Monday, December 5, 2011

Squash as a Rite of Passage

As a parent, perhaps the greatest reward in life is living to see who your child has become as an adult. All of the work you put in, starting with the infant years, the glory years of 4-8 years, truly magical, the beginning of the parent torture years 11 to 19, when as a teenager there is no boundaries to how your teenager can aggravate you and give you angina.

But then that truly remarkable moment occurs, out of no where, when you see your child, your son, as a man, separate from you, he is equal if not surpassing you. He's beginning to take those steps to replace you in the world.

Out at Westchester on Saturday for the latest Pro Squash Tour stop at the Westchester Squash Club in Mamaroneck, New York, it was my first attendence to the PST since back last year at the Sportsclub LA. The energy or squash vibe was so good at this club, it was special from the beginning. Leter Brown, head coach has done something great at this club. Whenever I walk into a club and see all the squash bags and then see juniors on the court doing a clinic and parents sitting about watching them or talking to Lester or other parents, it simply makes me happy. Squash, at any level, makes me happy, It is one of my passions and when I see others partcipating and excited about squash, it just makes me happy to be around them, or in the club, and talking and walking about. It's a Saturday mid day and the place is humming with activity.

Joe McManus, the Commissioner of the PST, has become a great ambassador for the game here in the U.S. He greets the fans arriving to see the weekend's pro matches. He talks squash, talks about his vision to grow this game. He believes in it, he is getting you to believe as well.

On the court is the recently signed pro player to the PST, David Palmer of Australia, conducting a junior clinic. He's an imposing figure, he's in his element on the squash court, he is master there and as comfortable as he is on court, he's even more comfortable competing.

Palmer is idolized in my household and has been for years. Like many great players, you become so accustomed to seeing him play, that you take it for granted. And then, they reach the end of their careers and you realize just how much they mean to the game. How often did my son and I go out and play and try and emulate that massive forehand kill of Palmer's, how often when we had a great point did we imagine that the point was like Palmer and Power, Palmer and White, Palmer and Nicol.

We were there for the PST's main draw matches, Palmer was facing a qualifier. How often had we seen this at the Tournament of Champions over the years? How often on video, PSA live, YouTube did we see this great player warming up. We just awed at his perfect strokes, his balance, his court demeanor. He was the player you looked up to if everything in life wasn't handed to you.

Palmer worked for everything, and as McManus pointed out, this great champion was once thought by the powers from the Australian Institiue of Sport that he didn't have future in Squash. He went out an proved them so wrong. He worked harder than anyone to become the fittest player on tour, he perfected his game, he went instead to that "school of hard knocks" whose facades have no ivy, no brownstone, but through grit and determination he emerged the player he was and will be remembered as.

McManus introduced the qualifier who came out onto the court and began warming up. What must he be thinking? I love to watch these qualifiers go up against the masters in the main draw, those qualies are that "school of hard knocks". The qualifier is warming up, hitting the ball pretty well, is he thinking "this guy Palmer is one of the greats, my squash idol, what am I doing here, but I'm here, don't embarass yourself, enjoy the moment, I'm tight, relax, he's just another opponent"...and then Palmer comes bounding on to the court, doesn't acknowledge his young opponent, and begins his warmup. The qualifier looks good, he's fit, he hits the ball pretty well. Hey, anything can happen, Buster Douglas, Leon Spinks, Larry Bird, US Hockey Gold...forget all that, unless Palmer isn't Palmer there isn't a snow ball's chance in hell...

Play begins, the rallies are crisp, this kid is good, he's hanging with Palmer, they're working the rallies. Have to remember who this is, the kid holds a forehand to the front and crosses and wrong foots Palmer, great hold, capture that on video! Palmer shows nothing in response, he's been wrong footed hundreds of times, no one is perfect. The first game goes to Palmer, in a methodical business like fashion. The qualifier comes off the court, he's worked hard, he's just as business like as Palmer, he knows, he's no fool. Palmer is 20% on the court, he's watched him enough over the years to know. But stay in it, I can hear him think, I love this qualifier's game, he's like a young Palmer himself or maybe he fashions himself that.
Second and third games Palmer goes to what we call the pretzel game, when you get your opponent twisting and turning retrieiving your shots as you control each rally. Palmer is barely working while running this qualifier all over the court. There's no quit in this qualifier, he tries to extend every point. The kicker is, while Palmer is beating him badly, the qualifier just can't quite take the ball early and negate Palmer's pressure, the qualifier is just not at that level to turn the pressure on Palmer. But in every point the qualifier moves well hits well does his best, he has the right idea, he just can't quite execute his shots to a higher level.

In the end, it's Palmer of course. The hopes and dreams of the qualifier are not dashed, he's inspired, in the post game interview, he is humbly grateful to have had the opportunity to play Palmer, nice words. You can see in his face a calm, he just might want to do whatever it takes to be more like Palmer.

I stay on and watch the other matches, I'm thinking of that Palmer match. I'm thinking about what I'm going to write. What more can anyone say about this great champion who is now with the PST and doing what he can to grow this sport in the U.S. Nah, my bent is the qualifier. On the ride home back to Long Island the person who came to this tournament isn't the same person, he is, but he isn't. I look over at him, I see him differently, he is a grown man, the same grown man I saw on the court against Palmer, he's my son, the squash player, the one who just lost to Palmer. Is that qualifier the very same chubby kid I use to take to the courts, the chubby kid who used to talk squash with anyone and everyone and studied this game into the late night, the chubby kid who had great hands but couldn't move? He's chiselled now, lean, and strong and moves with great footwork, he has the same great hands, he has that same squash genius that can talk to the highest level squash mind and the beginner player in the same unassuming manner.

The ride home is different, unlike all the other hundreds of times we rode home together after tournaments, I'm driving but not the driver, he's in the passenger seat, but not the passenger. It's all changed, it's in that moment, how it seems to happen -- a young man's rite of passage.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What If...The PST (Professional Squash Tour) Set to Announce a Major New Signing

Mr. McManus of the Pro Squash Tour (PST) may have found the marketing touch for his emerging US squash pro tour of up and coming professional squash players and some great near legends. He's announced that he will add another major top squash professional to the PST this week. This is on the heels of signing Australian great and former number 1, David Palmer to the tour a couple of weeks back. Ok, it's Wednesday, he's announcing it tomorrow. But I'm supposed to be running through some software tests but I can't concentrate. I keep thinking about all the possibilities. My mind starts to wander, I start thinking what if...

Here are some of the names I'm hearing and I've included a bit of my own wish list. This sure beats testing software. I hope the Commissioner has some deep pockets, if some wishes come true he'll need them.

Number 1: Wish list item -- I am imagining my most favorite player, Nick Mathew, joining the PST. That would be something. It would probably open up the flood gates...we'd no doubt have a signing a week. But if Mathew signs, then tied here would be Nicholas Mueller from Switzerland, the next generation number 1.

Number 2: Linceu -- Somewhat of a wish, he's still formidable. I always thought he was very low keyed and not sure what he would do for the PST. I'm on the fence with this one, I love his game, just not so sure he'd bring the punch of a Palmer to the PST. And you have to think do you want to see every PST final Linceu vs. Palmer?

Number 3: Stuart Boswell/Cameron Pillay -- These are my other favorite players and both still have it. I'd love to see either one or both on the PST.

Number 4: Wish list item -- And out of retirement, Peter Nicol or Jonathan Power. Call me sentimental, but as great as squash is right now, I miss these two...maybe I'm too sentimental, could either one beat Ball or Palmer?

Number 5: Wish list item -- Amir Shabanna...I admit I never really followed his game much. I'd like to see him tour in this country, I'd like to see him at some of the PST events just to see him up close and really study his game...then finding out what I missed all this time.

Number 6: Wael Hindi -- ok, cool. I did see Illingsworth come back and beat him in a PST event before the PSA banned its players from participating in the PST. Many find his play exciting and want to see him on the PST...just doesn't move me one way or the other.

Number 7: Wish list item -- Julian Illingsworth. I love his game, and I became a real fan of his in that PST Wael Hindi match.

Number 8: Allistair Walker -- He's in the US now, a great player to watch. Would really add more credibility to the PST.

Number 9: Wish List Item -- Jonathan White, full time on the PST. Another sentimental favorite. He's got to have 1-2 more years of touring left in him. Simply the most electrifying player in squash and just a great ambassador of the game.

Number 10: Any of the rising stars lingering in the top 40 to 60. Robbie Temple comes to mind or Adrian Wahler.

Okay, my boss just came by and wants the tests completed by 2 pm. I look forward to tomorrow's announcement.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Doubles Vision: The Squash Genius of Barbara Cooper

Barb Cooper might be the equivalent or combination of Dale Cargnegie, Delphic Oracle, Sigmund Freud, and even Oprah. She's one of the most intelligent squash gurus, but what makes her really unique is she is able to connect the dots with squash and a squash player's temperment and personality along with all the other facets of the game (doubles or singles).

Her book, Double Up, is simply remarkable. It's a book about Doubles Squash, but like Ms. Cooper herself, the book goes well beyond what meets the eye. My recommendation to any serious squash player especially those coming up through the junior ranks, read everything you can from Ms. Cooper and then have your parents read the material too. And after your parents have read all her material, have your coach read the material as well.

Note: Barabara Cooper is the highest level certified coach in North America. Her credentials as a player and coach are so impressive. She currently resides in Canada and is instrumental in bringing Canadian Squash to the forefront of internatioonal competition.

And for any budding professional, pick up her book, read it for the same reasons you might have read Barrington's Murder on the Squash Court, or Khan's Eye on the Ball, or any other Master's blueprint to great squash fundamentals and tactics. However, what really sets Cooper apart is her attention to the mental aspects of the game. This is where she really excels.
Almost every player at any level will be able to relate to her book. While I'm not a Doubles Player, much of what she writes about transcends squash, singles or doubles, it's about having the right mind set to practices, to improve, to move that newfound experience and energy to a greater find reward in playing and improving.

It doesn't matter if you are man, woman, or junior, you will benefit from this book. It is so packed full of information, and not the kind of infomration you can get just anywhere. It is the kind of infomration that comes with being at first a student of the game and then subsequently, a teacher of this game. She maintains the highest coaching level in North America. She's a level 5 (5 is the highest), which to put it into perspective, we have a few who are highest at Level 3 in the US.

