Monday, November 30, 2009

How to Resuscitate a Dying Squash Club

Anyone who has been around squash for awhile and has belonged to numerous clubs can recognize when a squash club is slowly dying. There are no new members, the courts are readily available during prime time, the cost of court time and lessons go up to offset the declining revenue. Many of the good players are the first to leave and join another club and the exodus begins.
When my son and I returned home from a long stint in India, we were eager to get back to playing and training at our La Fitness squash home in Great Neck, New York. It had become over the years our temple of squash, we loved it especially since we didn't have to go into the City all the time and pay for parking, membership and court time. When we were in India, it was so difficult to pay and play (see my posting on squash in Bangalore, India). So we were back. We spent early mornings training and drilling and evenings playing matches. I was in really good shape and had dropped around 50 lbs and my son was very fit and had taken his game to a new level. All the while we were playing and training, we saw very few players. The La Fitnesse in Great Neck is an airplane hangar-like factlity with 40,000 members. It has two international squash courts. Squash isn't popular on Long Island, mostly LaCrosse and baseball and basketball are the staple sports. The club also has a pretty active racquetball community. I am constantly chasing racquetball players soccer, volley-ball, tennis and hand-ball players off these courts. I've been even known to tell those who threaten to damage the courts by hitting soccer balls into the tin that if need be I will defend the court with my life. They mostly look at me like I'm insane maybe mutter some expletive and leave.
Anyways, in a facility like that space is at a premium so I always feared that they would eventually take the courts and use them for something else.
There's a point to this so bear with me. Five years ago when I was doing some coaching, mostly for free, I wanted some limited A players to play with. Many of the players were old and over weight and didn't care about drilling, training, or elevating their game. But then I found Chuck, a very athletic law student who really loved the game. He had horrible technique, but I saw something in him and was certain within a year I could coach him to a limited A level. We would drill and play games and he was very coachable, just absorbing everything I would show him. After about three months of playing 3 times a week he really started improving and giving me a good match. We had long rallies, contentious competitve play, and both of us left the courts feeling we had played quite a match. I was also coaching my son at the time whom I consistently beat to his immense frustration. Witin six months Chuck and my son started beating me. While I should have been pissed I was absolutely delighted. I had taken two players and elevated their games to a new level. As it turned out, the first time my son beat me in a five set marathon, I never have beaten him again. As for Chuck, he took his new A level game to D. C. where he works as a tax lawyer. I hope many players in that area are reaping the benefits of his game and talent.
I then spent about a year coaching about 7 players each 3 times a week, this was before India. I had one really talented woman player, Elaine, who was very gifted. But then I had to take a project in India and was gone for quite sometime. When I left, those courts were often booked full the weekends and most evenings.
When we eventually returned from India it was to empty courts again. We were barely off the plane when we headed over to LA Fitnesse, we were really home. It was great since we didn't have to worry about booking courts and extended play and training time. We used to joke how the courts were like our own private ones.
But then the empty courts started to bother me again. Empty courts. You can't have empty squash courts! That fear of loosing them crept back into my head. I then started emailing players telling them we were back and offering clinics very cheaply. Two and three person clinics. I started emailing players for matches, I started matching people up, the courts slowly came to life again. There was a semblance of life again in that squash community, players who hadn't played because they couldn't finnd matches started returning. I was fortunate because I worked from home so my schedule was very flexible. Anyone who stopped to watch me and my son play, people who never played, were interested. I put together a ladder with my email address, I tried to get on court with as many potential and existing players as possible. I held early a.m. sessions, evening sessions. Those who showed promised I offered to coach individually. It was then that I discovered Hadii, the thirteen year old Pakistani youth about 40 lbs overweight. I offered to coach him, his brother, cousin and father for a nominal fee. Within five minutes I knew Hadii had a gift, his footwork and racquet skills were far beyond a novice. I began working with him and his cousin Adam also with great promise. But Haddii quickly separated from the pack and I separately started coaching him individuall. I offered him four lessons for the price of two. I started picking up a number of other students while charging them very reasonable rates It's been about five months now and most of my really dedicated students are moving into the solid C realmI have since started coaching a few of the more advanced players for free. One in particular, George Ferrer, is 41 years old and 45 pounds overweight. He has such skill despite the weight and lack of formal training and coaching. Watch for my blog positing on him we are on a six month program to drop his weight and move him into that A level area. He is keen on this.
Needless to say, it was the most amazing thing one Saturday when about fifteen players showed up wanting to play and were complaining about the lack of court time. I could only smile, it couldn't have been a better day -- probably because I had my courts booked in advance!
We have a thriving squash community with new players joining all the time. I have about 5 juniors and 10 adults I coach...many more in the wings. I look forward to the next six months when we have 30 juniors and fifty more squash players. Am I in heaven? "The courts are booked tonight, would you like to schedule another day..."

2 comments:

The Squashist said...

You are dead on, it takes committed proponents of the game to get people involved. Clubs that don't have true squash pros are doomed to fail, as are clubs that don't have a core group of squash aficionados. It is also very rare for a club with only 2 courts to thrive; i believe 3 courts is usually the minimum. Keep up the great work; and nice blog!

Squash Dashers And Bashers said...

Thanks for the encouragement, it is especially welcomed on those days when my arm is like a club foot from striking the ball for nine hours.