Credit where credit’s due.
I have been criticized recently for seeming to be harsh in my criticism of some of the decisions and choices that those in positions of power in our sport have either made or failed to make.
I am not a competitor in a popularity contest.
I have been a Squash professional for over 35 years and throughout that time I have done my best to push the boundaries of Squash.
The failure of England Squash and Racketball to learn how to develop our sport as a business, in my opinion, is a fact and a consummate disaster.
ESR have done other great things I am sure, but the fact remains that participation in our sport in England has declined sadly and in particular in the women’s game.
This particular piece is not, however, about that.
In the aforementioned 35 year span of my professional career in Squash, I have traveled far and wide and have had many and various experiences within the confines of our sport.
Even before I entered the professional ranks, I met some extraordinary people as a junior Squash player.
One of my fellow juniors left a lasting impression on me.
He was a wonderful player with probably the finest drop shot technique that I ever saw – even until today.
He was a great competitor and yet never felt the need to boast. He let his racquet do the talking.
Just before the end of his illustrious junior career he suffered with a debilitating health problem which is not particularly relevant to my story and so negates the necessity of me mentioning it here.
Fortunately he was able to overcome his illness and returned to the game.
For one reason or another he didn’t have a career on the world stage, although in my opinion had he elected to do so, he would have met with an unusually high degree of success.
After I became a professional and played professional Squash I played him several times. The best I ever did was to win a game from him in an inter-county match. He simply did the things that I did considerably better than I did them.
Later on in my travels representing several racket companies, I dropped in to visit him in one of his first positions as a coach and had the pleasure of watching him work with a talented 10 or 11 year old. I was fascinated to see the pressure drills and interpersonal skill with with he exhorted the boy to feats of athleticism that defied belief in a player so young.
The young boy’s name was Simon Parke.
In later years I had the pleasure of helping a young man that had been on my Essex U14 team. Tony Hands was ranked somewhere in the 20s in England at the time. I knew he had great potential and I also knew that I had no time or opportunity to work with him.
He had terrific athleticism and enthusiasm, but in my opinion lacked feel and touch. So of course I sent him to the coach who I believed to have the best drop shot I had ever seen. Under such supervision Tony Hands went on to become a wonderful and successful member of the World Tour.
The coach I am referring to had a number of difficult interactions with ESR. First because in the early years when some people had qualifications and some had not, ESR decided to alienate this coach by undermining him for a lack of official qualifications -despite his extraordinary and irrefutable track record.
After a brief sojourn in the USA, he returned to his roots in England and to Yorkshire in particular.
He and I once had a little disagreement about the technical aspect of the sport. When a few years later he changed his view, he went out of his way to point out that he had altered his view more in line with my own. This is a very rare quality in the coaching world of strong egos and personal opinions.
Later he was welcomed into the ESR fold and had several very successful years before he fell foul of political machinery that often produces casualties that have little to do with the performance of the individual, who then suffers from the wheeling and dealing that leads to their demise.
Despite perhaps feeling abused and unappreciated, this coach has retained his good nature. He never fails to greet a fellow pro when he sees them at an event, always taking the time to pass the time of day and to enquire into the state of things in that person’s own life.
But today, operating once again in his favored role as a trainer of Squash players, he stands out.
In my 35 years I have met many wonderful professionals, players, administrators, promoters, sponsors, benefactors and good old recreational club hackers.
But of all those professionals that I have had the pleasure of meeting, in my opinion, there is no finer trainer of Squash professionals and players than the man of whom I speak.
He is of course the coach of record breaking three time world champion Nick Matthew.
I salute you David Pearson.
Not just for the successes that the world knows you for, but for the years, months, days and hours of unending hard work, through thick and thin, personal highs and lows, that I know that you have endured and that have gone into the making of a champion’s coach.
You are truly a professional’s professional.
A week has passed and the dust has settled in Manchester.
AJ Bell contributed to our sport in a way that few have done, providing an opportunity for the spectacular presentation of the premier Men’s Squash Tournament in the world.
Nick Matthew established that he is truly one of the greats of the game, riding his luck it is true, but that is what icons do and that is why it is they that are remembered and not the ‘nearly’ men or women.
