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Youth may bring it, but sometimes age (and experience) crushes

April 1, 2010 – 4:38 PM

By Sarah Odell

In sports, there is always some arrogance on the side of youth. When an athlete of twenty-two faces an athlete of forty or fifty, one assumes the younger player will win—he or she must be stronger, fitter, faster. This notion is completely false — and I learned it on a squash court.

Recently, I have taken up doubles squash (played on a court that is 25 feet wide and 45 feet long as compared with a singles court which is 21 feet wide and 35 feet long). North American doubles is also played with a hardball, which moves around the court differently from the soft ball used in the College Squash Association.

After playing all of the Under 25 age group tournaments, I decided it was time to flap my wings. I entered the William White Tournament at Merion Cricket Club in Haverford, PA. My partner is another college senior in college, and we played nos. 1 and 2 on the ladder at Wellesley College. We work out, we train hard, and our squash has gotten better. In the second round of the William White, we faced two players who were in the fifties. Finally, we thought, we’d have a win.

Molly and Jen, our competitors, crushed us. Like bugs! Young bugs, but bugs none the less.Hardball doubles taught us a valuable lesson: youth may bring strength, but it does not equal experience.

In a racquet sport, especially one where the ball (a hardball) can be so erratic, it was clear that the players who have had more experience on the larger court know the angles and the ball better. At a camp I attended, the Princeton Squash coach told us we had to hit at least 100,000 balls for the shot to be solidified in our muscle memory. I haven’t hit nearly that many doubles balls — and Jen and Molly probably have. They’ve been on the court longer, and know where the ball is going to go when I shape up to hit it. But, you might say, they can’t move around the court as quickly. But what does that matter when they use more surprising shots? They want to end the point (that means they don’t have to move as much).

I ran into Molly at the US Doubles Squash Championships in Baltimore, Maryland last weekend.  As we watched the women’s open age group semi-finals, she turned to me (we were watching Natalie Grainger and Diana Dowling play Lee Belknap and Natarsha Tippett McElhinny). “You get so much better by watching this,” she said.

I thought about how much more of this, on court and off, Molly had seen. And there was plenty of evidence that longevity in the sport has benefits, just considering the legends in the game in addition to the women I was watching: Alicia McConnell played in the 40 plus age group. Narelle Tippett Krizek and her partner Suzie Pierrepont (okay, she’s 30-something) played us in the first round of the tournament (they ended up winning), and Joyce Davenport captured the William White title while competing in the 50 plus age group.

In another post, I wrote that I was scared that athletics would end after college. But the beautiful thing about being whupped by these women who were older and better than me, was that for the first time, I felt a new possibility: As I get older, I will actually get better.

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