Thoughts on the American Squash game from an International viewpoint;
What can we do to help our sport move forward?
‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!’
Robert Burns, from his poem ‘To a Louse’
I am not entirely sure that I can justly claim ‘an international viewpoint.’ having spent the greater part of the past 19 years here in the US, but I do travel a fair amount and having represented the US as a national coach and team manager on four continents and having competed over the past few years in the UK, the US and Europe, I have been exposed to a number of different systems.
Let me say first and foremost that this article is intended to highlight ways in which we can further improve a national game that is already ( in my view) doing tremendously well.
Let’s look at what we have to be thankful for:
What makes United States Squash as healthy as it currently is?
Well, there’s no doubting that beyond passion, the biggest single commodity required for Squash to succeed is cash.
We need cash for facilities, to attract world-class coaching staff and to make Squash feasible as a profession, to fund our national governing body, to promote interest in the game, to make it possible for clubs to succeed as businesses and for underprivileged programs to flourish (more on the surprising importance of these later).
Without cash there is no development, no Squash careers, little enthusiasm and in short little chance of long-term survival.
American Squash, in relative terms, is cash rich.
So why is American Squash, across the board, so financially strong ( in comparison with almost every other national game)?
The reason very simply, is Inter-Collegiate Squash.
Now readers may not be aware, that the US is the only nation in the world where Varsity teams ( in the form of Inter-collegiate athletics) are an official and essential part of University life.
There is a fundamental pipeline in this country that feeds the health of our sport.
This is how it works ( starting at the end of the pipeline and working backwards to the beginning):
Financial success is a necessity in the United States. Employers need first class, well-educated employees. Entrepreneurs need first class educations. The Universities who provide first class educations need funds. Where do the funds come from?
From Alumni and Alumnae of those institutions who go on to become successful.
What constituency of students tend to be the most successful? Athletes (apart from Glee club members – and even that is a kind of sports team). Athletes tend to fill about 10 or 11% of the student bodies of most elite Universities and Colleges. That 10 or 11% will eventually provide about 33% of the development funds ( financial gift giving) of those Colleges and Universities. Of course this is an approximation, but talk to the bursars of most first class institutions and that’s what they’ll tell you.
If employers are seeking well-educated competitive employees, that know how to knuckle down under competitive pressure and learning institutions know that those individuals will be the most successful of their graduates, then it stands to reason that schools are going recruit a certain number of those individuals, make damn sure they have a good time that they will never forget, and look after them well into their dotage.
Parents, sharp cookies that they are, quickly recognize that if they want their child to have an edge in the extremely competitive world of college admission, getting their child involved in a sport where recruits are few and far between is a sensible move. Particularly if it is a lifesport that emphasizes sportsmanship ( although this can be an issue with College and Junior Squash) and is fun and healthy.
Right now there are simply not enough American girls playing Squash and just barely enough boys to fulfill the recruitment needs of US Collegiate Squash teams.
That being the case – the door is wide open to families who get themselves organized early in the game.
Hence, bring on the expert Squash coach who can teach excellent fundamentals, and produce a competitive player who will in due course become a recruitable athlete.
So we have probably the most broad and deep talent pool of Squash coaches in the world.
So families pay membership fees, hire Squash coaches, buy equipment, join US Squash, go on the road to play tournaments, and pay for intensive programs of summer tuition.
If that seems expensive – compare the possible outcome of a Squash playing alumni who has gained a first class education and experience and can compete for a six figure income only a couple of years after graduation, to that of a student of similar intelligence that didn’t have squash to gain them an edge in the admission game. Ten or twelve thousand dollars spent on Squash for an average of 5 or 6 years is a small price to pay for the advantage of the opportunity that it may bring, but it is a very valuable cash input to the national Squash program.
Hence the relative wealth of US Squash. Because the pipeline I have described does not exist anywhere else in world in anything like the splendour of the US inter-collegiate system.
So we have the cash to fund activity.
Most of our facilities are built as conduits for the pipe-line. And what beautiful facilities they are. The business of athletics is understood better in this country than anywhere else. Facilities first and foremost are clean. Clubs have program directors and professionals to promote activity. More activity leads to more revenues: people play, lose, want to get better, book lessons, buy more equipment, enter more competitions, spend more time at the facility, spend more money, encourage associates to join etcetera, etcetera.