And with all the seriousness of learning to be in the right frame of mind to play this game at a higher level, the chapters are punctuated with pencil drawings, and quotations appropriate to the topic. Squash does imitate life, and like life, you need a bit of humor, some fun. At least that is her message loud and clear, you can be a serious player and competitive, but don't forget this game is supposed to be fun, we're supposed to enjoy it to the point we never want to stop playing. If anyone has ever doubted the benefits of drilling, read her chapters on the essence of drilling and what it does to a player's game.

I found myself taking lots of notes about strategy that can be used in my own coaching, and by strategy I mean the mental and emotional aspects of the game. While Double Up is primarily about the ins and outs of doubles squash with many doubles drills, almost all of the book dedicated to the mental and emotional part of the game translate into the singles game as well.
As you read through this (and you will want to read through it again and again) you will realzie just how complex this game is on one level, afterall human nature is complex, but also how simple this game is (if you can believe that) on another level; in its simplest form the game moves fluidly as you become the very thing that holds all the court's four quadrants together.

I cannot recommend this book enough. It is so rich with wisdom and insight into this game that you sometimes can only take in just so much. I thought about quoting passages from the book, but I'm afraid I'd be including most of the book here, in this review. Read this book and also check out Barbara Cooper's new internet talk show help My Squash Game(

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Bring It On Home

The PST signing of David Palmer, former World Champion and British Open Winner, is in my mind a great moment for the PST. Palmer, while being at the tail end of his illustrious career, still will manage to lend a jolt of credibility to the PST. Perhaps the PST will eventually become partners with the PSA, who has soundly rejected and even threatened their players from playing in the US Professional Squash based tour, the brainchild of its maverick commissioner, Joe McManus. I don't want to reopen the case of the PSA ban, but what I do want to do is take this time and while taking a break from the tedium of my Technology job, see where my thoughts about producing a world number 1 ranked U.S. born player leads.

It's no mystery, that no U.S. born player will make it to the "top ten" world rankings without a great deal of help from our more experienced and talented squash brothers from the UK, Europe, Australia and anywhere else. For those with deep pockets, and who can afford travel and expenses overseas, there's no need to care about international squash coming to the U.S. They can seek it out and sustain international coaching and competition. It's expensive, but if you can afford it what better way to spend the money. There are a number of retired world class former squash professionals residing in the U.S. but their services come at a premium rate. Squash is an expensive sport, no matter how you look at it, just like tennis, golf or fencing. These are highly technical and demanding sports. Fortunately, for most of these other sports the resources are more readily available here in the U.S. Then it becomes the question of so you have a world class coach, where do you then find players of similar caliber? While most junior squash development is primarily focused on college squash, almost no development is focused on professional squash. We could go into all the reasons, but our country is primarily concerned with attaining monetary success. Monetary success is how we measure ourselves. Nothing wrong with that, but it is not the ONLY measure. Squash doesn't pay well but neither does teaching, non-profit, governments, etc.

My son still maintains a dream of playing professionally, his passion and love for this game is sometimes overshadowed by his immense frustration at becoming better. What he has achieved he's achieved mostly on his own, he is the equivalent of a self made man. We all admire self-made men on one level but on another we still value more success through the easy road. I believe in what he is doing even when he doubts it himself and because the PST has come along offering the opportunity to play and aspire at a higher level of squash, he might reach some of his goals. While I admire those PSA professionals and attend those PSA events nearby, the PSA does little or nothing for professional U.S. Squash development.

Someone whose squash mind I admire greatly mentioned to me the other day that he is waiting for someone to write an article on why Ilingsworth and Gordon (US 1 and 2) play on the PSA and compete all the way in China and lose in the qualifiers or opening rounds when they could play on the PST? Yes, absolutely. What will it take to bring those players to the PST? What will it take to lure Allistair Walker, top 10 PSA, currently residing in the U.S. to join the PST? Will it take one more signing, a Linceau, a Shabanna?

Squash is one of my passions, and call it patriotic, nationalistic, whatever you want, I want to see a U.S. born player someday on the PST play for the World title against the players of the PSA, a sort of "superbowl" of squash. Wouldn't that be something. As for Ilingsworth and Gordon, bring it back home, play on the U.S. PST tour, show some junior who dreams of playing professionally that it's within your grasp, here in the U.S. and that aspiring to professional squash is a noble calling and not merely a means to an end. Back to work, oh, should Linceau, Shabanna, Walker, Gordon, Ilingsworth sign with the PST I hope they sign on the condition that the PST does away with the "No-Let" rule.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Letter To The PST Commissioner

When I saw that the PST was going to announce a game changer on 11/11/11 at 11:00 a.m. I was hoping that it would be two rules changes (maybe three): do away with the No-Let rule; mandatory eye-wear for ALL players; and maybe for good measure changing the PAR scoring. While the announcement was not about any rule or regulatoion changes, and announcing the signing of David Palmer to the tour was great news, it would have been really great news to have included these rules changes.
The No-Let rule; I was watching a match last night from the Tuxedo Open and it was a match where the No-Let rule definitely came into play in terms of the outcome of play. The player, who will remain nameless, consistantly didn't clear, played back, and when there was contact seem to plead for sympathy from the referee because of the contact. The old rule is very simple. The player after hitting his or her shot MUST clear for the opponent. However, the rule is a bit gray if the player makes no attempt to return to the T, plays a very low T or is simply slow to get back because they are just slower than the other opponent or hasn't returned a shot good enough to allow time back to the T. When both players are in position the flow is very smooth. However, a tired player tends to hang back, not clear fully, and then just step into the area of play. While the rule is simple, it's complexity arises when the player, because of the other player not fully recovering back to the T doesn't allow the player to clear. The match I saw, this was what happened again and again. The referee observed the sympton but not the cause. One player was much quicker than the other player on the one hand and the slower player often blocked or didn't clear and on the other hand -- as the match wore on that "other" player drifted further and further back. The referee admonished the wrong player warning of unnecessary contact and played to the simpathy of the player complaining about the bumping and physicality. Because of the No-Let rule the advantage was to the player either not clearing or hanging back to get a jump on the ball in the back. The other player seemed flustered and really should have started redirecting the ball away from the area where the contact was occuring. But why should that player alter their shots because the other player takes advantage of this No-let. Many times in a game a referee will ignore the appeal of a player complaining of "incidental" contact, unless of course you 'flop" like NBA players do to take a charge or something. Unless the other players is a bit dirty and plays through his opponent rather than the ball, it's usually a legitimate let call. I think there's more potential for injury since players are forced to play through the contact, fearing losing a point should they call a let and it's overruled. My understanding, let denied point to your opponent, even though in your mind your opponuent may have been in harms way.
The answer to this is to realize the sole purpose of the let is to protect the players...whether or not it is abused or not that is its purpose. Cars are meant to get people to their destination as quickly as possible, safe and sound, no traffic signals or stop signs create chaos and accidents and are a detriment to driving. The same goes for this No-Let rule. Please do away with it.
My other major rule change is mandatory eyewhere. In this country we spend billions of dollars to enforce high standards of safety. Cetainly no other country spends more. Yet most squash professionals don't wear them. If it ends up saving the eye of one player wearing them it is worthwhile. This rule is safety, it's important, it sends a message to players and spectators, that safety is alwys first and foremost. Each organization is the sum of all its individuals and the individual is critical to any league and organization. If you put any individual at risk, implement the safety standard. Enforce it. Put this rule in effect, because we never want to be sickened by the loss of an eye especially during competition when it is easily preventable. Let's hope the PST isn't like City Hall and not put a traffic light in a dangerous intersectuon until someone is killed or maimed
Let me sneak one more in there...and this may be topic for a totally separate discussion. Let's settle this: PAR scoring has changed the game and has made it much less demanding for players. When you think of how the old scoring rarely produced first games under 45 minutes long, the strength and stamina required was Herculean. Yes that game was too slow as a spectator sport, but perhaps a compromise would be the old American 15 point PAR scoring....let's extend the game because after all this game is partly about fitness, endurance stamina, and attrition. Commissioner?

"Like a Kangaroo on Viagra!" Autstralian's David Palmer signs with Joe McManus and Pro Squash Tour (PST)

It isn't exactly the upstart AFL signing of Joe Namanth to the New York Jets that eventually elevated the fledgling AFL to equal status to its rival NFL, it's more like the New York Mets signing Willie Mays towards the end of his career (he helped put the Mets in the '73 World Series). With the signing of this great, great squash champion and still one of the most formidable players out there, Joe McManus of the Pro Squash Tour has sent a message.

The PST is for real, it's legitimate and it will be a stomping ground for greats, near greats, Sherbini, Ball and Leanza and and young US born aspirants like Omar Sohby, Kyle Jens, and Ned Marks. Imagine what the signing of Willie Mays did to the New York Mets team of the 1973 season, he help take them to the World Series! Palmer no doubt will have a huge influence on the younger players. Those younger players can only benefit from playing someone of Palmer's calibre. Palmer will have some sage advice and give other players the opportunity to see him up close, in the "clubhouse". If you've ever met the man, he has a presence, the kind of presence that seems to say you want to play high level squash this is what it takes. He's been there and still is there.

With McManus signing of Palmer, which I'm sure is to sell tickets, it is still a business, he has provided something far greater than the price of admission. He has provided a level of play lesser players can aspire to. Knowing McManus' committment and passion for bringing squash to the fans here in the US, there's no doubt in my mind, he is doing it for the future great players of this game. Unlike White, a former number 1 who is retired, one can only hope that with the signing of Palmer and his high level play, he will attract other players who might otherwise never have the opportunity to be on court with him, to play him. I for one, if I could play the game at at least the qualifier level would be inspired to do whatever it took to try and get to the master in the main draw.

