Talking on the Court

  (from on 12/4/08)

by Barbara Beckwith

When you go on court, do you gab or do you go mum? Whatever your style, be aware -- your partner's may differ.

I, for instance, like to talk on court. I coach myself ("watch the ball!"), I berate myself ("too loose!"), I comment post-facto on good rally ("great lobs!"). When I played on women's C teams, I let the ref do the talking, but now that I play only "friendly games," I can talk with impunity. It helps that the partner I play with three times a week is equally loquacious, so we're compatible.

But I recently discovered, to my chagrin, that another player I enjoy playing games with, C player Moragh Ramage, can't handle court talk. "My mind short circuits. I can't concentrate," she explains. Although she says, "I'm wired wrong," I realize that her way is as legitimate as mine, and that my way disturbs her game. "Squash is a place in the head," she says. "It's like architecture: it has a shape -- you and the walls. When someone calls "S...!" I'm thrown off guard."

The world squash "conduct on court" rule number 17 prohibits "audible and visible obscenities, verbal abuse, dissent, and time-wasting. Some players use quirky substitutes: "Oh my giddy aunt" is Cambridge Acton Squash Club assistant pro and women's 5.5 player Wendy Ansdell's. Simple talking on the court is not, however, specifically disallowed except under the general prohibition of "offensive, disruptive or intimidating behavior."

And it's simple talking that's often the issue. I asked players at my Concord Acton Squash Club for their stance on "talking on the court" and got a range of opinions, all fervent.

"I never shut up," says Coleen Phillimore, who admits she's on the extreme end of the talkativeness spectrum. "I'm the queen of talking. I want to yak and make friends, and if other players can't handle it, I don't play with them." Someone from the next court once called out, "will you please be quiet?" But for Coleen, talking feels like a physical necessity. "It burns off steam and helps me relax and not overfocus on my ability -- or lack of it. It keeps me breathing regularly. When I'm told not to talk in a tournament, I tense up. There's no outlet, no release."

Fellow C player Laurie Manos, whose needs differ, will tell Coleen, "Don't take it wrong, but I'd prefer not to talk because it disturbs me." Coleen is now trying to find a happy balance between friendly chatter and good sportsmanship. "I try not to talk DURING rallies. But I like to compliment the other person, so after every shot, I'll say, "nice rail," etc.

But talking on court is not always a friendly act. Players may talk on the court on purpose, as a deliberate strategy. "Some players like to talk to throw you off your game -- it's a head game out there," says Anne Westcott. Even well-intentioned on-court remarks can give the talker an advantage over the opposing player. Says Sarah Lemaire: "If I say, "Ooh it's out" -- and then the ball is in -- that's not fair to the other person."

It's also a clue that your opponent to use to his or her advantage. "I'll shout "You moron!" at myself, says Sarah. "But my teammates tell me that when I start talking during a match, they know my game is going downhill."

Peg Sestrich, the top player on the women's inter-club 2.5 team can turn it on or off. "I do it more in a friendly match, to lighten the pressure."

Guys, I've noticed, seem rarely to gab. "Men don't talk on court, except to say 'good shot' or 'was that in,'" says Dave Phillmore. MSRA board member Simon Graham believes that silence on the court has to do with being competitive. "Part of game strategy is not being too friendly with the person you're playing against," says Graham. "If I talk to the person, I'm getting in tune with them. But I want to beat them rather than know anything about them." He also sees talking as slowing down the game too much. "You're there to exercise, not to chatter."

Sue Rafuse, an A-level woman player who plays on the Cambridge Acton Squash Club inter-club 4.5 men's team, agrees. "People at high levels know not to talk," says Rafuse. She objects to any talk during play, including "nice shot" compliments. If the other player speaks during play, even to say "nice shot," she immediately reacts. "I'll stop and say, 'Did you say let?'" as a reminder that "let" is the only word she expects to hear mid-rally. "People are taken aback," she admits, but they do shut up.

But Hilary Yates is as bothered by silent fellow players as Rafuse is by one who talks. "When they're all serious, I think they simply want to win the game and go. I think they're not enjoying playing with me. It contradicts why I'm here -- to have fun. She also admits, "I'm a vocal person."

The difference may lie in the level of skill and competitiveness. When D level player Gail Fitzpatrick plays with her husband Tom, a B player, "he's so quiet on the court that I'm always thinking that he's mad." She has to remind herself that from his point of view, he's concentrating on the game and leaving it to his body to react to each shot.

Whatever your gender, skill level, or personal style, it pays to check out not only your partner's strokes during the warm-up, but also his or her reaction to talk or no talk. If you don't, you may get excuses the next time you call to schedule a game, and lose potential partners.

Barbara Beckwith has been playing squash for 15 years. She is a writer and lives in Cambridge.