Below are some suggestions arising from my conversations with key stakeholders in the English game of Squash and some of my own thoughts.
Day 1. Monday, September 6th. The morning.
After a number of productive email correspondences with the new executive director of England Squash Mark Williams, I was able to meet with him at a recreation ground just outside of Cambridge, in Histon.
I showed Mark ‘The Wall’ and we set it up in the parking lot at the recreation ground, on some very rough tarmac. Nevertheless we were able to play some rallies and versions of various games and practices and Mark seemed to like the product. He was interested in its capacity to be branded with the England Squash logo and contact details and was also interested in its versatility and potential as a tool to be used in junior and adult outreach programs and as a tool for making squash more visible.
We discussed the ways in which the England Squash approved vendor payment could possibly be defrayed if England Squash were to order a larger number of units of ‘The Wall.’
Mark also suggested that England Squash coach Josh Taylor at the national center in Manchester would possibly benefit from looking at and playing on ‘The Wall,’ and kindly put me in contact with Josh.
We briefly discussed both the current state of squash participation in England and also my upcoming trip and Mark asked if I could perhaps report my findings and impressions gained over the course of the trip. This I agreed to do.
I also passed along my feelings about the importance of developing a certification program for Program Directors and Assistants and the concept of using interns to build outreach and customer relations management skills, one of the benefits of which would be to identify, track and communicate with every player in every program at the local level. In this way, we in squash, would be aware of every participant and every participant would know that we, in the sport, care about them as individuals and not just as customers.
I then said goodbye and headed for Ipswich and a meeting with Paul Selby.
The afternoon. With Paul Selby and Off the Wall.
Paul Selby has a similar longevity in the sport of squash to myself and has been consistently successful over the years in both coaching and building programs.
(thanks to Paul for this update and correction: I felt I needed to correct some of the things mentioned in my little piece. Most of the credit should go to Lauren as the driving force behind getting the schools programme off the ground and getting to where it is today and also Karen who manages to somehow keep all the administration associated with running a large schools programme and our Academy running like clockwork. It certainly is a joint effort by all the Selby’s and Emily to grow the programme and keep coming up with new ways to get people into the sport and retain them.)
He is currently engaged in running a very successful junior outreach and development program in and around Colchester in Essex and Ipswich in Suffolk.
I had gathered from previous communication that he was looking for a better rebound net than his current crop of Unsquashable Minisquash nets, which he told me he spends an inordinate amount of time repairing. I also met with Ipswich Sports Club Head professional Emily Ison and one of the other directors of Off the Wall squash ( the Selby coaching organization), Paul’s daughter Lauren Selby.
One of the key factors that Paul was concerned with as regards growing his business/program is the difficulty he has in finding and recruiting coaches. Paul, Emily and Lauren are very health and safety conscious and concerned about adhering to codes of ethics and safety.
They very much liked the design features of ‘The Wall’ other than its width, which for them was too wide as they like to erect 4 miniwalls and have students work on either side of the wall, not too close to the adjacent working group.
They initially discounted any advantage that ‘The Wall’ has in the speed of being erected over their current equipment, until they later pointed out themselves that with ‘The Wall’ you were effectively carrying and erecting 2 units at once, rather than the slower process of erecting their current equipment one after the other.
Paul then kindly spent some time talking to me about his program and his current view of the state of squash. He is mainly focused on coaching juniors and running his schools program. My impression from the work he has done is that it is possible and a good idea to run a coaching business around a hub club and even without a hub club and to develop a source of funding for hiring Program assistants and assistant coached without having to rely on funds from within the hub facility, provided you first invest in developing an outreach program. It seems to me that more should be done everywhere in squash to access and develop outreach programs as legitimate profit centers – even though perhaps only one in ten or even less of the outreach participants may ultimately become long-term participants.
We did briefly discuss tracking and maintaining data of contacts and participants. I think that Paul felt that previous England Squash requests for contact data were too focused on accessing those people in a way that was perhaps not primarily for maintenance of relationships and so had not harvested and passed that information on. My thoughts on the matter at that time were that I would very much like local programs to retain this data, for the purpose of maintaining ongoing personal contact with all the people with whom they came into contact, in order to maximize retention of clientele and to facilitate personal care so that people felt appreciated and included.
