What Squash can teach us about learning environments (Part 1)

Tennis courts tend to have open environments, while Squash courts tend to be relatively closed environments.
Tennis courts tend to have open environments, while Squash courts tend to have relatively closed environments.

Could the sport of Squash also teach us some useful organizational lessons? While the analogies between learning Squash and developing professional skills aren’t exact, both involve similar processes. Competitive sports mean game players become serious about having fun. The same spirit of having serious fun is sometimes absent from compartmentalized workplaces, where work seems to finance the weekend and holidays. Have you ever noticed how individuals from these environments will tend to put more passion in their leisure than their work, and that is a tragedy for the workplace? The challenge for leaders in these organizations is to discover how to introduce serious fun in everyday tasks, and some of the analogies we can draw from sports can be concretely applied in workplaces.

Sports vary in the number of players that can participate in a game, their quality of interactions, the environments where they are played, and their level of forgiveness for mistakes. Racket sports like Squash and Tennis are played between two or more players within a defined boundary and are relatively fast-paced. The two games, however, have some stark differences.

The environments where Squash and Tennis are played are quite different, and consequently, beginners to these two sports have a tendency to develop their skills differently. The approach to these two sports by beginners can provide us with some valuable analogies for developing good learning environments. Tennis is an unforgiving sport for beginners, where the range of strokes required for gameplay requires repeatable precision. It does not take long for a beginner who starts by whacking at the ball with great force, without mastering some level of precision, to face some embarrassing moments. Balls whacked without any control quickly sail out of the court, or land in the middle of an adjacent game. After having received a few stares and gone through some awkward moments, this beginner quickly realizes that some formal lessons are necessary if they want to grow beyond providing comedy value.

Squash, in contrast, is a more forgiving sport, at least on the surface. A ball smashed with great force but little precision will bounce off the wall and come right back to the players. Beginners playing each other can rely on their physical fitness and reaction times to have a game of sorts. Squash is played within four walls, of which at least three are not transparent, and games usually face little or no scrutiny from better players. Even if it does, the symbolism of a closed room denotes personal space (at least in western cultures), and it is an earnest teacher that will cross that boundary to give pointers to beginners without being asked for advice. As a consequence, beginners that only play with other beginners will develop self-taught techniques and tricks that work best to defeat novices. Under these circumstances, their skills will be honed towards applying force and developing fast reaction times. A common observation of Squash novices unexposed to better players is that “Squash is about speed, force, and good instincts”. Given that there is usually a fair measure of aggression and bravado in their games (novices tend to hurt each other), there is also a common perception that it is dangerous. In contrast, experienced players will usually point out that it is more about consistency, control, timing, and placement. Professionals in the sport can repeat the same stroke repeatedly with a very small margin of error. In contrast, novices playing other novices will tend to develop skills geared towards beating other, but not developing skills for accuracy and precision. Continuing on this trend over extended periods of time will lead to the total sum of their skills reaching a steady plateau. This plateau isn’t at a level that realizes their full potential, but at a level where the sum of their bad habits constrains any further growth.

If too much time is spent playing steady partners that are also beginners, the plateau stabilizes to become their skills ceiling. The first encounter with a skilled player brings a lot of surprises and a massive margin of defeat. Under these circumstances, beginners with a positive attitude towards learning will try to unlearn their bad habits in order to relearn the structured and consistent skills squash requires. Their games will become worse before they become better, but it will be an accepted compromise. It is common for beginners to discover that the most fundamental things, like their manner of gripping the racket, is incorrect. Players to whom immediate winning matters than gameplay will tend to persist with their known bag of tricks, and will see little or no improvement in their games. These bag of tricks will have some surprise value, but little else. The fictitious example of Alex and Joe, who decided to learn squash by playing each other after work and the occasional weekend, illustrates some of these points.

Alex and Joe’s excellent squash adventure

A squash game in progress
A game of Squash

Alex and Joe work together in a software company, and they decided to give Squash a go. They are both quite athletic, and Squash seemed like a good sport to improve their fitness. Alex and Joe decided to play their first game on an early Saturday morning. They arrived to find almost all the courts empty. Fortunately, they had read up on the rules before, and they knew the basics of the scoring model. During their initial short practice rounds, they discovered that the harder they hit the ball the less likely it was for the opponent to hit an effective return. Alex had played some tennis before, and he started their first game with a full-swing overhead tennis serve. Joe was caught completely by surprise, and lost the point. In the next point, Joe was prepared for a fast serve, but he could only react with a weak return, which Alex promptly smashed to the back of the court. Using his new-found killer serve, and playing in the front section of the court to smash the weak returns, Alex won the first game easily. Joe learned some good defensive tactics from the 1st game, and was able to return shots better in the 2nd game. He lost by a smaller margin in the next game, and went on to win the last game. They were completely exhausted at the finish of the last game. They both agreed Squash was an excellent way to keep fit, and they started playing more regularly. Joe quickly learned Alex’s killer serve, and Alex also learned some of Joe’s defensive moves. Their games became evenly balanced out, and the games usually could go in the favour of either player. After a year or so, Alex had a skiing accident, and Joe had to find a new Squash partner. He learned there was a Squash ladder available at a club near his house, where players were divided into groups of 5 based on their skills level. The members of this group would play each other, and the 2 players that fared the best would be promoted to a higher group, and the 2 worst players would be demoted to a lower group. Joe thought that he was probably a mid-level player, given that he had been playing a very fast-paced and aggressive game for the past year, and that most of the players didn’t seem to be as young and fit as him. His first game in the ladder was a shock. He didn’t score a single point in 3 games. His opponent seemed to be everywhere at the same time, and his return shots always seemed to be placed just out of Joe’s reach. His killer-serve was returned easily, and none of his tricks worked. The rest of his games in the group also ended in stark defeats. A few of his opponents were kind enough to give him pointers, and Joe decided he had been playing the game all wrong. He started to get weekly lessons from a Squash coach, and his gameplay immediately deteriorated as he had to unlearn his old tactics, and relearn different ways of handling the same situations. Around this time, Alex’s leg was completely healed from the Skiing mishap, and they started to meet again after work to play. Alex found that he could easily beat Joe, who didn’t seem to apply any of the regular styles. Joe pointed out to Alex what he had learned from his time at the Squash ladders and the coach, but Alex decided that the techniques he had learned before worked for him. Over time, Joe became a better player, and the games became unmatched. Alex moved on to find a regular partner at his own level, and Joe saw steady improvement to rise to the mid-level group in the Squash ladder.

Click here to read Part 2 of this article. The full article is also available as a PDF document.

© 2006-2011 Indranil Bhattacharya

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