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Sunday, June 20, 2021

MILLMAN: Damning verdict on health of world squash

Richard Millman
Richard Millman has been a Squash Professional since 1977. Eight times Norfolk Champion, British US and Canadian Masters Champion and former US National team coach, he is the author of Angles - A Squash Anthology and co-author of Raising Big Smiling Squash Kids. He lives in Charleston SC.

More from the author

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.

By RICHARD MILLMAN

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.

Source: www.millmansquash.com

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4 Comments

  1. To be clear: I think England Squash are absolutely spot on to promote the sport that has been given the unfortunate name of UK Racketball – it is a wonderful sport that may well be the best cross training and business partner for our sport globally. The problem is the name not the game – which I love to play.

  2. Has Richard Millman been reading my mind ? So much to agree with, I felt like one of those toy dogs you see on the back shelf of family cars ! Re ; The presentation squad for the IOC, I’m sorry to say that , to me, it was good, but sadly wrong. Two Juniors contributed nothing, they were totally out of their depth. I’m a big fan of Sarah FitzGerald, but she looked nervous as hell, and she came across very wooden as a result. Ramy’s well-practiced eloquence was heavy on the sugar, you can’t charm a bunch of old guys like that ! As is usual, my words are only an opinion, but a lifetime in Sales does give me the right to criticise or praise a presentation !

  3. Nice piece by Richard. He pulls no punches as usual and says what needs to be said.

    For instance, many in the US are very confused by the name for England Squash. The sport of racquetall in the US (the American version) seriously detracts from the game of squash. I would bet that a survey of the American population would lead most to believe that squash is, in fact, the same sport as racquetball. It is quite unfortunate that the English governing body chose that name. US Squash would never ever do that. They understand very well the value of positioning and branding. I wish there was more collaberation globally because that name really should never have been chosen. It has probably already cost our sport dearly in ways we can’t even imagine.

    And the real problem with this is the lack of recognition. Let’s say around 10 million Americans know what the sport of squash is (ambitious estimate). That is only 3% of the US population. If squash does not expand beyond the Ivy League schools and become mainstream, this figure will not materially change. The game is obviously highly appealling to all youth, as is clear from the success of the urban programs in the US. These programs are phenomenally popular and they are growing exponentially right now. But they serve a relatively small select number of juniors in targeted neighborhoods. What about every other junior and high school student in the US? Where and when will they get exposed to squash? Unfortunately the answer is – probably never.

    Re the business of squash, we have been victims in NYC for many years. The number of squash players increases every year, but the number of courts decreases owing to high cost of hosting squash in the city. We have seen numerous clubs close over the recent years. In the height of the hardball era there were over 80 singles courts in Manhattan, many of them at public (or quasi-public) gyms. Today, outside of the private clubs that house singles courts, there are only 9 publicly-accessible courts in Manhattan. These 9 courts are at SCLA and NYSC uptown and there is no strict membership requirement. As far as I can tell, anyone who can afford their fees can join and play softball singles. Needless to say these two clubs are at capacity in terms of membership. And the really sad news is this – even though they are at capacity, rumors have been circulating at both of these clubs that their courts will also close down to make way for a more profitable use. This could happen at any time and then there would only be the courts in the private clubs left. Not an ideal situation if one is trying to increase the public profile of squash and make it a mainstream sport in the US.

    So, as Richard said, this is an example of a local problem which can only be solved by thinking globally. The economics in NYC is the local issue and it will only be solved when a handful of influential donors – who care about the global prospects of the sport – decide take on the responsibility of building a public-access squash facility in NYC. If we can make it work here, we can make it work anywhere. One thing we can be sure of is this: the local or federal government is not going to do this for us.

    Nor will the US Olympic Committee.

    – Brett

  4. Great article. I completely agree that the governing body needs to take greater responsibility, with a well defined plan for the sport as a whole across every participating nation. In short the sport is in great need for centralisation with a small team taking responsibility for the sport on a global level which then filters down to the National level.
    + Branding and consistency across branding is essential otherwise the sport looks fragmented and confused. The World Squash brand is weak and confused and uninspiring, which would suggest it needs an overhaul.
    + Decent objective journalism would help the sport no end. I applaud the Squash Site’s enthusiasm but their desire to cover every single match globally has a detrimental effect upon reporting. Certain players are also clearly in favour with the Squash Site which adds to the lack of objectivity in the writing. Ask the majority of players in the world top 50, they think the reporting is awful and will avoid giving in depth interviews as a result.
    + National bodies need to speak to a range of the top players to establish a nationwide approach to the sport too. In the UK there is too much power and opinion afforded certain parts of the country to the detriment of other areas. I was amazed to see not a single younger player being interviewed on the prospect of Olympic inclusion whilst players close to retirement now were afforded a lot of coverage.
    In short there is plenty of fresh talent and plenty of fresh ideas which need support through a globalised, consistent approach to the sport, driven by leaders with a simple but strong vision.

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