I promised to try and develop a smaller prototype of ‘The Wall’ for Paul and the Off the Wall program. I really enjoyed listening to Paul. In particular, he described the recent seminar he ran for people from all over the country who wanted to learn how to run a junior outreach program. He has become very skilled at finding funding sources to pay for the tuition fees for people to attend the course and I feel that that knowledge ( about how to find funding) in and of itself, would be very useful in either a course or pamphlet form.
Having enjoyed this visit with Paul Selby and his associates, I then traveled to an overnight stop in St Albans, where I was due to meet Nick Thompson of Melior Sports the next day.
Day 2. The Morning. Nick Thompson of Melior Sports.
I had first come across Nick Thompson and his Melior Sports squash court maintenance and construction company, through a Facebook post from my colleague Mike Harris. Mike is doing sterling evangelical work for Squash by using the Commonwealth games run-up to leverage interest in our sport. Similarly to myself, Mike has been singing the song of outdoor courts and increasing visibility of squash for some time. Alan Thatcher of World Squash Day and squashmad.com fame had sent out a challenge to the world to make a small portable court that could be used in an outdoor capacity and Nick Thompson had answered that challenge with his portable fluorescent perspex court and Mike had successfully showcased it in the Birmingham festival to promote the Commonwealth Games.
Nick’s court can be built on any hard ground/floor surface and then passers-by can have a try at almost a real game of squash on the perspex court.
The cost of Nick’s court will be in the ballpark of $10K/£7K depending on whether one orders the fluorescent version and whether one includes the tin scoring display system.
Nick and I had a good and frank discussion about the potential of his court, who might like to buy it and how to promote it. Nick was very focused on his business of selling squash courts. He had some interesting ideas of England Squash having one of his mini courts in each region and then having all local stakeholders locked into using it a certain number of times per year to help develop increased participation.
He then helped me set up ‘The Wall’ outside his shop and had a hit with me on it.
He liked the design and thought it had real possibilities as a mass-market product. He himself doesn’t play squash very much since the Covid lockdown and says he doesn’t miss it that much. He feels that the sport needs some real superstar characters to give it the ‘street cred’ and star appeal to attract people to the game.
We agreed to be in touch as and when I return to the USA and liked some of my ideas about promoting his court to the USA market.
I then got in my van to travel down to my afternoon meeting with Alan Thatcher in Maidstone.
The afternoon and lunch with Alan Thatcher.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to spend some time with Alan Thatcher. In many respects, I feel as though Alan has had the courage to be an adult in the room while many in the Squash community have been in denial about the decline of the sport. This has never detracted from his enthusiasm for the game and his squashmad.com site has become the cutting edge of conversation and reporting in my view.
When I felt like a bit of a single voice in the darkness over the pass 10 or 12 years when I have spoken about my beliefs that we need to build squash by taking it outdoors with outdoor courts and other solutions other than certifying endless coaches, Alan gave me and others like me a place to voice our concerns and facilitated serious, truth to power conversations on his news website squashmad.com
He himself originated World Squash Day and has run it ( often without the support of those federations that would most benefit from it) for 18 years, after the sad death of Derek Sword.
Alan and I met in Maidstone and put ‘The Wall’ up on a path adjacent to 8 beautiful Tennis courts…..which were locked and empty. Like myself, Alan is a fan of the growth of Pickleball with its extraordinarily easy entree skill level and its appeal to folks who either have never been racquet sportspeople or who are past racquet sport people who still have a hunger for the fun, cut and thrust action and social interaction of the racquet sports world, but can no longer put pressure on their knees, hips and shoulders.
Those eight tennis courts should have been packed with 60 or 70 folks between the ages of 50 and 80, all having a great time in the sunshine, playing and chatting.
We put up ‘The Wall’ and immediately were approached by a couple of ladies in their mid-seventies. ‘That’s squash – right?’ The first lady said. ‘Yes,’ Alan said and chatted to one lady while I chatted to the other. We talked about Squash 57 and Pickleball – which they hadn’t heard of before – for about 10 minutes, in the course of which they asked about where they could get involved. Immediate evidence of ‘The Wall’s’ ability to elicit interest as a promotional tool and evoker of conversation.
