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COACHES CORNER: What makes a successful student-athlete? And why play college squash anyway?

Welcome to Coaches Corner – a column for CSA coaches to provide insight, advice, and anecdotes. This week we welcome Wesleyan’s Head Men’s and Women’s Coach, Shona Kerr. Below, Shona discusses the different phases of growth players face when joining a college squash team. 

As a coach and educator, I am constantly evaluating what I teach my students and its place within the American student-athlete concept. At Universities we are in the human development business. This can get obscured in the heat of competition, in the pursuit of a better ranking and the prowess of winning. I will discuss the optimal group dynamics of teams and the evolution of varsity squash players through their four years in college. The goal is for players to develop into dynamic individuals ready to take on the greater world around them and fulfill their best potential.  

I have a student athlete who went 88-1 in her college career and won the Betty Richey award (the highest award that is bestowed to a senior in college squash). Through others noticing her hard work and abilities, she was offered a job with a prestigious bank and is still there today. This is a successful student-athlete. On a different note, I received a text from a recent graduate to thank me for where she had found herself. Her experience on the squash team gave her the life tools and connections needed to land her dream job, and I quote, was “all because of squash”. While at the bottom of the roster for four years, she never stopped working hard, always showed up on time and offered to help the team in any way she could. Having learned our squash strategies, and having watched so many matches from the bench, she became a great contributor as a coach. This is also a successful student-athlete.  

What does it look like when college squash is done right? What did the student’s experience give to them and did they graduate as a more evolved individual? I take the term student-athlete literally in that academia, coupled with what is learned as an athlete on a team, can offer a significantly enhanced education.  

Lately, I have been delving into Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and feel one could do a lot worse than to use this model for the holistic development of our students. There are so many life lessons to glean from this book – it has stood the test of time for good reason. The one I will extract here is his Maturity Continuum paradigm and look at how it relates to the development of our four-year student-athletes.  

The Maturity Continuum presents the evolution of human growth from Dependent to Independent to Interdependent. To quote Covey: 

 Dependence is the paradigm of you – you take care of me: you come through for me; you didn’t come through: I blame you for the results. 

 Independence is the paradigm of I – I can do it: I am responsible; I am self-reliant: I can choose. 

 Interdependence is the paradigm of we; we can do it; we can cooperate; we can combine our talents and abilities to create something greater together”. 

If my players leave as interdependent individuals (or at least on their way), I have given them one of the ultimate tools they can have in entering the workforce, managing a family, starting their own company – whatever sphere they choose to commit to.  

When players start as first-years they are dependent. They need to be told how to be an effective teammate and student-athlete. As much as I work to prepare students, there really is no substitute to the experiential aspect of joining a new team. Athletes start with varying backgrounds. Some solely worked with a private coach, played when they chose to and individually competed in tournaments. Others played on a high school team, of which the programs can have varying degrees of rigor. Some come in with both. Others come from a SEA (Squash and Education Alliance) program. Some come from more, or less, rigorous schools academically, schools that don’t give grades, or from abroad – it’s an adjustment.  

First years are eager to fit in, find their place on the team and bond with their new teammates. It is my job to educate the students to be proactive in seeking what they need. Whether that is extra hitting time, one-on-one sessions, how to use the training/physiotherapy resources when needed for injury, rehab/prehab, syncing the team google calendar of events to their devices, finding peer tutors for their classes, helping them learn how to schedule their time, etc. Not to mention the social side of the team. Some players need a little help knowing when they really should join the team for an apple picking excursion or when it is a more casual trip with a few others to a movie. It is also a time to look ahead to set goals for their four-year membership – what do they want to achieve? This way we can start the process of reverse engineering and mapping out what’s required to attain these goals.  

I had a student graduate about five years ago and had asked what his goals were. He was very clear that he wanted to ultimately play top three on the team. In his first year, he barely made the starting nine and wasn’t too sure about me as his new coach (he really missed his previous coach). We very much clicked when he decided to give me a chance. He went through all of the maturity continuum stages and finished his career playing number two – with a winning record. This is what is possible. Through his good habits he left operating very much as an interdependent person that had used all the people and resources around him to excel.  

