Interview: New Year message of hope from WSF president Zena Wooldridge
By ALAN THATCHER – Squash Mad Editor
World Squash Federation president Zena Wooldridge has sent out a message of hope for the game as we enter 2021. But she will also be demanding that the sport’s leaders look in new directions to rejuvenate the game to repair the damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic and to stop the steady drain in recent years of players switching to other racket sports.
I enjoyed an hour-long conversation with Zena a week or so after her election as the 10th WSF President, replacing outgoing President Jacques Fontaine at last month’s AGM.
We had hoped to hook up a little earlier but Zena was busy wading through hundreds of messages from around the world congratulating her on her appointment.
With precise timing, Zena has retired from her post as Director of Sport at the University of Birmingham to allow her the time to devote to the job of masterminding a global recovery of the sport she has enjoyed playing for most of her life.
She first picked up a racket at the Stourbridge Tennis and Squash Club as a 13-year-old and went on to play county squash for Worcestershire for more than 30 years.
We talked at length about plans for World Squash Day later this year and I look forward to continuing those conversations as we set about relaunching and rebooting this game.
September may seem a long way off, but medical opinion suggests that the Covid vaccination programme will take several months to roll out across the globe as nations large and small battle to contain a new and highly infectious strain of the coronavirus.
One of the key areas we discussed was putting the fun back into squash at grassroots level to attract a new generation of players. There is so much that squash can learn from rival racket sports, especially padel and pickleball, and from the sales techniques employed in the fitness industry to welcome new members.
Zena’s experience in managing the University of Birmingham sports facilities for thousands of student members as well as local residents, will be hugely valuable in that area.
She has extensive experience working in sport and served as President of the European Squash Federation between 2013-2019, is a former Chair of England Squash and continues to serve the governing body as an honorary Vice President.
In an interview shared by the WSF, Zena revealed her thoughts on her new role, what she will bring to the position and the short-term and long-term goals of the WSF.
Q: Zena, congratulations on taking over as WSF President. How does it feel to be elected into this role?
ZW: “It’s a mix of excitement and a little nervousness around all we’ve got to do, but it is an exciting opportunity to make a difference to squash over the next four years. There is an element of nervousness about how quickly we can bounce back from Covid, but all sports face similar challenges, with some nations hit more than others.
“Covid is hopefully a short-term challenge and we have to look long-term. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks responding to hundreds of really positive messages. If we manage to mobilise even part of that goodwill and that energy and expertise, we’ll come out of it well.
“We need to look at where we want to be in a year’s time and in four year’s time and I think there is an awful lot of goodwill and energy there behind the sport, and that’s a great starting point.”
Q: And what do you think you will bring to the role?
ZW: “Two key approaches. One is a strategic approach, I’ve written a range of strategies through my career, and the most ambitious have delivered some exciting outcomes. Secondly, and equally important, is a collaborative approach.
“We’re not going to move forward unless we all work together and pull in the same direction. The WSF Board will need to bring the Regional and National Federations and Presidents with us. And actually, the process of devising a new strategy is one the most effective ways of engaging Regional Federations and Member Nations.
“The President’s role is rather like the conductor of an orchestra. You can either be the conductor of a quintet or a full symphony orchestra, and it has to be the latter ~ to encourage as many as possible to share their thoughts. As a sport with relatively little resource, we deliver a huge amount voluntarily via WSF Commissions. But we also need to improve collaboration with Regional and National Federations.
“What I’ve tried to do during my career in sport is to create an environment where individuals and teams can thrive. People then give their best, they grow, feel proud of what they’re achieving and what the sport is achieving.”
Q: You’ve got years of experience in squash, what do you make of the state of the sport at the moment?
ZW: “COVID has hit every sport badly, and I think that will impact differently in different parts of the world. I hope squash will bounce back quickly, though some nations will find it easier than others. We have many different business models for sport and squash across the world, from our traditional squash nations to the new fast-growing markets. The pace of recovery will differ across all these.
“I hope the strength of our national and international junior competition structures will help the recovery, and we need to get that back as quickly as possible to avoid the erosion of that players base. We have a fantastic junior structure covering most WSF Regions, which unlike many sports covers age groups from Under 19s to Under 11s, a feature of our sport we should promote much harder.
“Squash has some great features that fit modern lifestyles so well. How well we market this is perhaps one of our key challenges going forward, and that’s where WSF and PSA [Professional Squash Association] have got to work really closely together. We can achieve far more together.”
Q: In terms of the next 12 months, what are the immediate things that you’ll be looking to work on?
