Life's rich tapestry unpicked

20:46, Jul 30 2012

Sport is about timing. Whatever your code, the pace at which you engage in the game is as important as your position on the field or court. When to play and when to hold back is vital to success.

When to walk away entirely is a related issue. If you can no longer compete at the same standard as in years past or even attain a basic level of competence it begs questions as to why you should bother.

No-one who has ever been competitive in sport likes to revert to the mentality of primary school where participation alone is seen to have merit. If you are not challenging your opponent you are not challenging yourself and the whole exercise loses its point.

I am not talking about winning and losing. In amateur, low-level sport whether you win or not is ultimately of no more importance than it is for professionals where livelihoods and national pride are at least at stake.

Sport isn't rocket science or economics and its political impact is usually overrated. It will not influence the asset sales, tell us who owns the water or stop the war in Syria. Yet how you play the game - in terms of etiquette, temperament and in the expression of skills - might just reveal character. For the better or for the worse.

In my case it is definitely the latter. As I age all the terrible habits that I could never shake in youth are laid bare every time I take to the squash court, now grossly magnified by a state of incompetence intrinsically linked to the advancing years as much to a lifestyle that no longer permits sufficient practice or outside exercise. I have always been a pathetic figure, shrieking and ranting at my own shortcomings, arguing against the injustice of perfectly reasonable refereeing decisions, forever mindful that my slender abilities have never matched up to either early coaching or the decades of experience since.


Nowadays I threaten self-parody, becoming the middle-aged equivalent of a sulky teenager, robbed of the slight grace that I always clung to: the fact that I was a magnanimous winner, or at least tried to be.

Against my better judgment I was talked into participating in a recent tournament, a round-robin contest to find the best team from the Waikato region in my grade to go on to compete at the national level.

It was a revelation. The range of talent within the same nominal grade defied belief. On paper we were all meant to be of roughly the same standard. In practice it seemed like those from the bigger clubs were the Platonic ideal of squash players while those from the smaller had just learnt to pick up a racquet.

A personal tournament record of three defeats from three matches hardly tells the full story. In the immortal words of Tony Grieg, "it was carnage". A squash match comprises the best of five games. I won a solitary game to my opponents' nine. Out-thought, out-run and out- "passioned", the sorry spectacle of loss and whiny regret could only have merit as a cautionary tale to the impressionable. On every level I was an example of how not to conduct oneself in the sporting arena.

So, I come back to the issue of timing. If those who took my squash scalp had one thing in common it was their tender years. One was barely 21, a quarter-century my junior. There was precious little evidence of the fact but I have been playing the game a decade and a half longer than he has been alive. Perhaps it is time to recognise my limitations, give the spectators' ears a rest from the foul-mouth tirades and retire with more style than I have ever shown on court.

Sport teaches you about yourself, though at its best it also teaches you about others. In terms of inherent drama by far the best match seen at the tournament pitted a veteran, one-time great player who has recently had a hip replacement, against an emerging teenager. There was maybe a 40-year difference between the two. The older man moved with difficulty yet vestiges of his talent remained. He fought back from a deficit, winning a tense, five-set encounter. For him there were no excuses and no emotional outbursts. There could be no finer exemplar for beginners and idiots alike. Whatever the age, the timing was perfect. It's something to aspire to.