If you doubt just how good Palmer is in the twilight of his career, take a look at his last PSA match at the World Open which just completed. I've ranked him as one of the top ten greatest players of all time. I love to watch him play. I saw him play in the Hyder a few years back against Clive Leach and it was amazing to watch him on the club court. I watched him toy with Leach, a great player in his own right, and as I sat in the front row I tried to mark exactly on the side wall Palmer hit is cross court. I marked the cross courts from Leach as well and the difference was an inch or two at most but the effects were devastating for Leach. Palmer pressured him with punishing length and angle. I don't often get that close to see it.
How many good years does Palmer have, I guess you would have to ask him. I certainly want to see him go out a champion and then become one of the ambassadors of squash. While terms of the deal were undisclosed, money is money, what Palmer brings to this new league is priceless, you can't place a value on something like this. I hope to hear down the road some future PST star remark that Palmer in the league was a great influence and inspiration he taught him to think and play like a champion.
For all the younger players out there enamoured by the flash of the Egyptians, come watch David Palmer play, you won't see the likes of him ever again, he is one of a kind, one of the greatest, study his game, witness his mental toughness and lo and behold when he hits that forehand kill into the frontcourt nick remember that shot as one of the great shots in the game.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

No Shame Except in Shaming – Bryan Patterson’s US Open Article.

I read the article Bryan Patterson wrote about the poor attendance at the recently completed US Open Squash Tournament held in Philadelphia. “Shame on you Philadelphia” was his mantra. I thought about this and thought about this and couldn't’t figure out why it really bothered me. What bothered me about it as I realized later, was his mantra castigating people as if they weren't supporting a worthy charity! This is ironic because here US squash has been treating squash as a business with a board, CEO, profiting, and they sponsored/promoted this tournament. Yet when no one wants to be part of it probably for a number of reasons, which I can only guess, not having attended but having attended other US Open tournaments over the years, it’s not the fault of the tournament but the people not attending. So if no one attended this great event, it must not have been such a great event? Squash in my mind sells itself, and Paterson’s remark about players like playing and not watching isn’t true. Squash players, at all levels want to watch squash, they couldn't’t care less about the squash zones, the video games, the food, the alcohol, the technology…they care about squash at a level that transcends all that marketing crap and it is crap, crap used to try and market a sport that will never ever have mass appeal. Stop trying to copy professional tennis! I think back on the US Open that was run out of the Roseland Ballroom a few years back by Sean Gibbons from the Printing House, I was at the finals ( I think) and a great finals it was, which Nick Mathew, my squash hero at the time won. The venue was great but it was simple, it was squash with a few booths promoting Prince equipment, located in the heart of New York City at a wonderful venue. Financially it was ruinous ( I believe the US Open lacked sponsorship the following year), but you didn’t hear Shawn saying ”Shame on you New York”. I go back to the attempts to market squash as a glitzy, mass appealing sport by the same Roseland Ballroom US Open promoters when they hosted the first and only Village Open. I never forgot the big black suited thug body guards preventing people from going to their seats during points…hmm, I thought, Beth Rasin TOC Tournament Director seemed sufficient enforcement. Anyways, the TOC is the greatest squash event I’ve ever attended…Nimick really puts on a great show and it doesn’t have all the marketing crap, the feeling you get when attending is squash really sells itself. Again, I’m not pretending to know why the US Open failed in attracting attendance and I would have felt badly about it except for Patterson’s remarks. Live by the sword die by the sword. What I would have loved to have heard from him was some ideas about funding all the street squash kids to come from nearby cities to be in a attendance on kids day, to which I would have gladly contributed some money ( I’m sure it would have been a great time for them and anyone contributing) rather than hear the remarks of a bad-hip-and-knee curmudgeon sitting in an elite box shaming people for not attending. US Squash puts on some great amateur events, no doubt, and their support of urban squash initiatives and women’s squash is quite admirable. But, personally, I’d like the Pro US Open left to the likes of Joe McManus and John Nimick, the real entrepreneurs of professional squash in the US.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Peter Marshall -- The Genius Of Doing It Differently

Jeff Higgs is a new student of mine at LA Fitness, Lake Success, NY. He is a big, strong, ex-collegiate baseball player. He looks like he was once a catcher, he's affable, moves like a gazelle and has these gifted, soft hands, and you can just imagine him peppering the ball with that Walt Hriniak (that great Boston Red Sox hitting coach/guru and author) who emphasized the inside/outside swing as in going to the opposite field with the ball. I would see Jeff on the courts when I arrived at 5:30 a.m. playing Mike Rideout, of Rideout Media Productions, a definite type "A" personality who plays like he lives. I always watched Jeff and thought to myself he could be really good, with some better fitness and technique he could probably within a year or two be a high level B or A player. I spoke to him often offering some pointers and he would say to me on occasion how he'd really like some lessons. I didn't push the lessons since I was pretty booked in the morning slots and plus, he seemed like the type of player that needed a challenge. I didn't want to offer too many accolades on his hands and nice footwork, because I believed it wouldn't matter much unless he was beating his brother at Piping Rock in Oyster Bay, where Amanda Sohby, World junior under 19 women's champion trains. She used to play at LA Fitness with her stepfather, longtime New York coach, Ron Karn.
When Jeff finally approached me about lessons. I told him it wasn't really worth the time unless he was game for 6 months to a year of lessons, twice a week on the court with me. I outlined what he needed to do to get to that solid B and upper B level, to beat his brother, I added that I thought he could with a lot of work and his own fitness regiment and proper diet play A level within two years. I emphasized he wasn't fit for squash and on court with his 25-30 lbs overweight would just play like someone overweight all the time. We would improve his racket skills and footwork, but he would still be with that proverbial backpack of 30 lbs strapped to his back. I suggested he spend every morning 20 minutes level 8 on the stepper and 20 minutes level 14 on the stationary bike. I also asked his to cut out his favorite food and really try hard to refrain from eating it. If he had to eat it eat 1/2 as much. He should do this each week and within a month add his second favorite food. And he'd continue in this mode until he ran out of favorite foods, at which point, I could certainly guarantee he would have lost the 30-40 lbs he needed to lose.
Our first session was good we emphasized the basics of grip, racket preparation and some footwork. I told him What I noticed is that on his forehand and backhand he almost was hitting two handed on each side. I instinctively told him release the racket the two handed hit will impede his preparation and follow through. But then, the image of Peter Marshal, that wunderkind of squash from the 90's, came into my mind. I couldn't in all honesty say that about his two handed shots because Peter Marshall reached number 2 in the world and was poised to take over the reign of none other than the greatest player to ever play this game, Jansher Khan. I saw Marshall play, he was something to behold, he moved so beautifully, his squash court intelligence IQ was through the roof, he would hit both forehand and backhand double handed and it was only when really pushed to the extreme parts of the court that he would use the single hand. I don't know if there was an advantage or whether it was just what he did and if he hit with the racket between his teeth like Hendrix played the guitar with his teeth it would be just as great. That is what pure genius is, absolute genius. Some make money no matter what, everything they do they make money at, others hit great squash balls no matter how they hit them. Peter Marshal was certainly the Warren Buffet of squash.
But life has these strange ironies, it is what makes us different than any other species. As Marshal rocketed to number 2 in the world, he came down with what at the time was called the 'yuppie" disease of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, symptoms including swollen glands, lethargy, fever and a general physical malaise. At the time that syndrome was considered psycho-symatic, "in your head" sort of thing. But in reality it was a clinically proved affliction. Marshall came back from this disease and competed and won the British National Championship. I recently watched him in a match on Youtube playing and you could see that familiar two fisted backhand and forehand, the sort of wand, the magic wand that might not be like the wand of other powerful magicians, but still yielded the same potent magic. You could see the balding on the crown of his head, but he still moved beautifully and his hands on the racket were still simply magic.
Not to forget Jeff, I briefly said, ok, keep doing what your doing if your shots work. If the two hander doesn't work, if you can't hit a tight shot, then we'll change it. To be honest, how you hit the ball doesn't matter, I told him, if you hit it for good length and tight. Who cares whether you are great in your technique and it looks nice on file, if you can it the ball well no matter how you hit it, how you hit it doesn't change the fact you HIT THE BALL WELL. Just watch John White hit the ball, former number 1, and who in my opinion played the greatest 1 game of squash in the history of the game when he took game 4 from Gaultier in the 2009 tournament of Champions -- I was there and saw this incredible game. He once told me in a clinic I did with him he wouldn't advise any player to hit like him. So when you look at the classic techniques of Nicol, Mathew, Wilstrop and then compare them to the oddity of the likes of Marshall and White, you realize that there really isn't any recipe or script in this game for success. Marshall was brilliant, and if not for his illness, you can only imagine him and Nicol and Power on the circuit at the same time...while Nicol in my opinion will go down as one of the top 5 greatest players ever, I think Marshall would have been right there with him. Jeff doesn't have to worry about greatness, he can achieve what he will depending on his ability and dedication, and yes, if he hits the two hander well, then keep the two hander, do Peter Marshall proud.
While Jeff might not reach mercurial heights, I was watching the two hander from England Robbie Temple, wow, what a player he might reach some height.You can see Peter Marshall in his game, this player is so talented. I've been watching him on Youtube and just marvel at the two hander (unlike Marshall he hits it left handed from the backhand only). He is so good, and while in his mid twenties, based on what I saw how he played against the likes of top 10 Peter Barker, this kid is going to reach top 20...he's that good. And when you watch him it could be as if in the 90s you're perched on the edge of your seat watching Peter Marshal glide along the court and strike his familiar two hander for perfect length.
As I progress in the next weeks with Jeff, I'll think of Peter Marshall and Robbie Temple and their unique style in this game and encourage Jeff to find himself in whatever makes his game good. I'm a believer there's no right recipe or timeline for success in Squash. This game is a wheel of fortune, it's a given if you want to play it well fitness and skill are a given, but beyond that it's luck, truly luck in how you develop to play this game. Isn't that after all, how we live our own lives. When it's all said and done if we can just say, as Sinatra crooned, " I did it my way..." that would be quite an accomplishment.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Mr. Wyskers Never Set Foot On A Squash Court

