Friday, July 12, 2024

Taking squash to the people – one club at a time

Despite the work of many passionate people in pockets of the world, squash participation tragically continues to nosedive. Some clubs are managing to buck the trend and thrive – but the sport faces an urgent challenge to spread that good practice at scale. Aron Harper-Robinson is on a quest to do precisely that. 

Just two years ago, Aron gave up his job as a chef to create Calder Community Squash CIC, a non-profit organisation which uses the vehicle of squash to enrich the lives of people in under-served communities in Halifax, West Yorkshire. 

From the start, he adopted an approach that was the polar opposite of so many struggling, insular, members-only squash clubs: he went out and took the game to the people. 

He visited a mosque in one of Halifax’s most underprivileged areas and literally had children hitting up against the wall in the car park. He soon built up positive relationships and invited the kids to Old Crossleyans Squash Club. It was just around the corner from the mosque, but none of the children or adults knew it existed. 

The ‘Squash from the Mosque’ programme was under way – and is still running now, two years on.  

Aron also linked up with a local charity and International Mixed Ability Sports (IMAS) to start ‘Calder Crocs’; squash sessions for children and adults with disabilities and special needs. 

He also started ‘Squash and Scran’ with a local youth club, using his knowledge of nutrition to teach kids how to cook and combining it with squash played against rebound nets and walls. He engaged asylum seekers in squash and education opportunities in a project called ‘We See You’. His ‘Bounce Back’ programme also uses squash to support men experiencing mental health issues. 

Players from Calder Community Squash’s ‘We See You’ programme meet England star Mohamed ElShorbagy

As recognition grew, funding soon started flooding in from the National Lottery, Sport England, Yorkshire Sport Foundation, England Squash and the Community Foundation for Calderdale. 

It’s a considerable understatement, then, to say that Aron is a pretty decent bloke. 

But the 42-year-old is not satisfied with simply transforming perceptions, participation and players in his own community. He is now spreading his ideas across squash clubs in the north of England. The south will come next, then the world. “The potential is huge,” he tells Squash Mad.  

Supported by England Squash, Aron is working with Queens Club in Halifax, Hallamshire and Abbeydale in Sheffield, Chapel Allerton in Leeds, Markland Hill in Bolton, Bowdon in Altrincham, Woodfield in Doncaster, plus Pontefract, Wakefield, Doncaster, Scunthorpe and Hull & East Riding squash clubs to help them engage with the local communities on their doorstep. 

“I’m trying to encourage them to get out of the squash club, look at what opportunities are around, link them with local organisations and the community they’re in,” Aron explains. “A lot of squash clubs want to do this, but they don’t know where to start. They are entrenched in how they’ve always done things. They see the value in it, they just need their hands holding.” 

England international Patrick Rooney drops in on a Squash from the Mosque session

England Squash is providing funding for clubs to run a minimum of 12 sessions, initially using either the Squash from the Mosque or the Mixed Ability (disabilities and special needs) model.  

Aron helps form relationships between key people at the club (managers, coaches or members) and local groups (mosques and charities) and the disability service IMAS, who deliver training in how to run mixed ability sessions

Together, they thrash out what the local needs are and what a programme might look like. Aron will support until the first session is up and running – and so the positive impact begins and spreads, club by club.  

“We put a big emphasis on avoiding projects being a ‘flash in the pan,’” he states “It’s not always straight-forward, because not everyone has the same drive that I do, but I do everything to set these programmes up to be sustainable. 

“I am able to show clubs the example of Old Crossleyans and tell them, ‘This is absolutely achievable.’ I’ve got that in my locker as a case study of the benefits that can be achieved. We’ve increased membership, we’ve got more women players, girls-only sessions and all sorts of demographics from our local community. There’s absolutely no reason why they can’t do it too. 

“Some clubs might say. ‘We’re a members’ club. We’re not that interested in helping people.’ But are you interested in growing your membership? These projects will do that, increase the club’s profile and engage audiences they were previously ignoring. It’s about seeing squash as not just a game, but a tool.” 

The first mixed ability session at Chapel Allerton Squash Club in Leeds

Aron is helping England Squash produce training packages and resources for clubs which will feature information, videos and case studies demonstrating the value of inclusion and growing participation. 

“I’d love more clubs to start seeing themselves as pillars of the community,” he says. “Everywhere I go, I hear the same story: ‘Oh, I never knew there was a squash court here, and I’ve lived here all my life!’ No club should be comfortable hearing that. 

“I really enjoy building relationships and helping people. I want to show clubs what they can achieve through inclusion and so far, they seem to be listening. The more that clubs see others doing it, the more we create a ripple effect. 

“I think there’s too much emphasis placed on elite squash. Participation is participation, no matter whether you’re disabled or disadvantaged. It’s all important, especially with the many problems society faces right now. 

“I feel like this is the way forward for the game. I don’t have time to stop to think about it often, but I’m really proud of what I’ve achieved so far.”  

Read more

Latest News