So we have first class facilities.
In order to keep the facilities and the people active we have developed pretty good organizational skills.
The advent of the feed-in consolation is a wonderful and powerful organisational tool.
Because of it, the number of matches and the consequent additional data provided increases the competitive environment, within a specific constituency, in a manifold way.
Players therefore maximise their playing experience against players of their constituency.
So we have a lot of competitive opportunity – within each constituency.
Another consequence of the Inter-collegiate pipeline is that, when students graduate – or certainly when male students graduate, a proportion of them go on to play adult squash in the various metropolitan hotspots in the US where the game is successful. This in turn creates enough of a seedbed to attract the relatively large group of international transplants that form a good percentage of active adult squash players in this country. Some of the US college alumni play with some of the international players and so we get some exchange of playing styles in the adult Squash community. Of course a fair number of college players graduate and go into elite country clubs and downtown clubs where they play against other former college players. Some of them end up exclusively playing doubles.
So another benefit of the Inter-collegiate system is an active community of adult squash players.
A love of the game is something that can be addicting. Not just for the sake of the exercise, but for all that the game offers, individually and to the community.
College squash players that play with their team for four years are often imbued with a passion for the sport that lasts all their lives. In most this manifests itself as enthusiasm to play or even coach the game and in maintaining long-term bonds – even lifelong – with the team mates they struggled through match after
match with. This is laudable and adds to the constituency of Adult squash that I have described above.
However in one original case, a love of the game that developed in college was combined with a vision that may hold the key to the long-term health, success and survival of our sport. I am speaking of Greg Zaff, the founder of Squash Busters. The success of that program and the corresponding programs that have arisen around the country are well documented and are deserving on continual praise, observation and support. But that is not the issue that I am interested in here. I am not sure whether Greg’s original vision encapsulated the effect that I believe now to be uniquely benefitting our sport as a result of his actions, but whether or not he did, something unique is happening.
I will describe this effect later, but for now suffice to say, that without Inter-collegiate Squash there would be no underprivileged squash programs.
So we have Greg Zaff, his colleagues and the whole realm of Squash programs for ‘at risk’ or underprivileged youth.
To round off the strength of US squash I would add that in John Nimick and his Event engine organization we have the lynchpin of the professional squash tour. Until the advent of Arab and Asian interest in our sport, the US pretty much single-handedly led the world squash tour financially.
Mark Talbott was drawn up by the Inter-collegiate pipeline. Without the pipeline Hashim and Sharif Khan would never have been here, the WPSA and the countless duels between Ned Edwards, Talbott, Khan and Nimick would never have happened. We wouldn’t have had Demer Holleran, Alicia McConnell,
Latosha and Shabana Khan, Ellie Pierce, Tim Wyant, Julian Illingworth,
Gilly Lane, Michelle Quibell or Amanda Sobhy or Dylan Murray or Olivia Blatchford (serious competitors on the international scene). I sure as heck wouldn’t be here.
So we have a great deal to be grateful for and many strengths, mainly centered on the bounty of college Squash.
Where then can we go from here?
In a classic SWOT analysis one goes through Strengths and then on to Weaknesses followed by Opportunities and Threats.
However I hesitate to talk about Weaknesses. Rather I would prefer to offer my observations as to how I believe we can make our Strengths, stronger.
Strengthening our Strengths
In my analysis of the strength of US Squash I highlighted (by placing in italics)
those key areas that I believe have positioned our national game favorably.
It is clear to me from my time spent as a professional in England, Germany and Holland that in most areas I describe above, those countries lag far behind. Certainly they have no Collegiate pipeline driving the process. No resulting cash injection from parents seeking to improve their children’s career opportunities. No consequent infrastructure of multitudinous world-class coaches earning a world-class income. Few if any world-class facilities – and hardly any really clean ones – important as cleanliness is a paying member’s number one priority. No development funds and departments – although the UK has the lottery to fund its national governing body and elite programs.
