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Friday, June 18, 2021

Now’s the time for England Squash to rescue and rebuild our sport at every level

Andy Whipphttp://www.awsomesports.co.uk
Ex-professional player, top level coach for 17 years and owner of AWsome Sports squash clothing. Andy was the regular on-court coach to world champion and world No.1 Laura Massaro, day-to day coach to world No.4 Stewart Boswell and Commonwealth bronze medallist Nafiizwan Adnan.

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By ANDY WHIPP – Squash Mad Columnist

Keir Worth’s decision to step down from his role as CEO of England Squash offers a great opportunity for a failing organisation to inject some new ideas, reassess current protocols and transform the organisation to a powerhouse of leadership which squash in England deserves.

It’s easy to point fingers to a sport governing body and say that it is terrible but it is another thing altogether to know how to fix it – or even how to offer constructive criticism. This is not an attack on Keir, but there are certain areas which I feel need addressing immediately.

The communication is poor. England Squash needs to be a present organisation in squash players lives. They need to engage with the squash players of England. Every squash player from James Willstrop to a club player playing fourth division league matches on a Thursday night should feel valued.

I feel England Squash has always had an over-inflated sense of importance – always feeling that people and clubs should contact them instead of the other way around. England Squash should be touching base with clubs and even individual members on a regular basis, offering individual support. In order to undo 30 years of misfiring, elusive “leadership”, they need to become a regular, positive presence in our lives.

A new head of any organisation offers an easy way-in to begin communication streams. Simply ask for feedback and advice. Send out a short blanket form to gather feedback from thousands of squash fans and squash players in this country.

We’ve said it time and time again – squash is one of the most sociable sports which means people talk to each other, so therefore people have opinions and, in squash, usually well researched opinions.

People involved with squash are decent folk and my experience is that they love to help. Valuing its membership base, especially from a lower standard of competitor, can really help transform England Squash. Please listen to your people.

The junior tournament circuit must seriously be addressed. I regularly speak to disgruntled parents who are bemused by almost every aspect of the junior circuit in England.

Keir Worth

England Squash needs to help and encourage clubs to host events, not to hinder. Expensive fees for hosting and entering an event are often prohibitive. Clubs begin the day feeling positive and wanting to help the sport, then quickly have their hopes dashed by England Squash, and soon realise they are best to not have a relationship with the governing body and generally go it alone. This is bad!

England Squash should be trying to forge strong relationships with as many, if not every club in the country. Along with communications, club and regional junior development is a perfect place to start.

Media relations need to begin with the BBC and any other major outlets outside of squash. The sport needs to create a new legacy. In 2013, having Nick Matthew and Laura Massaro both holding the World Championship titles at the same time, should have been huge national news for our sport – but it wasn’t.

We have learned that Egypt created a national wave of excitement after Ahmed Barada’s exploits in front of the Pyramids. This led to a massive increase in participation in the country and on the back of that we now see Egypt dominating the squash world. England could have emulated this.

Cycling did it after the London 2012 Olympics and we still see cyclist after cyclist on the roads, which we didn’t see pre-2012.

I know squash isn’t lucky enough to have the stage of the Olympics, but we have some very powerful media outlets . . . just ask Harry and Meghan!

Local papers and local news channels can be a great place to start. Fifteen years ago the North West Counties Squash League printed weekly results and reports in my local papers. That service and relationship is long gone but there is no reason for it not to start up again – we just need someone determined and persistent enough to make it happen.

If local newspapers are given a written report every week they can fill column inches with minimum effort, so everyone’s a winner.

They may also choose to publish these articles online, or have switched their business to online only, and this is where the response from the squash market will be carefully monitored. Modern media outlets have sophisticated algorithms in place to count every visitor to every single article they publish, so if squash followers fail to engage then any new squash column may have a very short lifespan.

Looking at the international scene, if Sarah-Jane Perry wins a massive tournament in Egypt, beating the world numbers three, five and eight consecutively, as a squash fan wanting squash to grow in the UK, I wanna hear about it in the national news, not just on Squash Mad.

And England Squash should ride her wave, mentioning it whenever possible for at least a year to reach as many non-squash players as they can. Then hopefully she or someone else has new and even better news to celebrate and the cycle repeats. Even though squash is an individual sport it doesn’t mean we aren’t all in this together. Individual successes should be the sport’s successes and platforms for growth. Sponsors, after all, want to be associated with success.

