Mixed messages about the game’s health as we aim for the Olympics
By RICHARD MILLMAN – Squash Mad Correspondent
Recently the Professional Squash Association announced appreciable increase in the prize money funds of both the men’s and women’s professional squash tours.
Within a few days of this announcement several other related announcements were made.
First, the National Governing Body of English Squash, England Squash and Racketball, and their parent body, Sport England, released alarming news of yet further decreases in participation numbers in England.
Next, the International Olympic Committee announced that squash would be considered for the 2020 games in Japan alongside seven other possible sports.
Other contributory events are also bubbling on the back burner.
New Zealand squash has lost a great deal of its funding and has had to resort to the extraordinary step of advertising for a national team coach just for the World Championships.
South African Squash has also lost a great deal of its previous funding and has resorted to charging various levels of registration fees to its participants – creating some strife in the ranks.
US Squash is seemingly a beacon of light in the participation gloom, although when one considers that squash is the fastest or second-fastest growing sport in a rapidly diminishing pool of sports participants, it is perhaps akin to a lake where one carniverous species is quickly gobbling up the few remaining fish in the habitat.
I don’t want to play the pessimist. I spend my life trying to build squash programs and help to develop the game.
For young professionals trying to make their way in the game, it is tough enough just to survive – never mind take time to consider whether or not the future of the game is in good shape and certainly they don’t have time to contribute to the development of the game. It’s hard enough to pay the rent and get enough to eat!
Nevertheless, we as a community need, I believe, a more cohesive approach and a more synergistic attitude toward ensuring the continued survival of our sport.
There are some important questions to be answered.
What empirical proof is there (if any) that professional and elite level competition contributes to increased participation and health of the game?
If there is none (and I do not know that to be true) there is a danger that the PSA and those with Olympic aspirations are, to mix metaphors, clutching at straws while Rome burns.
It is frankly very short sighted to celebrate increased prize money if there isn’t going to be anyone to win it in a few years.
Another question is how to help governing bodies, who have never had to market the sport outside the game, to train a new breed of Squash Program Developer.
The idea that Club Professionals – themselves desperately struggling to make a living and never having been trained in the art of new business development – should somehow be asked to shoulder this burden, is frankly living in cloud cuckoo land.
There are a few people that have learned to develop programs – living half of the time in the outside community – in schools, community centers, the mayors office, the local recreation department, fire stations, adult education programs, police stations etcetera and half the time in the clubs and centers; animating the recreational players who don’t want coaching with match-making services, leagues, round robins, social nights etcetera and also acting as support staff to the coaches – supplying them with new clients and regathering the clients who want to take a break from coaching and return either permanently or temporarily to recreational involvement.
Coaches are purveyors of technical skills to people who want to be taught. True, enough most good coaches spend time offering free advice both out of the kindness of their hearts and as a marketing ploy.
But asking them to build membership and participation outside the club is the quickest way to have them spreading themselves too thinly and at the same time asking them to spend their time at something they don’t even know how to do in the main.
In most squash countries schools desperately need activities and activity coordinators. Facilities are usually dormant – and actually all you need is a rebound net to teach at school initially – young people graduating from colleges need jobs, governments want a healthier population and to support apprenticeship programs, and National Governing Bodies need people to market and develop the sport at every level from national, to regional, to local, to club.
There are several of us that have the skills and experience to train Sports Program Development professionals and assistants, but until the whole community admits that the future is bleak unless the whole community comes together, that aid will go unused and we will continue to watch governing bodies struggling with a life-threatening problem that they don’t appear to have the resources or knowledge to overcome.
There are bright spots, such as the development of the sport in new countries, but are these new areas simply 10 or 20 years behind the traditional countries and the problems that they now face?
By pointing to increased prize money, the US Squash participation growth, new countries who appear to be doing well, and the game’s Olympic possibilities, are we simply delaying more decay and the ultimate demise of our sport?
Squash needs to be marketed to non-squash players and existing players need to be animated, entertained and retained.
We rode the wave of enthusiasm of the 1970s and the 1980s and never learned how to develop new business because we were so busy trying to keep up with the demand.
Well, the demand is gone. If we don’t want squash to be remembered as a fad or temporary craze we need to get everyone together and come up with a comprehensive development plan for participation.
Or we’ll be gone.
Richard Millman, USOC Developmental Squash Coach of the Year 2014
June 26th 2015