My best childhood friend , whom I have known since I was 12 years old back in that small New England town, Bernardston, Massachusetts, never held a squash racket, stepped foot on court nor struck a hard rail to good length. He is seriously ill with esophagal cancer and has a tumor so big he can’t swallow solid food. He is undergoing chemo therapy which is making him sick and he’s down to 123 lbs.
I have been coming off a series of squash injuries lately, have been really stressed out in my other work, technology, and have been a bit of a bear to live with, according to my wife. When I received the news about Mr. Wyskers (Wally Wysk whom I always called Wyskers), my son was away in England training with Steve Townsend in Birmingham, he is always good at putting things in perspective and when confronted with a crisis we usually have a hit for a bit and stop in between and talk about the elements of the crisis. He wasn’t around, my wife was great, but nothing was calming my spirit and mind. I seemed to be in that mindset am I now going to see those near and dear around to start dropping off. How long before I am struck with something like this – my wife was right, I was having a bit of a pity party. I did not go to church to pray or kneel at my bed to pray for Mr. Wyskers, I wanted to be on court 6 at LA Fitness in Lake Success, Long Island, where I coach and play.
I arrived and changed into my squash shoes, stretched a bit and went on court and closed the door. I looked around at the four white walls, the courts are enclosed so they are very quiet. Through the glass backed court the usual packed crowds and throngs of weight lifters silently, eerily so, as if it they were a silent movie, pumped their iron. This court was where I needed to be, the old feeling of calm and perspective began to come over me. Wife was right, pity; here I don’t feel pity, anxious, life is life and death or the prospect of it is part of this life. I began bouncing the ball with my racket, a couple of students paused to watch, they waved, I just nodded. They knew, I was in a place not accessible to them right now and they kindly left me alone. I was mad at myself for the complaints about my injured hand, my complaints about being tired and sore, and thinking about what’s going to happen to me too, all the while my friend was facing something much worse, reality. But the ball I was bouncing has that rhythmic sound , the same effect a Hindu mantra has or meditation might have…I was releasing the negative stuff breathing in the good energy and breathing out the bad energy. I started striking the ball, at first my hand really hurt and my knee was bothering me, but I ignored it I wanted to see the ball, hear the ball, move in my mind as if I were a gazelle….I was striking the ball well as it began to warm up, I stepped on the forehand side up and down the court repeatedly volleying the ball then playing it back keeping it going for as long as I could. I was working up a sweat, I was beginning to breathe as if I was in a good rally. I switched sides, my backhand was good, my racket was really quick, I wasn’t plodding with my feet….my mind began to wander I thought of how Mr. Wyskers and I use to skip school and hang out and talk about books and music.
Mr. Wyskers, what a talent, he taught himself classical Spanish guitar, played in a rock band, wrote countless songs for his beloved girl, Jill, and I wrote him some poems he used as lyrics. We were wiseasses, we went to a small rural school, certainly no squash nor any tennis even, we played football but were kicked off after a couple of years because we smoked and had long hair and read and were into art and music. He loved Steinbeck, I can remember him completely enthralled by his works, Grapes of Wrath, The Pearl…he loved Woody Guthrie and Mississippi John Hurt, I turned him on to blues. He was an artist as well and loved Michelangelo and studied his art and works…he joined a rock band and they began playing locally and we eventually drifted apart. I started thinking about what my son had sent me from England about how Steve was changing his stroke in the front. We had talked about how his game in the front needed work, I didn’t know how to really help him fix it, but Steve made an adjustment that worked immediately. He had him bring his racket down more and had him extend his arm more on the follow through in the same motion as if he were dropping, crossing, or railing…I see the pros do that…I thought wow, that is cool stuff. I can’t wait for him to show me this when he gets back.
I had to take a break, I had been hitting without stop for quite awhile, I felt like myself again, no matter what I do or don’t do in this game of squash , I am just happy to play it – just like I am so happy to know this friend of mine and share a critical moment in his life. When we reconnected through Facebook a few years back, he remarked how we seemed to pick up right where we left off. I was sitting outside the court drinking some water and looking into the court, no matter what, I thought, like my friendship with Mr. Wyskers, every time I get on that court should be as if I never stepped off of it. I want him better, I want my game better, but sometimes you just have to take what comes, as clich├ęd as that is, and just be happiest with what you have right now.

An Interview With "Lord Ganesha" of Zimbabwe Squash

As a follow up to my article, The Lord Ganesha of Zimbabwe Squash ( and, I conducted this interview with my squash brother, Mr. Mashumba Mukumba…head coach and Executive Trustee and founder of The Zimbabwe Squash Academy.

SDB: When did you start playing squash?

MM: I started playing squash at the age of 21; I never had an
opportunity to play at junior level and assuming that if I had had a
chance I could have gone further. I eventually decide to give this opportunity to others since I was also inthe same “boat” during and after my childhood.

SDB: Why do you coach?

MM: I have discovered that there are so many opportunities if we do it in the right way. Someone from my academy must make it to the top and I will make surethe type of practice and coaching I offer differs and has a huge
impact to change things.

SDB: Who was and is the biggest influence in your life?

MM: It is my wife because she said to me one day "will you be the champion in squash?" and I told her not me but the future generation that I will coach will be. She insisted that I must teach most of the kids from the poor
background as mine, that's why I ended up forming an academy which is what we have today.

SDB: why would you encourage squash where there is so little money for professional players?

MM: I would encourage it because most of the kids here in Africa (Zimbabwe) canhave good pass in academics but will not be able to go to varsity
because of funds and whereas combining it with squash you can easily get your scholarship and advance with your studies. I recommend squash because there is less competition compared to any other popular sports, you have to be extremely good to qualify but in squash you just have to be good enough.

SDB: What do you hope to accomplish? World top 10 from your country?

MM: I hope to be the best in the region of Southern Africa and to have players who willqualify to get varsity scholarships and also play in the world squash PSA circuit.

SDB: What has been your lowest point in this? Your highest point in this?

MM: We have just started and the other problem that affects our
development is the political stability. Today investors are waiting
and tomorrow is no different – we will have to see as we move along. We use
to be the best in the region and we will be from juniors to seniors.

SDB: When you turn off the lights on court each day what crosses your mind?

MM: I come here every day and I must reap what I am sowing otherwise with my other fellows we are not helping me prove or make my dream true.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Remover of All Obstacles…Lord Ganesha of Zimbabwe Squash

I don’t even remember how I recently came to know Mr. Mashumba Mukumba, executive member and founder of the Zimbabwe Squash Academy, a non-profit squash initiative that brings this great game of ours to the underprivileged and economically challenged children of his noble African state. But no matter, I’ve exchanged numerous emails with this man, this champion of squash and have been inspired. Today my Hindu wife, Shyamala, told me she needed to place flowers at her altar because it is Lord Ganesha’s birthday, the “elephant” god, as mythology goes is the holy offspring of Lord Shiva and Pavarthi, who is the remover of all obstacles. I asked her to say a prayer to Lord Ganesha for him and I have on my desk a small statue of the god to which I asked most humbly to remove all obstacles facing the Zimbabwe Squash Academy. I explained to the God, this is a great cause sustained by the passion for squash by it’s founder.
Mr. Mukumba. 3 years ago had a vision of promoting the game he has devoted his whole life to in attempts to widen the appeal and participation among all Zimbabwe children. When you read his charter, it reads like gospel, so determined is he to elevate the lives of the disadvantaged through squash. While we have organizations here in the US which promote squash among the best and brightest of underprivileged children, Mr. Mukumba and his dedicated staff of coaches and members of his “trust” seek to promote this game to any child who has an interest. Often many show up to his courts with just the clothes on their backs, barefoot, having no idea what this game is, but drawn by curiosity for anything that is different from their usual surroundings. Tirelessly through video demonstrations around urban areas, on court exhibitions, he is a magnet drawing these children to the clubs, often in the wealthier neighborhoods. He offers some glimmer of pursuing excellence in a sport that is demanding, difficult, which presents more obstacles than perhaps the children’s own lives, he gives them the opportunity to transcend those obstacles at least in squash., at least for the time they are on court. He gives them the dream of perhaps someday being a champion. The great thing about squash is when on court it is the great equalizer, it doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor, ugly or beautiful, privileged or not…you are equal to your opponent and superior if you can win.
Mr. Mukumba is not without his own agenda, while giving these children a place to learn squash, he seeks to find those rare gems who might rise above all others and become champions locally, in county and even nationally. He encourages openly that excellence in this game can mean pursuing a career playing professionally on the international circuit. His number 1 player and Zimbabwe’s national number 1, Ishmael Mubure, whom he has coached and who is part of his “trust”, coaching youngsters like he once was, recently won the Dunlop Open in the Netherlands and has won some other events s like Saxon and Kenyan Open. He could be much higher ranked than his 360 PSA ranking , according to Mr. Mukumba , but there’s not enough funding to get him additional coaching and more international exposure.
The academy is in desperate need of equipment like clothing, shoes, racquets, eyewear, balls. Well wishers from Canada squash donated 100 racquets which were a great gift from their Canadian Squash brothers because the little equipment the Academy does have is shared and worn out. When you look at the pictures of his children in the Academy they arenot unlike any other squash academies around the world, the children proudly hold their rackets and grin ear to ear, he has brought these expressions of pride and hope to children through our great game, children who otherwise might never experience the immense joy of accomplishing and overcoming obstacles, no matter how great or small in their lives.
Mr. Mukumba has many years coaching experience and is very active on the international coaching platform having attended conferences to learn about this game the latest developments and coaching techniques. Make no mistake, his efforts are all about squash and using squash to produce squash players, to remove the privileged aura of this game and make it anyone’s right who has an interest and aptitude for it. His mission is to feed these kids ball after ball to teach them proper footwork, sportsmanship and those rare players who show motivation and talent to rise above the rest to support their efforts to pursue squash as a profession. While he has this vision, he knows the realities of operating costs. Sustaining this vision with equipment, transportation, since many kids live far away from the suburbs where these courts are, courts, fees and snacks takes money. Anyone who can bring squash to the people, so to speak, deserves support and encouragement whatever that might be.
Squashdashersbashers is collecting rackets, balls, eye wear and preparing a shipment to Mr. Mukumba’s academy. If you would like to know more about this great squash initiative, please contact Mr. Mukumba (Zimbabwe Squash Academy) or (

