Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Blog: It’s a numbers game

egypt2013winBy ALAN THATCHER

Two correspondents on Twitter made some salient points about Egypt’s domination of junior squash following a fourth consecutive victory in the Women’s World Junior Team Championship in Poland at the weekend.

One asked: “How are they doing it and what can UK players do to join the party? There must be a fundamental difference in the coaching regimes.”

Another writer stated: “And they’ll probably win the next four as well! No other nation has a junior package to produce such sustained excellence.”

While agreeing with the latter statement, I will try to answer the first with a little knowledge gained in 30 years of junior coaching.

The simple answer is this: it’s all down to numbers. 

Numbers in every age group from under-11 to under-19.

Large numbers of juniors at every major club in Cairo and Alexandria, plus many others.

Numbers that provide intense competition.

Numbers that enable clubs to employ a battery of full-time coaches.

Numbers that keep growing as success breeds success.

Numbers enhanced by ambitious parents.

Numbers that grow as players like Amr Shabana, Ramy Ashour, Karim Darwish, Mohamed Elshorbagy and many more, both male and female, bring pride to a nation that is undergoing such political turmoil.

You are now seeing those same numbers reflected in the upper regions of the PSA and WSA rankings as Egyptians steamroller their way to the top.

Look at the PSA, with six players in the top 11: Ramy Ashour (1), Karim Darwish (5), Mohamed Elshorbagy (6), Amr Shabana (8), Tarek Momen (10), Omar Mosaad (11).

There are plenty more in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s who want to join them up there.

In the WSA rankings, we see  Raneem El Weleily at 3, Nour El Sherbini (11), Omneya Abdel Kawy (13), Nour El Tayab (20), and the rest of that World Team-winning squad on the horizon.

Squash is second-only to soccer in popularity in Egypt. It is a unique situation. There is no other country where squash enjoys such popularity.

Pakistan was once in that situation with a wave of champions launched by Hashim Khan in the 1950s and followed through by Jahangir Khan, then Jansher.

Since then the Pakistan squash scene appears to have been damaged by in-fighting and corruption, in a nation where girls are often violently discouraged from taking part in sports.

England always used to compete in the numbers game, with large clubs employing full-time coaches who created large junior sections.

Squash, like every other sport, faces a massive battle encouraging young people to be active, when so many facets of their life are delivered via electronic means.

When I moved to Kent, the county was enjoying a phenomenal era of success, with players like Paul Johnson, Adrian Grant, John Russell, Ben Ford, Chris Tomlinson, John Russell, James Robbins, Sue Wright, Stephanie Brind and many others developing through a tight network of clubs based in south-east London.

At that time, Kent had a number of large clubs, led by Bromley Town with 16 courts, and several more with six, eight and ten.

Most of those clubs have either downsized or disappeared altogether, often due to the rape of our sport by the falsely named health and fitness industry.

With the courts disappearing, coaches have had to look elsewhere for employment. Not surprisingly, participation numbers have fallen.

Kent currently has two female national junior champions, but we don’t have enough players to field county sides in all of the age groups.

We have launched a wide-ranging Development Programme to try to bring the numbers back up, but to maintain the momentum we need more coaches to manage these schemes in every town.

It’s a long-term process, and we need to face up to the fact that young squash players who head to university might not return to their home county when they find employment.

Centres in Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and Pontefract are leading the way with some superb junior programmes, led by talented and productive coaches.

We need more of them.

Elsewhere in the UK, I spoke to one junior coach who admitted having to tread carefully when it came to disciplinary issues at national level.

Had he dropped one of his players, he did not have another player of a similar standard to replace him.

That’s the numbers game in reverse.

Going back to last week’s Women’s World Junior Championships, what happened to Scotland, Wales and Ireland?

Where were they?

Perhaps it was a numbers issue.


