What's On My Mind

by A.J. Kohlhepp
March 21, 2016

The Ref’s Chair: or,
The Vector of Competing Values in Interscholastic Squash (Part 1)

There has been much discussion in the wake of the men’s team nationals about the values of intercollegiate squash and the state of the game as it is played in that milieu.  Statements by the College Squash Association and U.S. Squash, along with assorted other postings on this and other websites, are testaments to the passion surrounding this conversation.   Underlying all of those decrees and disclaimers lies one fundamental question:  what values do we want our sport, and those who compete in it, to demonstrate?  What are the best mechanisms to inculcate those values?  What, if anything, should be done in instances of conduct that strays from that shared value system?

This past February, at venues not too far removed (geographically) from the site of the CSA Championships, among contestants not too far removed (chronologically) from the young men of Rochester and Yale, I glimpsed two other scenes that dramatized the vector of competing values.  And both situations took place around one of the most challenging locations in our sport: the ref’s chair. 

(Note:  For the sake of simplicity, I will intentionally conflate the roles of marker and referee, knowing full well that in principle these are distinct but complementary tasks. My conflation actually echoes common practice in interscholastic squash, where the roles tend to be more fluid. [That lack of clarity could be the focus of a whole different column, but we will leave that thorny question for another day.])

The first situation was one of the strangest scenes I have encountered in fifteen years’ affiliation with high school squash. 

The context was straightforward: the number one contest within an interscholastic squash match between two New England prep school teams, henceforth referred to as Tigers and Bears.  The stakes were small, as the overall match status was a foregone conclusion – the Tigers were in the process of securing a 6-1 win. Nor would this match affect the prospects of either the individual competitors or the two teams, whose end-of-season tournament categorization had already taken place.  (NEISA sorts teams into three divisions for the end-of-season tournament.) But the subtexts for that three-word utterance were multiple and, at a time in which “values” are coming into focus throughout the ranks of amateur squash, much more meaningful than a single refereeing decision.

The conversation between player and referee related to an unusual call.  The Tiger had played a half-volley boast on his forehand side, resulting in a neatly placed nick in the front left part of the court and thus, apparently, earning him the point.  But the Bear in the ref’s chair had seen an extra bounce, apparently believing that ball had headed downward off of the player’s racquet before beginning its progression toward the side wall.

The Tiger, unsatisfied with a decision by the boys officiating his match, had opened the door of the court for unimpeded communication.  

“The ball bounced,” explained the Bear in the ref’s chair, who then looked to his left for confirmation from the Tiger who had recently toppled him.  (Opponents officiate together in interscholastic squash, either before or after they have played each other.)  His officiating partner shrugged, with no clear-cut view of the path of the ball before and after striking.  

Part of the problem here was terminology.  The ref demonstrated fluency in English but lack of familiarity with the terminology of the sport. He should have said “down” in order to clarify the nature of the bounce he had seen (i.e. after the ball had been struck). 

The Tiger, who displayed a competent but not advanced grasp of spoken English, attempted to argue his own perspective.  “So what if ball bounce,” he insisted, apparently assuming that the officials had seen the ball as “not up” and reminding the officiating team that he was in fact allowed, under the rules of the sport, to hit the ball after it had bounced once. 

“Teach me squash,” said the young Egyptian, who towered, physically and reputationally, over the American youth who had rendered the decision.  “Teach me squash.”

But the miscommunication ran much deeper than simple questions of physical fact or technical language of the sport.  Because the whole encounter meant something different to all parties.  For the ref and marker, as well as for the Bear waiting on court this whole time, pleased for a chance to catch his breath and forestall his eventual defeat, this was a sporting pursuit akin to so many other prep school contests waged that Wednesday afternoon.  (In an archaic but effective bit of logistics, New England prep schools generally compete on Wednesdays and Saturdays after shortened class days, so as to avoid missing school for sports.)  These individuals, as capable and committed as they might have been, were amateurs who approached the match as we coaches ask our teams and players to do:  as a chance to work hard on behalf of our teams and our schools. They used the sport, in other words, as a means to demonstrate the things the really matter:  sportsmanship, perseverance, loyalty, etc. 

This approach is part and parcel of the ethos of interscholastic sports.  The same values that are said to have propelled the English officers’ victory at Waterloo and professed, and pursued, in sporting realms where the individual contests are simply smaller battle fields. 

But the Egyptian player, halfway through a one-year stint at boarding school that he had used as a springboard to admission to a U.S. college – he will play in the top three at Franklin & Marshall, according to his coach – did not approach this match, or the sport more generally, from that amateur’s perspective.  As his coach shared with me, he has a “tournament” mindset, meaning that practices and interscholastic matches are merely incidental to what he sees as his primary purpose:  to establish himself among the top ranks of juniors in this country.   Viewed through that lens, any individual match is valuable only insofar as it helps him to improve his skillset or standing.  And this clash did not qualify in either aspect.

Failing in his tauntingly worded appeal – “teach me squash” is not likely to invoke sympathetic officiating at any level – the Tiger threw the rest of that game and the next that followed, making half-hearted swipes at the ball and regarding anything longer than a one-shot rally to be beyond his level of expenditure that day.  Going into game five, and hearing sufficient exhortation from his teammates, along with quietly delivered words from his coach, the Tiger summoned enough energy to finish off his opponent and finalize the team match.  And the boys who had been tasked with officiating this mess of a match gladly vacated their chairs and delivered the scoresheet to the host coach, who dutifully noted the scores on a nearby whiteboard and, later on, entered the results into the U.S. Squash database. 

Anybody reading the score line would have assumed that the Bear had played the match of his life, or that the Tiger had been battling illness or injury.  What happened, of course, was that the values of one player failed to align with those of his opponent, his ref and maker, his own and the opposing coach, and the small but curious crowd of spectators. And the competitors charged with adjudicating this contest had been caught in the void of misaligned values.

One decision, two versions of the point played, and a whole array of assumptions and goals on the part of everyone involved:  sometimes we invite our developing players to adjudicate much more than the simple “facts” of their match.