Alan and I played for a while and then had a great lunch. During lunch, Alan and I talked about the future potential of building multi racquet sport social clubs, with active social centers and a choice of sports. He really feels that there will be an opportunity to engage young adults and give them a unique recreational and social experience at such centers, where with professional customer service, they may try, enjoy and become habitual players of these sports. Believing as I do in the intrinsic value of the sport of Squash, Alan has no fear of including other sports such as Pickleball and Padel, because they are so easy for beginners. We feel that once people are regular clients of such multi-sport centers and enjoying the options available – it will only be a question of time before some of them graduate to playing Squash 57 or Squash – especially if we can develop a ball and racquet for Squash that is easy to use for beginning and recreational players.
( I am very grateful to Alan for this update and correction: ‘I would only ask for a couple of small edits: (1) to make clear that I launched Squash 200 with building partners to celebrate the imminent 200th anniversary of the birth of squash, and that (2) I am actively planning, designing and raising funding to deliver multi-sports clubs of the future (rather than simply talking about it).’)
Alan is unfortunately very frustrated with the lack of support from Squash federations for World Squash Day, a day that very obviously should be the number one storefront for our sport worldwide every year. The failure of federations to use this opportunity to send the WSD toolkit to every known squash player and to encourage them all to join a worldwide movement to make Squash more visible and accessible, is of deep sadness to him.
He is also very disenchanted with the culture of junior competitive Squash that in turn has led to parents blatantly vying with each other and with adult recreational players for control of resources, which Alan has seen evidence of as a destroyer of recreational clubs.
Despite Alan’s disappointments with the current Squash participation environment and international efforts toward the same, I really enjoyed meeting and having lunch with this tower of strength of our sport. I truly appreciate both his efforts and his candor as he has stood firm as one of the leading adults in the room, over the past two or more decades.
From Alan and Maidstone, I set off toward Chichester and my next meeting with an old friend and a legend of our sport, in the form of Tim Vail.
Day 3. Coffee and a hit with Tim Vail.
Having found a wonderful little country pub called The Partridge Inn near Goodwood to park my camper van and spend the night, I set off in the morning to meet with an old friend, Tim Vail. We had last seen each other about 20 years previously when Tim was a touring pro on the PSA and my wife Pat and I had run a PSA tournament called the Betteridge Trophy at the little Squash club we ran and owned in Mamaroneck NY in the USA. Westchester Squash as it was called, became the port of call for many future greats of the game and Tim was one of those we were privileged to host. Since then Tim has become a legendary exponent of Squash 57 or Racketball as it is called in the UK, having won the national title a multitude of times.
He has recently returned as head of Squash at Chichester Lawn Tennis and Squash ( a gorgeous club), and I found him there on the balcony soaking up the sun, looking as fit as ever in his shades.
Tim is very interested in building all parts of his Squash program and particularly in increasing his beginner and junior participation. To this end he had recently sent one of his assistants to attend Paul Selby’s Off the Wall coach training seminar.
Tim and I discussed the importance of both outreach and increasing the visibility of the sport. I also shared with him my experience of having used college interns to expand my outreach and marketing programs, and my internal customer relations programs, in my years as a program director in the USA. Having college interns come into the club or facility and learn job and life skills from someone like Tim Vail is wonderful opportunity for a young person who is considering a life in sport and on the return side, benefits a program director like Tim in adding staff at little or no cost while you are building a new source of funding for the role of program assistant. One of the catch 22 situations I hear a lot of concern about is the difficulty of paying a junior assistant enough for them to make a living. By developing the job/role with interns over a one or two year period, it is possible to create a serious outreach and customer relations role in Squash, and to create the necessary revenues with a well developed intern program such that a club or facility may be able to create a job for the interns at the end of the first or second year.
