Sports culture in South Africa brings hundreds of children to the squash courts
By JOSH TAYLOR – Squash Mad Coaching Correspondent
As squash in England is reeling from the publication of the latest set of participation figures, there are plenty of lessons to be learned from a sports-mad country like South Africa.
Let’s begin this article with the following question: Is our sporting infrastructure allowing for maximum participation and future sporting performance?
As a coach within my day-to-day sessions I am always looking at ways in which my pupils can improve and hone their skills.
As humans I believe we have an innate desire to improve and make better our skills. We often look at the raw skill but less often do we take stock of the direct improvement and look at the bigger picture. The environment, the infrastructure and its co-founding all have an affect on us.
Over the last few months I have been based in South Africa. I managed to set up the opportunity to spend a couple of months coaching primarily at a girls’ private boarding school in Pietermaritzburg (PMB) called St Anne’s Diocesan College.
PMB is a small town located an hour outside of Durban. As most small towns it doesn’t attract massive amounts of tourism or have huge amounts of attractions, but what it does have is an amazing sporting culture.
It plays host to numerous events such as the UCI Mountain Bike and trail World Championship, the Duzi Canoe Marathon on its river, the Midmar Mile a large open water swim and just this Sunday the Comrades ultra marathon.
Everyone in the place is active and has a huge interest in sport. For such a small town it’s also not short of its sporting greats Jonty Rhodes, Butch James, Kevin Pietersen, and from the world of squash Steve Coppinger to name a few.
I first visited last year for just a short time to do a bit of coaching while also partaking in the Jarvis Cup – the inter-provincial championships for squash.
Since my last visit I have seen a large growth in squash in the town, and particularly in girls squash. I feel the infrastructure they have in place has allowed for this.
Girls’ squash has always been strong in the area, spear headed by the rival school to the one I have been working in called Epworth, who have had years of dominance. It was not until the last few years that the numbers have noticeably grown at the other schools.
Epworth has brought along with it now great competition from its rivals, St Anne’s where I am working is its closest, however, at least two other schools have strong programs, with virtually all the schools in the town having some sort of provision for coaching, and this is in a town of 400,000 people.
To give an idea of numbers this term at St Anne’s is the biggest on record for squash, with more than 100 girls playing each week which, is a quarter of the school, and easily half of those playing at least three times a week.
Now I don’t know any single venue in the UK or outside of Egypt for that matter where that number of girls has been recorded in taking part in squash and that frequently.
There is a big thing within the infrastructural set up that I feel has allowed for great growth. That is the sporting set up for better provision, within the schools, for sport. Let’s have a look at some of the factors here:
Our provision in the UK for sport, if you exclude a handful of private schools, is at clubs. Now that’s a barrier for kids to take part, as they have to travel from their school to a club, this requires parental support as they require transport. It also requires time to get to venues and a financial cost to the parents.
The school sport set-up gives more children the opportunity, hence opening up the chance for more friendship groups to form, breeding loyalty, as they will want to continue to do the same thing as their friends, hence allowing for groups of people participating rather than them coming as individuals, which makes for a more fun environment that people want to be part of. One final aspect is that the large majority of these schools are boarding.
Boarding means that the girls are based where the courts or sports facilities are, on weekends and in free periods it’s easy for them to go down and enjoy playing some sport with friends or just by themselves. This often takes a lot of organization and relies on others outside of schools.
This is balanced with the other commitments our children have in homework and other activities. This puts very tight pressure on time. Now what if the sport was at school? There is no travel time; less time wasted and more practice which is easily self-driven by the child.
There is a second thing and that is the time we finish school. Often the school day finishes much later than South Africa; in the UK our typical day finishes at 3.00 to 4.00. Now what if the day finished at 2.00?
Now, all of a sudden, there is an extra hour for sport. If we start earlier, we could maximize more of the day and use more of the afternoon for other extra curricular activities. The coach’s time is also a crucial element. In clubs, coaches have to spend large amounts of the day in day to day running, and also have to spend large amounts of time in advertising activities to make them a success.
In one school a coach’s time is now pinpointed, their advertising can be done with much less cost to time as they have 400 people on their door step and more time can be spent in the front line, coaching.
Finally if we look at funding, that’s another barrier. It costs money to take part in sport. What about rather than spreading out participation funding into numerous clubs all over the place it was channeled into schools, hiring specialist coaches to teach the sport?
This way the kids get provision without having to pay, or pay as much. Then our funding is focused on the area where we can truly affect change and hopefully create a habit for a lifetime. It also allows for sport for all with the financial cost not bearing so much of burden.
An area I have been very impressed with is the facilities for sport at schools in South Africa. How many schools do you know with squash courts in the UK? In Pietermaritzburg I know of at least 8 with 2 or more courts. That provision of facilities has meant that programs can grow quickly with the right coaches.
The final thing that I think has allowed for growth in PMB is the competition and its system. In England our competition is very much individualized where we compete for ourselves more than for a team.
This means that we can get one single player appearing from a club far too often. The individual focus means we are looking to maybe produce one-off players from different places; it spreads funding and takes time to work well.
What if clubs or schools seek to produce teams instead? To have success you need a system – a conveyer belt to produce multiple players. Now all of sudden you have a sustainable method of success.
This is the system in South Africa, where a lot of importance is placed on producing schools teams, so you have schools with continual success and systems in place, and the pupils have pride in where they are from. The competition becomes a group effort and more satisfying to be part of.
These numbers at St Anne’s and the other schools are a fairly recent development and have grown over the last few years. I think one thing is for certain with that number of people now taking part the bar and standard of the talent pool will raise. St Anne’s and the other schools will now force Epworth to also raise their game.
I think what will be seen over the next few years with the right people and continued support will be another level of performance in girls squash. It will be interesting to see what happens.
Now, just take a moment to think about what could happen if we looked to adopt this system in the UK.
I feel our infrastructure for training coaches and looking after athletes showing interest and talent, is an area where South Africa lag behind the UK, which is great credit to the work that England Squash and Racketball has done at this level to lead the way here.
What we struggle with in England, though, is numbers. Numbers on their own have so many benefits for a sport. But imagine what would happen if we found a way to flood this system, that works at the top but not at the participation level.
What if we looked closer at another system, a new system, with schools at its base whether that is in a system similar to South Africa or integrated within a greater extent to our already existing club environment?
If we take an learn from some of these aspects evident in the way South African sport is run great benefit could be had.
Imagine if all of a sudden our ranking system had 400 girls playing at each age group rather than the 78 England currently has in the Girls Under-19 category. The increase in performance from an increased talent pool could be one way, and that is up.