Squash too, is not a game of perfect
by Richard Millman
In his masterful and enlightening book, “Golf is not a game of perfect,” Dr Bob Rotella helps golfers to realize that managing expectations and developing a strong attitude are more keys to success than demanding perfection in execution.
This attitude is also hugely beneficial in our sport and while I strongly advocate clinical attention to detail and dedication to practice, when it comes to performance our most important asset is a willingness to keep trying, to think on our feet and, as I have often said in this column, to survive.
None of us expect perfection. In fact even our greatest heroes in the sport, the ones that produce seemingly miraculous rallies, movements and shots, are always flawed.
Ramy Ashour, Mohammed El Shorbagy, Nick Matthew, Greg Gaultier, Ali Farag, Simon Rosner, Tarek Momen – all of them raise our expectations but equally have moments of disaster. It is both the highs and the lows that attract us and indeed without the lows, the highs would largely go un-noticed.
Why then, do we hold our referees to such a ridiculous standard of perfection?
At the recent Tournament of Champions at Grand Central Station in New York, the volume of criticism for the referees was as staggering as it was unreasonable.
People that barely understand how to play the game vociferously decried the officials that were doing their very best to assist in a fair outcome.
Rather than decry these folks, I would contend that we need to help them to improve their performances by making their situations better and improving our own understanding of the sport.
If Ramy and Nick, Greg and Simon can’t produce perfection, you can be sure that the wags on Twitter and Facebook and in the crowd have no chance and neither should we expect perfection from referees.
The referees certainly don’t pretend toward perfection. They look rather for a fair outcome.
So what are the contributing factors that have led to the recent outcry against the referees?
In my opinion these issues are synonymous with the issues that prevent many folks from understanding our sport.
I have spent forty years studying this game for a living. I have watched an enormous number of players practice, train and play and it is fascinating to me how little we still understand of this game ( myself included).
There are a number of reasons for this lack of understanding.
First and foremost is the number of variables interacting in a game of squash.
Most people use observation as their method of gaining understanding – but as the saying goes – looks can be deceptive.
When observation is combined with assumption that is flawed, deductive reasoning is almost impossible.
If one then combined flawed reasoning with deep rooted, ego based opinion and a rush to judgement, the results can be disastrous.
It is not my mission here to expound on my theories of the game.
That will be done elsewhere at another time.
Rather it is my hope to appeal to folks to reevaluate how we approach our understanding of the game and of those people who referee it.
As I see it at the time of writing we have several areas of confusion that need studying and perhaps close inspection by a World Squash panel that should be composed of a) respected, thoughtful professional players, b) respected experienced referees, c) respected thinkers about the game and d) ( most important in my view) university level logicians who can hold the current thinking up to the candle of logic using empirical and proven systems of critical thinking.
The last group is imperative because we that are within the sport are frankly too close and too invested to be able to make unbiased judgements. We need the empirical and academic assessment of the systems that we have developed within our group, so that the force of personality of strong characters doesn’t divert our understanding.
In addition we need to carefully assess whether we are giving the referees and the players the best situation from which to adjudicate.
Imagine for a moment diagrams of the possible viewpoints of the referee.
The first diagram is a simplistic view of the perspective that most professional tournament referees have of the court.
As you can imagine, the view from the back of the court foreshortens their view of the court as compared with the overhead view in the second diagram.
Because of this, it is very difficult to see the subtle dynamic interactions of players in and out of position.
The overhead view makes things much easier to see and so referees under pressure would have a more clarified perspective if the overhead view was the first view.
This is the second viewpoint I would like your to imagine.
The video referee has helped but there is still a problem with the initial analysis coming from the referee in the bleacher or grand stand.
In the third diagram I would like you to imagine, I propose a compromise that I think would greatly expedite matters. That is to have the referee or referees high and immediately behind the court. This intimate view, if used at all events, would make decision making much easier and quicker, in my opinion.