This irrefutable truth notwithstanding, the fact remains that a huge question mark hovers like an ugly cloud over the manner of Gregory Gaultier’s demise.
And moreover, the singular lack of interest from the media in the unacceptable fashion in which he was manifestly debilitated by the anti-doping procedure that he was subjected to in the middle of what could or even should have been the defining tournament of his life.
I personally would be grateful for an explanation as to the following questions:
1. Why can the anti-doping procedure not be conducted immediately after the event, thereby avoiding the possibility of interfering with a fair outcome – the mission of all tournaments?
2. Why is the anti-doping procedure for our sport – one of the most dehydrating known – reliant upon urine samples? Why not hair or blood which is used in other sports and circumstances?
Several respondents have mentioned that Gaultier was made to stay up almost the entire night after his quarter final not the semi – as if this fact excuses the affect that losing a night’s sleep had on him.
This is ludicrous in my opinion.
It takes days to recover from the loss of a night’s sleep when fresh, never mind in the middle of a World Championships when nutrition and rest are at a premium.
We cannot allow this to continue can we?
What kind of Olympic hopeful sport, shoots its players and itself in the foot, in public, and doesn’t even question how it treats participants.
How about never at all if we don’t get our house in order!
If you cannot control a rally in which you are the sole participant…… ( a little piece of creative writing for your pleasure!)
Harry saw John to the door.
“Remember Harry, you can’t run Dead Nick Racket and Fitness on your love for the game. You need income.”
” I know, I know!” Harry said impatiently.
John McKinnon held out his hand and Harry shook it firmly.
John was a great friend and a great accountant and Harry knew he was right.
But where the hell was the money going to come from?
” Why so glum, chum?” Sally said cheerfully as she breezed into the club from college.
Harry hadn’t seen her in his distracted state. He brightened visibly when he saw his star pupil.
“Oh just a few problems with the bills mounting up. Nothing to worry about really,” he said, his words trailing off unconvincingly.
“Anything I can do to help, Coach?” Sally said, trying to buoy her mentor.
“Yes,” said Harry emphatically, ” keep working on your game.”
“Absolutely, in fact I have a key league match tonight against another student. One of those preppie frat boys – who will probably take one look at me and think that he can just smack a girl off of the court.”
“Really?” said Harry with interest, ” and who might that be?”
” Some guy I haven’t met before. Just started in the year above me. Name’s Stalton Leicester…” she paused for effect and then went on, ” the fifth, ” she said with a note of sarcasm.”
Harry raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
“What?” said Sally defensively.
Harry smiled at his student’s petulance. ” Oh nothing. Just let me know how he reacts when you run him off the court.”
Later that evening Sally knocked on Harry’s office door. He was pouring over some paperwork as she walked in. He had a frown on his face, which disappeared when he saw Sally.
“So, how’d it go?”
Sally looked sour. ” He never hit a single hard ball in the five games we played. Every time I hit it he was waiting for me. It was as if he knew what I was going to do before I did. It was humiliating.”
Harry looked puzzled. ” Wait, you took two games off of Stolly Leicester?”
Sally squirmed and looked awkward. ” No. He beat me in three. Then we played two more.”
She hesitated. ” He was really nice,” she said begrudgingly.
Harry smiled. ” Before he went off to boarding school, Stolly was one of the brightest, most considerate, hardest working students I ever had,”
he went on, ” but for most people Squash is just one of many things in their lives. Not like me, where it IS my life.” He stopped as though considering something and then went on, “It’s very rare that we see a talent like Stolly and it’s even harder when we know that they probably won’t fulfill their full potential. But knowing that we have helped someone to discover themselves and maybe even to have helped them become the best person that they can be – that is truly rewarding.”
He knew in his heart that Stalton Leicester V would become an extraordinary person in whatever field he decided to follow. And he knew that Stolly would never forget him. But a part of him wished that Stolly could have pursued Squash AND become one of society’s truly extraordinary people. But that just wasn’t how life was in the USA – yet.
The beautiful thing was that Harry had had the privilege of helping to mould Stolly in their short time together. The experience had changed both of them.
That, no-one could take away.
“I know…HE told me all about it.” Sally said with extra emphasis on the word ‘HE’.
