Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Is Squash Dying A Slow Inevitable Death?

It's hard to believe it's been over 3 months since my last blog post. I've still been quite active on the video side of Serious Squash on other platforms, but I do feel I need to get back to the blog more frequently in 2020. I'm going to start this trend by talking about the current state of squash.

As someone who has been a part of squash for 3 decades I have seen a lot of improvements and also some worrying signs for squash. The job the PSA does now filming the top events and interviewing the players is world class and has brought our sport forward by a substantial amount. When I was young we had a few expensive vhs tapes that we had to order and we'd watch these over and over. This was the only way you were able to watch professional squash back then.

The style of squash is something that has also improved greatly. Back in the 80's and 90's the racquets were heavy, the scoring promoted fitness and the higher tins meant the rallies and matches were generally long and boring; it was a battle of attrition basically. This began to change at least from our vhs player with players such as Rodney Martin and Jonathon Power. Chris Dittmar was also a favourite who just couldn't seem to crack the steady Jansher Khan (pictured below).

As squash players become more explosive, equipment improved, the tin was lowered and the scoring was changed, attacking squash began to become a fixture in the game. All professional sports have spent a lot of their resources recently to speed up play to keep viewers tuned in and interested. This is something squash has done quite well in my opinion. That being said squash gets little attention on sports news shows or on tv. Although I haven't had cable in about 8 years now, squash is failing to reach the mainstream. Would things improve if it got into the Olympics? Probably a little, but I don't think by a lot. There are lots of sports that don't get much airtime during the Olympics and which people don't ever consider playing anyways.

Squash is possibly the toughest sport on the body. To play at a high level you not only have to maintain an insanely high fitness level, but you also need to be healthy and have good mobility. For someone who is 38 now I know the challenges of this. I can only imagine how difficult it is for the weekend warriors. People who sit around staring at a computer or their phone all week now have to exert themselves to the max. Once injuries come into play the future of that squash player is in jeopardy. This is where hardball doubles is an excellent solution and having a social network at a club can keep squash members paying their membership dues even if they are not so active on the courts anymore.

I feel like every week or so I go on Facebook and see some story about a court or squash club closing its doors. Are the numbers of people playing really declining? Should we be worried about the future of our sport? Should I be worried about my chosen career path? If I had to answer those honestly, I would have to say, yes most definitely.

Let's think about the simple math for a second. A squash court and club takes up a lot of space. Only 2 players usually book a court that could fit 20+ into a fitness class. Most courts are only booked from 5pm-8pm. There is the occasional lunch game and some clubs will have some activity on the weekends. This is not an effective business model and owning a squash club seems like one of the worst investments you could make. And I'm saying this from a passionate and optimistic squash perspective.

Is having a successful squash club not possible anymore? It certainly is, but it takes a lot of work and a major commitment from both the coach (or coaches) and the owners or the of directors. For some people they want to just exercise and have fun within their small group of friends. Others like receiving coaching and meeting new people to play with at their level. If the average squash membership in Canada (excluding country clubs) is around $80/$120 month. How much on top of that do the members want to spend on extra things like tournaments, pro shop items, coaching, etc? People who go to yoga, spin or some other class will pay around $15/$25 for a class. It's clearly a cheaper (although some would argue less fun or skilled way to exercise), but there are a pile of these types of classes available all over. Cheaper and more convenient and injures are rarely an issue for this types of low impact classes.

Those of us that really enjoy competing know that squash can take over our life. It's what we think about and are willing to spend above and beyond what is reasonable to improve. Very few of us are going to play professionally and make a living at it, yet still there is a squash core that has an addiction to learning and becoming the best they can be. Squash to me also is a measuring stick for how fit I am and it helps me live a healthier lifestyle than if I was say a golf coach where fitness was not so vital to your ability to coach or play.

Many people have told me how pickleball is the fastest growing racquet sport. Most racquet sport players are older. We've spent 1000's of hours pushing ourselves to the limits and still not quite getting the results we've envisioned. There's also pressure in the expectations and the results we place on ourselves every time we step on court. I've met very few good losers at any level. When we switch to a different sport which we are somewhat competent in we can relax more and enjoy the sport for what it is. There isn't a hierarchy we have to mold into and obviously injuries or mobility doesn't play as much of a factor in pickleball. I also have to say any new sport will be faster growing than a more deeply rooted sport. So maybe we don't need to be worry too much about people switching to pickleball, but perhaps about the lack of new people trying and getting hooked on squash.

So what do I see is the future of squash? Is there a future for squash? I feel like it's becoming more privileged again. Only fancy country clubs and schools will be able to afford to not make money on their squash programs. I do believe an excellent coach can create a sustained successful program at a given club, but there are not enough of these types off coaches that are willing to do the work for what many clubs are willing to pay. I've never made above the median national income in Canada and I certainly don't now in Turks and Caicos either. Eventually coaches have families or want to stop paying rent and many will either take a cushy fancy job or flock to the U.S. so they can make ends meat.

