Tuesday, March 24, 2020

How Will Squash Change Post Covid-19

It feels like our lives are constantly changing at the moment. Just 1 week ago I was still working and going to the gym to workout. As I write this I am now back in Canada, for at least the time being. The Turks and Caicos border was closing for who knows how long and I didn't want to get stuck there without a job for a prolonged period of time. It's going to be tough for that country as they are so dependent on the tourism revenue.

I'll begin today by going quickly through my experience yesterday. Traveling internationally at a time like this was quite the experience. I was fortunate to get a ticket on the last flight back to Canada. It wasn't cheap and I had to check 3 bags so yikes it added up! There was nobody else in my row, but I'd estimate the plane was about half full. At the Providenciales airport there were only 2 hand sanitizer stations (1 of which was empty) and I only saw a few people wearing a mask. It's a pretty small place so it's not easy to maintain proper social distance. It was also the only time I've ever been at an airport without a single person in front of me at the checkin counter or going through security.

Not surprisingly there was no service on the plane which is fine for a short 4 hour flight. When I landed at Pearson Airport it was almost like an overnight glimpse of the airport (which I have seen once or twice). From 2 separate airport staff I was handed 2 double sided sheets about the self quarantining procedure I have to follow and it includes numbers to contact if you have any of the listed Covid-19 symptoms; fingers crossed, but so far so good.

I was pleasantly surprised when I got through customs in under 5 minutes and my bags (including a large guitar which was set aside in the overside and fragile area) arrived shortly after. These sorts of things just don't happen at big airport so it was a new experience for me. Most people at the airport in Toronto were wearing masks or trying to stay away from other people. Social distancing was certainly much more prevalent here.

 When I went to get a rental car to drive to London the guy behind the desk wasn't wearing a mask or gloves and was handling each persons cards and was just a foot away from each customer. That was my first experience here in Canada with someone not being overly cautious. I felt bad for the guy who even though was probably 10 years younger than me will not be able to avoid Covid-19 with his job. Should car rental companies still be open? I wish they were automated and we could just swipe our cards to do all of this. I cannot even imagine the strain the car rental and airline companies are going through. I just hope they will survive as these are all services we need and rely on to live, travel and work the way that we do.

So now I'm in self-quarantine at my brother's place for the next 14 days. He and his girlfriend also will now have to do the same because I'm here. I'm glad to be back in Canada, although wow it sure feels freezing out there! Goodbye flip-flops..

That's my update for the week so let's get onto some more fun stuff. There's been a lot of fun isolation squash and fitness challenges people have been posting. I took my shot at 5 you can all try from home. Here's they are:

This worldwide pandemic is wrecking havoc on the financial markets and most companies. On a positive note it is also bringing out some exceptional qualities in people and companies. I've heard of a lot of companies offering discounts and trying to help people out. As the saying goes, 'we are all in this together.' I want to follow in these footsteps so I've posted The Secrets Of Solo Hitting on my Youtube channel. I know it's not much, but as a squash coach that's what I can offer you to do my part in providing a bit of free entertainment and hopefully some useful tools for when you get back on court. Cause the way I look at it when we get back on court we are all going to need a good solo hit or two to get off the rust. So here's the film if you'd like to check out 30 of my favourite 'self isolation drills':

It's hard to wonder what life will be like when we get back to our new normal...but what about squash in particular? How will this impact the future of squash clubs, coaches, leagues and tournaments? Will people be worried about being in a place with so many other individuals? Will others be concerned about the uncleanliness of a squash court? Will some not have the money to pay for membership dues and take part in club events or private lessons? Will people wait for a vaccine until they go back into a public atmosphere? There will definitely be some changes, but hopefully we can pull through and support our clubs and their staff. Squash is what we all love and it's what keeps us off the couch and in our best possible shape.

I also can't help but wonder how many current squash pros are going to retire during this stretch? Some older players or people who were just scraping by may be thinking twice about going back on the road and taking unnecessary risks associated with travel? Annie Au is the first that I've seen retire during this stretch, but I bet there will be many more; perhaps just not the top ranked ones who get mentioned by the PSA. Will pro tournaments still have the same amount of sponsorships to continue making professional squash an actual opportunity for a select few to follow their dreams and make a living by playing their favourite sport?

It would be sad to see things deteriorate because what about the young kids who look up to and dream about being on the tour one day. Yes squash is not essential to life, but for some of us it is a big portion of our lives, it always has been and it always will. There's something about stepping out onto that court whether it's hit a few balls by ourselves or if we're competing in a match. We're trying to get better, become the best we can be and it's a great distraction from the real problems and stressors of life outside the court.

