Friday, December 1, 2023

South Africa wins the numbers game

The girls at St Anne's love squash
The girls at St Anne’s love squash

Sports culture in South Africa brings hundreds of children to the squash courts 
By JOSH TAYLOR – Squash Mad Coaching Correspondent


As squash in England is reeling from the publication of the latest set of participation figures, there are plenty of lessons to be learned from a sports-mad country like South Africa.

Let’s begin this article with the following question: Is our sporting infrastructure allowing for maximum participation and future sporting performance?

As a coach within my day-to-day sessions I am always looking at ways in which my pupils can improve and hone their skills.

As humans I believe we have an innate desire to improve and make better our skills. We often look at the raw skill but less often do we take stock of the direct improvement and look at the bigger picture. The environment, the infrastructure and its co-founding all have an affect on us.

Over the last few months I have been based in South Africa. I managed to set up the opportunity to spend a couple of months coaching primarily at a girls’ private boarding school in Pietermaritzburg (PMB) called St Anne’s Diocesan College.

PMB is a small town located an hour outside of Durban. As most small towns it doesn’t attract massive amounts of tourism or have huge amounts of attractions, but what it does have is an amazing sporting culture.

It plays host to numerous events such as the UCI Mountain Bike and trail World Championship, the Duzi Canoe Marathon on its river, the Midmar Mile a large open water swim and just this Sunday the Comrades ultra marathon.

Everyone in the place is active and has a huge interest in sport. For such a small town it’s also not short of its sporting greats Jonty Rhodes, Butch James, Kevin Pietersen, and from the world of squash Steve Coppinger to name a few.

I first visited last year for just a short time to do a bit of coaching while also partaking in the Jarvis Cup – the inter-provincial championships for squash.

Since my last visit I have seen a large growth in squash in the town, and particularly in girls squash. I feel the infrastructure they have in place has allowed for this.

Girls’ squash has always been strong in the area, spear headed by the rival school to the one I have been working in called Epworth, who have had years of dominance. It was not until the last few years that the numbers have noticeably grown at the other schools.

Epworth has brought along with it now great competition from its rivals, St Anne’s where I am working is its closest, however, at least two other schools have strong programs, with virtually all the schools in the town having some sort of provision for coaching, and this is in a town of 400,000 people.

To give an idea of numbers this term at St Anne’s is the biggest on record for squash, with more than 100 girls playing each week which, is a quarter of the school, and easily half of those playing at least three times a week.

Now I don’t know any single venue in the UK or outside of Egypt for that matter where that number of girls has been recorded in taking part in squash and that frequently.

There is a big thing within the infrastructural set up that I feel has allowed for great growth. That is the sporting set up for better provision, within the schools, for sport. Let’s have a look at some of the factors here:

Schools sport 
Our provision in the UK for sport, if you exclude a handful of private schools, is at clubs. Now that’s a barrier for kids to take part, as they have to travel from their school to a club, this requires parental support as they require transport. It also requires time to get to venues and a financial cost to the parents.

The school sport set-up gives more children the opportunity, hence opening up the chance for more friendship groups to form, breeding loyalty, as they will want to continue to do the same thing as their friends, hence allowing for groups of people participating rather than them coming as individuals, which makes for a more fun environment that people want to be part of. One final aspect is that the large majority of these schools are boarding.

Boarding means that the girls are based where the courts or sports facilities are, on weekends and in free periods it’s easy for them to go down and enjoy playing some sport with friends or just by themselves. This often takes a lot of organization and relies on others outside of schools.

This is balanced with the other commitments our children have in homework and other activities. This puts very tight pressure on time. Now what if the sport was at school? There is no travel time; less time wasted and more practice which is easily self-driven by the child.

There is a second thing and that is the time we finish school. Often the school day finishes much later than South Africa; in the UK our typical day finishes at 3.00 to 4.00. Now what if the day finished at 2.00?

Now, all of a sudden, there is an extra hour for sport. If we start earlier, we could maximize more of the day and use more of the afternoon for other extra curricular activities. The coach’s time is also a crucial element. In clubs, coaches have to spend large amounts of the day in day to day running, and also have to spend large amounts of time in advertising activities to make them a success.

In one school a coach’s time is now pinpointed, their advertising can be done with much less cost to time as they have 400 people on their door step and more time can be spent in the front line, coaching.


Finally if we look at funding, that’s another barrier. It costs money to take part in sport. What about rather than spreading out participation funding into numerous clubs all over the place it was channeled into schools, hiring specialist coaches to teach the sport?

This way the kids get provision without having to pay, or pay as much. Then our funding is focused on the area where we can truly affect change and hopefully create a habit for a lifetime. It also allows for sport for all with the financial cost not bearing so much of burden.


An area I have been very impressed with is the facilities for sport at schools in South Africa. How many schools do you know with squash courts in the UK? In Pietermaritzburg I know of at least 8 with 2 or more courts. That provision of facilities has meant that programs can grow quickly with the right coaches.

Look at the number of players on that ladder
Look at the number of players on that squash ladder


The final thing that I think has allowed for growth in PMB is the competition and its system. In England our competition is very much individualized where we compete for ourselves more than for a team.

This means that we can get one single player appearing from a club far too often. The individual focus means we are looking to maybe produce one-off players from different places; it spreads funding and takes time to work well.

What if clubs or schools seek to produce teams instead? To have success you need a system – a conveyer belt to produce multiple players. Now all of sudden you have a sustainable method of success.

This is the system in South Africa, where a lot of importance is placed on producing schools teams, so you have schools with continual success and systems in place, and the pupils have pride in where they are from. The competition becomes a group effort and more satisfying to be part of.

