm bad at squash (which indeed I am), but it's more complicated than that. After all, we're carefully graded by the club to come up against players of roughly the same standard. No, with me it's a mental problem.

Each match follows the same pattern. I step on to the court with a stranger. We warm up, and I run through the check-list of Things To Remember: racket back early, eye on the ball, hold my position on the T, don't just belt it - think. We begin, and match each other stroke for stroke, point for point, until about five-all in the first game. Then I roll over and let my opponent win, usually 9-6. Repeat twice, and my opponent has won the match three games to nil - as easy as that, week after week.

I've tried to work out what's going wrong. Is it that I try too hard and snatch nervously at the ball instead of striking it with confidence? Or perhaps I don't try hard enough, and mess up through slackness? And why do I spend so much time feeling sorry for my opponents, for quite contrary reasons? If I win two or three points in a row, and even manage to take the lead, I invariably ease up to allow them back into the game and end up losing. Conversely, if they get ahead I feel the need to apologise for not putting up a better struggle, for wasting their time.

At some point - and this is where it gets truly embarrassing, not to say revealing - I decide that I'm being too laid back, that I just don't care enough, and that the only way to put up a better fight is to get angry with myself. So I start staring wide-eyed at the blank walls and shouting at the top of my voice - "Pull yourself together, Bruce... get on your toes, for God's sake!" - carrying on in front of a total stranger in the way that is usually reserved for family consumption. At the same time I remain as polite as possible - "brilliant shot", "would you like to play the point again?", "was I in your way?" - just in case my opponent is beginning to think I'm a bad loser.

My opponents - mild-mannered computer programmers, property consultants, accountants, set designers - behave in much the same fashion (although it is much easier to be graceful in victory than in defeat). If I manage to force a string of errors from them, they start admonishing themselves in louder and louder voices: players who have introduced themselves as Jim or Mike take on the tone of a stern parent: "James!" they bark at the wall, or "Come on, Michael!". One punctiliously polite German acquaintance launches a Wagnerian aria of angst with the roar: "Maaaann... !" - and on a busy lunch hour the club's 10 courts echo with the wails of a score of suffering souls, each cursing his own shortcomings.

I haven't worked out whether we are the better or the worse for this. Have we found a harmless release for the pent-up aggression of stressed-out urban life, emerging cleansed from the catharsis of the squash club? Or are we quite unnecessarily adding another layer of mental torture to the strains of everyday existence?

What I do know is that I haven't picked a fight with a total stranger in recent weeks, but then most people who never set foot on a squash court do not either.

And, having no cat to kick, I do tend to shout at my children with alarming frequency. But most of all, I know I would love to win at squash, just occasionally. The club already has a physiotherapist, but what I need is a shrink.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own