Women’s pro squash is better than ever, but the game needs huge help at grass-roots level
By ANDY WHIPP – Squash Mad Columnist
After reading Ed Alvarez’s excellent column a few days ago, it had me going back to this blog I wrote a few months ago.
Ed got me thinking about grass-roots squash and getting a mass of players to play at the entry level – focussing on the bottom of the pyramid not the top – specifically to increase girls’ participation in squash, which is dying even quicker than the game in general.
If squash clubs can attract girls to pick up a racket, family memberships will soon follow, often turning one junior member into a family of four, and that is very simple maths, even for the dimmest of club committees!
For the last four years, women’s football has been the fastest-growing sport in the UK – and it is still growing. Incredibly, participation continued to accelerate despite the various COVID lockdowns in the last 12 months.
Only five years ago it was a sport regularly mocked and ridiculed by male TV football pundits – yet despite that, it has seen massive growth in the last decade. The standard has increased at a phenomenal rate and, pre-Covid, women’s games were attracting impressive crowds to the main club stadiums instead of playing in front of small crowds at a local non-league ground.
Yes, it is not as good as men’s football, and it is difficult not to make comparisons – but it is now good enough to be watched on TV and thoroughly enjoyed. Crucially, women’s football is also able to attract the sponsorship to make this happen.
The standard is increasing so quickly due to increased grass-roots play over the last 10 years.
The players we saw competing for England 10 years ago are not nearly as good as they are now. This is because many of those England players did not begin playing until they were 16 or 17 years old.
Would Lionel Messi have been as good as he is if he hadn’t started playing till that age? Definitely not. At that age it is too late to master certain base skill sets.
However, the players turning out for the national team now, and in the top English Women’s Super League (FA WSL) clubs like Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal, have all been playing since they were eight or nine years of age.
They have had time to develop the skills from a much younger age – an age when learning physical skills is considerably easier. This is why the improvement seen on the professional stage is so dramatic in such a small space of time.
Fortunately, FIFA committed one billion dollars to the growth of women’s football one year ago and the money was ring-fenced despite the coronavirus pandemic.
The quality of football we have seen from 2019 onwards is because of those nine-year-old girls a decade ago who were inspired to play – AND had a platform to play – all because women’s international football was given its first real coverage – even if it was mocked!
Girls’ teams were often established for training purposes only, as often there wasn’t the local structure to support them initially beneath county league competitions. The first league options were to enter a local boys league. But at least it was a start. Soon followed girl specific leagues in some areas.
The last five years has seen an incredible rise in female-only leagues in every area of the country – and now there are some women-only academy training programmes girls can attend (separate to being scouted by a professional club) so we are only going to see the standard increase further, year on year.
The standard of professional women’s squash has been steadily increasing every few years, but I think the last couple of years has seen a sudden jump in the speed and athleticism on display. The result is that women’s squash has never been better to watch than it is now – so how can we make the most of this to increase participation in the UK?
The UK is definitely getting left behind when you look at the girls British Open and World Open squash results over the last 15 years – so something has to be done to change this; we can’t just hope it will change.
The rise of women’s football coincided with the collapse of most women’s county squash leagues in England, and we need to work harder to provide meaningful competition for those females who want to improve their game but can’t find a team to play for.
The FA recognised that at grass-roots level it was helpful for girls to play only with and against other girls. I think squash should do the same.
Most junior squash leagues in the UK are mixed. I suggest each county creates a girls-only junior league at the weekend, with all ages catered for – so an Under-11 League, Under-13 League, and an Under-15 League. Maybe leave out the Under-17 and Under-19 age categories for now until demand increases.
I do believe that to become a successful senior sportswoman, they need to play against men, but that can come as and when the individual grows in skill and confidence.
Initially I can see, from what the FA have done, that giving girls an option of separating away from the boys will only increase confidence and participation numbers – which will quickly lead to increased levels of performance and quality.
This approach will quickly snowball as more national role-models are created to inspire the next generation of champions.
How Andy can help your club
AWsome Sports creator Andy Whipp is now offering squash consultancy / sports club consultancy. Given his many years’ experience of all things squash at every level of the sport, and after countless people asking for his advice on a range of squash and club matters, he has decided to use his expertise to offer a FREE squash consultancy service.
AWsome Sports are happy to help with league and club committee ideas and decisions, as well as squash advice to parents and professionals.
So if you need some general advice, inspiration, fresh ideas, or a mediator for your club or league committee debates – please contact Andy at [email protected] for more information.
Picture courtesy of England Squash
Kudos to Andy for offering his consultancy services free of charge .. that’s quite a comittment to help the development of squash in the UK.
IMO girl only leagues are a way down the road though.
First of clubs have to get numbers into their junior sections. Once you fill your available junior squads, then there may be opportunities to have girl only groups and then competition against other club’s girl only groups.
Personally I think it all starts with outreach work to local schools and then making sure your junior sessions are engaging and fun.