Wednesday, April 24, 2024

MILLMAN: Damning verdict on health of world squash

Head bowed, WSF president N Ramachandran walks behind squash legends Ramy Ashour and Sarah Fitzgerald as the IOC announces that wrestling has been returned to the 2020 Olympic Games
Head bowed, WSF president N Ramachandran walks behind Ramy Ashour and Sarah Fitzgerald as the IOC rejects the Olympic bid by squash
  • We are not a mainstream sport throughout the world
  • In Australia there is hardly a coach earning a full-time living
  • Administrators are sadly impotent
  • Governing bodies make decisions detrimental to the sport
  • England’s “merger” of Squash and Racketball is utterly crazy
  • Relationship between squash and racquetball is disastrous

THESE are just a handful of the views expressed by leading coach RICHARD MILLMAN following squash’s failure to win a place in the 2020 Olympic Games. One of the most perceptive and articulate observers of the game on the planet, Millman pulls no punches in this global assessment of squash’s current credentials.


So the day came and went and Wrestling – as undeserving as it clearly was when considered as a new sport – stole back the place that it had lost and returned to the fold that it had occupied since the games were held in Delphi.

Squash, played in just about every country in the world, with all its qualities of teaching life-skills, offering health benefits both in mind and body, advancing participants in their lives etcetera etcetera, returned to its uncertain position in the wilderness.

Why? We may well ask.

Here are some thoughts on some of the things that we may well do to become more deserving of inclusion. And by the way, before I begin, this is not intended as a purely denigratory piece.

I love Squash and have been passionate about it all my working life. I have built successful programs in the UK, Holland and the USA. I have coached on four out of the six continents, and pending the arrival of Squash in the Antarctic , that just leaves me with Asia to go.

I have been a national coach and the national director of performance, chair of the men’s national committee, a member of the executive committee of US Squash, a county captain, managing director, club owner, Cornell’s Head Coach, and a committed player. So I don’t think anyone can question my passion for this game.

But, having had all this experience I do feel that I am uniquely qualified to be self critical on behalf of the game that I am so inextricably linked to. So here goes.

First of all, we are not a mainstream sport in enough places in the world. Australia, New Zealand, the UK and one or two other places managed to get Squash into the mainstream for a while. Particularly in the late seventies and eighties.

But a lack of understanding of how to run Squash as a business has resulted in a boom becoming a bust in those countries to a greater or lesser extent.

In Australia, which arguably had the greatest talent pool per capita at one point, my understanding is that there has been wholesale closures of courts and that there is hardly a full time Squash coach that can earn a living.

In Britain the sport has been propped up by lottery funding but the National governing body has had little concept of how to help the sport to be financially viable, churning out any number of level one and two coaches to minister to less and less participants. Clubs that once were numerous in Britain have seriously declined with inter-club league play – the lifeblood of the sport – almost entirely having disappeared in many areas.

The governing body is not entirely at fault as their personnel have no experience or training in the field of Sports Program Direction or Development and thus as administrators are sadly impotent when they have lost the participants that they seek to administrate.

New Zealand in some respects has managed to hold on to more of what they had, but I am sure even there many folks look back, teary-eyed, to ‘the good old days’ when Dardir El Bachary had something like 9 All Blacks in the world’s top 20 and club Squash was a bubbling exciting part of the vibrant sports life of the country.

In the USA, despite valiant attempts to start Urban programs, the game remains largely the bastion of the wealthy, with the Ivy League Universities and their immediate rivals, wealthy private schools, country clubs and businessmen’s club’s being the mainstays of the sport.

And thank goodness for these institutions because without them Squash would be dead. The governing body here does not have the benefit of the lottery system in the UK, but does have the benefit of the USA’s amazing number of millionaires and has very successfully cultivated and nurtured this group with resulting bountiful benefit.

However, it could be argued that the money spent on Urban Squash, while benefitting some deserving underprivileged children, might better have been spent developing Squash as a mainstream sport, building facilities that were accessible and affordable to all and that, in the fullness of time, would have brought the greater benefit to all participants as, once accepted as a mainstream sport, the accompanying notoriety would have helped the Olympic cause and the resultant insurgence of capital far more.

Rumuors abound as to the IOC’s disaffection for the then USSRA after it is said that certain members of the association snubbed the IOC, but whether or not this is true our current challenge is to make Squash a mainstream sport the world over, so that the stigma of being a niche, upper crust game, is no longer a barrier to acceptance.

What are the issues at stake? These of course vary nation by nation but have many similarities and need a cohesive approach from all concerned.