ZW: “We need a combination of short-term targets for the next year and longer-term over a four-year strategy. Agreeing our organisational values will also be important. We also need to generate more income to give more scope for investment in the sport.
“Getting championships back up and running as quickly as possible will be paramount. That might not happen for another 3-6 months, and these are very difficult decisions to make in the face of so much uncertainty still. We also need to ensure we secure squash’s place in as many multi-sport games as possible as they are our best showcase to new global audiences.
“With Lorraine Harding retiring, we have limited office resource, in a sport which already relies heavily on voluntary expertise. So ensuring we have sufficient office resource and ensuring our commissions are able to operate effectively will be important. These are some of the key tasks. But the new Board needs chance to meet properly for the first time in early January to map out its short- and medium-term priorities whilst we get a strategy in place. At this stage I don’t want to go too far in pre-empting what the new Board might want to focus on.
“Some of those decisions will affect the Regional Federations and other stakeholders, who will need to be consulted. There is a healthy balance to be achieved between agility in our decision making and consulting the right people who are affected by our decisions.”
Q: You mentioned multi-sport games. Squash’s lack of inclusion in the Olympic Games has frequently been a much-debated topic in the sport’s community – what do you think we need to do differently to get squash included in the 2028 Olympic programme?
ZW: “First and foremost, we need to focus on what’s right for the sport. Our presence in other multi-sport Games is strong message to the IOC [International Olympic Committee]. Those are the best platforms to showcase our sport globally to wider audiences and we need to be as innovative as we can in how we present our sport to new audiences.
“Alongside that we have a great story to tell about the strength and depth of our junior competition structure such as across Asia and Europe, not only at U19s, but U17s, U15s, U13s and now U11s who are playing across our international competition structure. We need to promote this more effectively to explode the often-heard myths that squash is an ageing sport.
“We could debate this question for a lot longer. And we need to appreciate how important Olympic inclusion is to so many National Federations whose status in their national sporting eco-system and their core funding is so dependent on being Olympic. Hence, this will continue to be an important agenda item. However, we need to get squash to a position where we feel confident our next bid has a realistic chance of success, and not another diversion of focus and resources from other important development opportunities for the sport.”
Q: Shortly after taking over the position you spoke about how squash fits modern lifestyles really well – could you expand on what you mean by that?
ZW: “Having worked in the University sector for so many years alongside my squash volunteer roles, I saw how popular it is among young people. First of all, it provides an all-round workout in a short amount of time, and whether a student or professional, squash is a great solution to the challenges of scarcity of time and achieving the right work-life balance. At the same time it’s a very social sport and provides a range of competitive options from social player to the seriously competitive. Unlike many sports, there are so many facets to squash which enables players of all shapes and sizes to achieve a pretty decent level of play. We have world champions ranging from hardly 5ft tall to 6ft 5in tall.
“With the adoption of racketball (Squash 57) within the WSF family, we can also promote a sport genuinely suited for all generations too, a sport where grandparents can play with their grandchildren in a safe and fun environment.”
Q: You also spoke about how new technology can help the sport grow in the future – how do you plan on working with technology companies to enhance the sport?
ZW: “There is perhaps more we can do with the interface between creativity and technology. We have ongoing developments from ASB with glass floors and LED technology; we now have InteractiveSQUASH, and how many sports can turn a playing surface into a giant touch screen? We are almost combining esports with the physical aspect of squash. How creatively can we think to capture the hearts and minds of new young audiences for squash?
“I think there are some potentially very exciting developments there. We need to bring the right heads around the table to explore what’s possible.”
Q: Lastly, touching on the other appointments of Karim Darwish and Debendranath Sarangi as Vice Presidents – what do you think they will bring to their respective roles?
ZW: “I think we’ve got a really excellent Board with a great mix of experience, knowledge and skills. It’s really early days yet for this new Board, with 60 per cent new members, and we need to do some work to build the team, consider as a group where our strengths lie and where we may have some gaps. In Sarah [Fitz-Gerald] and Karim we have a deep understanding for the sport, with each of them also having different business perspectives from within the sport.
“Sarangi has a long career in senior leadership and board roles across a range of industries and in high level government positions, and alongside that in sport, and specifically squash and swimming. So all have their distinctive contribution to bring to the Board alongside the small executive team led by CEO William Louis-Marie.
“It is a small, compact team, and I am really looking forward to our Board meeting in January when we can start gaining some momentum on our priorities and look to getting back to competition as soon as possible. But there is no lack of work to do until we do.”
Pictures courtesy of WSF