We need to break through these barriers to our sport or new players will go elsewhere
By CHRIS SARGENT – Squash Mad Correspondent
The failure to once again get into the Olympics feels like a hammer blow to our sport. It is not. The future of our sport is in our hands.
But, let’s face it, squash and racketball are not sports that are particularly easy to take up. The “barriers to entry” are high and many of our clubs are not even aware of these barriers. We act surprised when club membership falls but don’t (or won’t) address the root cause.
If you take a typical squash club, the route for a new member to start playing squash is something like:
1. Find out about the benefits of squash as a game
2. Decide that you would like to give squash a try
3. Find a local club and find somebody to play with
4. Go to the club
5. Get in through the club’s main entrance (not always easy)
6. Find and get into the courts (usually behind a key lock or something like that)
7. Find somebody in the club to talk to about getting a game or trial session
8. Justify to themselves the cost of membership
9. Start to learn to hit the ball whilst trying to play somebody who has been playing for years (not easy, even of they are not very good in Squash terms)
10. Have the determination to keep going rather than going to the gym next door and doing a “Spin Session” or “Blaze” or whatever the latest fad is
Through all these steps, the anxiety levels rise and the temptation to give up and do something more accessible rises also.
As a sport, we have to address the challenges at every one of these steps.
Firstly, squash is not exactly the first sport that people think of trying. Many (particularly the young), have no idea what squash is. Those who remember squash in the 70s and 80s think of a game that was for elites, caused heart attacks and was all about how much testosterone you had. Let’s face it, our sport has a serious image problem.
We should also be aware that the raising the prominence of the elite level of our sport may actually exasperate this problem among the general public. Squash enthusiasts love watching our heroes play two-minute rallies. But, to the ordinary mortal, this just looks too much like hard work and inevitably brings about talk of heart problems and damaged knees.
Now, once you are a regular player, particularly for juniors, role models are not just important but vital. And that then raises the next issue.
We currently lock our heroes behind closed doors. Well, actually, behind “pay per view” TV channels in Europe. The coverage of SquashTV is brilliant, much better than the rest of Eurosport! But you need a subscription to watch it!
We target our social media at other squash players, not at potential new players (a picture of the Colombian Cannonball Miguel Rodriguez diving is impressive but doesn’t really encourage a slightly overweight 20 or 30-something to give it a go!)
So, what do we do? Well, as a squash community, we need to look at how to make the sport more accessible and shout it from the rooftops.
All us enthusiasts treat squash as a lifestyle. We get fit to play squash, we think about it all the time, we live for our team matches. We talk about “going to the club”, even when we are not playing, just to be around the sport.
But we keep this secret to our own tiny network, building our own community. And, by definition, this is a small community. It is usually limited to our own club with occasional discussions at inter-club matches.
So, we need to break down the barriers to others accessing this lifestyle. I strongly believe that everyone has a responsibility in this. The clubs for reducing the barriers to entry, the wider community for preaching the word of squash and getting it front and centre of fitness options.
Our clubs and associations need to think about the route to squash for non-players. For example, why are the doors of squash clubs usually locked? If this is necessary? Is there another way? Perhaps we should be looking at a virtual receptionist services or another technological approach?
We need to provide group coaching at all levels to help people take up this wonderful sport. If one club is too small, a group of clubs need to get together to drive this. Ease new members into the club environment and get them quickly up to a level where they can play in our box leagues and other (hopefully fun) competitions.
England Squash have worked hard to create ideas for pathways but these lack “penetration” into our clubs (Squash 101, #SquashGirlsCan etc). Why is this? An uncharitable view would be that some of us prefer to be able to book a court whenever we want to play the person we always play, rather than risk losing our “weekly slot”.
Each of us, as enthusiasts, have a responsibility to be “ambassadors“ for our game. I have personally failed on this count myself (to my shame). Picture the scenario:
Somebody has navigated the barriers above to step 7 (quite an achievement) and are looking for somebody to assure them that the sport is for them and help them get going.
However, I am on court playing a league match. I am 2-1 up in a tough encounter and just won the vital point at 7-5 to make it 8-5 (a big psychological blow for my opponent). I spot a new person. They look a bit sheepish and lost on the balcony. I know I should stop, say hello and talk to them. But, what about the game? I decide to play out the match and talk to them later so as not to break the momentum.
Guess what? Too late. They have gone, never to return, with the stereotypes of squash as elitist and unfriendly only reinforced.
Now there is an old adage in retailing that an unhappy customer will tell between nine and 15 people about it. Imagine that, just because I decided to put off being sociable and friendly, I might have lost up to 15 potential members for my club?
I know my “faux pas” is not unique. I have seen it several times at our club. Somebody walks in, people are around waiting for a court but don’t break their conversation to say hello.
Making a club and our sport more accessible is not just about buildings. It is about people and making squash welcoming and inclusive across the board. Squash is a numbers game. The more players we get into it, the more sustainable our sport will become and the more chance we have of “going for gold”.
My manifesto for change from a club level? Well:
1. Every club needs to look at the route to membership and remove the barriers stopping new members
2. All our advertising and promotion should include a link to the England Squash “Court Finder” (https://www.englandsquash.com/finder) as well as push our own sessions
3. We need to work together as a community to promote squash as a fitness and social lifestyle
4. We need to encourage all our members to be ambassadors for our sport, welcoming new people, talking positively about the benefits and getting on court with beginners to help them enjoy this sport
5. As clubs, or groups of clubs, set up group coaching sessions for beginners – let them decide which club they join – it benefits us all
6. Encourage our juniors to be proud of their sport. To talk about it to their friends, to invite them along to give it a go.
World Squash Day 2019 is a great opportunity for us to start this journey. Let us all set about giving the Gift of Squash to the world.
So, the big idea. On October 12, 2019, let’s organise the biggest Squash Taster Session, “The Big Hit”, our sport has ever seen.
Let’s get as many people as possible trying this great sport on October 12. Let’s use our collective social media contacts and networks to spread the word and start to build our sport from the ground up.
After the latest Olympic setback, delivering a successful World Squash Day programme is essential for the sport.