First of all we need to see the big picture. Right now we have so much parochial behavior that we we can’t get out of our own way.

Take England Squash and Racketball. This name is utterly crazy in terms of the big picture.

In one fell swoop and without any research, England Squash alienated the biggest economy in the world – the USA. No one in US Squash wants even a taint of the word Racketball or Racquetball, but because someone in the UK thought that the game of UK Racketball should be included – they changed the name.

Even remedial questioning of someone in the US would have led to the discovery that this would be a barrier to the development of the sport – and by the way – the game that has the ridiculous name of UK Racketball – is a terrific sport that just might be the saviour of club squash and participation numbers the world over.

Why not put a little more thought into it? Why not do the research? I’ll tell you why. Because squash doesn’t yet exist globally, it only exists nationally and as long as National Governing Bodies can only see the local picture, they will make decisions which are to the detriment of the the global picture.

If someone had had the presence of mind to call UK Racketball – Big Ball Squash – and bring it under the Squash umbrella, then all of this nonsense could have been avoided and England Squash could have continued as England Squash.

The wonderful game known as UK Racketball would have been branded as squash and would have been embrace the world over – particularly in the USA where it could have helped make the sport a mainstream sport, and thousands of squash players who feel that their aged knees/hips could no longer stand squash and so are relegated to the golf course, would have continued to play – because there is little or no joint stress in Big Ball Squash as I like to call it ( UK Racketball).

But no. Now we have egos invested in UK Racketball and England Squash and Racketball’s name and in US Squash’s abhorrence of all things Racketball and in US Racquetball’s abhorrence of all things Squash and through the usual lack of international communication, the whole things is a balls up of disastrous proportions, with the World Squash Federation avoiding the whole thing, even though the director of World Squash and one of the senior executives play both versions and love them.

This of course is just the tip of the iceberg. The pride of one National Governing body in attempting to do what they think is best for their nation getting in the way of dialogue to ascertain if their decision making will be good for the Sport as a whole.

And this is the view of squash that the rest of the world and the IOC are presented with. This is just a typical example. In the USA we need to find a way of building cheaper facilities which are accessible to Mom and Pop and Main Street, USA.

Our national governing body prides itself on having developed participation numbers – but who are the people that we have caught in Squash’s net? The top two or three per cent of the wealthy? What message does this send to the IOC?

In my research I have discovered that you can build a basic Squash court for about $5000 ( 3,300 British pounds) out of basic materials available at any Home Decorating/ Do it yourself store.

In a city like Philadelphia which has a wonderful Squash tradition, there is almost nowhere for Main Street America to play -even if we put some effort into developing the sport. My friend Dominic Hughes’s Club Berwyn Squash and Fitness, just outside Philly helps local public schools to play.

But that is the exception – not the rule. I don’t want to exclude the top 2 per cent – they offer us fantastic support. But we have to do something about the other 98 per cent.

 Until squash can be spoken about at least in the same vein as Tennis and  Soccer – how can the IOC ever take us seriously?

We have other issues too. National Governing Bodies have got to admit their lack of competence in the area of professional Program Direction and Development. It is simply hopeless to continue churning out qualified coaches in the hopes that someone might show up to take lessons.

We need properly trained Sports Program Directors who know how to recruit, animate, train and retain participants. England S and R are under perennial threat of losing their lottery funding if they don’t achieve participation figures.

Instead of blindly carrying on with the same futile administrative policies and hoping that by some miracle people decide to start playing Squash, get help from someone that knows how to train young people to be Program Directors and Developer.

People who are trained to go out into the community, into schools and colleges, police stations and fire stations, doctors offices and community centres, evening classes etc and who can sell Squash to them. Administrators don’t sell. It’s not their job. They administrate.

Get a properly trained sales force in place. One that has excellent after sales service. Otherwise kiss your funding goodbye.

In the US put money into Main Street. There are so many opportunities and so many potential funding sources. We will help the sport and a lot more people by bringing the sport to the mainstream as well as trying to continuously reap the low hanging fruit. And if we reap much more low hanging fruit we will kill the fruit trees.

I think you can see the point I am making here. Globally, local Squash has got to do a better job of considering decisions in light of the affect those decisions will have on the game as a whole. I know it’s not easy. Local problems are immediate and seem urgent.

But it’s no good putting a band-aid on a problem that is systemic. And we have amazing knowledge and resources world-wide. As the saying goes: ‘ Think Globally – act locally”. That way everyone will benefit.


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