The U.S. was so brutal at squash when I was young. Nowadays the U.S. is where the top paying coaching careers are. U.S. Squash is what's keeping squash alive in my opinion. The U.S. has the resources and finance their sports far greater than most countries. They send huge junior teams to international events and the College Squash Association (a match at Yale pictured below) is basically the PSA minor league system. School squash is not only the future of squash, it is squash. Most clubs aren't producing enough juniors to keep their courts booked and the bills all paid. This is why I would love to see more schools in Canada build courts and hire squash coaches. Not that many years ago there used to be a battle of the border where Ontario juniors would take on the US national team and team Ontario was stronger. Eventually they caught up and now they are beating us even when we send our top national juniors.

So what is the future of squash clubs? I believe they will continually struggle and they will soon be nearly as extinct as the dinosaur. That being said I have seen some successful squash clubs and what they have done mostly well is retained top coaches who have a passion for coaching and they also have a huge social network within their club. If your squash club feels like a home away from home it has hope; as long as there are enough people that feel the same. As most Canadians will know, Goodlife chose to shut down their squash courts last year. I think there's 1 or 2 still fighting to keep their doors open. But it's a fact that almost all of us would rather operate a successful business than a struggling one. Unless your club is run or owned by a seriously crazy squash enthusiast the future growth and success of that club must be a concern.

I also think squash clubs need to be creative and use social media better. There are very few clubs, programs or coaches that have any social media presence. There also needs to have perks that keep members coming back. Maybe having a bar, a ping pong table, a badminton court, a decent gym, a sauna, etc. can all make memberships more appealing. But one of the most challenging things is getting a non squash player into the doors and having them sign up for a membership and decide to pay for lessons to learn how to play properly. A lot of us started playing because someone helped us get into it and got on court with us when we couldn't keep a rally going.

One of the clubs I grew up playing at (Ajax) used to be busy and had a lot of top players, but now it's a ghost town. Pine Valley had the largest house league in Toronto and eventually was bought out and closed. The Victoria Squash Club is another one where one of the best coaches in the country couldn't keep the doors open. There's plenty of other examples all over the world. How can we all do our part to keep squash alive? Is it dying a slow inevitable death? I haven't given up hope yet so wherever I'm coaching I'll keep trying to do my best at growing the game 1 person at a time and hopefully I'll keep some of you around the world motivated and interested in squash through this blog and from my more regular posts on Youtube, Facebook and Instagram. I also believe that a lot of coaches (me included at times) focus so much on the top juniors or players that we don't put enough time in growing the quantity of people picking up a racquet and keeping them engaged.

Do you have some other ideas on how we can improve our sport? Should we go permanently to 2 out 3? Should we try RAM scoring? I mean really, if Rmay couldn't save our sport who can? Should we lower the tin even more? Should we change the bounce of the ball? How can squash get more attention on sports networks? How can we get more schools to get their kids to a squash club to try it out?

Do we need to promote crazier and fun types of rallies? It's boring watching a low scoring hockey, basketball or baseball or soccer game. How can we make squash more explosive and entertaining for fans? I'm all about good sportsmanship, but do we need a new explicative Jonthon Power? What if we took away lets? What if we made squash more physical? Should we promote the audience to be vocal during a point? Should we do more video replays? Should we have timeouts? Does the PSA need to do a better job showcasing their players outside of the rectangle? Do government bodies need to do a better job on promoting memberships and tournament participation? Do we just need to get the Olympics nod? We have to try something because what we are doing for the most part isn't working.

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  1. I think, the future of Squash is getting the women and Jrs, also the ability to create value to existing members so they don't leave. Look at court usage, down time throw in a Yoga class, HIIT class,etc..Squash clubs have to do a beeter job at promoting themselves in their respective communities, my 2 cents...

  2. Hey Chris! I just stumbled into your site/blog... Excellent writing and encouragement for us squashers. Thank you!

    I just want to say don't give up :) Please keep on doing what you're doing (promoting squash).

    I'm going to head over to your Patreon link... I can't give much but I'll definitely support in any way that I can.

    Thanks for the inspiration!


  3. Thanks for your thoughtful post. I am currently living in Hong Kong, and am amazed at the vibrancy of the squash scene here. Of course HK has its own unique history and context, but a lot of credit has to be handed to the squash association and the government. In particular, the existence of a multitude of public courts in pretty much every district of the city is fantastic, as is the organisation of discounted lessons by government-hired coaches for group sessions aimed at players from beginners on up. The junior program is robust and many schools field teams. There is also a lot of club squash, but because of the enormous squash league (29 divisions in total, including 3 Master's and 3 Ladies', with each division having around 7-10 teams) there is a lot of interaction between players of different clubs. Obviously, the key is government support, and in that regard, HK is a model.
    Keep up the good work!

  4. Poor refereeing at the PSA platinum events does not help the sport at all. Ridiculous no lets/strokes are given quite regularly.


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