And yet, the level of player produced by the UK and to a lesser degree Holland and Germany, continually and continuously outstrips the level we produce here. On the world tour England with its lack of a collegiate pipeline and the consequent low-level of funding ( except at the elite level), its generally below par facilities, lack of programming and organization, has 50 full-time players playing on the PSA tour. Egypt has around 40. Australia about the same. Canada – a country of perhaps a tenth of our population has at least 15. Mexico has 11 or 12.
The US currently has 3. On the women’s WSA tour we do have a four players playing regularly – Amanda Sobhy is doing particularly well – ranked 18 at the time of writing. However the only time our world tour players interact with the rest of our community is in National championships.
They almost never interact with our top collegiate players. Or our top adult players.
Consequently there is almost zero trickle down effect.
As I mentioned earlier in this piece, we have a tremendous Inter-collegiate program. Tremendous in numbers ( at the time of writing there are 75 men’s teams and 40 women’s team). Tremendous in terms of inter-collegiate competition ( there were 448 scheduled matches this year in the men’s division). But practically non-existent in terms of competition outside of the college ranks. Maybe twenty players play two or three times outside of college each year.
So, by and large, College players only play college players.
What’s wrong with that, you might ask. Well let’s consider. What is the focus of a college squash program? Winning. The coach’s job depends on it. The team’s funding depends on it. The college depends on it. Win. Win. Win. What’s wrong with that, you might ask.
Even an entry-level sports psychology course will tell you that sport is a process oriented pursuit, not outcome oriented. Spend all your time thinking about the result and you will make no progress in improving the process. You will be distracted, fearful, overly aggressive. The end will justify the means. Added to which you are letting the hormones of 17 to 22 year olds take charge. Not a group well-known for deep consideration before action.
I hear horrified readers indignantly declaring, ‘We have wonderful college coaches who maintain control and prevent all that.’ And I agree – to a point. We have some extraordinary human beings in our college programs. Men and Women that to do their utmost to guide and groom powerful young beings and in many cases guide their charges well into their majority. But let’s face it, one man or woman, whose job is on the line based on their win/loss rate, trying to coach, mentor and guide sometimes as many as 15 or 18 young hormone charged people, with their corresponding maturity of judgement? I have attended many inter-collegiate matches and have been a College coach myself. The coach cannot control what is going on in five different courts, when emotions run high. The concept of fair-minded, strategically thoughtful play has no chance when constantly confronted with the specter of winning/losing. Between trying to administrate, recruit, fundraise, look after the academic performance of their charges and keeping up with NCAA rules, there is almost no chance for a College squash coach to try to coach their players – in the sense of intensive coaching to improve the player. Some players will improve by osmosis – playing against the better players on the team. But the number one player on a college team will almost always reduce their rate of improvement once they go to college. How can they but do so? They spend almost every waking moment playing against players worse than them. This is a well-known fact among elite level coaches in both the Tennis and Squash world. College Tennis and Squash programs are in general the last resting place of once promising world-class talent. Even if they don’t perish there, they certainly experience greatly arrested development.
US College Squash players generally play only in their own constituency.
This is by no means a criticism of students at US colleges. US college students are at least comparable in terms of potential relative to their international counterparts, if not better.
However if forced to spend their time only playing against their own peer group, the resulting lack of experience leads to a curbing of their learning curve.
In the UK, Holland, Egypt, Malaysia and many other countries, students lack the benefit of organized athletics. However they are not limited in their competitive experience. They play open competition. They may play adult amateurs, they may play professionals, they may play up-and-coming juniors. The complexity of their competitive diet is much, much richer than their American counterpart.
It is actually unusual for them to play solely against their own constituency. Therefore they see more styles. The are encouraged to behave with more tact and respect. The need to consider how to play more than the outcome of their matches. They have to learn more ‘ways of skinning a cat’ if you will.
In addition, certainly in the UK, the foundation stone of competitive development is the club league and the club team match. In this environment even hormonal youngsters urgings are tempered by having to play against older and younger members of society. In these circumstances students are more likely to remember their bearing. And if they don’t an older more experienced member of the squash community will have a quiet word with them and nip errant behaviors in the bud.
This is the normal course of development of Squash in the UK. Mixed play during the week in club and team leagues, interspersed with tournament play ( both mixed and in constituency) at the weekend. Six or seven years of this type of experience and players develop a strong understanding of the game, a more balanced mentality and the ability to pass that wide range of experience on.