After coffee, Tim led me down to an outdoor area where there is an unused hitting wall at Chichester and we set up ‘The Wall.’ As has been my experience with almost everyone I have shown ‘The Wall’ to, Tim – good old competitor that he is – immediately enjoyed playing a game against me on ‘The Wall’ and exploring some other possibilities that he could see for using this versatile piece of equipment. He could see the potential for ‘The Wall’ not only as a marketing and outreach tool to increase the visibility of our sport, but as an extra workstation for a program with more students that the number of courts at that facility could cope with and for running field trip programs to local beaches for his players to have a day out and still practice and train.
Tim seemed to like the design and convenience of ‘The Wall,’ and he also introduced me to the Big Ball Squash ball by Karakal, which I had not seen before. I thought it was fantastic as it is almost exactly what I have been looking for as an introductory ball for novices and recreational players in the USA to enjoy Squash from day one.
While Tim and I were playing, a new member of staff was being shown round and I happened to be showing Tim how ‘the Wall’ works particularly well for Pickleball and how I think Pickleball can broaden and increase the longevity of the number and ages of clientele. The new member of staff is a Pickleball player and immediately agreed as to the virtues of Pickleball for a club like Chichester. Again I was reminded of the value of multi sport clubs and the cross-over value of different ball sports in the promotion of each of them.
I bade Tim goodbye after a thoroughly enjoyable visit and made my way toward Bristol and a meeting with two more legends of the game – Hadrian Stiff and Jethro Binns.
An afternoon in Bristol with two great proliferators of the game.
I arrived at Workout Harborside in Bristol, a beautiful location beside the river in Bristol and very close to a lovely park where students and young professionals enjoy the green space in the center of Bristol.
I was excited to be meeting both world-class owner of Elite Squash, Hadrian Stiff and the director and creator of squashskills.com , Jethro Binns, who had kindly driven down from Wales to meet me.
Over a lime-and-soda, we sat down and chatted about Squash and its current state in both the UK and other parts of the world.
Hadrian has developed a service to help clubs and players worldwide to learn about how to run Squash programs and how to improve their games and/or businesses. Jethro’s online service squashskills.com is the go-to website internationally for tips and techniques in the game and he also operates the rankings and ratings service Squash levels – which many players and federations utilize.
We chatted about the loss of participants in the sport and the need to recognize that the vast majority of players are actually social, recreational players – who don’t need or want the drug of competition or have a need to continuously work on improvement.
My own experience over the past forty years as a Squash professional is that rarely do more than 10 percent of clients at a facility wish to take lessons. Back in the 1980’s with clubs regularly having 200-500 squash members, and very strong junior programs, coaches found their services in demand and became reliant upon and dependent upon that income. Owing to the number of lessons available to them, especially in the UK, Germany, Australia, South Africa, Canada, New Zealand, Holland, Belgium, France etc coaches, by and large, didn’t spend much time learning about customer service or other revenue streams or how to maximize yield from multi-person programs. The ease with which they were able to get private lessons precluded them from other investigations.
Additionally, the 90 percent of Squash players who didn’t want regular lessons were given scant attention as they weren’t a source of income and these important major funders of the game of Squash were allowed to silently drift away.
The net result of the focus of the sport purely on those folks who were willing to stump up a regular coaching fee, or play for a team or enter tournaments left a chasm between those folks who relied on Squash for a professional living and those folks who loved to play for recreation, exercise and social contact.
Additionally, a huge number of new recreational choices have entered the market, along with many professionals in those pursuits who have recognized the importance of customer care and have carefully nourished the personal relationships and continual communication with their new clientele. Pickleball and Padel are just the latest advents of this phenomenon and are growing through that careful customer relationship management. In addition funding for sports like Squash that comes from Sport England is dependent on participation numbers and because squash has not carefully developed customer relationships at the local level and doesn’t know who its players are with any great degree of accuracy, it is very difficult to gain that funding – especially with the back drop of rumor and scuttlebutt about how many facilities have removed courts.
In our conversation, both Hadrian and Jethro were clearly very thoughtful about this matter. Hadrian mentioned to me that one of his lead coaches, in a program they are running in the southwest, had recently complained that: ‘ members just don’t want lessons.’ Jethro mentioned the value of CRM ( customer relations management software).