These numbers at St Anne’s and the other schools are a fairly recent development and have grown over the last few years. I think one thing is for certain with that number of people now taking part the bar and standard of the talent pool will raise. St Anne’s and the other schools will now force Epworth to also raise their game.

I think what will be seen over the next few years with the right people and continued support will be another level of performance in girls squash. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Now, just take a moment to think about what could happen if we looked to adopt this system in the UK.

I feel our infrastructure for training coaches and looking after athletes showing interest and talent, is an area where South Africa lag behind the UK, which is great credit to the work that England Squash and Racketball has done at this level to lead the way here.

What we struggle with in England, though, is numbers. Numbers on their own have so many benefits for a sport. But imagine what would happen if we found a way to flood this system, that works at the top but not at the participation level.

What if we looked closer at another system, a new system, with schools at its base whether that is in a system similar to South Africa or integrated within a greater extent to our already existing club environment?

If we take an learn from some of these aspects evident in the way South African sport is run great benefit could be had.

Imagine if all of a sudden our ranking system had 400 girls playing at each age group rather than the 78 England currently has in the Girls Under-19 category. The increase in performance from an increased talent pool could be one way, and that is up.



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  1. Excerpt from a letter to interested parties that was prompted by Josh’s excellent article above:

    The point he (Josh) makes about the opportunity in schools is precisely the point I have been making about the UK, with primary schools crying out for after-school coordinators. Similarly in the US, apart from Basketball there are few choices for Winter sports and schools are open to other programs. As to facilities, I hear what he says about transport but that is not insurmountable especially as so many facilities are practically dormant.

    But as to why they are dormant and the ultimate participation of the sport Josh doesn’t speak to and that is, in my opinion, the failure to animate and entertain adult recreational Squash players who don’t want to be involved in taking coaching all the time.

    Both the entry level schools players, the entry level adult player and the existing adult recreational player need to be animated, entertained and retained and Squash coaches have neither the skillset nor the time to do this if they are doing their jobs properly. Their job is to teach the technical skills of the game. As I have said many times recently modern Squash rode a wave of popularity that flooded the sport with players in the mid to late seventies and eighties and as a consequence no one stopped to say to themselves: ‘ Hmmm – it’s going great now, but maybe we should plan for times when we aren’t inundated with players and when we will need to go out and find new business because it isn’t coming in on it’s own.’

    This is why I am pleading with Squash associations to train a new breed of market maker – Squash program directors – whose role is to spend part of their time (the evenings and weekends in the main) in clubs, animating new and existing players by developing fun programs such as leagues, round robins, play the pros, and simple match-making to make sure that ordinary Squash players are stimulated and receive value-added for their membership – and consequently don’t drift away; and part of their time out in the community recruiting new players and running simple and fun entry level school programs before the more serious players are passed on to the expert coaches and after which we retain the players who simply want to play for fun, within the recreational program in the club.

    We need a new paradigm for a new world where we need to grow and retain new business.

    The old one was based on existing need – which ain’t there any more.

  2. Hi Richard,

    Thanks for reading the article, and your interest in the topic! Always nice to have someone else also bring ideas to the table.

    I completely agree. I think your points are great ones. I really like the fact that you have brought ideas of ways to change the system as well.

    Our sport is full of squash enthusiasts, and we are blessed with a core of very active individuals. However, our sport is also still struggling at times and in some areas, even with some of the best minded individuals in the game at their heart.

    I think the key thing here is the ability to look at the box that they sit in and at the structure they are working within. This is at times is what is affecting us and not the personnel that work within them.

    When we look into that in more detail and are bold enough to change the structure of what people know, we can see what the potential holds for our sport.



  3. Josh, great reading your article!

    I am a St Anne’s old girl and I think one point you don’t mention, but is also valid to your argument, is that at St Anne’s, girls have to take (ie it is compulsory, at least when I was there) at least one sport per term.

    This did not have to be a competitive sport and we were lucky that we had activities such as dance classes, martial arts or social swimming/tennis/squash etc, where girls were taught the basics, but then left to have fun in a non-competitive environment, which makes sport that much more enjoyable for people who aren’t competitive but want to exercise. I think having compulsory sport helps to ingrain a habit of exercising into people which is so important later in life.

    I think that many similar schools in South Africa have the same policy and this is another reason that the school sport concept works so well.

    • Dear Cath
      Thank your for writing in. I think you have hit the nail on the head with regard to women’s attitude to squash. A large number of females love the game for the fun and fitness, and the social side, and have no real interest in committing themselves to playing competitively.

      The sport cannot afford to overlook groups like this and should be embracing them.

      Best wishes,


  4. Hi Josh – some very interesting ideas, especially coming from an ‘outsider “.And the Pietermaritzburg area is a hive of sporting activity with some very driven and passionate individuals and some incredible schools Our South African Schools sport structures and systems allow for huge potential…. it is wonderful to go to school in South Africa. There are, however, also a huge amount of negatives that need to be looked at to balance the scales. There are definitely benefits to both the School and the Club systems. Will hopefully expand later.. but have League tonight, so might be tomorrow. Alan Stapleton

    • Hi Alan,

      I completely agree it’s was great to be able to be based in such an environment and be able to gain these thoughts.

      I do see that there are areas lacking in South Africa that could be improved, but the level of enthusiasm you have mentioned has been amazing to see in our sport, I know places that would love to have the same reception that squash gets in SA.

      I shall look forward to seeing your further points. Good luck in league!


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