Harry came back to the present from his self imposed reverie and looked up to see Sally, a hand on one hip, eyebrows raised, giving him one of those ‘thanks for nothing’ looks that young women can deliver so pointedly.
“HE also told me something else very interesting.” Sally continued.
Harry leaned back in his swivel chair and stretched back his arms and aching neck, which was tight from studying the P and L that was on his desk in front of him.
“Oh yes and what was that?” he said as he breathed out.
Sally sat down on the plastic chair that Harry had forgotten to offer her and continued,
“After the match I was pretty upset. I thought he would just leave me to stew, but he didn’t. He was very kind actually. He asked me how long I had been playing and what sort of training I was doing. We got talking and I told him about meeting Hishi last night – something else YOU didn’t tell me about.”
Harry’s eyes twinkled with amusement.
” Anyway,” she went on, ” I told er.. Stolly,” the boy’s familiar name falling uncomfortably from her mouth, ” that Hishi and I had been working on the most important thing that Hashim Khan said in his book – ‘keep eye on ball’ – and he said that that wasn’t the most important thing Hashim said, only the most widely reported.”
“Oh yes? ” enquired Harry, ” so what did Stolly say was the most important?”
“Well it was weird. He said the most important thing he said was ‘Hashim versus Hashim’.”
“Oh he did, did he?” said Harry, noting his student’s developing interest.
“Did he tell you why?”
“No.” she said blankly. ” He said you wouldn’t want him to tell me why. Why not?
By way of answer Harry said, ” Stolly is absolutely correct. Are you and Hishi going to practice tonight?”
“Then as part of your practice I want you to think about this:
If you cannot control a rally in which you are the sole participant………”
Harry left the words hanging in the air and wrote down three words on a piece of scrap paper and handed it to Sally.
Sally looked at the paper.
On it was written:
‘Sally versus Sally.’
Life is a crucible in which necessity promotes experimentation and discovery.
Although lacking the controlled logic of empirical research conducted in the lab, the sheer quantity of time and effort devoted to the study of a specific field leads to multitudinous tiny evolutions within that field, the only record of which usually remains in the mind of the real life discoverer as opposed to the careful documentation of academic research.
As a result many crucial and valuable discoveries are unknown outside the specific field and may even be lost with the demise of the person who made the discovery.
In addition discoveries made in real life may be polluted by ego or misinterpretation as the person making the breakthrough either hoards the information or doesn’t have the necessary training or education to fully appreciate the ramifications of their discovery.
The academic researcher in turn is rarely an expert in the specific field and without access to such expertise and finding is unlikely to benefit from intuition borne of years of observation and experience.
Hence in my view society would benefit greatly by funding collaborative partnerships between academic researchers and expert real world exponents/coaches.
In this way enormous quantities of hitherto unrecorded knowledge could be empirically tested,documented and fruitfully applied in many other fields.
I believe that my field – the sport of Squash – is one such crucible where there is huge opportunity for examination of the discoveries that I and others have made.
Working with expert academic researchers I believe that the amalgam of the real world discoveries that I have made over thirty five years together with scientific techniques of empirically defining and documenting such evidence, could benefit fields such as medicine, psychology,biomechanics, education, engineering, ergonomics, military research etcetera.
I recently had an exchange with Dr SJ Vine at Exeter University in England after reading an article that was the product of his research.
The article was about what he terms ‘The Quiet Eye’ and I recommend that readers read it both because it is a fascinating article and because it provides context for this piece.
Here is my message to Dr Vine:
To: Vine, Samuel
Dear SJ Vine,
I read with interest your article relating to QE and skill development.
I have been a professional Squash coach and student for thirty odd years and sadly lack the advantage of a sports science education.
By the usual grueling path of trial and error I have however noticed some interesting things as relates to skill development and execution.
In my opinion there are two perception systems at work in a seamlessly dovetailed partnership when Squash athletes perform at optimum levels.
One of these perception systems ( which I call Primary focus for practical usage) is used to maintain a relationship with the ball – Mentally, Physically and Emotionally ( MPE).
This is a conscious system and focuses the athlete the primary task of staying connected with the ball at all times – the ball being necessary to their survival in the game and therefore an absolute necessity.