Overall, it was a very productive conversation for me personally and, I hope, for both Hadrian and Jethro.
We then set up ‘The Wall’ on one of the Squash courts at Workout Harborside. As soon as I had it set up, Hadrian and Jethro went back to their youth and started playing a competitive game on ‘The Wall.’ It is very interesting and exciting to me, that in almost every situation I have set ‘The Wall’ up, whether with world-class players or beginners, Squash players, Pickleball players or other sports, the immediate response of all these players is to want to have a fun game, work hard and laugh a lot. To me this seems like a pretty good distillation of what sport is about at the entry-level and beyond, and I am very happy to see ‘The Wall’ having this initial response. That is the main reason I developed it, to engage people in having fit fun and social interaction and to use this as a conduit to channel them to the option of becoming a regular participant.
Hadrian related to me a story of a plywood mini squash court his dad had made. Although the court was heavy and difficult to maneuver, they had set it up in a public space and Hadrian told me that it had resulted in their best recruiting day ever. With the versatility and convenience of ‘The Wall’ he felt it would be even easier to set it or several of them up at the local park and get people having fun hitting the ball and then direct them just down the street to the club.
Both Jethro and Hadrian liked the design and Jethro very kindly offered to help promote it through Squashskills.com as he thought it was a great way to help make Squash visible and get more people and coaches involved outside of the traditional facilities.
Once again on this trip, I really felt motivated and renewed by spending time with world-class promoters and protagonists. Just the opportunity to spend a little time inside their world and learn about their thought processes was extremely stimulating and added considerably to the breadth and depth of my understanding.
I parted company with Hadrian and Jethro and left for my next appointment in Cheltenham at the East Gloucestershire Club with old friend and world-class Squash professional Fiona Geaves.
Evening at East Gloucestershire.
I arrived at the East Gloucestershire club in Cheltenham, which was a hive of activity with Tennis, Squash and Ladies Hockey all actively being pursued.
I had arranged to meet with Fiona Geaves, a legend in the world of squash, now a coach in this area. I had hurriedly contacted Fi after I had seen a social medial post of her with an inflatable squash court at a local event and thought she might be interested in ‘The Wall.’ It was also an opportunity to catch up with her after many years – she having been a good friend and mentor to my stepdaughter Louise Johnson when they were both on the world tour.
Fi also invited director of Squash at the club, Mark Toseland to join us.
We started off with a fairly intense conversation discussing the state of Squash in the UK and elsewhere. Mark was of a different opinion to myself with regard to the state of county Squash organization in the UK, which I feel had been greatly diminished over the past few years and often is victim to the political game of king-of-the-castle with the personalities involved, rather than employing modern new business development strategies and focusing on customer/participant care and contact. In Mark’s experience as Chairman of the Gloucestershire, SRA things are going well, with several new programs and strategies being implemented. This is excellent news so far as I am concerned – but I wonder how much those new programs are being replicated and implemented in the rest of the country? I very much look forward to seeing the results of the Gloucestershire efforts and how effectively they can help their member facilities to increase participation.
Mark and Fi certainly had huge enthusiasm. They both felt that participants in Squash do generally want to improve and will take lessons. Certainly, it has been my experience that many folk who don’t think they want to get better, change their minds if an affable and charismatic coach puts some voluntary time in with them – perhaps spending ten minutes showing them how to conquer some difficulty – and then the person will often ask if they could take a lesson to learn more. However, in my experience, this is a relatively small number of the overall mass of participants, who generally would like to just play for fun, exercise and social contact. This last part is the part that I feel Squash has failed at in general worldwide, but it was clear that Mark and Fi are very conscious and enthusiastic in maintaining this aspect of the human side of Squash in their program.
We then put up ‘The Wall’ and some of the membership who were in the general vicinity came and had a try, and once again it was noticeable how much the person was entertained and had fun playing little games against the net, even though we were on an uneven piece of grass and the bounces were inconsistent. Mark and Fi both had a little game and there again the innocent child-like expressions of enjoyment were infectious.