Acceptable behaviors are easily forgotten in an atmosphere of peer group confrontation. When is the last time you looked at US Squash’s Sportsmanship and Code of Conduct rules? Check ’em out and tell me if you think the way our young squash players address referees and opponents remain within the guidelines.
As a reminder I am looking for ways to strengthen, so what I am pointing out is as a precursor to the solution.
In the Strengths section earlier in this article, I mentioned several powerful constituencies in the US squash sphere. I have talked about College squash – the most important constituency insofar as the over all health of the sport is concerned. Junior Squash is the next most vibrant constituency.
Much of what I discussed in the section about College squash applies to Junior Squash.
American Junior squash players rarely play against adults or college players. They play junior after junior perpetuating more and more junior strategy, junior behavior, junior fears, junior aspirations.
What chance does a child who wears a t-shirt that states: ‘Beat Hotchkiss’ on its front, have of working on process?
Once again the question arises: Do the teacher/coaches of our scholastic system have enough time to teach/coach well enough to give our junior players the fundamental understanding of the game that is required for them to be able to improve at the rate that they are capable of? I think the answer is that, in general, those juniors who are able to access intensive personal coaching either from a vibrant local guru/pied piper or during vacation visits home, have a better chance than those that are limited to playing solely on a school team but none of them can improve at the rate of their full potential unless, in addition to intensive coaching and practice, they are playing against a full spectrum of squash playing opposition which includes adults, students and, yes, sometimes other juniors.
In the UK, historically, thirteen and fourteen year olds have entered club league competitions and then club teams as soon as they are able. The consequence is that they become steeped in the lore of the game very quickly, both in terms of understanding the game and the accepted etiquette of the game.
In the US at many Junior events, players are speaking in less than polite fashion to each other and the referees, hitting the ball to themselves in the warm up way more than twice ( I have seen juniors hitting the ball to themselves as many as twenty times before hacking the ball impolitely across to their opponent, who has been standing, unsure of what to do, for minutes at a time) and generally are unaware of acceptable modes of behavior.
As I mentioned previously, US Squash has written an excellent ( in my view) Code of Conduct and Sportsmanship that either Coaches, Parents and Juniors are failing to implement or simply are unaware of. Either way patterns of behavior are increasingly ugly and isolated in competition against Juniors only, these behaviors seem to be become ingrained.
The beauty of systems where players play across constituency boundaries is that they are exposed to a great variety of tactics, physical fitness and capacity and sportsmanship. Squash is a game of mind, body and soul – and all of these need nourishment and direction.
So the US Junior player constituency plays in their own constituency, in the main.
Every playing constituency requires motivation, a pump if you will, to drive the pipeline. The beautiful thing about US Squash is that the College game provides a terrific pump to drive the pipeline. That is, insofar as Junior Squash is concerned. When it comes to adult squash, the pipeline churns out a powerful stream of College players, who then may or may not enter the adult ranks. Motivation for some is in short supply. Having played four hard years of Squash, it is not uncommon to hear comments like, ‘ Thank God that’s over, I will never have to play again.’ Thankfully there are only a few that have that attitude and many former players are swept into the ranks of the downtown city center clubs in the larger metropolitan centers and perhaps a little more slowly into the country clubs of their childhoods. Where they play in their own constituency in the main.
A few metropolitan centers have leagues where the odd junior pops up in a team once in a blue moon. And quite a few College alums feed into inter-club play. Of course those players have learned only the etiquette of Student squash, so they are ill-equipped to conduct themselves appropriately in the Adult squash world. If they are fortunate enough to fall into a league where standards of conduct are well established then they quickly learn how to carry themselves. Philadelphia has a well established league as does Boston. I haven’t played in either of them so I can’t comment on the organization and sportsmanship maintained there. Both my wife and I played New York league and I can only say that then (back in the mid to late nineties) it was by far the worst standard of sportsmanship and match organization of any league I have experienced in my life as a squash player. Matches weren’t refereed. Players didn’t play in order ( frequently a number 1 would play a number 3 or whoever was ready to go on court) and players rarely bothered to stay to watch their team mates or to have a social drink afterwards. It was a travesty of the game. Happily the New York squash organization – Metropolitan New York SRA is one of the finest these days – so I am sure things have changed.