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

PST -- One Small Step For Squash...One Giant Step For Safety

PST Commissioner Joe McManus canvassed fans in the recent online publication of Squash E-zine on whether or not PST professional sanctioned tournaments should require its players to wear protective eyewear. It's mandatory for its amateur tournaments. My son started playing PST pro tournaments and I absolutely encouraged him to wear protective eyewear. It is always, in my opinion as both parent and coach, "better to err on the side of caution". In a time when we spend billions of dollars on technology to make cars safer, why wouldn't we spend some money on investing in protective eyewear. Who would argue with the statement, if it means one player doesn't lose his or her sight from an errant squash ball or racquet, why not make wearing protective eyewear mandatory. The game is changing, McManus is correct. The PST with the No-Let rule makes the game more aggressive and exciting. Exciting doesn't have to mean dangerous. If there is one doubt on the safety of the evolved style of play, simply wear the protective eyewear.
Do construction workers wear hard hats, does a welder wear protective masks, does a professional baseball player wear a helmet? Of course they do, while most professions experience a small percentage of accidental injuries due to some mishap, the response should always be safety first -- at any level!. There is no reason, none, that players can't wear protective eyewear. There are issues with fogging and scratching and getting used to them, but all of these issues are easily remedied with proper well constructed protective eyewear. I have never had a problem with my glasses, I sweat profusely, I see clearly -- I recommend everyone wear the white colored prince court glasses. At $20.00 plus dollars, in my mind, there's no reason not to wear them. While I'm not a professional player, I have been hit with an aggressive racquet and a couple of times with the ball in the eye, squarely in the eye. But I was wearing my tried and true protective glasses.
Another critical reason is junior players copy professional players. I can't tell you how many times juniors will say they don't see the "pros" wearing protective glasses. I can only say they are wrong, it should be mandatory. If it saves one persons eyesight it's worth everyone wearing them. Once you are used to them you will be surprised how even when practicing you automatically put them on, they way you would automatically tie your laces.
I have a woman 4.5 student-player who could be a national champion and great amateur tournament player. My biggest challenge with her is not her technique or footwork but to get her to wear protective eyewear. She says it makes her feel clautraphobic, okay, but one-eyed darkness will really make her really feel clautraphobic. I tell her she can never compete because of this. We are working on it. Selena are you reading this?
And is there any professional squash player who can say the outcome of a match was determined by the use or lack thereof of protective eyewear. I'd like to hear from them.
McManus has shown he is the "commissioner" of this tour and he will openly discipline star players with suspensions for not adhering to the overall sportsmanship qualities of squash. I applaud him for taking this step; it is long overdue. Players will adapt, and perhaps the makers of the eyewear will listen to the players wearing those glasses and invest the money to improve the quality and effectiveness. I'm sure Prince, who already sponsors the PST with their torunament ball, would gladly contribute their protective eyewear, which is the best in the market, to the torunament players.
Next on the "commissioner's " agenda, should be getting rid of PAR scoring. But first things first.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Squash Mental or Mental Squash -- Barb Cooper's 10 Winning Tips to Improve Your Squash

Simplify the game. So much easier said than done. I admire most those squash minds who have the ability to take the complexity of the squash game and simplify it to a pure and simple explanation. I sort of stumbled across this great little article by Barb Cooper entitled, "10 Winning Tips for Improving Your Squash Game”. She sells it for $7.00 USD dollars online. It is money well spent. There are so many “tips” in here that are such a great tenfold return on your $7.00 investment. Many of the tips we’ve heard before, but she writes about them in such a way that is just simple and direct.
As I’ve become an older player, I recognize the need to work on my mental part of the game. I only wish I had done this twenty years ago! But better late than never. I was drawn her article because if is written by a squash professional who has devoted her life to improving the game of others, with special emphasis on the “mental” aspects of them game. Barb Cooper’s squash resume along with 40 years coaching experience at the highest level might be impressive enough, but most of us have seen a lot of pompous, inflated, albeit well-intentioned professionals come onto to the US scene in recent years, that really lack the simple, straightforward approach to the game. Because you were a professional player from overseas doesn’t mean you are now “slumming” in the US and bringing squash religion to infidels. I can name a few very arrogant examples of this but will not open this up to that. I’d prefer to champion those less self-serving but who want to improve the game of others at any level.
Barb Cooper starts off her article with top 5 mental tips, okay, we’ve heard this before: “learn to relax”, if only I could. But what makes this so interesting is she offers up this observation, which I’ve never thought about. You are who you are on court as well as off court….how true is that? She sites some personality examples. And then proceeds to provide an exercise on how to relax off court first (this is so intelligent, do what you need to do off court first) and then work it into on the court. Breathing, how to breathe and relax between points. Start off by at night when you lay down for a night’s sleep to breathe and relax, I am trying that, since it takes forever for myself to unwind – but that is funny, because on court it takes me quite a bit to unwind and relax. Breathe deeply in through your nose and exhale out through your mouth. Practical and simple…yet this technique works and she doesn’t simply say breathe deeply, she tells you how to breathe. This I love as well. She sites an example or case in point of how critical it is between points to breathe, relax and clear your mind. She will tell you the most critical time is after you’ve lost a point and are returning your opponent’s serve.
Another really important piece of advise is she seems to clear up this annoying controversy. She will tell you to play players worse than yourself. I’ve most often heard you get better playing better players, but what she states is that with players worse than yourself you can practice breathing and relaxing techniques, shots in your game and strategy while not under the pressure of playing someone better than yourself. But she will add in that doesn’t mean lose the game of match, and when you have to win, win whatever way you know how. The other tip I really liked and one which I’ve followed for years (but have trouble getting my students to follow this) is really study the game, be a student of this game, “read and learn from others.” Of course there is always my favorite tip, when you practice leave your world behind. I am the worst offender of this, but I’m learning. Keep relationship, financial, world news out of the court. Again, this only creates stress, which leads to tightness and mistakes on the court.
Finally, the other tip I really like is her tip of building your game on quadrants. This is something Jim Masland my former coach and squash confidante, has told be for years; break the court down in quadrants, but it took her to explain what to do. Develop the shot you want to make within a single quadrant first before moving on to another shot and quadrant. This is great advise, breaking it down simple. One quadrant at a time – the easiest way to gauge your improvement. And finally, she cleared this up which often puzzled me, volley everything you can. This goes along way for me especially since I let balls go I should cut off, but -- you get a bit comfortable retrieving.
I have read so many squash books and seen so many instructional videos, I like this tip sheet a lot. There’s enough for a book here, especially if Ms. Cooper goes into all the ghastly details of actually implementing these improvements. I strongly encourage anyone wanting to improve their squash game to spend the money and download it…it’s well worth the read.
See her website: http:/ for how to purchase this guide.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The PST and the AFL -- Joe McManus and Al Davis Not So Far Fetched

I was recently doing some reading on one of the most successful, actually the most successful, sports merger in the history of sports. That would be the merger of the American Football and National Football Leagues back in the late 1960's. If you read about this incredible merger you realize that it was the older established league, the NFL, which approached the AFL about a merger. The AFL was young and innovative and well funded, it reached out to markets where organized football didn't exists. It created new markets and even ventured into markets where the NFL had a strong foothold. Al Davis, probably more famous for being the much maligned owner of the Oakland Raiders (a powerhouse AFL team) was the visionary commissioner of the AFL. Many credit him for putting the AFL in such a great situation that this merger was able to take place, a merger that was intiated by the older and more established NFL.
What does this have to do with squash, which is what I write about? While I was reading about the football league mergers I couldn't help but make connections to what the Professional Squash Tournament (PST) organization founded and headed up by Joe McManus is doing alongside the older and much more established Professional Squash Association (PSA). When I stop to think about what McManus is doing for squash I get really excited. While I couldn't attend the recent PST tour stop in Southampton, Long Island (close to where I live) because of coaching commitments, I followed the draw along with my son who played in it, his second PST event (which he admittedly said he stunk at), and saw some of the local players whom most people otherwise wouldn't see, except for some grainy footage on YouTube. One such player, Dylan Murray, no doubt a young "phenom" beat one of the local standouts, Ely Slyder. The other match of note, pitted Faraz Khan, a young junior, and son of my good friend and former coach Farid Khan, against a very experienced professional player, Ned Marks, who happens to play my son quite frequently in the city. When I read about this and hear about it, it was such great news. What McManus has done has provided a venue for up and coming players or local established players the opportunity to get into the next round or two and play a world class player. This is not only a huge advantage for up and coming players, but it is also an added boon for squash fans to see these up and coming players. I saw Dylan Murray play years ago and then watched him on a clip from YouTube and this kid already exhibits professional level footwork and racket skills.
The AFL used to showcase all of the black standout football stars and the cast offs from the NFL. Funny thing, those castoffs, many of which, became NFL stars when the leagues merged. McManus has come up with such an intelligent formula for providing opportunity for players and fans alike to be part of great young talent and world class players. For a young player to play a Bradley Ball or John White if they get through the draw is fantastic. What a measuring stick and opportunity to come out of a match with a former number one just to have that experience. I took a clinic with John White years ago and he is such an incredible character, so down-to-earth and a reminder that you don't have to be coached by world class coaches to reach number 1 in the World (White will state he was never coached and with a smile doesn't advise any young player to copy his style). The best part of the clinic was the opportunity to play points with him. While I was certainly not at my fittest at the time and will admit to waddling a bit on court during a very busy time in my technology career when I just couldn't get to the courts as often as I liked (along with too much order in Chinese takeout lunches and dinners), I enjoyed those points like you wouldn't believe. I had never been on the court with someone who hit the ball where I had no idea, absolutely none, where the ball came from nor where it was going. I tried to imagine how anyone could compete with this guy, he held the ball for what seemed like forever and with this bionic wrist snapped his racket and redirected the ball. He did that shot where he swings and misses purposely and then snaps his second stroke to hit a fierce cross court the screeches by and dies in the back.
McManus has proven an innovator. His "no-let" rule is widely criticized as well as well received. Not unlike the AFL's implementation of the two point conversion. Innovation breathes new life into something tried and true. Our sport is the greatest sport on the planet, but when I receive an email about Mathew seeking revenge against Ashour at the Rowe British Open in September (Mathew recently lost in 5 to Ashour at the Australian Open) I stop and wonder, is it that predictable on the PSA that they can pick finalists based on world ranking ( Mathew number 1 and Ashour number2) a month in advance? The PSA is incredible because of the players, but the PSA isn't just about the top 50 players in the world. There are so many others whom we never see or hear about. Maybe in some of the overseas minor tournaments you would see the lower ranked players, but for the most part I have always liked the qualifiers at the NY Tournament of Champions (TOC), I like to see the young up and coming players. McManus has taken it a step further, he's garnered some young local talent and put them in a professional tournament when they might not otherwise have the opportunity to play professional level squash.
Do I hope some day the two squash governing bodies will merge, only if the PST keeps its identity and continues to bring innovation while at the same time guarding the traditions of the sport. If a US born men's player ever reaches world class stature in the squash world, I hope the credit goes to McManus for the efforts he has put forth in giving young US players the opportunity to experience world class play. I hope someone like Dylan Murray who has great talent gets enough of a taste of professional squash to want to pursue that calling, a calling whose beginning may well have started in these PST events. As for my son, it's a dream come true that he will play in as many PST events as he can this year, and when I get that phone call from him telling me he won his first PST match it will be a great day, and one of many to come.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Farewell , Paul Zummo: The Tasmanian Devil of LA Fitness Squash!

