Thursday, February 9, 2023

Mike Harris: ‘My quest to save squash left me scarred and miserable’

The immensely popular Mike Harris – AKA ‘Mr Squash’ – has opened up to Squash Mad about the toll last year took on his mental health as he put his heart and soul into promoting squash before and during the Commonwealth Games. 

Anyone who attended one of Mike’s community roadshow events, saw him in action on the all-glass court at Birmingham New Street train station last April, or witnessed his effervescent coaching and MC’ing on the mini court outside the University of Birmingham squash venue during last summer’s unforgettable Games, will have been dazzled by his boundless zeal and dedication to kindling a love of our great game in as many people as possible. 

But, as he explains, his reserves of energy and vivacity were not infinite – and the end of Birmingham 2022 brought a crash which he has found tremendously difficult to recover from. 

In his own words, Mike told Squash Mad: 

“A year out from the Commonwealth Games, I became despondent and angry that squash wasn’t doing anything to capitalise on this event about to take place in our back yard. I felt a responsibility to do something about it.  

I was acutely aware that the game’s grassroots were being neglected worldwide. My feeling was that if I didn’t do something, no-one else would. Not for the first time in my life, I thought I was Flash Gordon, here to save the world. 

Along with some wonderful and hard-working people, I formed Squash United by Birmingham 2022. We had a glass court in the vast atrium of New Street Station and it was a stunning success.

Mike coaches local children on the glass court at Birmingham New Street train station

I worked 20 hours a day (15 of those on court) for 11 days. I felt I had to get all the clubs, dignitaries, communities and players there. As a team, we could not have done more. But it was utterly exhausting and on the last day, I was a wreck. 

I got home, went straight to bed, woke up and knew I had Covid (I’d had it before, the previous November). But from the moment I was allowed, I went straight back to work. There was too much to do! I had to look after Wolverhampton Tennis & Squash Club, I was working with the Wales national junior team, and there were the Games to prepare for. I couldn’t have a break. I felt the responsibility laid with me. 

Around May, for a few days, I couldn’t talk. Neurologically, something happened. I was so exhausted, I simply couldn’t find any words. But I just gave it a few days, then went straight back to work.

I became an insomniac. I’d wake up at 2am with so much on my mind, unable to get back to sleep. I would drop off, but get three hours if I was lucky before springing awake, anxious and on red alert. 

Mike with devoted wife Vicky during the pre-Games Squash United roadshows

Me and my wife Vicky took the bespoke mini court all over the West Midlands during the heatwave and had thousands of kids hitting balls. I felt it was so important to spread the word, to let everyone to know how wonderful our game is. 

At the Games, I was in my element, cajoling spectators on the microphone, coaching and playing hundreds of children, adults, pro players and dignitaries on the perspex court to promote our game. I loved every second. 

Afterwards, Vicky and I had a holiday, but I was wired up. I couldn’t relax. The adrenaline I’d built up for a year was starting to turn into something a bit more sinister. 

By mid-October I was at my stepson’s wedding and got Covid for a third time. I self-isolated, but I had a Masters event to organise. I wanted to make sure the club provided a spectacular venue, and it bloody well did. I played in it, and guess what? I got to the final. Adrenaline was still pumping away like mad, but I was all over the place, running around like a headless chicken. 

On the following Monday morning, November 14, I was a mess. I woke up and I had nothing. I tried to go to the bathroom but couldn’t move. For over a month, I barely left my bed. 

Out there, I was being Mr Squash, Flash Gordon, entertaining people and leading the squash crusade, but by the end of last summer, I was a shell. I had simply shut down. 

Mike with Mohamed ElShorbagy and Jahangir Khan at the Commonwealth Games

A few months on, I’ve still not really come to terms with it. I’ve felt very sad. My heart hurts. My wife says she just wants to see me smile again. 

I should be thinking, ‘Well done Mike, you did a great job. What can I do now?’ Instead, I’m feeling miserable and that I didn’t do enough and that squash hasn’t changed. 

I’m not going to say that the last year feels pointless. But I look back, and I feel embarrassed about how I was behaving and how that contrasted with how I felt. 

Outside of work, I stopped talking. I became totally uncommunicative and that was so unfair on my wife because she has lived through a lot already and doesn’t need Flash Gordon taking on the world in public but crashing in private. 

I have faced significant adversity in my life: parts of my childhood were very tough, I had meningitis at 35 and 45 and when I had a stroke and lost my eye, I became extremely depressed. 

I’m very fortunate because I love my job and the people at Wolverhampton Squash Club have been wonderfully supportive – but I must find balance in my life to ensure I don’t hit this kind of low again. I’ve been given too many warnings. 

My priority is getting back to my club to get squash and racketball going again, but I must also calm down and find some perspective. I desperately don’t want the anxiety and worrying to return. 

Maybe I can lead a squash revolution, but I’ve realised I can’t do it all myself. Our sport can become strong again, but we need to revive it together. Who’s with me? 

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8 Comments

  1. What a brave champ is Mike Harris!

    I remember fondly, Mike and his dad from training at Corals Squash club Brighton.

    Congratulations Mike on All you’re Achievements in Sport and Life…Truly Inspiring!

    Kindest

    Ricki Hill.

  2. Thank you Mike for being so honest about the health issues your total commitment to squash has given you. You did a great job at Edgbaston and I am sure Wolverhampton value you too. Squash has some excellent traditional clubs still backing it and at the top level it provides a spectacle. For me there are too many sports chasing the same clientele so squash needs to stand out for what it is i.e. a high level skill and athletic sport. With racquetball as a game using the same court these games can continue to provide great exercise and competition despite the hype surrounding the new games that are challenging for airtime. Keep up your efforts Mike but remember it is a game not a war!!

  3. As someone who grew up with Mike and played in many of the same competitions, I completely agree. When many of us have given up on the game, he is still trying to hammer down the doors that will open up this great sport to everyone.

  4. I’d like to thank everyone for your kind messages on social media and the direct messages I’ve recieved after the blog on Squash Mad was released last week.

    Firstly, can I thank Mike Dale, as he knows this was not easy for me and he captured the essence of what I was saying in a sensitive way, which I truly appreciated.

    All over the world there are seriously passionate people working ridiculously hard in their clubs or businesses, doing everything they can to promote our wonderful sport and get people of all ages, gender, ethnicity to ‘Give Squash and Racketball A Go’.

    99.9% are doing incredibly long hours and doing it without suffering extreme burn out and that’s something I will have to manage as I never want to feel that way again.

    Thank you for all you do, you inspire me

  5. Interesting article on an honest man with a big heart. No doubt, there are among the many children and others more than several who will take up the sport, having hit their first squash ball inspired by Mike Harris. A good man and good journalism!

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