If higher standards were set, the trickle down effect of sportsmanship and strategy could only help the levels of play.
There are some motivators for adult play. The few leagues around the country do encourage some participation. Excellent tournaments such as the Hyder, the Price Bullington, The Friends of Squash Grand Masters, The William H White, The Eastern States and of course the Nationals all encourage some participation. And the introduction of regional skill level events has pulled a few more players into the fold. Of course many players just play for exercise and a love of the game. But by and large, adult players only play against adult players and the participation in open tournaments seems to have decayed in many areas.
More motivators are needed.
One such that is enjoying great success in the UK is the regional masters series and the opportunity to play for one’s country. The North South East West and Midlands Masters events are all qualifying events for selection to the England team in your age group, with every age from 35+ to 70+ for men and 35+ to 55+ for women offering the opportunity of an international cap. Few things pull harder at the heart-strings than the opportunity to play for your national flag. For sometime I have been trying to push for such an opportunity for American masters squash. Who among our wonderful group of masters players wouldn’t kill for the opportunity to wear the Stars and Stripes against the Maple Leaf of Canada or the Mexican Eagle?
I have tried to promote this idea with US Squash but as yet it hasn’t been met with much enthusiasm or support. (STOP PRESS: US SQUASH HAS JUST APPOINTED ME TO CHAIR THE US MASTERS COMMITTEE -SO HERE WE GO- 10/12/12) The English masters team offered to travel to the US to play against a US team, another chance to fight the revolutionary war on the Squash court! Unfortunately again this proposal didn’t result in an enthusiastic active response. Last year the World masters was held in Germany and all the great playing nations of the world sent their best players to compete for world honors. Except the USA. Eight American residents attended – several of whom were internationals now resident in the US. I asked US Squash to publicise this event at last year’s nationals in Rhode Island and my request unfortunately was not deemed to be of sufficient importance to warrant the official backing that I had hoped for.
( NB – For those readers that are interested in American representation on the world scene: The British Open Masters should be taking place in Nottingham, England in June of this year and The World Masters will be taking place in Birmingham England in July of next year. To monitor British, European and World Masters events, regularly visit http://www.englandsquashmasters.com
Several US players did attend the World Masters in Birmingham in England in July and met with considerable success. In particular Sue Lawrence won the women’s 50+ and Dominic Hughes had an incredible run to reach the final of the Men’s 50+ after beating the number one seed.
The World Masters Games to be held in Turin, Italy in August of 2013 has just announced that, after initially not including Squash, it will in fact be included – so get ready!
Additionally if you wish to play in a high level Masters tournament and like to travel – the English Regional masters events are all open events and you are welcome and encouraged to play in them. You will find their details on the website mentioned above also.)
I am personally disappointed with the lack of drive behind Masters representative Squash. It seems to me that Masters players are often the people whose check books open to support the US Squash association and that, such financial support could only be increase were there an official organization of national Master’s team qualification events and international test matches against Canada, Mexico, The Caribbean and even European, Antipodean, Asian and African teams.
Enthusiasm drives participation and participation increases support – for the game as a whole.
If we are to see US squash thrive in the way that I believe it to be capable of – the Masters constituency must be driven to interact with both the Junior and College constituency and one sure way to do that is to increase numbers, teams and cross-constituency competition.
The US under 19 team should be playing annually against the US over 40 team, the U16 against the 45+ team., Colleges should have a US College team playing against the US 35+ team or the National team and so on and so forth. This is the way to increase interest and support – by interaction.
We are after all playing the same sport and we should all be a part of the same team. Go US Squash!
The adult Squash players and particularly the masters constituency of US Squash are a powerful constituency. They have the capacity to seriously support US Squash and its programs. However they need powerful reasons to stay involved. Otherwise, with aches and pains and injuries, the draw of the golf course and general apathy due to a lack of interesting and new goals, they will drift away and be lost to the game.
Adult squash players need motivation. National team representation would be a powerful motivator.
US Adult squash players tend to play in small circles within their own constituency.
So enough of the doom and gloom. Remember we do have some of the best raw materials of any nation in world squash today.
Our issue is that in large part* ( see bottom of page) our individual constituencies of players don’t mix.