Mark didn’t initially see any great evolution with ‘The Wall’ over and above previous iterations of mini walls, but then did point out that ‘The Wall’ is effectively two of the previous version and, by comparison, much quicker to put up than two walls. Mark and Fi also saw the value of the adjustability of the tension of ‘The Wall’ and the practicality of being able to involve more people.
They asked me to keep in touch and were glad to know that our product is out there, for future occasions when they are in need.
As I left, I said my goodbyes to Fi and then had a further valuable and informative exchange with Mark which left me thinking a good deal. Then, I got in my camper van to make my way north toward my meeting for the following morning, in Wolverhampton.
Thursday. Wolverhampton Lawn Tennis and Squash and the National Squash Center in Manchester.
On Thursday I arrived at the Wolverhampton Tennis and Squash club to be met by kindred spirit and well-loved squash leader Mike Harris.
Mike is a fellow believer in the importance of increasing Squash’s visibility and accessibility and together with his partners in his revolutionary movement Squash 2.0 is adding huge energy to the push to gain exposure for Squash. Through his leveraging of the upcoming Commonwealth games and his use of Nick Thompson of Melior Sports’ Fluorescent perspex mini court, Mike has been flying the flag and blowing the trumpet for Squash all over the midlands in recent weeks.
We sat in the Wolverhampton Lawn Tennis and Squash club’s lovely old bar in the ‘house’ which fronts the club. We discussed the current state of Squash and the importance of getting the game in people’s faces by playing outdoors in a variety of venues and locations.
I shared with Mike my vision of developing a certification program and a replicable model for Program staff – people who would be employed both to introduce the game and its fundamentals to new players in outreach programs and who, within the club, would be professionally involved in customer relations and care, by maintaining continuous contact with all players and participants at the facility, thereby insuring that everyone, not just the competitive players, but every participant feels linked to the program and that the program and program staff cares about them. This is the personal human contact that, for various reasons, the sport of Squash has failed to maintain or build over the past forty years of the commercial and club game.
I explained to Mike how I had used interns in my programs in the USA to help build a legitimate role for Program staff and how I believe that compensation for these very important people should be drawn from membership fees, program fees, pro shop profits and other revenue streams – removing the old paradigm of dependency on coaches, who in turn rely on coaching revenues from participants who are pressured to take lessons and clinics in order to drive the coach’s income.
Imagine my delight when, having patiently listened to me, Mike informed me that he had just in the last few weeks, arranged with a professor at a local college to recruit some interns to come and work with him at the Wolverhampton club, to help drive his program!
As we were about to go outside to play-test ‘The Wall,’ we were joined in the bar by an old friend of mine from Norfolk, who is also a stalwart of all the racketsport programs at the Wolverhampton Lawn Tennis and Squash club, and who has been a great help to Mike as he starts his program at the club, namely Robin Chipperfield.
Robin, a talented multi racketsport player, has been quick to jump on board and help Mike generate interest in his first, post-Covid, Squash tournament.
Together we all went outside with ‘The Wall,’ and set it up. Mike also had the club manager and director of Tennis come to look. Yet again, as soon as ‘The Wall,’ was set up, Mike Harris – an international squash player of repute, was quickly displaying boyish enthusiasm in playing little competitive games with me on ‘The Wall,’ and then Robin Chipperfield and one of the club’s Racketball coaches joined us, with equal youthful enthusiasm.
Mike and his co-workers seemed very appreciative of the versatility and portability of ‘The Wall.’ Mike described local parks where he felt it would be very easy to set up and gain interest from passers by and also talked about local schools where he wanted to start building his outreach programs.
Mike is a force of nature and his enthusiasm and charisma is indicative of many of the ‘Pied Pipers’ we have in our sport who, despite the current downturn, have the magic sauce and the ability to convert ordinary folks to enthusiasts of our sport, if we can just find the platforms ( such at ‘The Wall by Rally-Ball.com, Melior Sports’s mini squash court, outreach programs such as are run by Paul Selby and Hadrian Stiff and multi-sport venues such as are currently succeeding like East Gloucestershire, Wolverhampton and Chichester and new adult recreational concepts such as Alan Thatcher proposes.) and proliferate the systems and behaviors that work to both recruit and most importantly retain, participants.
