Below are some suggestions arising from my conversations with key stakeholders in the English game of Squash and some of my own thoughts.
Focus on Retention of participants in addition to recruitment
Historically there has been focus on so-called Grassroots development, but not much focus or training on how to keep those new clients engaged. The vast majority of the fee-paying Squash participants initially just want to have fun, get some exercise and enjoy regular social contact. The typical history of these sort of players was that, if they did take some coaching and clinics and then decided they wanted to just play, coaches lost interest in them and there were no other staff dedicated to customer care who would continue to keep contact communication with them. Or if it was a person who simply wasn’t interested in competition or getting better, little or no attention was ever given to them. These people are the majority of Squash participation and as such the largest revenue stream at the bottom of the pyramid. To maintain a healthy sport, the base of the pyramid must be carefully maintained and not ignored. Elite performance participants are less than one percent of overall participation and should receive a proportional amount of attention and funding from those in the sport that wish to maintain a healthy community. Therefore there needs to be a plan in place as to how to both recruit and retain new participants on a continual basis. These people are the basic stock that must be continuously cultivated if the tiers of the pyramid above them are to be maintained in a healthy manner and if there is to be revenue for the sport as a whole.
To achieve the intake of new participants and to then retain these participants, Program Assistants are required to deliver the recruitment and retention plan
Having a plan without staff to deliver it is tantamount to not having a plan. These new personnel are not coaches. They are Program Assistants and their role is to drive both the external outreach programs and the internal retention programs of the hub facility. Their compensation will come from a combination of outreach revenues and internal revenues such as membership or court fees, program and coaching fees as they direct new participants to coaches and pro shop and bar revenues as new and existing clients are directed to purchase equipment and participate in social events, and finally, business seminars and parties which should be developed in the hub facility with the Program Assistant organizing the event and coordinating with coaching staff to introduce members of the business to the sport.
Where to find Program Assistants?
As intimated in my notes on my tour of England, it is possible to develop both staff and a new business and retention program simultaneously by recruiting and training interns from local sports and business educational programs and placing them with known ‘Pied Pipers’ at hub facilities in the Squash community. By Pied Pipers we mean those leaders within Squash who have a proven track record of growing and maintaining participation programs and who are willing to develop outreach programs. The interns learn on the job and at the same time create revenue centers that will fund new business development and retention programs for the future, often creating a permanent position for the interns at the end of the internship program. These interns do not need to be advanced level Squash players. They can be any person with a combination of athletic ability, interpersonal skills and some business sense/organizational skills. They simply need to be taught the basics of introducing the sport to novices, customer service and care on the personal level and data management and how to keep continuous communication with participants to show that the participants are appreciated and wanted.
Having established a source of trainee Program Assistants and where to place them, a comprehensive plan must implemented
This plan should be developed promptly with input from the Pied Pipers who will operate the development and retention programs at their facilities. Although the plan will need to be adaptable at the local level to each situation, it should contain clear fundamental advice. The plan should contain advice as to how to develop an outreach program at local schools, community centers, sports centers, colleges, health centers, boys and girls after school programs such as scouts and guides etcetera. It is important to recognize that the outreach programs should be developed as revenue streams in and of themselves, helping to fund the new positions of Program Assistant. While not everyone on a school program or an adult evening class will become a long term participant, each and everyone who signs up for a course will pay for that course. The more outreach courses you can successfully run and associate with your hub facility, the more revenues will accrue to allow you to build your participation and retention program. The plan should also develop an internal customer service plan so that participants’ needs and interests are continuously monitored and serviced. And finally, every participant should be tracked on a database using some form of Customer Relations Management software, where their contact details, their activity and person to person contacts with the program assistants are recorded. There must be a plan in place whereby every participant receives a regular interaction with the program assistant, preferably in person, but certainly live not just email or text. Careful attention must be made to monitor how often participants are seen at the facility and whether or not they have been absent for a while. Program assistants must be trained to be sensitive to what is happening in the personal lives of participants and take an interest in how the participant is doing in general.