Squash is a small and close-knit community, especially in the far reaches of the squash world like Lake Success, Long Island. The players here have formed a tight community made up of doctors, lawyers, business men and women, housewives, hair stylists, even a jam manufacturer . But a true standout for his squash and sportsmanship in our community is Paul Zummo, one of my most favorite students, and the one whom I derived great pride in watching him develop as a player. He is moving to Connecticut so won’t be a frequent player at our club anymore. I’ve come to know Paul both as a friend and his coach, the bond between is that ever lasting one called squash. The first time I saw him play was a few years back when he was about 45 lbs heavier and I thought for sure he’d have a heart attack as he rushed around the court sweating in buckets and red faced with fatigue. I turned to my son while watching him and said it’s like watching the Tasmanian Devil play squash! I told my son with some coaching he could be a really good player, get him fit and with some technique and he could be really good. That was then and this is now. Paul is fit, in fact very fit. He won this year’s Grand Open regional 3.0 level tournament and placed well in the US Nationals. No doubt if he hadn’t been hampered with chronic strep leading up to the Nationals he would have won. He has come so far and what was once one of the worst backhands I’d ever seen is pretty respectable now. He has a good foundation to progress certainly to the 4.5 level and with a lot of hard work maybe the 5.0 level.
Many times over the past 2 years of coaching him 6 am every Tuesday and Thursday I watched him push through so much impatience and type “A” personality stuff to begin to develop a good understanding of the game. He is the one person I believe will find the essence of the game and become a National champion a couple of times over. I’ve never met anyone with such heart and determination and will to win. It isn’t often pretty to watch him but he wears down better players and we often watch his matches and just shake our heads wondering how he was able to retrieve some of the balls he gets to. The biggest compliment I can pay him is that the club won’t be the same without him. I watched him play his biggest club rival on Saturday, John Gross, in what turned out to be a straight set win for Paul. He often loses to John, another tireless student of mine, but there were some incredible rallies (some quite forgettable ones too). A prospective squash member was watching them and was asking me what level they were at and I said probably a solid C level, to which he remarked , they look more like solid B players. It’s always good when a B player thinks the C’s are playing like the B’s…I wonder if the nickname will stick with him or will his new club come up with another nickname for him? When the dust settles around the Tasmanian Devil he just might now look like a squash player. I have all sorts of advice for him as he leaves for another club, but I stop myself, because I think, to keep it in perspective, it is I who have learned more from him than he from me. I wish this fellow squash dasher and basher all the luck – “racket up and back – move your feet!”…

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Once A Student Always A Student

Sam, one of my LA Fitness squash students, and potentially an excellent player was watching me and his training partner, Selena, drilling and when we came off the court I could tell he really enjoyed watching it, especially Selena who is slowly Pygmalion-like being transformed into some player. I was talking to them about how I was just figuring out after all these years how to change the pace of the game without changing the pace of the ball. I'm not an intuitive player who doesn't think about such things. But I am an analytical player who likes to figure out why and how we do certain things on the court. I really enjoy dissecting this game and just am awed by both it's complexity and simplicity, an oxymoron but like most great challenges in life it's about bring control to two opposing forces, to channel that kinetic energy into something resembling grace, movement and timing.
I was explaing how insanely effective the half volley is to pick up the pace of the game, by taking the ball early off the floor on the rise before it reaches its apex -- you need to really be strong in the core of your body and have the racket skills in preperation and execution to get very low to the ball and drive it for good width and length. If executed well, the half volley is as effective as a regular volley and when executed well puts a lot of pressure on your opponent. I like to play a style that is aggressive with my feet, cutting the ball off. What I am learning is that I am much more effective when I cut the ball off but then accentuate the point by not cutting it off and retrieving it in the back. The effects of this is much like a baseball pitcher throwing 3 fastballs at 90 something and then throwing the big hook or change up it puts the hitter off balance and messes with the hitters timing. So too in squash, if I'm cutting the ball off, trying to take it early by volleying or half volleying, and if executing well putting some real pressure, then I play the ball back, retrieve a bit and then go back to the pressure.
An attacking boast (two wall boast) off the half volley redirects the ball to the front of the court as does the half volley softly and deftly placed into the front point in this is I never stop learning new things about this game, sometimes it things that come easily to for me, when Sam asked "you are still learning", I shot back, "you never stop learning this game." I am first and foremost above being a teacher or a player, a humble student of this game. What comes so intuitively to my son, I have to figure it out, analyze it (hopefully not to death) and then work on the mechanics and then the execution. When I grasp something new and difficult it is the best feeling in the world. Difficult is of course relative, but good mechanics and great execution are what we seem to strive for in becoming a better player and student...
Look next for a blog post on Selena Mahoney, what a player she's becoming, she's now taken up that position as most favorite and honored student, after me that is.

Squash And The Sands Of Time

For those who live and breathe this game of squash, there’s nothing worse than sustaining a long term injury. Oh, perhaps there is, coming back from an injury especially one that has involved a tear, pull or fracture. I’m not even talking about surgically repaired tendons, joints, replacements or the like, I’m talking about those injuries that keep you away from the game, those that seem to trick you into believing you can come back early only to find you did indeed come back too early. It’s one thing to resign yourself to a torn Achilles, you simply can’t play, need surgery and rehabilitation. Same goes for that torn meniscus. From those injuries you know that if you don’t do what you are supposed to do you may never play again, so you have your surgery, rehabilitate, and take it slowly. I admire a warrior like Will Carlin, former US National Amateur champion, who has sustained some serious injuries and he keeps coming back…he will play until his very last breath.
I recently broke my hand playing one of my students. My best student in fact who was frustrated in our points so that he stepped aggresively in front of me while I was striking the ball and my racquet caught his leg in such a way that I couldn't release my racquet and it snapped my hand back. Very painful stuff. I spent hours in emergency, ironically on the fast track (5 hours) before being xray’d and released. The hand was too swollen to determine if it was a fracture. I was put in a splint and told to see a specialist. I saw a specialist who swore it was broken, spent 3 minutes, and said I'd have to see another specialist who actualy had an xray machine. He rewrapped my injured hand and set me up for another appointment.
I spend endless hours working on my computer so just prior to my next appointment I had enough, two weeks operating the mouse lefthanded and typing with the splint hitting the spacebar I took it off and said to myself I'll rest it another two weeks and see how it goes.
My son was after me to get it re-xray'd and I told him I'm old school. If a cast was applied I would be out for 6-8 weeks plus rehabilitation time. Given the fact that I am not a player in his 20's two months is an eternity and I thought, honestly, I will go insane if I can't get on court. I figured if I returned and it got worse I'd get the hand in a cast, if I could play, I would just play through it. I thought of Kevin Mchale in the 1987 NBA finals against the Lakers, he played the season with a stress fracture in his foot, inspired, I thought that is old school, the ways things were and still should be. Recently, Derek Jeter of the Yankees stayed out two weeks with a strained calf muscle, a muscle he uses if he's lucky 5 times in a game, my attitude, suck it up and go out there and play take nothing for granted it will someday be gone.
There are many who would disagree with this attitude and ask why risk serious injury, my son has been asking me that question for weeks. But I assured him if I can't play I won't, but if I can I will play.
So I went back out on court having popped a few Advil and started hitting the ball ever so carefully. It was weird the game didn't know me anymore, I was a stranger shaking the racquet's "hand"; it was awkward, deliberate and I was afraid of feelinng that pain when I hit the ball -- high looping shots, old man style squash; the ball felt heavy off the racquet. I started out slowly, my son noticed I was hitting the ball strangely, opening my elbow and advised me to use my natural stoke otherwise he said I'd hurt my elbow. He was right my elbow was a little sore. I went back to my natural stroke ever so carefully and the pain in my elbow went away. I went out every day like this then started coaching, focusing on moving my feet well and not putting too much pace on the ball. To cut down on the number of feeds I used more ghosting in the drills (not that ghosting isn't critical to a coaches repertoire of drills, but with more advanced players). Each time I started to feel the ball better and that reluctant and petulant mistress, which I sometimes call squash, came back slowly but surely. John Gross one of my better students (Hyder Cup 3.5 finalist) gave me a small squishy ball to exercise and loosen my hand up with -- that has turned out to be a godsend). The hand swells up a bit after hitting, but it seems okay, and doesn't bother me too much.
Then I started playing games with my son, and it was my third time out with him that I was feeling really good. I had been doing alot of biking and running and felt strong. We played some games and I knew squash was back and I was in her good graces again, I played the longest rallies of my life with my son, bullets, 40 and 50 shot rallies! I can't even begin to tell you how great it felt, the hand hurt, but who cares. I go out now and coach early a.m. and play at nights and restiong assured I made the right decision...eventually, I hope it heals, but this game again for me is worth whatever pain or difficulty it presents, I simply can't live too long without it.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Squash Gods Sometimes Smile On Us