We need to get all of our players playing with and against each other.
We need to be a team.
We need a catalyst.
And – while it isn’t yet affecting everyone – we’ve got one.
Greg Zaff gave it to us.
Squash Busters, Street Squash, CitySquash, Squash Smarts, Squash Haven, Metro Squash, Chucktown Squash to name but a few.
These are the bright lights of the future of US squash. Veritable beacons!
Why? Because like no other program, these programs bring us together.
Where else can you find, Juniors, College Students, recent Alums, Parents, powerful business people and old farts like me, all working together in Squash?
Only at these programs.
Perhaps Greg Zaff saw all this when he had his light bulb moment and conceived the idea for Squash Busters. I don’t know. I am sure that everyone involved is primarily there for the benefit of the ‘at-risk’ children that they are helping. But the benefit to US squash in breaking down the barriers between the isolated constituencies that have hitherto had practically nothing to do with each other, is immense.
Every one of these programs ought to be holding an annual fundraising tournament and every Junior player, College player, Downtown and Country club player, adult and masters level player should be playing in it – against each other.
We should have team leagues that follow that example and the schools and colleges need to come out of their ivory towers and play against everyone in the melting pot.
Where possible players should play in their skill level against opposition of all ages and genders. Learn from people of worldly experience, be delighted by the willingness of youth, be amazed by the development of new skills, surprised by the wiliness of age.
Of course periodically each constituency should play and be tested within their own group. But not all the time!
Let US Squash use the example of Squash Busters and its peer programs. Mix up the melting pot! Motivate all players to play!
We have a wonderful Pluribus.
Now we need to move toward becoming a wonderful Unum.
Richard Millman 3/5/11
* Programs on the West Coast and some other small playing populations do integrate more than the norm for mainstream ( and particularly East Coast) programs. Although originally this may have been due to lack of numbers, it has resulted in some first class play and players. I dearly hope that as playing numbers increase, these West Coast programs and others don’t lose their fully integrated playing programs and end up as segregated as their East Coast counterparts. Owing to geography Canada has positively influenced these programs. Additionally international coaches have found it easier to grow playing systems that they grew up with in their home countries in these locations, than perhaps they would have, had they had settled on the East Coast.
Note: I originally wrote this piece in 2011. I have added a couple of comments today and I am generally optimistic about Masters Squash if we can overcome the apathy that daily life sometimes imparts.
I have just returned from the US Open where I saw two particularly relevant events that relate to this blog.
1. The brilliant college player Todd Harrity played the Scottish journeyman squash player Alan Clyne. As I expected Harrity exploded into the first game at a pace that no human being could maintain – as is the wont of college squash players. After the initial shock Clyne settled down to absorb Harrity’s attacks. Harrity won the first – demonstrating the talent and ability of America’s best and then having over-committed, faded as I expected him to – hardly able to keep the ball in play over the last game and a half.
2. I watched the America’s journeyman Squash player Chris Gordon – who has spent 6 or 7 years on the PSA tour learning his trade, play in the main draw against the brilliant Egyptian Hisham Ashour. Far from exploding into the first game, Gordon focused on patient, extremely tight, absorbing limiting play while countering Ashour’s mercurial brilliance. The result was that Ashour was frustrated and Gordon combined both the street knowledge and the deep mental and physical stamina that he has learned during his time studying at the University of Squash – the PSA. Gordon won – his greatest ever victory in Squash.
I remember Chris when he was 12 years old. A decent junior, but no genius. No-one would have accused him of being brilliant. But from that less than stellar junior beginning he has achieved results that few Americans in history have achieved.
Now not all American squash players want to be world class Squash players. But if a few of the brilliant players such as Harrity put in some steady work for four or five years on the PSA – while studying at the same time – as so many of the other PSA youngsters do, maybe our players might learn to play mature squash – in stead of the whack and back, over testosteronosed version that so often is the result of Inter-collegiate play.
Which will be the first college team to have the vision to encourage its players to play at least 8 professional events per season? Whoever they are – they will do more to advance American squash collectively, than anyone has ever done before.
This is, in my opinion, potentially the finest nation for the development of Squash. But without stars to reach for, will we strive for averageness or try to persuade ourselves that our top players are better than they actually are?