Anyone who has been injured and was forced out of the game for a significant amount of time will understand the emptiness that you feel when you're unable to tie up your laces and play. As someone who has dealt with a variety of injuries over the years, I know that when I step on court now just being healthy and bring able to move relatively well is the main objective and the result is not nearly as vital as it once was.

When I think about the coranvirus and how it relates to squash I believe they both reveal our true character. How we handle adversity is something that I always try and share with my athletes. It's easy to be a good sport when you're winning and not facing any problems, but how do you respond when you're on the other side of the scoreline? The same thing is happening nowadays with Covid-19. People who are not infected, but are self isolating to keep everyone else safe, while a select few are hoarding and trying to profit off of panic. As I relate this back to squash I recall one of the last practices I had with my kids where we discussed what would make their parents proud at the next tournament. Is it simply the result (which they all focus on), or would their parents be more proud of their on court behaviour, effort and obvious passion for the game? Because we can't all win, and even those that do if they don't do it the right way it will have a tainted taste to it. This is another reason why sport is so crucial and this is also what we are witnessing from many of the wonderful people around the world.

If you want to see some of my games from the past 30 years I've been posting a new game each day on the Serious Squash Instagram channel. That's all for this week. There's always something new to write about these days and hopefully soon I can start writing more posts about the fine details and tips for playing the best sport in the world. Until then keep your social distance and be safe.

Instagram @SeriousSquash

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Life Of A Squash Coach During Covid-19

It's pretty wild how quickly things have evolved in the past week. A week ago US Squash sent out a notice that they cancelled their 2020 National Championships which originally I thought was a little over the top. The day after they recalled all of their pro players from around the globe. A day later the PSA and Squash Canada both came out and also cancelled their upcoming events. Sh*t got serious quick! Things in Turks and Caicos have been a living a little behind the rest of the world. Let me run you through the past week of life as a squash pro on a small Caribbean island.

I've been running an Airbnb to supplement my income here. It's a 3 bedroom house which has been nearly fully occupied for the past 3 months. About a week ago I started getting emails from upcoming guests worrying about their trip here. My listing was with Airbnb and I had a strict no cancellation policy so people were quite concerned about losing not only their vacation, but also their money. I wasn't sure what to do because on 1 hand I need these bookings to make a living here, but I also understand the seriousness of this situation and I don't think the guests should have to pay for a trip they cannot take.

Eventually the situation was taken out of my hands when Airbnb made changes to their cancellation policy. Their new extenuating circumstances policy gave upcoming guests a full refund regardless of the hosts cancellation policies. I was hoping they would offer upcoming guests who cancel a credit for future travel or to provide some form of split. I'm aware that VRBO has not done this and guests are furious with them, while with Airbnb it's the hosts that are fuming. It's one of those situations without a solution that would please both parties.

To add onto this whole debacle was that the house I have been renting was sold, contracts signed and due to change hands on April 1st. So I was only going to lose 2-3 weeks of revenue and then things were changing anyways. It isn't my house, I'm simply renting it out long term from a friend from the squash club to re-rent it out short term. So I was happy for him that his house was sold, but also unsure how I was going to make a living here without the additional income I've been generating from this rental property. But once again Covid-19 ruined the plan. The sale of the house fell through because of the potential buyers being hit by the financial burden of this virus. Once I got the news I put the listing back on the market...crickets.

Originally I had not accepted any of of booking requests for April because of the sale of the house. Once I found out that it fell through I contacted all of these people again, but because of this global pandemic nobody was interested. Turks and Caicos runs on tourism and at this moment the country has very few of them. The longer this goes on the more troubling it will be.

(today's update from the Canadian Prime Minister) 

Okay, so that's the non-squash portion of my life. Now let's move onto the squash portion. As of today the gym I work at is still open. There are currently no confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the country so many people I believe feel isolated from the rest of the world. That being said when someone gets a test for Covid-19 here it has to be sent off island and it takes a week to get the results. So by the time there is a positive test it will be widely spread here. Even still the grocery stores have never been busier, even without the herds of tourists that are normally here over spring break.

For the past week I had been quite cautious and I had never washed my hands more in my life. The club was posting signs and taking extra precautions, yet somehow on Tuesday I woke up with a mild feeling of a cold starting in my chest. I have asthma, although the fresh air here in Turks has all but cured it. I started feeling better as the day went on and if it wasn't for what's happening with the coronavirus I would have had a normal day and probably would have went to work and even squeezed in a workout. I don't believe I have Covid-19 as my symptoms were different from what I've been reading about, but it's a scary time to get a cold. Therefore I decided to pause the squash program as of yesterday.