Jay Arkin is a 65 year old racketballer at Lake Success' LA Fitness who converted to squash about 6 months ago. Around that time he became my student and a real student of the game. He has consistantly shown up eager for his twice a week lessons and with the exception of a few minor injuries has been on a steady course to eventually become a solid B level squash player. While many men his age are overweight and sedantry or simply go through the fitness motions at the gym, Jay is fit, lean, and as I remarked to one of my 15 year old students the other day when Jay was changing his shirt, "you should be so lucky to be that fit!" And other players at the club have made comments about why someone that age would take up such a demanding sport like squash or there have been comments like how good can he really be at his age (implying lessons are a waste of money). I dismiss all of that, the great thing about our sport is that it truanscends time, space, distance and that if you are willing to adapt your game and play within yourself you're capable at any age and at any level doing this game justice. When I have sessions with Jay, there's an hour glass, an element of time, I'm aware of the clock ticking and I want to put as much as I can into his game, I know he's not 22 years old and has near unlimited time to develop into good player, he's on a timeline and we need to make this happen. I've had my doubts, he has had some nagging injuries, the kind due to age, that has hindered his development as a squash player; but he didn't push it and took a bit of time off, but like most who would play if they had to crawl onto court he couldn't stay away and practiced a bit with himself. A certified Yoga instructor, I've marvelled at how hard I can push him and he's never out of breath. I mistake that sometimes for not being pushed by the drills, but as he told me one day, when I asked him about it he said that he does get tired! But the best part of what we are doing is the other day he was hitting rails off the feeds, and these were feeds designed to move and hit, like a real squash player. I do get very excited when a student of mine hits a milestone, and this was a big milestone the other day. He began getting the racquet behind the ball and stepping into his shot and driving it for good , tight length. They were solid B level shots. We had been working on hitting and moving and moving and hitting the ball for weeks -- and I admit it, it was sort of stagnant and I more than once thought we wouldn't get through this point in his game -- sudenly, lo and behold he comes out and it finally clicks. I stopped and remarked how he was hitting real squash shots for the first time, they were beautiful shots tight to the rail, and as I watched this 65 year old specimen move to and from the ball, I felt this rush of pride at being part of this. Not to be overly dramatic, but the human condition is fraught with failure and frustration and near you get older those elements become more evident. There are days I am so tired of this game and how my body feels and how frustrating it can be, but then I go out and hit some really good shots and the ball begins to sound like music again -- any my body somehow has a spring and lightness to it...I watched Jay and as cool and collected as he is, I could see in his eyes and demeanour he knew the squash gods were smiling kindly -- for the day at least. He'll continue coming back no matter what to try and defy the dificulties of this game, the immense frustratioins, if for no other reason than to have that feeling like no other that those squash gods occassionally smile on you, perhaps less so as you get older, but they will eventually smile on you no matter how old you are when you step onto their court. Like those ancient Greek gods, they do toy with us a bit and might even derive some perverse pleasure at seeing what we do to gain their favor -- learning to play squash at 65 included.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Letter from the "Commissioner".

I follow the Professional Squash Tour (PST) closely because it is perhaps the best thing to happen to squash since wooden rackets were replaced by graphite rackets. And then there is the "commisioner" of the newly formed league: Joe McManus. This guy is great for squash, I've at one point called him the Bill Veeck of squash -- I have to confess I am very much a traditionalist when it comes to certain things. Squash for one, I prefer the English players to the Egyptians, Nick Mathews game to Ramy Ashour's, PSA, attrition squash, softball, Dunlop Ball and rackets, and so on. But I also love innovation in this game when it doesn't tread on tradition. I don't believe this great game of ours will ever reach a mass audience, but then again I'm sure 30 years ago no one ever thought golf would be where it is today. Television makes a certain sport rich, squash just hasn't hit TV big time, will it every, I don't believe so? It's too fast, too complex, and unless you really appreciate the subtle nuances of the game, pretty boring to watch. But then again, people by the millions can sit through a basebal game where there is only 15-20 minutes of real action and 2-3 hours of boring stuff. How much action does a centerfielder experience in a game, probably barely 3 minutes. And squash, especially glass court squash where the ball is always difficult to hit the nick or kill shot and put the point away, not many spectacular nicks, or the equivalent of a home run in baseball, slam dunk in basketball or bomb in football. I cannot sit through an entire baseball game anymore, even a Red Sox and Yankee matchup without turning to something else after a couple of innings.
Anyways, squash in the Olympics? I'm not sure about that either, if you can't sell it to TV or a mass audience can you sell it to the Olympics? If it were to make the Olympics would it receive prime time?...but you can market anything . So squash for TV a, a mass audience, the Olympics, squash professional leagues...If anyone can make it happen the "commissioner" can. He reminds me of Pete Rozelle (football), Don King (Boxing), David Stern (Basketball) -- visionaries that took their respective sports to a new level of recognition...these men brought their sport into mainstream America via TV. But before they garnered the big TV dollars, they started somewhere and worked their way up, and the feeling might have been no fan of their sport was ever insignificant. And they were marketing geniuses.
A couple of weeks back on the PST Web site there was a question about whom the PST should sign next followed by a list of names of some great players. I for one am such a fan of David Palmer, who was first on the list and who can still compete in the top ten/twenty, but there were others. I saw Allistair Walker, wow, he's such an exciting player (from England!) and sorry Mr. Palmer, while it is great to see stars in any sport even past their prime, it's probably more exciting to watch a younger up and coming squash superstar like Walker -- so I voted for him. I made some of my usual comments in the comments box praising the PST and admonishing it on holding to tradition, I keep harping on this, but hey, those were free comments. I sent them off.
About a week later I receive an email from the "commissioner" thanking me for my comments. I was a bit surprised, but then I realized he reads every comment, every article, every word about his PST. I was impressed. Then I receive an email today announcing the PST league play and a draft of its constitution...and I thought, he really makes things happen, whether he is an idea man or is smart of enough to know a good idea when he sees it and executes it, whether a visionary or businessman or maybe a combination of both, I hope he succeeds at all of this, I want him to make playing squash something that anyone would want to play, sort of like, why wouldn't anyone want to play. I want him to reach the young athlete somewhere, anywhere from any walk of life so that young athlete walks into my club and wants to know how to play this game, barefooted or not. I want to see all those players that are overseas that we never see because they are outside the top 20, I want to see them play on the PST.
My son played his first PST event a few weeks back, I've written so much about his squash career. He was so excited, and I was so proud of him because this young man, in the past often hampered by severe asthma, has worked so hard in the past 3 years to drop 40 lbs and really train; he is tireless and while sometimes discouraged manages to get on the court for hours with me or by himself. For him, as gifted as he was as a junior -- he would be brilliant for a game or two sometimes only a few points-- and no one really looked twice at him because of his weight and poor stamina-- it has been a deserted island. But my son knows how I can be brutally honest and I never ever misled him in what I believed to be so much potential in him; I told him over and over it's a great privilege to play this game at a high level. I saw something in him, intangibles, what he sees, what he thinks, and knew intuitively his squash mind is pure genius. I've read every squash book, have seen so many players, have talked to them...can tell you the most gifted player I ever saw was Tristan Nancarrow, can tell you that Martin Heath has a great squash mind, that Hisham Ashour is more talented than Ramy, his brother, and that there will never ever be the likes of Jansher Khan...and my son, I always told him, there's no recipe for success, there's no blueprint, if you work hard and want it badly enough and you have the talent and you really learn this game any is possible.
So he played his first PST event, I didn't watch, and he was smoked. I asked over the phone him what happened, he said " he lost, it's just one match". He said he was nervous, he didn't play well. How was his opponent, I asked?, "He was good, hit hard," was all he said. I was impressed he sounded like a professional athlete!
As for the "commissioner", in true fashion, he came up to my son after his match and told him about a player who came out and was smoked too in his opening professional match and who is now a really good and consitent player on the tour. My son appreciated that gesture and encouragement. What will he remember most about his first professional match?, most likely his conversation aftwerwards with Commissoner McManus.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

99 Wins -- A Lesson in Humility

What really is arrogance in sports? Why do we admire it and yet despise it at the same time? Growing up Mohamed Ali was despised for his arrogance, then admired, and now as he shuffles along in the aging warrior spectrum, humbled by life's afflictions, he's revered. And Achilles, the penultimate warrior, was arrogant, young brash, putting himself above all others. And Homer seemed to counter that with Odysseus, humble and putting his journey back home to his wife and son above all else. And we'll say that God seems to punish the arrogant. Mike Tyson comes to mind.
Humility these days is something perceived as weak and pathetic. In this Hip-hop gadget producing sense of self dominance, in this ultimate fighter climate is there room for the humble person, the humble celebrity? Professional Squash players are the greatest athletes on the face of the earth, they are perhaps the most humble as well. All you need to do is go up to Nick Mathew the world number 1 player or chat with Ramy Ashour, the Egyptian wunderkind, while he watches his brother Hisham play; or offer praise to David Palmer, arguably one of the greatest players in the history of the game, and have him dismiss the mere suggestion of greatness with a wry smile -- to know these men are truly humble.
So when a 14 year old student of mine who can someday be a good player proclaims herself awesome and truly believes it every time she hits a good shot, and you try to teach humility, hey, it's one shot, squash gives you that occasional shot to keep you going, but for the most part it is a most humbling experience. Those professionals know what it takes to brush against greatest and just how fleeting it is...squash success seems to reward humility and punish arrogance.
I read in ESPN magazine that the top salaries for a professional racing driver was $63 million a year, for the top squash earner, Nick Mathew, a $160,000 a year in prize money, does it suggest some tie to money? Arrogance and money and power, hmm...Donald Trump seems to be riding that wave lately and hordes of people are listening to him, which is probably worse because he doesn't really have anything to say. Yet, Larry Bird made millions playing basketball, won championships, and was very humble. Ezra Pound perhaps the greatest poetic mind (to paraphrase his proclaimation by 30 he would know more about poetry than any man alive) was humble, Christ, Gandhi all so humble. In their humility, did they accept that humankind has limitations, did they ever proclaim they were the greatest? But I go back to what Llarry Bird once said, "it aint bragging if you can do it..." Muhammed Ali , the penultimate representative of arrogance in sports, could do it and maybe, he projected an arrogance in response to what white society said he wasn't, a man worthy of a drinking from the same water fountain as a white man.
Coaching squash, I see such arrogance from every age on the squash court. It seems if you aren't arrogant you must not be high on yourself, full of yourself, it seems to mask what might be wrong with your game. My best student who has a lot of talent will proclaim he's the greatest when he wins but beats himself up when he looses...Muhammed Ali believed he was the greatest win or loose...those great squash players seem to believe more in the game, the greatness of the game, than in their own accomplishments. When David Palmer pumps his fist, it isn't because he believes he is the greatest, it seems to mean, damn, he did it, at least this time.
None of my younger students who seem to exude the media induced arrogance have walked on water. Against a weaker opponent you try and teach and foster respect and appreciation for the effort, but it seems that arrogance disdains the weaker opponent. One of my students made a disparaging remark about an opponent she just beat.
And my son, ever so humble, was blitzed in his professional debut, but said it was just one match, ahh a tough lesson to teach, but he's got it. He is so squash smart, but quite a bit awed by what Chris Walker recently taught him during a weak of training. Jim Masland, former Harvard All-American, in all his brilliance is ever so humble, he seems often awestruck by what humankind is capable of, both good and bad, on and off the squash court; I’ve seen Jim marvel at something a much lesser player does on the court with him....and then I step onto the court for a lesson, my 10th lesson in a row, with a junior ("kids say the darndest things")and the student at some point in the lesson, in frustration says "I pay you to hit the ball so don't talk", when I try to suggest something in their technique; and later blurts out "your feeds suck can't you give me a ball that is perfect to hit?"
And then early next morning there is my student Matt Levine, who has all the reason to be arrogant ,a University of Chicago law graduate tops in his class and a successful lawyer now, is so humble on the court and whatever nugget of squash knowledge I pass to him it's like a cup of cool water to a man in the hot desert.
I'm reluctant to say arrogance is a roadmap to failure because there have been some really successful athletes who were perceived as arrogant yet achieved success. Jansher Khan, the greatest squash player ever, was said to be very arrogant. Yet, in the back of my mind, I think that maybe his 100th PSA win eluded him as a lesson, no matter how great, life is bigger, squash is bigger than any person or player. It's when you can't do it anymore that seems to matter most, it's then that what you accomplished means something else, which is what you figure out before you die. At some point, hopefully, you have to love the irony -- 99 wins.

