Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Zoe Shardlow: A salute to inspirational coach Graham Stevenson, who made learning fun

‘One of the things Graham Stevenson did best was create a culture of happy learning’
By ZOE SHARDLOW – Squash Mad Correspondent

If you are looking for a coach who can ignite a passion for squash in a child, teach them the soundest principles of technique and skill-mastery, train them to read and understand the game, build their confidence, foster good discipline and good humour, and inspire them to have the drive, determination and self-belief that they will need to reach their true potential – in short, a coach who is able to fully develop a player as opposed to just progressing or improving them – then you’ll be hard pushed to find one who can do that as well as Graham Stevenson.

For as long as anyone can remember, in fact since the dawn of the junior game, Stevenson has been a familiar figure at the heart of the English squash scene.

He is well-known and respected by generations of squashies in the county of Sussex, where he has been based since the 70s, and by a great many players, parents and coaches involved with the junior inter-county championships, most of whom will have observed, if not directly experienced, the difference he can make to a team of players when they are up against it in a tough encounter.

The softly-spoken coach, despite sometimes claiming to be ‘well over a hundred’, turns 70 this year, and though he looks not a great deal older than he did a third of a century ago when, as a young teen, I first assisted him with the county U12 squad, he has decided that after 43 years’ outstanding service to squash, now is the right time to call it a day.

Stevenson had occasionally mentioned ‘retirement’ prior to covid, but there was always so much still to be done. He wasn’t even done yet hitting a ball, as some top juniors found out at one of the last county squads we coached together, when he and I took the ‘A’ squad on at Christmas doubles and beat all but two pairs. After the enforced long break, he feels it is time to step back, a decision largely driven by his continuing need to avoid gatherings and minimise risk to his immunocompromised partner Jane.

The pair met at Loughborough where Jane studied Art and Graham, originally from Norwich, studied Biology and Physical Education and excelled at sports, representing Loughborough Colleges at squash, tennis, athletics and badminton, being Tennis Captain for two years, and gaining selection for the England UAU tennis team (where he partnered future national masters squash champion Ian Graham in the doubles).

It was the perfect background for someone who was going to enjoy a long career as a successful coach and coach educator, but Stevenson claims he only took up coaching as a stopgap: “I became a freelance squash coach whilst I was trying to decide what I really wanted to do, but I never did think of that something else,” he says.

Now, I could tell you about some of the juniors ‘GS’ has coached over the years (20-plus have played for England; 15-plus have gone on to turn pro; over a dozen are professional coaches, among them Mike Harris and Tim Vail); or what they have won (national titles for 10-plus players; an U16 British Junior Open for Danny Meddings; two World Deaf titles for Matt Hewitt; a world junior team title); or the number of Lancing College, Sussex and England teams he’s coached, managed, overseen to national and international wins; or the various squads he’s coached (Sussex ’79-‘21; England ‘80-’96 including the legendary inaugural U10/12 squads attended by Peter Marshall, Del Harris and a dozen other future stars; London & SE ’81-’99; Lancing College ’81-’21); or the holiday camps he ran from ’90-’01 that attracted players from 14 different countries; or the Portslade event he ran that was probably the first U12 event in the country; or the GS U11 intercounty festival he’s been running since ’08; or the hundreds of hours of admin he’s done for the county, much without pay; or the coaching courses he was thrilled to be invited to run in places such as Denmark, Italy, South Africa, Guernsey; or the Lifetime Achievement Award he received from England Squash.

But none of this will tell you anything about what he actually did or what it meant.

Over many years, Stevenson created fantastic squad environments where players of all abilities could learn and grow. He taught good, sound fundamental technique, prioritised skill acquisition and inspired youngsters to believe in themselves.

With a background in physical education he understands a great deal about the actual process of learning and, as well as working with players and coaches, has spent a good deal of time educating parents, an important and often overlooked aspect of junior development.

There are plenty of others who have been key players in the Sussex story, but as head coach Stevenson has provided the glue that has held the whole thing together and he has inspired the culture that has enabled all elements to work together and thrive, culminating in a recent period of great success for the county that has seen them feature in dozens of finals and lift ten titles in the past eight years.

One of the things that Stevenson did best was create a culture of happy learning, where players were encouraged to own their own game and given an environment in which they could flourish.