Jonathon Power, pictured with Diego Elias, needed commercial help with his squash project in Toronto

We are not the only nation guilty of not making the most out of past successes. Look at Canada. They had Jonathon Power as World No.1 and World Champion, with Graham Ryding also in and around the top 10, and several other inside the world’s top 80 for over a decade – yet where are Canada now on the men’s international squash scene?

Power actually tried to set up a squash centre in Toronto, but it was a private venture and it was not well publicised. Making the switch from playing to management is a tough call and I know that JP and his team could have done with some serious commercial support.

Perhaps that’s where Squash Canada could have stepped in to help. It could have been a joint venture, creating a popular squash hub, attracting hundreds if not thousands of new players, as well as an elite training centre which would secure the future of the sport in Canada. Sadly, it lacked commercial direction, failed to take off, and quietly shut down. A start-up that never quite got started.

I feel England Squash need to utilise Laura and Nick as much as possible before it’s too late. Do not simply hope that they do a great job of promoting squash with their own private ventures (to which they have made a good start) but instead get involved with them, partner with them, fund them on major projects and do not let their names fade out. Create a wave of new interest and new potential using their knowledge and their legacy.

The approach to coaching at an elite level also needs to be altered if we are to compete again at the very top of the world rankings but I think that’s a topic for a more specific, technical coaching blog.

These are just a few ideas of where England Squash can look to inject some time and effort in this time of possible change and reform. This is not a character assassination of Keir Worth. England Squash had a very poor reputation way before he was the CEO.

I have absolutely no bad feeling toward Keir at all, but this situation merely offers time for a change and to fix a governing body which has been failing and faltering for several decades during which playing numbers have tumbled from three million to below 300,000. Addressing that decline in participation has to be the absolute number one priority.

England Squash must not continue along the same path because they are not governing in a way which our sport deserves. We play a wonderful sport and it needs to grow.

Lee Beachill

In a Sky Sports interview this week, PSA COO Lee Beachill (pictured) touched on one of the reasons squash is such an important sport for the world – it’s sociable. Players will need their squash fix more than ever after an ongoing global pandemic where social activity has been reduced to a bare minimum.

Squash needs our national governing bodies to grow our sport; to find ways to encourage more people to walk into their local squash club when they never have before; and certainly, in England, to increase our presence both nationally and internationally.

We would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions at this “possible” time of hopefully positive change for England Squash.

Feel free to post your comments below this article.

Pictures from Squash Mad archives 

 

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3 Comments

  1. As seems to be the case more and more these days, the sense of importance of the organisation seems to be greater than the fundamental reason for its existence. As someone who knows and likes Keir, I have no criticism of him personally, but from day 1, the “corporate” nature of communications spelt out a worrying trend towards self importance and a detachment from the grass roots. I personally was disgusted at the way the National Squash League, which I was involved in setting up with Peter Genever at Chichester many years ago, was “franchised” to an individual a couple of years ago and Chichester was “disinvited” to participate because the Club “didn’t make enough money”. So what? It was always a cost burden but the Club chose to support the league because of its long and proud association with the sport. This disinterest spills over into many areas – a disconnected coaching structure and the referred to lack of engagement with junior squash are good examples. The once almost failing PSA has turned the sport around at Professional level, it cant be that hard to revive the amateur and social game.

  2. Andy Whipp not afraid to be contentious & light the blue touch paper! Interesting reading, whether you share the viewpoint or not.
    Audited accounts are on ES website (take a bit of finding), showing the pressure all squash NGBs are under: huge reliance (2/3 income) on much-reduced Govt funding, leading to massive downsizing in staff (to 20 FTE) in recent yrs & the challenge of trying to do more with less.
    Strip out national event income – as far as you can tell from the accounts, tournaments seem to do no more than cover their own costs – only other material source of income is membership fees from clubs for themselves & their players. Too many clubs see this as an optional payment only necessary for team players – we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.
    But ES could do more to: make a more convincing case for payment; an easier process to register & activate; & start/continue to maintain regular engagement. TBF, has been getting better, but more needs to be done.
    Don’t need heroic leadership (in sense of trying to be – or over-pressurising by thinking you need to be – the saviour, command & control style) everything so inter-dependent nowadays has to be done with teamwork. But tone from top/CEO must be visible. Operating behind scenes inappropriate in time of crisis. Transformational leadership needs impact & influence – can’t be maximised if invisible.

  3. Peter – good comments.
    “Disinterested” and “disconnected” – you’re so right!
    The National / Premier Squash League has become so poor in the last five years because teams drop out – and of course teams want to drop out because of the way they are treated. I feel another article coming on…..

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