The Purpose of an Athlete: In Squash, in life.

Become what you are, you are something, you are a man with a manly potential, a potential to inspire us, become what you are”. Greek Philosopher Pindar (517 – 438 BC)

*Please note that Pindar was using man as a synonym for human.

 

I’d like you to imagine society as a body. Made up of many parts, each part playing a vital role in the body’s well-being. Squash players for instance, often have a highly functional right arm. So functional that it makes some of our other extremities seem rather dull. Everything in that right arm is functioning as it should be, but if one of those muscles goes out of whack we lose a vast amount of potential to win matches, a key part of the purpose of an athlete. The left arm seems a bit useless, but if we happen to lose it we lose the ability to balance in a deep lunge or push off our opponents in desperate situations. Remember you are a part of this body of society, we need you, you are important, and if you do not play your role well we lose a vast amount of potential.

An athlete has 2 functions. First, to win. Former world number 1 Jonathan Power once told me that this game is a puzzle, and everything you do is geared toward solving this puzzle. If you win, you solve the puzzle, and that’s all there is to it. Jonathan was by far the greatest Canadian squash player at solving these puzzles. I cannot recall the amount of times I have been told stories about Jonathan beating prominent players without losing a single point. Jonathan revolutionized the way squash was played at the time, introducing deception into almost every shot. Coupled with his witty character he drew a lot of attention to squash in Canada. Thousands of players would not be playing squash today if Jonathan had not succeeded as he did.

Canadian and World #1 Jonathan Power in the back vs English and World #1 Peter Nicol in the front.

Although a lot of attention faded quickly after he retired, some attention remained, but why didn’t this attention remained piqued? Why is it that clubs are closing and squash as a sport seems to be dwindling away from the culture which brought Jonathan about: mainly a diversified, available sport, and is now shifting back to the upper class in Canada? Why is it that the vast majority of good junior players in Canada are rich and Jonathan certainly was not? It’s because winning is not all there is to it. You can win all you want, but if you do not have the character to go with it, all you do is instill a sense of wonder in the people who watch you. You will draw attention, people will talk about you, people will praise you, people will act like you, and if you smash your racket after a loss they are likely to follow suit.

Think of athletes such as Floyd Mayweather, John Mcenroe, even Mohammed Ali. These athletes won, and have influenced millions of people, but has it been in the best way? Floyd Mayweather’s nickname is “Money”. As likable as he was Muhammad Ali’s arrogance was off the charts, paving the way for icons like “Money” Mayweather to flourish. Does anyone else see the connection between Ali’s “how great I am” speech and Mayweather’s lack of humility? John Mcenroe, although he has contributed positively in recent years, did not set the best example with his bickering and attitude during his career.

Floyd Mayweather during a press conference

The second function, and unfortunately the function which these athletes did not fulfill to their fullest potential in, is to inspire. And I say the word inspire in the utmost positive form. There is no doubt Jonathan Power had a profound impact on Canadian squash. Executive director of Squash Ontario Jamie Nicholl’s said to me: “I probably wouldn’t be doing what I am doing without JP and there are hundreds more like me in our 30’s”. Jonathan attracted thousands of people to the game of squash, but the question is was it in the best way?

“We keep the lights on, make things exciting” in the words of my coach and former 10 time doubles world champion Gary Waite. To inspire is the function which arises when you start winning and people start paying attention to you. I am very thankful that I did not start winning to any serious degree before I learned this. I for many years, and I still struggle with this, was that immature teenager. I often smashed my racket when I lost, cried even. Who wants to see that? It doesn’t make anybody feel good and it takes away from your opponent’s chance to inspire. It is like a screaming child who doesn’t want to share, it’s selfish. Our job as athletes in society is to inspire as many people to the highest degree possible.

This is why Roger Federer will forever go down in history as, considered by many, the greatest athlete who ever lived. This is why many people will conclude he was more successful than athletes like Floyd Mayweather or Michael Phelps. Federer’s got class, and I’ve yet to meet a single person that does not like and enjoy watching him. To me he is the paradigm of an athlete. There is no doubt in my mind that if someone in Canada had the success of Jonathan Power coupled with the class of Roger Federer squash in Canada would be vastly different.

Milos Raonic is a good example as well. In Canada the population of tennis players has doubled since his success. In 2014 Tennis Canada released a study showing over 6.5 million Canadians played tennis that year, up by 32% from 2012. That’s 32% increase in 2 years! Raonic’s success coupled with his likability has created an icon which Canadians are proud to associate with. Children comb their hair the same way Raonic does, they play and put the same emphasis on the serve as he does, they carry themselves in a similar lackadaisical style. We must recognize the power of an athlete and if you are an athlete do not abuse this power lest the body of society lose the capability which you carry.

Milos Raonic and Roger Federer greeting each other before the Wimbledon quarters.

Such is the purpose of the athlete. To win and to inspire. Any athlete cannot play their role in the body of society without both qualities. Winning only, with a bad attitude, is as temporal as it is negative. Children watch an athlete whine and argue calls and later turn around and flex their biceps, then watch as their parents cheers them on. Then parents get angry at their children for breaking the $200 piece of equipment. We all must play our role well in our society if our fullest potential is to be reached and athletes are no exception. I believe there may be a connection between the progress of English and Canadian squash and the attitudes of both world number 1’s Peter Nicol and Jonathan Power. Nicol continues, long after retirement, to inspire and spread the game we love with a joyful attitude. It seems that Jonathan and Peter’s rivalry continues even today with Nicol’s example of profound inspiration for Squash players everywhere.

Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being?” Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180 AD).

2 thoughts on “The Purpose of an Athlete: In Squash, in life.”

  1. Hey Josh,

    I really like the idea behind this, especially how you have related an athlete’s conduct to a very real purpose in society. It both well thought out and well written. After reading it I have seriously considered my conduct at times. I had already greatly changed the way I acted on court after becoming the club pro at Northridge because right away I noticed how many people watch and would look up to me at the club as an example of the way the game is to be played. That being said, to play devils advocate for a second you also have to consider that sports would also not be what they are or get the recognition they do if it were not for these characters (good and bad) that play them. For instance there is no Fraser / Ali rivalry without Ali’s antics and persona. In every sport there are these characters that people love to love (the Federer’s) and those that people love to hate (The Mcenroe’s). If everyone’s character was like Federer he wouldn’t be the inspiration that he is and sports would not have the rivalry’s that they do. I guess in short there is no good without bad. Another thing to take into account is that Federer was not and still is not always this way. He was known as a junior for having a bad temper and I have watched him as a professional smash rackets, yell and swear during matches and get upset about calls. Its funny how these things get forgotten with great champions once they get put in our minds as the “Good Guy”. Anyways that’s just my thoughts on it.

    1. Hey Cory,

      Thanks for giving it a read! The feedback and questions are welcome. My point is not to get rid of the “bad guys” of sport, I believe that would be a foolish pursuit. My point is: let’s not make the mistake of seeing those bad guys and replicating their conduct. I made that mistake as a young aspiring athlete and I certainly did not reap any rewards. Just because they succeed doesn’t make their conduct okay. And I do not believe there is no good without bad, take away the bad and we simply make room for more good. Adversity does prompt us to learn, but what if we had a thirst for progress without the adversity? I think athletes who win and keep winning think along those lines.

      Best, Josh

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