For a couple of years in the late 80s I was lucky enough to have attended his mid-week squad, held at Lancing College. I thoroughly enjoyed every single session, Graham was always cheerful and attentive, and every week I came away having learned something and improved.

That’s just how it was, or so I naively thought. It was only years later when I started coaching, that I began to realise that this wasn’t just some lucky occurrence and that Graham had been entirely in control of establishing and maintaining an environment that enabled us all to thrive; to express ourselves freely; to learn at our own pace and to choose our own pathways, which for some of us led to county/country representation, national/world titles and even careers in the sport, as pros, coaches, or administrators.

This assessment is backed up by Stevenson’s reply when I ask him what he thinks are the keys to his success. He lists, with typical humour: “My enthusiasm… apparently; a professional pride in always trying to do my best, even on bad days; and an educationalist’s endeavour to always teach something, with conspicuous use of questioning – to keep players awake – so a player/squad goes away with something positive.”

He was also genuinely inclusive, able to adapt to diverse individual needs, and a fantastic coach for girls as he recognised that girls and boys could have equal potential but respond best to different approaches, due to being differently socialised.

The more I learn about coaching, the more I appreciate just how good he was. I consider myself enormously privileged to have had the opportunity to work alongside Stevenson at the Sussex county junior C and Feeder squads over the past decade. I can’t think of a better way to learn the art of coaching than from a master.

However, it is not easy to convey how incredibly brilliant and influential Stevenson has been as a coach – and just how hugely underrated – without sounding like something of a raging sycophant.

I haven’t even started on how good he is at the technical side of coaching. His ability to suggest simple adjustments that immediately improve technique is a thing of wonder, but his ability to get even very young children to do the same thing is even more astonishing.

Fault diagnosis and correction, they call it, but Stevenson would never refer to the process in such negative fashion. He might talk about a particular result having a particular cause and then suggest a specific change that will produce a better result.

With no blame connotations, he was able to use players in demonstrations and get the squad to identify things that were happening and improvements that could be made, without causing any embarrassment.

Stevenson believes they are capable of doing it and sooner or later they believe they are too. I’ve seen six-year-olds engage with this process and confidently make the most astute and perceptive observations, assessments and suggestions.

Remarkably – or perhaps not, in a culture where all too often coaches are esteemed more for playing ability than for teaching expertise – in the 90s Stevenson’s methods were considered unfashionable by some, but the truth is he was a man ahead of his time and the skilful, attacking and inventive play he encouraged and facilitated had more in common with the Egyptian way of play than with what most other coaches were doing at that time.

He always kept his coaching contemporary and was constantly thinking of ways to improve what he was doing. He was thrilled when players he taught were complimented on their skilful play by coaches he respected.

Stevenson was often seen at Chichester’s PSL matches, looking like he was there to pick up an award for sartorial elegance whilst checking out what the best in the game were bringing to the table.

Over time, I’ve found it a common theme that the more a person understands about the art of coaching, the more they value Stevenson’s contribution. So I’ve been able to call in some second opinions from a couple of the most highly-rated coaches in the game.

This, from Jonah Barrington, appeared as the foreword to Stevenson’s book, ‘How To Play Squash’, published in 1990, which should be considered required reading for all prospective coaches, particularly the ‘Coach In Action’, ‘Practice’ and ‘Speaking From Experience’ chapters:

“Graham has so many abilities which he can so skilfully transfer to, and instil in, those who work with him. His squash coaching is obviously at the heart of the matter, but the success of the National Junior system during this decade is without doubt due in no small part to his aptitude for organisation. That can often be maintained through rigid regard to the rules, but Graham has an engaging sense of humour and an instinctive understanding of when to crack the whip, and when to lighten the mood. He is always well-prepared, immaculately groomed, and an object lesson in so many ways to keen observers and pupils, both players and coaches.”

Australian coaching legend Len Steward also worked alongside Barrington and Stevenson on the early national U12 squads. When I first mentioned Stevenson, he came back with just two words: “World class.”

He also acknowledged Stevenson’s ability to create a relaxed vibe and get the best out of players:

“The thing that so impressed me about Graham was his ability to relate so effortlessly with the kids in the English Squads …to parent them, guide them, teach them, keep them happy, enthusiastic, motivated and ready to work. The kids really responded to his cheerful ‘discipline’.

