Wednesday, July 24, 2024

The Big Interview: 11 points with Mohamed Abouelghar and the team behind his rise up the rankings

Mohamed Abouelghar in action in the PSA World Series Finals in Cairo

Wael El Hindi and an international support team give Abou the edge 
By ALAN THATCHER – Squash Mad Editor

Mohamed Abouelghar came very close to a surprise win over Karim Abdel Gawad in the recent PSA World Series Finals in Cairo. It was a quality performance from the 25-year-old, showing just how much he has improved this season with an international support team working hard in the background. 

Abouelghar had already beaten Gawad in his round-robin qualifying group, also toppling Paul Coll after losing to Ali Farag in his opening match.

In the semi-finals Abouelghar produced a stunning display to beat Tarek Momen after losing the opening game.

The final lasted 92 minutes, and, at 10-10 in the fifth, it was anybody’s. But Gawad got the edge in those vital points to win the title in front of an excited Cairo crowd at the open-air court erected at the Mall of Arabia.

One week earlier, Abouelghar had been one of the “groomsmen” at Gawad’s wedding. On finals day, we saw an electric battle between two of the greatest shot makers in the game. However, the length of the battle proves the depth of intelligent, strategic play that underpinned each man’s performance. 

Abouelghar’s performances this season have shown a significant improvement after hooking up with coach Wael El Hindi (based in New York), sports science experts Joerg Stadelmann and his girlfriend Laura Northeast, who live in the wilds of Essex. Back home in Egypt, he continues to work with lifelong friend Mohamed Farid.

Everyone in squash knows the flamboyant racket work that El Hindi employed on court during his heyday, not to mention a unique fashion sense.

Abouelghar is displaying the same kind of outrageous confidence in his racket ability, now backed up by some solid work on and off court to improve every area of his game, both physically and mentally. He began the season strongly, winning the China Open in September, beating Gregory Gaultier in the quarter-finals, Saurav Ghosal in the semis, and Coll in the final.

He won the Motor City Open in February this year, winning a tough quarter-final against Adrian Waller 11-9 in the fifth, beating Zahed Salem in the semi-finals and Diego Elias in another five-setter in the final. 

One of Abouelghar’s most significant results of the season was a four-game victory over new world champion Ali Farag in the quarter-finals of the Grasshopper Cup in Zurich. All the while he was picking up enough points to make the World Tour Finals, squeezing in as the eighth-ranked player.

After beating Farag, he lost in the Grasshopper semis to Momen, who had also beaten him in the third round of the World Championships in Chicago, so that victory over Momen in Cairo must have tasted sweet.

Here we get to meet the team behind one of squash’s rising stars.

1: It’s great to see Mohamed rising to a career high of No.7 in the PSA World rankings for June 2019, and doing so well in the World Series Finals. Please tell us about the work you have been doing together?

A: So many variables factor into competing at the highest level. Obviously the athlete himself, genetics and physiological characteristics; psychological elements such as personality and motivation and then the environment in which he competes, trains and develops in. Support from parents, family, friends and coaches are also important. Abou’s work ethic, resilience, dedication and talent aside, it is important to not forget that his previous coaches and family have laid the foundation for his current success, without their contribution our current work would be much more difficult, if not impossible.

We view squash as a team sport, we as a team, win together and we lose together. Within the team responsibilities are clearly defined and each team member is accountable for the outcome. We try to focus on the controllable and optimizable factors rather than worrying about what we can’t influence. Ultimately the most important thing is to prepare Abou for the physical, psychological and technical/tactical demands of world elite squash; we are happy that we have found a formula which suits him.

2: How did you all connect in the first place?

A: In 2014 Joerg was working as a physiologist/sports psychologist for a Sports Medicine clinic in London when Alister Walker just happened to wander in one day during the Canary Wharf Classic. (You were probably MC’ing as it happened, Alan!). This relationship led to connections with Tarek Momen, Karim Gawad, Mohamed and a number of other players – mostly from Egypt.

Abou has been training with Mohamed Farid, his hitting coach, since 2008. He has been through it all really and he has been with Abou since the U13s and therefore knows exactly how Abou operates.

In the summer of 2018 Wael El Hindi joined the team. It goes without saying that his work has benefited Abou’ s squash greatly. Wael was a hugely gifted player and is bringing something special into Abou’s game.