So now I'm sitting in isolation at home, living off of cereal and protein bars. My rental unit has no future bookings and the squash programming is suspended indefinitely. Did I mention that my job here has no base salary?

I know it may sound like it, but I'm really not seeking any sympathy for my situation. Many people around the world have it way worse than I do. People are dying, losing their jobs and families are being far more impacted than I am. We are all affected by this and I just thought my story was unique and potentially interesting for the readers.

For the past week I had been contemplating booking a flight and heading back to Canada while I still can. One major issue is that I've been without a work permit since this summer when I lost it. Since this time I've been waiting on a replacement so if I leave the country I doubt I would be able to reenter. Even if I had my work permit and I was back in Canada it's not like I'd be able to work or leave the house so I wasn't too concerned about where I'd be stuck. Once I woke up with the beginning of a mild cold yesterday I knew travel for the immediate future was off the table. So here I am and will be for a significant amount of time in Providenciales. So as bad as millions of people have it right now around the globe I really cannot complain. My house is on a canal and there's a kayak and plenty of room to do some stretching and exercises. It also gives me more time to work on the online portion of Serious Squash. Although how much interest there will be while most clubs around the globe are shut remains to be seen.

I've been trying to post weekly on this blog since the new year. I thought it would be more fun to talk about something other than the coronavirus, but I thought my unique situation here would make for an interesting read. Hopefully things will start steadily improving since we more fully comprehend the severity of the situation. And with all of this upcoming time off I really wish there we could watch some live sports. Thankfully there's a replay section on Squash TV and of course Netflix. Don't forget that Serious Squash is also one Youtube and there's a piles of free short videos. Here is this weeks episode of Squash Shots:

Stay safe everyone and use caution when leaving your house. If you can try and implement social distancing and think of your friends and loved ones. Even if you're young and healthy and the coronavirus isn't potentially fatal to you, who you spread it to may not be so fortunate. And the only way we're going to get past this thing and be able to move on is if it stops spreading. If you have any cold symptom (like I did) just don't go out and take part in self-isolation.

Ideally next week I'll be back onto a squash topic, but some things (although not many) are more important than squash. I have a week to think about it so you'll have to wait and find out. Until then be smart and stay healthy!

Instagram @SeriousSquash

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Women In Squash

I thought this week it would be prevalent to talk about more than 1 subject. The first item on the agenda which will provide the majority of today's discussion is the lack of women in squash. March 8th was international women's day and it got me thinking a lot about why more young girls and women don't play squash. When I was young I confess I wasn't sure why we would celebrate a day for women, but never for men. When I was a kid there weren't any noticeable differences to how girls were treated versus us boys. As I got older I began to understand that women weren't always treated equal. A lot has changed, but it's clear that there's still a long ways to go.

Let's steer this back specifically towards girls and women in squash. Since I was young there has always been a lack of girls playing squash. That being said my home club had a woman as a coach and she helped me a lot. As this time I would estimate about 80% of all tournament participants and club members were guys. Does squash simply cater more to the the male demographic? Are women uncomfortable playing squash in front of a mostly male environment? I imagine some do, so as a coach it's critical that we do our best to create a welcoming and safe atmosphere for everyone. When I was young there were a number of all male clubs in Toronto. I'm not sure how many still exist to this day, but I believe there is 1 or 2.

As a coach I've always ran a lot of events for women. In my first year coaching with the legendary Rob Brooks I learned a lot because he would annually host an all female tournament and a weekly women's drop in. The numbers weren't as large as the other events, but I could tell these were always very important to Rob and to the female members. After I graduated university and I got my first head coaching position I followed in Rob's footsteps and ran a ladies Christmas tournament and I also offered a weekly ladies only clinic. The numbers again weren't huge, but I felt it was important to offer events and clinics that women could feel comfortable and have fun in.

When I moved to western Canada and began coaching at St. Michaels there was I believe 2 girls on our team. Eventually we got to the point where we had as many as 6 or 7 girls traveling and competing in tournaments. This was a large number compared to other clubs, but considering we had over 30 kids on our team this was still a small ratio compared to the boys.

I saw the draws for the recently completed British Columbia Junior Provincials and there were only 33 girls in the event compared to 88 boys. There was no girls under 19 and only 3 played in the girls under 13 division. There are some amazingly strong girls in BC, but the numbers are as disappointing as ever and surely there is more we can do to improve this.