I thoroughly enjoyed meeting with Mike, and while I am not a person in need of persuasion or encouragement, I felt on a high after our meeting owing both to the palpable belief and the detailed program ideas that he shared with me.
After Mike had to go, I continued to play and work with Robin Chipperfield and the other Racketball coach ( Steve – I believe) both of whom were enthused and energized about ‘The Wall,’ its potential to help grow and market our clubs and sports and the coaching ideas that I was able to share with them.
I also briefly introduced them to Pickleball which neither of them had seen before, and explained how I believe that Squash can benefit from its association with Pickleball because Squash is intrinsically a deeper broader more exhilarating sport for those who are looking for more both in terms of exercise and complexity.
Running late after having been distracted by my very enjoyable sojourn at Wolverhampton Lawn Tennis and Squash, I then skedaddled up the M5 and M6 toward my next meeting in Manchester.
Thursday afternoon and The National Squash Center.
After a combination of road works, peak time traffic and a diversion had combined to make me behind schedule, I finally arrived to meet England Squash coaching professional Josh Taylor at the National Squash Center at Sportcity in Manchester.
Mark Williams had kindly put me in touch with Josh after our meeting earlier in the week and Josh had scheduled some time to look at ‘The Wall’ with me. He also asked Thomas Fairhurst to join us. Thomas runs many of the Manchester City Council outreach programs for schools associated with the National Squash Center and is the newly appointed Aspire coach for the Northwest area.
We set ‘The Wall’ up on the indoor athletics track beside the National Squash center and immediately Josh and Tom fell in line with all the other amazing people I had the privilege to meet and chat with during my trip. Never mind the fact that both of them have played thousands of games of Squash on real Squash courts, they couldn’t resist immediately challenging each other on ‘The Wall’ with a fun and sneaky game of attack and counter-attack, offense and defense.
We chatted about the difficulties of finding enough coaches to deliver Squash in outreach programs and I repeated my experiences in the USA, where I recruited interns from local colleges and taught them how to deliver Squash and retain participants while teaching them on the job – at little or no cost – and how I was able to create a revenue stream over the period of the internship that, once the program was set up, would create a legitimate income stream and revenue for both the hiring of program assistants and the growth of both an outreach revenue stream and the growth of the facility program. Tom, who is stretched to capacity, seemed to be very interested in this concept. Both Josh and Tom were very complimentary about ‘The Wall,’ loving its construction, original system of tension adaptation for intro players and intermediates as they improved, the ease of carrying just one unit that would offer as much work station room as two of the old unsquashable mini squash wall system and how compact it was a when packed away.
Tom is running out of equipment for his programs and said he would very much like to be kept informed of ‘The Wall by Rally-Ball.com‘s’ availability.
Both Josh and Tom saw many possibilities and ways in which ‘The Wall’ would be useful to them and were very complimentary about its advantages.
Tom particularly mentioned the advantage of being able to brand the green ‘tin’ panel at the bottom with social media and phone contact numbers.
I really enjoyed meeting these two young dynamic coaches, who are literally on the front line of delivering Squash, and gleaning their thoughts and feedback about both how to better deliver the game outside of traditional facilities and their very positive view of ways in which to utilize ‘The Wall.’
I made my way back to the camper full of thoughts about how we might replicate this sort of energy and enthusiasm to produce a national program of outreach and retention based on the incredible array of talent and ideas that I had been privileged to access during this trip – even though, in reality, I was barely only dipping my toe in the sea of talent that we have in the sport of Squash. At the moment it is a somewhat disparate and dislocated sea of talent ‘though, and I couldn’t help but ponder on how valuable pulling thoughts and ideas together from this disparate group on a regular program of visits would be to the sport and the community – and to each of the people I had met to keep them and their thinking stimulated and aware of all of the great opportunities and ideas out there. We all live in our own bubbles, and as valuable as those individual bubbles may be, they can only benefit from frequent sharing of ideas.