This still doesn’t cater for the fact that the rules as currently written are misleading and frequently illogical. And it also doesn’t account for any given individual’s ability to understand the logical sequence of the game of squash ( this includes referees, players, coaches and spectators). Both of these issues need to be addressed and thoroughly explored as it really doesn’t matter where you position the referees if the parties involved in the sport don’t really understand the game.
Much of what is believed in the game is assumption based on unverified logic in my opinion.
For instance, many people believe that the correct sequence for playing a shot is as follows: approach, set up, execute, recover.
In point of fact that sequence is both incorrect and a major contributor to traffic and interference.
But if both the players and referees are taught this and/or come to believe that this is the correct sequence – then there is little or no chance of successful refereeing. ( The correct sequence is: approach, set up, start to recover, execute while completing recovery – but because the recovery begins a minute fraction before the execution and players and referees have it in their mind that they execute before they recover, there is massive confusion and interference. A world class logician would I believe, quickly recognize that the striking player needs to begin their recovery movement just before they strike the ball so that they are in position to defend the court against the opponent’s next shot before the opponent can hit it. If they strike the ball before they start their recovery, as soon as they hit it, the opponent wants to move to the ball to hit their own shot and thus is likely to collide with the player who is trying to recover position from where they struck the ball. Clearly there would be no collision if the striker moved away fractionally before they hit the ball as the incoming player can only approach after the ball has been hit. But this piece of seemingly obvious logic is almost impossible for people to get their heads around, if they have been taught that they must stand still to hit the ball and then recover. This last even though if you watch any of the top players you will see them move off the ball as they hit it except when they get fatigued – which is of course when the arguments become most severe.)
Finally I think we should also draw from soccer and some of the recent refereeing changes there.
When a player attempts to falsely get a penalty or free kick in soccer by throwing themselves to the ground, soccer referees use the soccer equivalent of the conduct system and give a yellow card for simulation.
I believe that we would be well advised to adopt this and when players feign that they are in position for a stroke ( as happened frequently at the TOC with ludicrous racquet preparations wrapped around the opponent suggesting that a player was prevented from hitting a winning shot), then referees should implement the conduct system for this bad sportsmanship in order to encourage only genuine behavior on the court.
Overall the current situation and understanding is not a reason for attempting to direct blame in my opinion. Rather it is a sign of growing pains in our sport as we evolve.
We are, after all, not even two hundred years old which is nothing in terms of the history of human development and learning.
We are attempting to play our sport professionally and yet we have almost no empirical expertise. Almost everything we do is based on untested experience and opinion. This is not to say that those opinions and experiences are wrong. Just that they have not been proven empirically and until we methodically check them with help from people that are qualified experts logicians, physicists and bio-mechanics we will continue in the quasi twilight of estimation and our best guessing uncertainty.
Let’s hope that we can move the ball forward for the next generation of Squash players.
One thought on “Squash too, is not a game of perfect.”
Richard- An interesting and thoughtful piece. I love the game of squash, but its great flaw is the subjectivity in judging interference — a result of both players occupying the same space. While watching SquashTV one can’t help but notice
that the commentators — both former professional players — quite frequently disagree with the calls of the officials. This is regrettable, but completely understandable. Could the player have reached the ball if the other player hadn’t
been in the way? Suppose he could, but was forced to approach the ball from a
much less favorable position/angle than if the opponent had not been in the way? Can we really expect referees to soundly distinguish between whether Rodrigues could have reached the ball vs whether Mossad could have?
I’m afraid logicians can bring no resolution to this dilemma, we will just have to muddle along. Unless … a deep learning neural network is provided with the
data from a very large number of games of each player and for a given play
(the current one that is in question) comes up with a probabilistic estimate of
whether the player could have played the ball had his opponent not been in the
way. Of course this doesn’t cover the entire range of decisions that must be
made by the referee (in the swing? whole front wall available to the striker? Etc.) Nevertheless, it may be that the future of officiating is via statistical decisions
made by an artificial neural network — think this will make the commentators
and fans happier? (Alternatively, move the game to a court in which the players occupy different spaces — unfolded as in a tennis court, or semi-unfolded as in an L-shaped court. I foresee no support for these alternatives!)