When International Women's Day happened on March 8th, I saw lots of squash players and organizations make posts to celebrate on social media. It got me thinking about why women's participation is still an issue. I realize some countries still don't have as many young girls competing in sport as they do boys. There is no professional NHL or MLB for women. PSA Squash is doing a great thing showcasing their women and offering equal prize money in many of their events. Still we don't see a lot of girls and women playing squash. Will that change over time as this equal prize money is still a moderately fresh concept? If the WNBA was on sport highlights and the players paid as much as the NBA stars would more young girls play basketball? It's tough to say how much this would change things, but I'm sure it would help a lot.

As someone who has coached a lot of young kids I can say that in general girls are more coachable, care more about the social aspect of sport, but boys are usually more competitive. Seeing that squash isn't normally a team sport perhaps that is why more young girls don't play?? I also believe part of it is because girls have to practice with some boys who they find immature and annoying! Whatever the case it would be great to see more girls get into our terrific sport and play competitively. I recall many times at my club back in Victoria we would never get women signing up for tournaments. 95% of them just didn't enjoy tournaments and only wanted to play their friends or take lessons.

Anyways, on to the next topic. I don't want to be jumping on the media crazed band wagon about the coronavirus, but seeing all of these daily emails I'm receiving and hearing about all of the sport cancellations it's hard not to mention it. Just yesterday US Squash announced that they are cancelling all of their remainder national squash championships for the season. As of now in Canada they have not taken such a drastic measure, but things could change.

On one hand it's hard to stop living your life because of this, but on another you understand that organizations are all about risk management and they don't want to get sued if a large breakout takes place at one of their events. When on court the sidewalls are generally covered in players dried up sweat so maybe changing your preserve routine is a good idea, but besides this I hope the events in Canada don't get cancelled.

In the NHL I hear the San Jose Sharks might be forced to play in an empty arena in their next home game on March 19th. This is something that could begin to flush through the league and extend to other sports. If the MLB has to play with nobody in the stadium that isn't going to be good for business and most noticeably the owners. Even if the coronavirus was more deadly and widely spread it's hard to imagine a large corporation being okay with taking on and accepting such financial pandemonium unless they were forced to.

This might not compare exactly, but I've traveled to areas in the world where some mosquitos have malaria. There is always some risk in life, even just in travelling to somewhere and I'm not one to hide for the fear of something going wrong. I think if people are sensible and stay home when they're sick and everyone else just washes their hands we can and should go on living life just the same. Maybe I'll delay my trip to China for a the time being, but other than that life goes on. Here in Turks and Caicos tourism is almost the entire economy and if people decide they don't want to travel anymore that's not going to be good for the country and could lead to a lot of other bigger problems.

I'm not a doctor and I don't have all of the facts, but I thought it was worth mentioning because it is all you see nowadays and it is starting to have a major impact on sport. Coronavirus has already impacted all of our lives and for some reason more than anything I can recall in my lifetime. It almost  feels like we're at the beginning of a zombie apocalypse. Let's hope the worst is behind us and we can get back to competing and cheering on at our favourite amateur and professional sporting events.

That's it for this week. If you haven't heard there is a new Serious Squash instructional film available in the shop for just $5. It's titled 'Advanced Back Corner Solo Drills.' It contains 4 episodes of Squash Shots, including an episode on my 10 favourite core exercises. It's available to stream at https://serioussquashshop.com/collections/coaching-videos/products/advanced-back-corner-solo-drills

If you like the film and you'd like to subscribe to Squash Shots you can do so for as little as $3/month. Next week is episode 44 which contains 2 of my new back corner advanced solo drills. Learn more at Patreon.com/SeriousSquash

You can also find Serious Squash at
Instagram @SeriousSquash

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

School Squash

As a Canadian squash coach and someone who has participated in the Canadian junior squash circuit many moons ago, I feel like I am in a good position to be able to discuss today's topic. I know I could easily be talking about the reffing controversy and the videos from Sobhy and Elshorbagy, but I don't have all of the details behind these stories and the facts I have gained are from a variety of people on social media who may or may not know what the backstories are.

Perhaps when the Windy City is done and the dust has settled I'll write up a post about it all. I am pretty excited for the finals tonight though. I feel like both finals should be great and I would not be surprised to see an upset from Coll over Farag. They are the 2 best movers in the game so it should be a great match. While on the women's side Raneem and Sherbini have the best racquet skill on tour.