Friday, March 25, 2011

PST Redeems Itself

I have been recently critical of some of the PST's antics (see my post from 1/21). But then, lo and behold in my hotmail account pops in the latest PST newsletter. I can honestly say I really look forward to this newsletter. I love Shahier Razik's squash tips. He is such a great teacher, his Youtube videos are fantastic, every coach should study them routinely. I watched him beat Jonathan Kemp at the TOC this year, being down 2-1 he came back and just showed why he is as good as he is and has been around so long. Anyways, technically, for those of us who are crazy about technique, he is superb, it was fun to isolate his preparation or his footwork, or positioning. What also excited me was the announcement of a pro squash league, this is a great event and should be heralded across the pro and open level squash land. Hopefully, McManus' vision of bringing pro squash to every club from here to Timbuktu in the US and truly inspiring any would-be player seeing professional level squash for the first time, will be realized. I applaud this wholeheartedly and can't wait to see this league play. I'll even concede allowing top ranked women playing in the men's pro league. And finally, to show the tour's dedication to bringing great squash and promoting good sportsmanship McManus reviews the list of latest penalties levied against players for misconduct. Player arguments and disagreements with the refs with each other with the audience with the world, the tour has recognized as the down side of professional squash. I for one applaud the reprimands for misconduct and the fines, pro squash should be a place to take your family to see these great athletes compete in the greatest sport on the planet. I used to have season tickets to the Knicks years back. Bought them when my son was born and looked so forward to taking him to the Garden. After a couple of years and listening to all the bad language, watching the fights, and enduring the whining of players for every foul, I didn't renew my subscription. And finally, in a page taken from the TOC and the Grand Open, a number of the pro tournaments coincide with the PST's amateur tournaments. I would dare say that the PST's number 1 player should have been penalized by the PSA (that other governing body) for his antics during the Muellar match in the qualifying round. No doubt, if it occurred in the PST, the number 1 player would have been reminded that no one player is bigger than the game itself.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Squash Coach as Architect

I've often asked myself what makes a really great squash coach? Over the past few years my opinion has varied significantly from being a good player exhibiting great technique to being able to feed the ball well at any level. Recently, I've begun to believe that a great coach isn't a great player, isn't an exhibiter of great technique, isn't superbly fit, doesn't have a room of trophies, hasn't competed at the highest level...a great coach is one who has the vision of an architect, who can see all the components needed for a specific player's ambition, skill and talent. A vision that is often not realized for years, a great coach is one who can patiently architect for a player at any level what he or she needs to do to become the best player a player can be given his or her level of talent, skill, work ethic, speed, quickness, intelligence and so forth. As a squash architect, squash architect above all else requires high squash IQ, the coach can see the beginning and end result and all else in between to accomplish and meet a players ambition and expection. Along the way the architect can make adjustments for the unforseen; a really great coach as architect can assess a player and create a blueprint for squash success. Squash success as in playing great squash... eventually. This is a difficult game, it takes a lot of time and patience to realize success in this game.
The architect can't make a player win or train, he can give the player the technique, the methods and the strategy to be successful in playing great squash. The blueprint is criitcal to building a squash player and fashioning his or her game according to capabilities.
Like any architect, the architet surveys what he or she has to work with. In the case of the squash architect, the assessment would include:
Balance and Coordination
Movement to the ball and away from the ball
Most would agree that great hands are critical to great squash. I recently started working with Jenny Wang, a busy mother of 2 children, a business owner, who never played squash in her life, and within 5 minutes of our first ever lesson I was stunned. I had never seen someone with hands that had such a great feel for the racquet, I marvelled at this to her, and told her she was born to hold a squash racquet in her hand! She looked at me and seemed to think I was crazy, but I could see she would pick up the racket technique very quickly. After listening to what she wanted to accomplish, I began outlining and architecting where she would go and how I would take her there. I thought I would focus initially on lots of footwork and playing and let the stroke evolve on its own for awhile. After a couple of months everyone she plays marvells at how good she's become. Now that she rallies and strikes the ball pretty well, I'm working on her balance, and getting her to begin cutting the ball off and taking it early. We've started working on her fitness as well. She's fit but not squash fit and, as her technique and footwork evolve rapidly, she's going to need a level of fitness to sustain her quick racquet and playing development. My assessment within a short time was that this was a woman who probably could have gone as far as she wanted to in squash -- maybe 25 years ago -- but now can become an A level player provided she puts in the work and continues her techinical and strategic development. Would another coach have seen just a 38 year old beginner squash player who wanted to take a couple of lessons to learn the rules of the game, not sure. And my assessment isn't much until she's reached that goal, but she was game and has gone far beyond just learning the rules and hitting. She's easy because of her obvious skill, but what about Haadi Khan who came to me two years ago 45 lbs overweight and 13 years old. I would have coached him for free (and often have) because when I first went on court with him I saw a very overweight kid who moved like he had no weight and who had hands that were special, hands I've only seen in my son. I've had to work really hard with him, but he's coming into his own right now and technically is getting better and better and his footwork and quickness has gone to a different level. His temperment is still immature for serious competition, he gets frustrated and angry, but we've architected his squash that mentally and match savy and strategy will fall into place. I believe more than even the day I first came on court with him that he can be a top junior. He is now pushing to run the 5 court sprints in the 9 - 10 second range. In the last month he finally broke the 11 second series and runs them in under 11. Soon I see him running in the 9:50 second timeframe. This is huge for him. His game has followed, he's found himself quicker on the ball and his stamina better. He's beginning to break his opponents down by attacking the ball more with his feet.
If I'm now a so-called squash architect, It's not to say I haven't been wrong. I have been dead wrong but when I'm wrong I'm really wrong. Amanda Sohby is a good example. She used to come with her mom, her brother Omar and her younger sister to hit with Ron Karn, the club's professional at the time and their "step father". I thought Omar was fiercely competitive but technically not sound and was developing some bad habits that later on he'd have to come back and fix. His fitness, dedication and perseverance would only take him so far. Technically he wouldn't be able to advance beyond a certain point. I saw Omar at some tournaments a few years later and you could see where he would have trouble. Amanda was really strong for her age but I didn't think she moved very well, didn't have the great footwork and balance, and was in my judgment not that gifted a player. I don't follow either one now, but I know for a fact I was wrong about Amanda based on all her success, most notably the first American born to win the World Juniors The one I thought was really gifted and would make an amazing squash player was her younger sister. She had only recently started playing squash when I first saw her, was 7 or 8 years old, but had those intangible gifts, a very special player.
But a great coach or even a good one doesn't create success, he creates opportunity, just as a good building architect creates a place to live and work. So too, the squash architect builds a player's game, how that player uses his or her skills has little or nothing to do with the architecture of his or her game. And then there is my son, so gifted with his hands and feet and intelligence and now finally his fitness level. He's the smartest squash player I've ever met, one of the smartest people, but has had no success in the game that is the standard measurement. He has worked tirelessly on his game and his fitness and as often as he wanted to give up he's pushed harder. I looked at him and coached him when he was 50 lbs overweight and always believed in his talent. I thought, it might be a blessing in disguise because he compensated for his fitness by really studying the game and devleoping professional level technique. He's fitter than ever now and I've always said that he just needs matches to succeed. He will find his way, his whole game was architected on his brilliant hands, feet and sense of the game. Whether he ever wins and pushes through the losing to players he shouldn't lose to is part of something no coach can help him with. And certainly he cannot criticize his squash architecture.
I must be on to something because I realize that most of my students stay with me for a long time. We share in the vision of their game...I don't coach success, that I can't do, but I do try with every effort and bit of knowledge to get the best game possible for what the player has or can acquire. Should my players or my son achieve measurable success in this game I will be so happy for them, because their goal was always to play the best squash possible, win or lose. I hope for them alone, they experience that success, but mostly I hope they play for years and years great squash and pass this game along to others as it was passed on to me. Jim Masland was the first architect I met, while he must have seen that I would never achieve a high level as a player, he must have seen something in me where he spent countless hours passing along his great wisdom about this game. I was like a sponge. I absorbed everything he offered. In fact, every coach I've had I've absorbed every bit of their squash wisdom. I might not feed the best, or hang for more than a couple of games at the A level, and I might not follow the conventions of many coaches, but I want for every player that I come across to play the best squash, because when you play the best squash, this game is magical. There's no certification for this, no real measurement of success, as a building architect doesn't know why the building he's designed is a success other than to know that people live and flourish or work and thrive in the structures he or she designed and had built. I want a player like Haadi of my son, especially, to have the option of doing whatever they want with their game we've architected...that for me might just be the measure of success of being a good coach.