A current first-year student recently played a thrilling five game match in front of a packed house, which he won 13-11 in the fifth. Afterwards he put his head through my office door and said “that was thrilling, now I get it”. He felt like he belonged and found his home, another step along the path that the first-years have to make. 

My point being is that it can be bumpy at the start before students find their flow.  

As sophomores and juniors, they are working towards independence. Having gone through one complete cycle of a college team year, independence begins to happen while hopefully forming good study and training habits. They have a more complete idea of how the team works socially and emotionally, as well as a clearer picture of how to improve their game. With this they can more easily self-direct. They know how to complete the weight lifting program ascribed and don’t need to be shown. They know how a college match runs, they know they are expected to be at practice on time, they are more comfortable with the coaches and in seeking out what they need. They are able to begin prioritizing changes they are making to their game, and in what order to progress.  They show up to the team events that they should and are helpful to others when asked. The collective sum of good habits are the tenets of creating leadership, and as Covey states, leadership is not possible without first achieving independence. 

There are two players that pop into my mind when I think of this stage. They were equally driven to improve with totally opposite styles of play. I witnessed the shift to independence after their first season finished and would find them independently training together and working on the areas that each needed to improve.   

As juniors and seniors, they begin the path to interdependence – a higher level of operating that allows the team to collectively achieve more together than as individuals. I always remind people that although squash is an individual sport college squash is played as a team – no one can do it alone. They start to appreciate match play with teammates as an opportunity to test their game versus a chance to prove themselves individually. They are comfortable initiating feedback to teammates and proactively ask for coaching from their peers and coaches. They recognize the collective team goals and are constantly thinking of ways to help others get there. They start to become comfortable bringing team concerns to the coaching staff and are learning to trust that others can help. They actively check in with players to make sure they are doing well, both on and off the court. If something needs doing, they just do it, or have learned to delegate to the best person for a particular task. They begin to solicit help from graduates that have gone before them as they navigate the job and internship market, and life after university.  

As an example, there was a first-year athlete that was struggling with adjustment to college. The senior captains were acutely aware of this and brought it to my attention. The solution was as simple as taking this player to breakfast to talk about how school was going and what their expectations were. It transpired that this student cared so deeply that they were almost getting in the way of themselves. Having worked through this issue, I attempted to help them adjust their approach to a more positive approach and they are now a thriving member of the team. 

When done right the synergy of an interdependent team is exhilarating. The hard work is done at practice, in the gym and in the classroom. On match day, a functioning team should just flow with their actions, and can be a marvel to watch.  

Covey’s seventh habit is called Sharpening the Saw and pertains to the constant renewal of oneself. This habit is essential to progress from dependence to interdependence. It has four elements shown below. Again, good character is the collective of good habits which in turn creates leaders of good character (and ultimately winning). Without this habit it is extremely hard for an athlete to fulfill their potential.  

Here is Covey’s diagram for his seventh habit – Sharpening the Saw: 

From the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey

The classroom offers mental sharpening. Good athletic habits (i.e., sleep, nutrition, stretching) and training address the physical aspect. The player-to-player interaction provides the social and emotional portion. Last is a spiritual piece, which could be religious, but can also be a personal worldview. It is better put as your value system. Learning how to take care of one’s own renewal allows for optimal performance on court and in all areas of life.  

We talk about this on the team in terms of working towards your ideal performance state. In a recent match, one of my more competitively reliable players lost an eminently winnable match in five games. He looked flat on his feet and missed shots that he would normally make. Something was off. We talked afterwards and it transpired that he’d had little sleep in the last two days due to academic work and thought he could overcome this with caffeine. The lesson was learned, you have to work on daily renewal to be at your best for everything you do. It is why I ask the team to complete match evaluation forms post play. The first question is “describe your preparation for this match, sleep, nutrition, warm up, etc”. Through self-reflection the student-athletes begin to see the positive patterns that lead to success. 

The secret here is that squash is the educational vehicle and human development is the product. A complete student-athlete experience can teach all the elements of Covey’s seven habits and guide a person from dependence through to interdependence – a higher level of operating. A job well done is a student who graduates having learned and lived these applications, elevating them for their next life chapter and beyond.  

This is why you should play college squash.