Park Life: Does sport build character? Dissects it, more like
Saturday 07 November 1998
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.
musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years
Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Stem cells that can kill cancer have been engineered by scientists
- 2 Ricky Gervais and Dame Judi Dench back campaign to stop Thailand dog meat trade
- 3 Russell Brand says he will 'probably' give up acting to focus on his revolution
- 4 Kentucky gang rape: 15-year-old boy left in critical condition after sexual attack by group at party
- 5 Queen's first tweet: Reply telling Her Majesty to 'f*** off' broadcast on BBC News
X Factor 2014: Movie Week sends Jay James and co. into karaoke mode
This is what a film sex scene actually looks like on set (mostly awkward)
Revolutionary lost Caravaggio painting 'Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy' identified
Downton Abbey: Can a lord's best friend last for ever...even if she's called Isis?
Portfolio: Amit and Naroop
Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella
Support for EU membership 'at highest level since 1991' with most Brits wanting to stay 'in'
Tony Blair 'says Ed Miliband will lose 2015 general election'
Thousands with degenerative conditions classified as 'fit to work in future' – despite no possibility of improvement
Putin: The US is to blame for almost all the world's major conflicts
Attacks on 'Ukip Calypso' show how skewed people’s priorities are