I headed next over the wonderful backbone of England, on a trans-Pennine trip to visit my mother overnight, before my final and eagerly anticipated meeting with one of the great strategic minds that I have been fortunate enough to meet in our sport over the past many years – that of James Sandwith. So off to Northallerton tonight and down to York and the village of Fulford the following day.
Friday. James and Teresa Sandwith, BEBRAND and Padel Plus and Squash Plus.
I was first introduced to James Sandwith when he was advising the World Squash Federation on how to advance and redevelop the game, with better communications, changing paradigms and an evolution toward a modern, vital, relevant game.
I found him to be a kindred spirit, copacetic with my own views, and with many more of his own besides.
Unfortunately ( in my view) James was unable to get the WSF to modernize in the ways that he felt could disrupt the consistent downward participation and interest in Squash and so he has naturally moved on to pastures more promising to him.
I met with him and his wife Teresa in their lovely home and we immediately sat down ( much aided by coffee and a chocolate digestive biscuit) to discuss areas of mutual interest and potentially of mutual benefit.
I was fascinated to hear about James’s progress in developing a brand new range of both Padel and Squash courts, using new technology and designs for pavilion roofs that are commonly used in Padel in Spain, both for Padel and Squash.
James and his partners have found ways of making regular glass wall court construction much more attainable and economic and additionally have come up with some very exciting and futuristic outdoor court designs that I feel would do much to advance the visibility and accessibility of Squash and Padel. I certainly hope to be able to help him advance the awareness of these designs, which I feel would do much to help change the existing paradigms in the sport.
We also discussed the need to drastically change the language and the existing themes and attitudes in Squash, if the sport is not to be effectively dead as both a business and a pastime within 5 years.
James is very excited about the future of Padel, a sport that is fun, good exercise and very easy to start for beginners. This is precisely what Squash needs and we need to change the ball and racquet for Squash to make it more attractive to new participants and to retain them for the long haul.
We then took to the back garden and I set up ‘The Wall.’ James and I played a number of different games and drills will various different balls and racquets and, as had now become the usual situation, I was pleased to see James displaying that same youthful enthusiasm as he was engaged by and entertained by playing the versatile range of games that ‘The Wall’ allows.
I was also very quickly aware of James’s professionalism and training as he started talking about how ‘we’ should market the product and carefully review its construction and durability. I was flattered that he, with his professional eye, was so complimentary about my invention, despite my untrained history with the engineering of such a product.
Teresa was also very complimentary about ‘The Wall’s’ potential and identified it as a mass-market product that would be highly valued by families for its multitudinous recreational options and for its value to schools as a multi-activity piece of equipment.
James liked the width and size of ‘The Wall’ seeing its potential both to be used to play genuinely athletic competitive games and to its value as a workstation for coaching and training for larger numbers of participants. We also discussed its value as a marketing tool for participation in racket sports, but I think that, as James said, it is important first and foremost to succeed with the mass market. James’s advice was ‘sell first, help later.’
Once again I found myself dealing with a veritable cornucopia of ideas after talking to James. His ability to visualize the future, based on a deep knowledge of history and the repeated behaviors of recreational participants, makes him a resource of almost incalculable value – if those that seek him out actually act on his advice.
So finally I was homeward bound, ideas almost literally bouncing off of the insides of my little camper van as I headed back to Norfolk.
I took the weekend off to decompress.
Then, come Monday, I sat down to summarize the trip and to assess what I had learnt, before attempting to crystalize my thoughts and suggestions, both in regards to ‘The Wall’ ( the original purpose of the trip) and to Squash and the incredible range of talented folks I was lucky enough to meet up with ( perhaps the deeper and longer term, though not initially intended, value of the trip).
I will write my thoughts and suggestion in a number of separate appendices, as not all of the appendices will be relevant to all of the recipients I will be sending this to.
I also had the benefit of two fairly substantial zoom calls during the week. One with Ross Gerring, the originator of the Squashplayers app, who has done so much to forward the cause of identifying and verifying squash facilities and players worldwide and one with my old friend Nick Gollaglee, the manager of a front line sports center, who is actively engaged in keeping the center and its offerings current and relevant.
This too, I will write separately.
Sept 14th, 2021
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