Let's get on to today's topic; school squash and in particular in North America. When I was 1 young I played the U.S. Junior Open a few times and won it once and I think came 2nd another time. There were almost no strong American players back at this point in time. My how things have changed...
After my junior years Squash Ontario started up an annual summer tradition called Battle Of The Borders where the top junior players from Ontario would compete against the best American kids. That's right, a single province versus all of the U.S. In the early days Ontario was stronger, but now things are very different. Canada now sends their top players from the entire country and we almost always lose and it's not even close. The depth of talent in the U.S. now is so much greater than in Canada and I think it's pretty obvious why.

The U.S. has more courts, more coaches, more money and they really love and support their sports, but the main reason I believe that the U.S. has taken off in squash is because of their school squash programs. The College Squash Association (CSA) is basically the minor league system for the PSA World Tour now and the level of play is substantially higher than when I played (2005-2009).
Another school squash area is in the middle schools and high school levels. In the U.S. there are over 1,400 kids that participate in the High School Team Championships and I don't the exact numbers for the Middle School Team Championships, but there were 4 boys divisions of 16 teams and 3 girls divisions so the numbers was likely in the high hundreds.

As someone who has worked as a head coach for 8 years at a Canadian private school I'm well informed to discuss the Canadian school squash system. There are a few schools in Canada that have squash courts on campus. In British Columbia I believe there are 3. I has a full time squash coach the other 2 hire part time coaches. In Ontario I don't know the exact numbers, but there are a handful fo schools that have courts and none of which I'm aware of have a squash director or coach.

Over the years whenever I've looked at the current job openings on squash websites I most notably see U.S. schools looking to hire qualified coaches. Almost half of all of the jobs I see nowadays are for American schools. It's no wonder that the US has such a large crop of strong juniors and the numbers at their school team championships demonstrates the priority the country has placed on their squash programs. You really can't compare what the U.S. is doing to Canada or anywhere else for that matter.

Having courts, a program and a strong coaching staff at your school is an amazing resource I wish I had when I was a kid. Schools with programs are a terrific breeding grounds for growing our game and I wish more Canadian schools would step up to the plate and support their sporting programs and realize that investing in a squash program can benefit the school in numerous ways. It makes me wonder how the U.S. middle and high school system got to the level it's currently at...it must be the CSA.

Even at the university level Canada cannot compare to the states whatsoever. Western is the only school that competes in the CSA. I went to Western for this reason and when I was there I only played 1 home match in 4 years and we drove 2 minivans to each of our other matches. Normally I was one of the drives and we would drive for 6-12 hours and sometimes have a match that evening, sleep and then play 1 or 2 more before heading back. One weekend I remember driving to Cornell (6 hours), playing against Yale, driving to Toronto after the match to play 3 Ontario University Association (OUA) matches on the Saturday. I recall another time sleeping on the floor of a frat house at Cornell on the way to team finals because we were on a tight budget. Oh and did I mention that we didn't even have courts on campus and our coach was unpaid? I don't know how much things have changed at Western since I graduated, but that was what it was like just over a decade ago.

In the U.S. most of the school competing in the CSA have top notch facilities and world class coaches. They travel on team buses, have athletic trainers and even their equipment and uniforms are high end. Obviously most (if not all) of the U.S. schools have much larger endowment funds than Canadian schools, but I don't believe this is an excuse for having such a underwhelming school program here.

Do Canadian schools just need more money to have proper squash programs? If so is this something that Squash Canada or the provincial squash associations can assist with? Is it too late for Canada to learn from the U.S. system and try and mimic it on a smaller scale? As a coach, squash lover and someone who wants to see Canadian juniors flourish I sure hope we can figure this out.

I know a lot of squash clubs struggle to pay their bills. Squash courts take up a lot of space and the courts are generally only ever used at lunch and in the evenings. Schools however have the space, own their land and can make use of the courts all throughout the day. Let's hope in a decade from now we'll be able to look back and see more school squash programs not only in Canada, but all over the world.

It may sound like I was compiling today, but I really am thankful for all of the opportunities that Canada has presented to me. I'm just passionate about squash and I wish we as a country could do more to support the game at the junior and collegiate level and I believe the way forward is through school squash.

Did you know that Serious Squash has a new instructional film? It's a combination of 4 episodes of Squash Shots, 3 of which are on back corner solo drills and the final one is an episode of my 10 favourite core exercises. It's a 20 minute film that you can stream for just $5 at SeriousSquashShop.com

Enjoy the finals of the Windy City Open tonight! Who's your money on? I'll take Farag in 5 and Raneem in 4.