Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The 5-Let Rule: FANtastic News

Several times in my career as a squash enthusiast I have dragged uninitiated sports fans to pro squash tournaments, assuring them that squash is a great spectator sport and they'll have a blast. 

Some did, but some didn't, and in the latter group a major reason for this less-than-stellar result has been irritation over the repeated entreaties to the ref, with players childishly begging for a Let, like a toddler whining for candy. Some players routinely whine more than others because it is literally part of their game-plan, and some matches devolve into a whine-fest that renders this great game into a stuttering, spasmodic, episodic, unflattering denial of the many athletic attractions that should exist in a top-flight match. 

I have several friends who are excellent squash players, and even they -- who should know better -- argue that squash is a bad spectator sport because of all the starts and stops that one is subjected to in many matches. 

So the news that the US Pro Squash Tour is actually doing something about the over-abundance of Let calls is, for me, fantastic news -- with an emphasis on the first syllable, for it's the fans who will be the big winners from this change. You can see the full press release here: 5-Let Rule Announcement.  John White, one of my favorite players of all time, is quoted in support of the rule: "By limiting the Let calls to 5 per match, players will have to start playing and clearing the ball a lot more. There are too many Lets for minimal interference. Once players know that it could come down to a Stroke or No Let they will start to play the ball." After 5 Lets have been awarded, the referee will be limited to awarding only No Let or Stroke decisions.

Change is always hard. We need only remind ourselves how difficult it was to transfer over to the PAR 11-point scoring system -- many opposed it, and some still do. So this new 5-Let Rule will likely be opposed by some, but my feeling is that if squash wants to attract more attention, both from players and the media, it has to relentlessly focus on the fan experience. This is a very good, hugely welcome, and major step forward which was made with the fans' interests uppermost in mind.  

Sunday, March 21, 2010

At What Point Does One Say 'Enough'?

The Squashist is not amused. Not happy. Pretty pissed off, even.

As I've mentioned elsewhere, I've had a tough time lately with injuries. In the summer I experienced a torn rotator cuff, but after much rehab I was able to get back on the court and avoided an operation. Then, an old nagging ankle injury flared up, and what used to be a mild annoyance began actively hindering my game and keeping me off the court. So I had laparoscopic surgery to correct that. It was successful; that was nice.

For a couple of weeks, that is. Probably as a result of a slightly altered gait from the ankle injury, I also developed runner's knee, or what's called chondromalacia patellae, a misalignment of the knee joint that can lead to pain, particularly on the back of the knee. This too is rehabable, which I was doing. But I was also playing, because I felt pretty good.

Which is why last Friday I was on the court in a tournament, playing pretty well, but in the first game I realized that my knee was going to be a bit of a bother. Not a big deal, but it was in the back of my mind. I lost that game, though it was close. In the second game, towards the end, I planted my right foot and swiveled to my right to hit a fairly standard rail. Unfortunately, pop went my knee. I lost that game and made a lame attempt to get back on in the third, but after the first point I realized I might be hurting myself more and the pain was enough that it was stupid to continue. 

I have an ortho appointment tomorrow to get the word on what happened, but I suspect that the chondromalacia allowed my knee to move in ways it shouldn't, and damaged something as a result: ligament? tendon? muscle? confidence? Now I look back and see that, in the last nine months, I've had three serious squash-related injuries. I've been more off the court than on. 

It's a question that every squash lover must unfortunately address sooner or later: When do the insults of age (I'm 51) exert enough of an effect on your ability to play this game as you are accustomed that you would rather bow out with honor then peter out pathetically? I was playing well against a player who was nearly 30 years younger; that's a nice feeling. But it's not nice to forfeit because of injury and limp off the court for another month or two of rehab.

I also play tennis. Tennis is a nicer game on the joints and legs. It has more upper-body work, so it is tougher on the rotator cuff and shoulder, and in my experience it is also a little harder on the back, but in general tennis is nicer to the body. 

Is a smart progression for a squash player feeling his years to segue into tennis? Am I really the Tennisist

I've decided I will rehab this latest injury according to what the experts tell me to do and wait to get their okay to get back on the court. But I don't think I can take another injury.... 

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sex and the Squash Player

OK, kids, look away now, this one ain't for you....

Back in 1995, Austin M. Francis, an avid squash player and marketing guru, wrote a very important book for the squash community in the U.S. called "Smart Squash: How To Win at Soft Ball." It was important because the great tidal shift from hardball to softball squash was under way, and many players were going out on the new international courts with the strangely squishy ball and didn't have the foggiest notion how to play the new game. Most players, me included, started out by playing hardball tactics with the softball, and that, friends, doesn't work. So he set out to teach us a thing or two, and he did. It was a very important work in the history of U.S. squash.

