Saturday, April 30, 2011

99 Wins -- A Lesson in Humility

What really is arrogance in sports? Why do we admire it and yet despise it at the same time? Growing up Mohamed Ali was despised for his arrogance, then admired, and now as he shuffles along in the aging warrior spectrum, humbled by life's afflictions, he's revered. And Achilles, the penultimate warrior, was arrogant, young brash, putting himself above all others. And Homer seemed to counter that with Odysseus, humble and putting his journey back home to his wife and son above all else. And we'll say that God seems to punish the arrogant. Mike Tyson comes to mind.
Humility these days is something perceived as weak and pathetic. In this Hip-hop gadget producing sense of self dominance, in this ultimate fighter climate is there room for the humble person, the humble celebrity? Professional Squash players are the greatest athletes on the face of the earth, they are perhaps the most humble as well. All you need to do is go up to Nick Mathew the world number 1 player or chat with Ramy Ashour, the Egyptian wunderkind, while he watches his brother Hisham play; or offer praise to David Palmer, arguably one of the greatest players in the history of the game, and have him dismiss the mere suggestion of greatness with a wry smile -- to know these men are truly humble.
So when a 14 year old student of mine who can someday be a good player proclaims herself awesome and truly believes it every time she hits a good shot, and you try to teach humility, hey, it's one shot, squash gives you that occasional shot to keep you going, but for the most part it is a most humbling experience. Those professionals know what it takes to brush against greatest and just how fleeting it is...squash success seems to reward humility and punish arrogance.
I read in ESPN magazine that the top salaries for a professional racing driver was $63 million a year, for the top squash earner, Nick Mathew, a $160,000 a year in prize money, does it suggest some tie to money? Arrogance and money and power, hmm...Donald Trump seems to be riding that wave lately and hordes of people are listening to him, which is probably worse because he doesn't really have anything to say. Yet, Larry Bird made millions playing basketball, won championships, and was very humble. Ezra Pound perhaps the greatest poetic mind (to paraphrase his proclaimation by 30 he would know more about poetry than any man alive) was humble, Christ, Gandhi all so humble. In their humility, did they accept that humankind has limitations, did they ever proclaim they were the greatest? But I go back to what Llarry Bird once said, "it aint bragging if you can do it..." Muhammed Ali , the penultimate representative of arrogance in sports, could do it and maybe, he projected an arrogance in response to what white society said he wasn't, a man worthy of a drinking from the same water fountain as a white man.
Coaching squash, I see such arrogance from every age on the squash court. It seems if you aren't arrogant you must not be high on yourself, full of yourself, it seems to mask what might be wrong with your game. My best student who has a lot of talent will proclaim he's the greatest when he wins but beats himself up when he looses...Muhammed Ali believed he was the greatest win or loose...those great squash players seem to believe more in the game, the greatness of the game, than in their own accomplishments. When David Palmer pumps his fist, it isn't because he believes he is the greatest, it seems to mean, damn, he did it, at least this time.
None of my younger students who seem to exude the media induced arrogance have walked on water. Against a weaker opponent you try and teach and foster respect and appreciation for the effort, but it seems that arrogance disdains the weaker opponent. One of my students made a disparaging remark about an opponent she just beat.
And my son, ever so humble, was blitzed in his professional debut, but said it was just one match, ahh a tough lesson to teach, but he's got it. He is so squash smart, but quite a bit awed by what Chris Walker recently taught him during a weak of training. Jim Masland, former Harvard All-American, in all his brilliance is ever so humble, he seems often awestruck by what humankind is capable of, both good and bad, on and off the squash court; I’ve seen Jim marvel at something a much lesser player does on the court with him....and then I step onto the court for a lesson, my 10th lesson in a row, with a junior ("kids say the darndest things")and the student at some point in the lesson, in frustration says "I pay you to hit the ball so don't talk", when I try to suggest something in their technique; and later blurts out "your feeds suck can't you give me a ball that is perfect to hit?"
And then early next morning there is my student Matt Levine, who has all the reason to be arrogant ,a University of Chicago law graduate tops in his class and a successful lawyer now, is so humble on the court and whatever nugget of squash knowledge I pass to him it's like a cup of cool water to a man in the hot desert.
I'm reluctant to say arrogance is a roadmap to failure because there have been some really successful athletes who were perceived as arrogant yet achieved success. Jansher Khan, the greatest squash player ever, was said to be very arrogant. Yet, in the back of my mind, I think that maybe his 100th PSA win eluded him as a lesson, no matter how great, life is bigger, squash is bigger than any person or player. It's when you can't do it anymore that seems to matter most, it's then that what you accomplished means something else, which is what you figure out before you die. At some point, hopefully, you have to love the irony -- 99 wins.