Wednesday, June 12, 2024

‘It really makes an impression when you see all these women on court’

In these straightened times, it is not often that Squash Mad gets to report on a boom story for our sport but that is exactly what is happening at Inverness Squash Club in the Scottish Highlands.

In less than six months the women’s section has almost tripled in membership after club manager Ailsa Polworth launched the ‘Red Kites’ initiative.

While the initial aim of the Red Kites was to grow the women’s membership by creating a female friendly environment in which new members of all levels could enjoy squash and socialise it has now, as one might say, grown wings.

With Tuesday Club nights and Sunday morning come-and-play sessions where the emphasis is always on the social in full swing, 30 women attended the club’s Christmas night out while new female members are flocking from all across the Highlands – and as far-afield as the Black Isle – as the Red Kites’ success continues exponentially.

Ailsa said: “We have 40 active women playing now whereas at our first session in August last year we had maybe 12 attending and 15 existing female members, but it has built over time and every week now someone new is coming along.

“At our Tuesday night session this week we had 27 women along so it has had a very positive impact on the club and it really makes quite an impression when you walk in and see all these women on court!

Players from Inverness and other clubs who took part in the first bronze competition last year

“A year ago that wouldn’t have been happening. We just didn’t have that amount of women and it has been a real success.”

When it came to the origins of the Red Kites level two coach Ailsa revealed it was all down to asking a key question. She says: “I have done some ladies and girls coaching in the past and I always found we could get women to come along and they would do a six week course but they wouldn’t stay.

“Ultimately we knew we needed to engage with them and find out why that was the case and it was largely as they felt the club was male dominated. If they did come to the club to play they may be the only female there.

“So we started to talk about what was the next step and it was a case of: ‘What is there for women to continue?’

“Really it was almost like we needed to create a club within a club, finding a way to make them feel part of something without having to integrate into the full club straight away but to build to that and going along to club play with the guys but recognising there was a stage before that.

“As a focal point we felt we needed something with a logo and that is where the Red Kites came from although it was a help in this respect that up at Oban we had noticed they had formed the Oban Ravens!

“It is very much a social thing; they can bring their friends and meet new people and feel relaxed in a safe environment and now it has just snowballed.”

A team building day and Bronze Event are also in the pipeline while a player pathway for younger teenage female members is in play with all ages welcome and every angle covered: “We are getting a couple of 18-year-olds, a few in their early 20s and 30s right up to 60-year-olds and there is also a junior aspect with under-16s at the club,” revealed Ailsa.

Inverness highland team: Carrie Hallam, Natalie Main, Kirsty Lobban, Ailsa Polworth

“We are trying to build a pathway for the teenagers to progress to the adult training sessions and we have three or four 15 and 16 – year-olds enjoying that opportunity.

“So we have people from different backgrounds with some from a squash background, a few parents and some who are not from squash and are completely new and have seen it on social media.

“I have also had some people have said to me they would never have thought of squash but their friend had a go and then so did they. The bottom line is that the women are loving it and constantly asking what next?”

Yet while the social aspect to the Red Kites is super-strong there is a competitive focal point to the initiative which has also provided an extra dimension to the Inverness squash growth spurt. Ailsa says: “We had our first National League match at the club a couple of weeks back and we hosted and beat  Edinburgh Sports Club, Edinburgh Uni and Glasgow Western which was a big moment for us as we had never had a National League team before.

“There are three in the national team and it is for stronger players so we had Donna Lobban, Carrie Hallam and Kirsty Lobban playing and we made that into a real celebration of women’s squash.

“For the whole day we had all four courts going and we opened up taster sessions for women and girls over the day, so although the matches were performance level we had a lot of the Red Kites along to show them what top level squash looked like and it was great.

Inverness’ national league team: Donna Lobban, Carrie Hallam, Kirsty Lobban

“Donna then went on court with some of the Red Kites and they loved it. So it is about bridging the gap as we are all here to enjoy squash.

“We also have two teams playing in the Highland League for the first time so we are trying to get more women playing in teams and next we will try to set up a women’s league and what we are hoping is that other clubs will do the same.

“Ultimately we would love to arrange a tour across Scotland where we can play against the likes of Edinburgh and Bridge of Allan and that is the dream.”

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