“That’s mostly what prompted me to declare him to be one of the best junior coaches in the world at that time,” says Steward, who also recognises one of the character traits that makes his peer such a standout: “He REALLY cared!”

The pair have plenty in common. As well as a belief in measurable skill development, they share a love of poetry; Stevenson writes poems to cheer up players or coaches who are ill, injured or otherwise out of sorts, or leaving the country, and both use easily-remembered rhymes as part of their coaching: ‘Don’t be a wally, hunt the volley’ and, ‘To vary height, and control the pace, just open up the racket-face’ are two of Stevenson’s classics and there are any number of little phrases he has repeated so often down the years that they have seeped deep into our county psyche. ‘Arrive balanced’, ‘Knuckles up the wall’ and, ‘Good technique looks good,’ spring immediately to mind.

Stevenson, who could easily lay claim to being the nicest man in squash, says his own philosophy has been as follows: ‘Always do your best, be ambitious for your players, but never lose sight of the fact that it is a game, although there are life-lessons to be learnt, which is also part of the good coach’s responsibility.’

This sentiment is reflected in the three things Sussex players are told are expected of them when they represent the county: “Try your hardest, behave your best, try to enjoy it.”

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Asked what advice he would give to coaches starting out, Stevenson offers these wise words: “Make learning fun, focus on skill, try to generate a relaxed learning situation, but take the job seriously, and expect to have to work really hard in order to earn a living.”

Stevenson also talked about preparing well and the importance he places on note-taking and debriefing: “Preparation is key – if you don’t know where you are going, how can players follow you?

“With my individual coaching, I believe my method of always writing ‘coaching notes’ at the end of each session, for a player to take away, provided an important attention to detail, with a record of performance and a list of what and how to practise (and I never found any other coach who did the same).

“With squad coaching, I have always believed that the ‘get-together/debrief’ on one court following each activity, is a format crucial to learning (even if many would rather you talked less and let them just play more).”

Indeed, it is just this willingness and ability to talk that I believe is one of the things that sets Stevenson and other great coaches – and coach-educators – apart (attention to detail being the other).

I’ve seen any number of kids, who can’t seem to sit still for 30 seconds in other situations, stand for minutes on end, hanging on his every word as he explains to the group not just what it is they are going to be practising and how, but crucially the wider context of when, how and why they might want to use this skill in a rally/match, and what impact it could have on their opponent both physically and psychologically. He then follows play with a debrief.

By always framing the practice in this way, he coaches players to think, as well as to do. With the level of understanding of the game this generates, it perhaps should come as no surprise that at least a dozen of the players he has worked with have gone on to become professional coaches themselves, some already producing multiple champions and all ensuring the squash gospel according to GS continues to be spread throughout Sussex, across England and around the globe.

Stevenson is especially proud of the role he has played as a coach tutor: “I always felt it could be approached in exactly the same friendly/relaxed manner of my coaching, despite the need to deliver a syllabus and pass or fail candidates… thank heavens for Not Yet Competent.” And he always hoped that he was “steering candidate coaches towards good habits for their future careers”.

He claims he always felt challenged by the task, “not least when tutoring at Levels Three and Four, with ex-pros such as Brett Martin, Rae Anderson, David Pearson, Paul Carter, Danny Lee and Mo Kalifa to keep happy,” but says it was also, “very satisfying to see ex-pupils like Gayle (Pink nee Kerrison) and Mike (Harris) graduating”.

He was thrilled to get an assignment one year to take a trip to Argentina, with Paul Wright, to deliver a professional course.

As for future plans, Stevenson says he and Jane aim to move to, “somewhere quiet, peaceful, beautiful, and near the sea, with lots of space, and great walks, and then to have some of the holidays which were not possible as a full-time professional squash coach, for reasons of time and the challenge of earning a living.”

Asked if he might go back to any coaching, he says he is not intending to, feeling that he has ‘been there, done it’, but he leaves the door open for himself, as he always has done for players, saying: “It’s time to move on for a change, but who knows?”

If he doesn’t return, he says he hopes that he “got out whilst (he) was still credible”.

He should have no worries on that score, as there are few who will ever be anywhere near as credible, but the fact that he makes it a consideration tells you much about the man he is.


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