Developing a plan
This system for developing outreach and retention programs at each hub facility must be a public/private partnership with NGBs, Local Government, funding sources, Sport England, Educational establishments, the Pied Pipers and the hub facilities all working together. The benefits to both physical and mental health for participants are beyond question, as is the benefit to all concerned if the sport thrives. In addition to the health and social benefits, the benefits to job creation, education, personal growth, community inclusivity are manifold. And the long term prospect for the development of high-level players, mentors, program assistants, administrators, club coaches and club managers is enormous, provided the entry-level program of recruitment and retention is strong. Therefore England Squash together with an initial group of Pied Pipers should develop a plan as soon as possible and start to implement that plan in as many pilot programs as possible, whilst maintaining ongoing communication. Although many people have different beliefs and current programs, it is important for everyone to be on the same page and for the plan that is rolled out to be agreed upon in so far as is possible, whilst understanding that people will apply it in the way that they feel suits their situation the best. Regular feedback and discussion will be essential. As will revenue creation to ensure the longevity of the program.
For Squash to change its current participation trends, I believe that it is necessary to change the historical paradigms
We have to accept that by and large and while there are exceptions, coaches do not build programs. Rather they service them. And that is a perfectly legitimate role for a coach. They should be servicing the roughly ten percent of participants at any facility that typically like to take coaching at any given time. If the participation is properly driven, maintained and retained by program assistants, coaches should be busy with teaching the skills and techniques of the sport. Certifying coaches is not a vehicle for increasing participation. Training Program Assistants to build outreach and customer service programs is. We have to stop talking about coaches as if they are the key responsible party for participation. They are not and rarely ( although perforce it has happened sometimes) equipped for sales of new business outside the facility. The language must change and vocabulary such as outreach, retention, program, program assistant, customer care, data management, customer service, new business development and the like must become the language of Squash.
As things stand, the traditional ball we are using doesn’t make it easy for new players to quickly have fun, exercise and social interaction – which are key to recruitment and retention for our sport. The Karakal Big Ball may well be a key to unlocking the ability of new players to immediately enjoy the sport, although I believe that this should not be called a ‘coaching’ ball and should be used to introduce the sport in all outreach programs and for recreational players, as it is fun and easy to use. I myself played a match using the Big Ball recently and really enjoyed it. The ball behaves very similarly to a warm regular ball and, unlike the Squash 57 ball, can be dropped, struck into the nick and played tight with ease.
Codes of conduct should be strengthened and applied to parents of all junior players
It is clear to me from my 44 years involved in the game professionally and from my conversations with several stakeholders and from the number of embarrassing incidents that have occurred with over-zealous parents, that there must be serious control of people whose ability to filter their behaviours when attempting to promote their children’s progress in the game becomes out of control. Parents must not be allowed to behave in unacceptable manners and they should be carefully vetted before being allowed to fulfil any role in the sport where there could be a conflict of interest that is likely to bias their conduct. This needs careful review in my mind, as it is clear that recreational players – who are the main source of revenue for the sport – have become seriously disenchanted with the leeway given to these sort of people. This has contributed to the death of some facilities and a degree of toxicity associated with the junior elements of the sport. We must remember that the source of all high performance and competitive players is the base of the pyramid and that it is a broad and healthy base that pays for and supports all of the higher levels in the game. Without a broad and healthy base, the house of Squash will not endure.
If we are to develop serious outreach programs, we must have access to the tools needed for these programs
I have developed such a piece of equipment with my product ‘The Wall by Rally-Ball.com‘ which I believe is versatile, economic, easy to use and can be set up almost anywhere. Whether or not it is my product or some other, we must make Squash visible and accessible, at least at the outset so that people unfamiliar with the sport can discover it and become interested. Nick Thompson’s fluorescent mini Squash court can be used for big events or to bring groups together in areas where Squash is less accessible for introductory events. Key to the growth of the sport however, is the development of highly visible, inexpensive, attractive Squash courts that excite attention. I think that this is the sort of product the James Sandwith and his BEBRAND company are going to bring to the sport. All three of these options must combined to form stepping stones that will market the sport to new players, give them a real taste of the game and then give them affordable attractive venues to play and stay at. With the addition of well trained Program assistants under the tutelage of successful Pied Pipers, this could be the recipe for retention and growth that Squash needs.
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