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  1. Lack of Juniors ? Where would you like me to start ? Nothing motivates juniors more in any sport than seeing their name and photo in the local press or a magazine. Local press is free of charge, it is there to be used, but if clubs or coaches can’t be bothered to provide a regular flow of articles with a photo library of players, nothing will happen and around the country that is how it stands. About five years ago I spoke to the Editor of Squash Player Magazine to ask why the Juniors were not featured any more, no ranking lists, no photos. I was told that England Squash was no longer prepared to pay for the extra pages ! Instead, we have a magazine with page after page of the same top professionals, month after month. There is also a poor level of sponsorship in Squash at all levels, club, county, and national. Without Sport England and the Lottery money the sport would be a lost cause. If we had a Nick Taylor in each county or city the picture would be much brighter, what Nick has achieved is quite remarkable, but appears moreso due to the clueless efforts of the vast majority. At sanctioned event level, there is the strange assumption that parents can afford £10,000 per year for kit, coaching, travel, entry fees, hotels, and meals. Despite unquestionable talent, this cost is prohibitive for many parents. Some have difficulty taking time off work to follow the tournament trail. To my knowledge, England Squash does not negotiate a corporate rate with hotels for competitors, an easy 30% discount for simply asking. Many juniors fall by the wayside due to the costs involved. I live in a City with 380,000 population, six Squash clubs, not one Junior section, and not one active qualified club coach. So much for “development” ! The coaching certificates are not cheap to acquire and involve two weekends, not convenient for many, and many courses have been cancelled due to lack of applicants. There is a message there, surely ! I feel that Counties could do far more than have “Meetings” ! To compete with Egypt, England needs at least 100 competitive juniors at every age level, not the half a dozen as at present with most others simply cannon-fodder due to lack of support. Which brings me to the core problem , the support structure is extremely poor.

    • Eric
      Many thanks for the post. As someone who spent five happy years in Portsmouth, developing my love for the game of squash during the whole of that time, it’s extremely disappointing to hear about the absence of junior coaching in the city.
      When I played at the Portsmouth Squash Club in Alexandra Park, it had ten courts and a thriving junior section, largely thanks to coaches like Bryan Patterson and a significant group of genuine, hard-working enthusiasts.
      The News, where I worked, actually sponsored the annual Portsmouth Junior Open, which was a massive tournament.
      The club is the archetypal victim of the rape of squash by the fitness chains who took it over and decimated the squash.
      In those days we had superb clubs to the east and west in Chichester and Lee-on-Solent, with a very busy squash scene at clubs like Abshot, Fareham, Havant, Alverstoke, Waterlooville and three on the Isle of Wight. Travel a little further afield to Wildern, Trojans, Winchester and Fair Oak and you were part of a thriving Hampshire squash scene.
      What happened?

  2. I recently rejoined what once was Portsmouth Squash Club after a six year break. The 10 courts are down to 4 thanks originally to the Metropolitan chain. Since then it has been taken over two more times by Fitness chains, most recently by Nuffield. This amounts to 20 years of no interest in Junior Squash. The average age of players at the club has to be around 50, mostly now playing Racketball due to years of injuries. The club could field 8-10 Vets teams, but would struggle with a Club 1st Team in the County 3rd or 4th division. There are no juniors, and no resident club coach who, if there was one, would not earn a living. The four courts survive thanks mainly to the Club Manager who, unusually, is a Squash player, otherwise it would probably be down to 2 courts ! Private Members Clubs have drifted badly away from Junior Squash as well. There are various reasons for this, lack of volunteers, coaches not prepared to work weekends, coaches only interested in one-to-one sessions that incurs higher costs, group sessions not frequent enough to fast-track standards, no junior teams or tournament squads, no sponsors, so all in all an atmosphere of apathy. There is also a problem with schools that have been approached. Despite offers of free use of facilities and coaching, they say that their P.E. and Sports programmes are full. Dig deeper and we find that there is a lack of Racket Sport P.E. teachers in the area, if any at all. As a result, racket sports are way off the radar ! I feel that these private clubs could do far more to generate interest in juniors and the future of the sport, but the focus, more often than not, is on bar takings and membership numbers which, although important, do nothing for the survival of Squash in the long term.

  3. Eric. That’s terrible news. For a city the size of Portsmouth to have no junior squash activity beggars belief, especially in view of historical successes. Could Robbie and Tim hold some summer camps to get things moving?

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