3: Please tell us about your own backgrounds in sport.

A: Joerg Stadelmann: a professional football player (Goalkeeper in Austria, US, UK).
Laura Northeast: played squash from a young age then got into running and is a fitness fanatic to this day!
Wael El Hindi: is the former world number 7 and an extremely talented player who is now coaching in the States.
Mohamed Farid: he played numerous national tournaments in Egypt and started coaching Abou at the age of 21.

Coincidentally Joerg and Laura have similar academic backgrounds, which they discovered when they met in Florida while Joerg was playing football and Laura was working at Chris Evert’s tennis academy. Both have Masters degrees in Psychology and Sport Science/Physiology.

4: What specific knowledge and strengths did you bring with you to help Mohamed?

A: Wael, as former world number 7, brings a wealth of squash expertise to the table which has helped Abou tremendously. Through Wael’s experience and coaching he has matured on and off court. Laura and Joerg use their academic backgrounds to optimise fitness, psychology and nutrition. Joerg has also played about 450 games as a professional goalkeeper and therefore knows what elite sports is about. Since Farid and Abou have been working together since 2008, he knows Abou’s mentality and way of operating inside out; his contribution to Abou’s development as an athlete is huge.

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5: What shape was Mohamed in when you started work, and how do you think he is performing now?

A: Mohamed first came to England five years ago. He was an easy canvas to build upon; very skillful, already fit, dedicated, resilient and open to new approaches. It was more about implementing a structured programme to build on those strengths and correct any weaknesses with the aim of allowing him to get as much squash training in as possible while keeping him healthy. The sports science facilities at Writtle University (in Chelmsford, Essex) allow us to conduct physiological and biomechanical diagnostics and then design tailored training blocks.

6: How easy or difficult is it to communicate between England, Egypt and the US?

A: With technology constantly evolving it is quite easy to put platforms and tools in place to facilitate constant exchange between all team members; for example all training prescriptions and plans are online, available wherever the tour takes Abou. We also have regular conference calls during which we discuss squash, fitness and psychological topics.

7: Logistically, how does it work? Do you go to Egypt, or does Mohamed travel to England?

A: Both. Mohamed has been here a number of times. He’ll either stay in London or with Laura and Joerg. Here we can utilise the Sport Science laboratory at Writtle University (Laura’s workplace) for the more advanced measurements such as specific endurance, strength and power tests. Last summer Joerg and Laura went to El Gouna (to support Mohamed Abouelghar and Mohamed Reda) and Joerg has been to Cairo twice to see the players. Abou also regularly spends time with Wael in New York, where they can utilise top-class facilities.

8: Without giving away too many secrets, what are the most important aspects of your work together?

A: The most important aspect is that Abou is very dedicated, resilient, talented and hungry; he is not only a great athlete to work with but also a nice and humble guy.

We have a respectful but honest team culture, we set high standards, and we challenge each other constantly. This environment allows people to learn from mistakes and take responsibility. All of us agree that development is a process and quick fixes or magic does not exist. On this basis everyone is willing to work hard towards a common goal.

9: Mohamed, how do you see the relationship developing?

A: Squash for me is a team sport and I need the right people around me in order to move forward and develop. I am very lucky to have knowledgeable and dedicated coaches around me who I can also trust on a personal level and not only professionally. I think having this relationship of trust is very important to have as an athlete.

10: Mohamed, from your point of view, what was the highlight of the season?

A: I think, I played well throughout the season. Winning two big titles and winning against players that I have never beaten before was great but reaching the World Series Finals would definitely come on top given the fact that it was in Egypt in front of my home crowd and family. It was really special.

11: What does the future hold for you now? How do you prepare for the ultimate challenge in squash, competing on level terms with the six guys above you at the top of the rankings: Ali Farag, Mohamed ElShorbagy, Tarek Momen, Karim Abdel Gawad, Simon Rosner and Paul Coll?

A: I am now in in my off-season but will be starting pre-season soon. We have set the goals for next season and together we plan on what has to be done. I do not really pay attention to rankings because I believe it is a big distraction. The goal is to be the best player I can be and develop. The focus is more on the process and what I can really influence, if we can do this then the results will take care of themselves.

Pictures courtesy of PSA


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