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 (