Pugilists and their diehard fans love to refer to their sport as The Sweet Science. Yes, it would surprise the unsuspecting outsider the extent of thinking that goes into this otherwise brutal endeavor. And I think squash is not that much different…

There’s no place to hide

Unlike team games, there are no mates to cover up your shortcomings. Once you cross the ropes into the ring, once you step onto the court – the valley of decision, with a thousand eyes staring down at you – you’re on your own. Like Lennox Lewis, the undisputed heavyweight champion in the late 90s said, “If you eat a lot of cake and fail to train, it will show”.

Draw up a plan, but be prepared to drop it

Planning is indispensable, but each plan eventually becomes obsolete, declared General Eisenhower. Perchance your strategy in a particular squash match is to surprise your older, slower opponent with quick volleys and to pressure him by dialing up the pace. Or you might choose to play more patiently to frustrate an energetic but brash challenger – lobbing perfectly along the walls into the back corners. Great! But blueprints rarely fully unfold as fancied. Once reality hits, be ready to adapt, modify – or just brawl your way to victory. Mike Tyson, youngest ever heavyweight champion – who had perhaps the greatest knockout percentage in his heyday – once smirked: “Everyone has a plan… till they get punched in the mouth”.

It’s not over till it is over

Nour El Tayeb was on the verge… Working her way through the preliminary stages and grueling quarter- and semi-final matches, she had won two straight games and in the third was serving Tournament Ball against Nouran Gohar – just a point away from realizing her dreams. But somehow it all fell apart. Gohar, her back to the wall, kept slinging and managed to turn the tide, claiming the match – and the 2019 US Open trophy – by 3:2. For those experiencing success, they say the time to be most wary is when you’re on a winning streak.

But the principle holds no less for performers experiencing a slump. In the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” an aging Muhammed Ali was expected to suffer against the younger, stronger current champion, George Foreman – who at that time was a truly irresistible force of nature. And indeed, Foreman was thrashing Ali soundly into the 8th round when Foreman himself visibly began to slow. Suddenly Muhammed Ali, who had received quite a beating, came off the ropes to unleash a flurry that saw Foreman – in what today remains an iconic highlight reel – crash gradually but irretrievably to the canvas.

Had it been Ali’s plan all along to make his move in the 8th, or did he just experience a lucky break? The only thing we can be sure of is that he remained focussed and stayed in the game till his opportunity came – and because of that, we continue to watch replays of that glorious knockout from 1974 in Zaire.

It’s all about respect

How do you view your opponent? Of course, we know we’re not supposed to underestimate nor fear them. But what should be your attitude toward the player who, in squash, sends you on a wild goose chase around the court, capping off the rally with a reverse-angle boast that leaves you flat-footed and stranded, exhausted, and embarrassed? How should regard, in boxing, the rival that bloodies your nose while trying their best to knock you unconscious?

It’s interesting to see how – after all the ferocity, the intimidation tactics, and apparent bad blood – squash players shake hands and boxers hug it out. What they’re saying to each other really is: Thank you for being my partner through the storm. Thank you for walking with me into the darkest recesses of my soul. Thank you for helping me learn more about myself – my natural strengths and the weaknesses I need to work on. Thank you for being my friend.

– Ayodeji Olayemi