The other perception system ( which I call Peripheral focus for practical usage) is used to constantly monitor the athlete’s environment – their own whereabouts, the opponent’s whereabouts, their proximity to the walls and indeed any peripheral threat that might interfere with their survival.
I have noticed that in order to execute movements and skills it is very important for the athlete to be continuously active in the situation and never even for a moment to allow their survival skills – of Primary and Peripheral perception to become passive or dormant.
Unfortunately well meaning attempts by coaches to help their athletes can result in the opposite effect as admonishments to focus on coaching aids or ideas often lead to athletes becoming passive on the successful execution of the coaches advice – feeling that the task that they have been given is over and that they are now free to rest. Their Primary focus is distracted in this instance and the continuity of their relationship with the ball is now severed.
In addition to this continuous active behavior I have also noticed that one particular specific behavior triggers the sub-conscious mind to produce a menu of options, extraordinarily precise judgements of hand eye coordination and the ability to exactly predict the behavior of the ball at speeds way beyond the capacity of the conscious mind – whilst still maintaining a continuous connection with the ball.
This simple trigger: the preparation of the racket for either a forehand or backhand, is the single most effective tool in prompting advanced technical, physical and strategic behavior.
In my experience preparing the racket and using feedback in the form of triangulation between the exact point the athlete intends to strike on the racket, the ball and their eye, to exactly guide the athlete, results in a precision of set up to a consistent accuracy within a quarter of an inch, provided the racket preparation is maintained as a measuring tool in exactly the same location, as the athlete approaches. If the racket is moved then the measurement is inaccurate and the weight transference and control, rather than being surgically precise, lacks focus and accuracy.
However this triggering of advanced judgement and precision is only effective if it is done prior to the athlete moving even a single step – because if the movement towards the ball occurs prior to the triggering of advanced planning from the racket preparation, the athlete becomes a ‘chaser’ instead of a planner and much of the subsequent behavior is reactive instead of proactive.
Remembering the great Wayne Gretzky’s famous advice that he tries not to go where the puck ‘is’ but where it is ‘going to be’, and in light of your research and thoughts on QE, I wonder if you would be kind enough to share an empirical understanding of how the above mentioned processes of Primary and Peripheral perception meld to produce a seamless flow of skills and movement within the overarching framework and big picture of a developing rally construction and game plan?
thanks in advance for your consideration.
Sent from my iPad
Here is Sam Vine’s reply which he has kindly consented to allow me to reproduce:
Many thanks for your email, I read it with great interest.
Your analysis of the perceptual and visual attentional processes that underpin expertise in squash is very interesting. In my opinion in resonates with much of the empirical work that has been done in this area. For example Millner and Goodale famously discuss 2 attentional systems (ventral and dorsal) and Corbetta and collagues also discuss goal directed vs. stimulus driven systems. These are prominent theories within cognitive psychology and neuroscience.
Your interest in squash may also lead you to some of the work of Professor Bruce Abernethy who has performed research looking at visual perception in badminton and other high speed racquet sports.
Personally I would very much like to do some research in Squash, using our mobile eye tracing technology, but as with most things ‘Science’ funding is always the stumbling block. If any opportunities arise I will be sure to get in contact with you, your experience and insight would be invaluable.
Many thanks again for your email and your interest in my article.
Dr Sam Vine
Psychology & Human Movement Science
Research group: http://sshs.exeter.ac.uk/exsell/
In my estimation this interchange is an excellent example of the potential for collaboration between vocational workplace exponents of Squash and highly skilled academic researchers.
With focused funding the possible progress that could be made would, in my opinion, produce unimaginable benefits to many sectors that society is not currently privy to or aware of and indeed that the real world exponent in turn doesn’t appreciate the potential of.
I appeal to anyone who has the capacity to direct funds to seriously consider encouraging people such as Dr Sam Vine to continue his research and to enable him to collaborate with experts in Squash and likewise to promote the concept here in the USA with myself and people of Dr Vine’s persuasion and dedication.
While I cannot say precisely what the product of such associations will be, I know that they will be extraordinary, surprising and of unexpected benefit.
Thank you for reading and please encourage your friends and contacts to support these ideas.