Francis also added a brief chapter towards the end of his book on the eternal question raised by participants in athletically demanding sports: Is it okay or bad to have sex before playing the game?

He only briefly raised the question, and quoted only from one unnamed pro player who had 'scientifically' tested his physicality after sex and after no sex, and had decided that abstinence fully 48 hours before a serious match was advisable.

This is called an N-of-1 study, and while it certainly has its place, it doesn't pass much muster among the scientific community. Indeed, there seems to be wide agreement that the physiological evidence for abstinence before squash is just not there. In fact, science has found that testosterone levels increase following sex, not diminish, so loss of power -- except for the brief recovery period directly after sex -- is not an issue. The psychological effect of the sex, however, could vary greatly among the participants, so it might provide a tremendous psychological boost or wreak havoc on the ego, or somewhere in between. Thus if the sex distracted an athlete, for example made them feel poorly about themselves for some reason, then that would likely not be a positive influence on their game.

The advisability of sex before competition has been argued for millenia. Pliny the Elder wrote in the year 77 that "Athletes when sluggish are revitalized by love-making." I note that he was "the Elder," so he must have succeeded in creating "the Junior," and hence may have known what he was writing about.

Boxers have mostly taken a hard line in favor of abstinence, believing by doing so that they get meaner and more aggressive for the trials that await them in the ring. It's been reported that Muhammad Ali, the greatest boxer ever, would abstain for six weeks before a bout. He apparently didn't realize that having sex can actually reduce the sensation of pain, by blocking a neuropeptide pain transmitter called 'substance P.' Apparently, Ali didn't have to worry about reducing pain, since his opponents often had a hard time hitting him. But still....

Since the majority of pro athletes have historically been men and the science behind this question has therefore mainly focused on male athletes, women who wonder about sex before competition will have to keep on wondering. However, I offer this quote, from an article on BBC.com, which I suspect will be heartily endorsed by female athletes the world over:

" ...And then there's Israeli physician Alexander Olshanietzky, who's all in favour of sex -- for female athletes, at least. "We believe that a woman gets better results in sports competition after orgasm," he said in 1996, before the Atlanta games. "... The more orgasms, the more chances of winning a medal. Coaches generally tell their athletes to abstain before competition. In the case of women, that's the wrong advice."

And finally, there is the rather rare question of whether sex during a competition is advisable. This would not be possible in a squash match, since there are literally seconds between games (unless you are a gerbil; they're fast), but the question, I suppose, has to be raised. Here's a quote from "The Observer" that addresses whether this athletic tour de force is advisable:

"What about sex during an event? There isn't scope for it in most sports, but the experience of snooker star Paul Hunter suggests it can help. Trailing 6-2 to Fergal O'Brien in the final of the 2001 B&H Masters, Hunter retired to the Wembley Plaza Hotel with girlfriend Lindsey Fell. 'Paul's manager told me he was under pressure and that I should relax him,' explained Lindsey. 'So I stripped down to my lacy g-string and bra. We made love and he didn't think about the tournament for a second.' Hunter returned and notched up four centuries in six frames to win the final 10-9."

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Tawdry Chaudhry Incident

Most of us have seen the video of Baset Chaudry, team co-captain of Trinity's squash team that has just registered its 12th year of perfection, yelling in the face of his Yale opponent and nearly head-butting him. It was, indeed, ugly.

And yet, one can only imagine the pressure that one must feel carrying the weight of so many successful years, playing in front of a rambunctious home crowd and his own parents that came from overseas to watch, playing an opponent who had goaded him at least a bit during the match.....  The stage was set.

Chaudhry lost his cool. Adrenaline kicked in as he won the match, won the team competition for Trinity, and won yet another year as the best collegiate squash team on the planet. 

By all accounts he is an exceptional kid who is also a great squash player. Chaudhry sincerely apologized, and I'm sure he meant it. He just lost it -- let it be a learning experience. Unfortunately, he has since voluntarily opted out from defending his singles title, which is up for grabs in a few days, and I'm sure this decision was at least partially, and perhaps heavily, suggested to him by his handlers at Trinity.

That's too bad. While proper behavior, both on-court and off, should be an important focus for educators, forgiveness is a wonderful thing to teach too. His four years of exemplary scholarship and athleticism should have bought him a ticket to the action. While Chaudhry's on-court behavior was a mistake, his removal from the singles competition compounds the error.