Squash en français – At the Movies

Un Film de Lionel Bailliu

I’m pretty sure there aren’t many movies featuring squash that have been nominated for an Academy Award. But French director Lionel Bailliu’s Squash is just such a film. Nominated in 2003 in the Best Live Action Short Film category, the action in this 27 minute film takes place entirely on a squash court. Two businessmen, Alexandre (played by Malcolm Conrath) and his boss Charles (Eric Savin), play a squash match. The on-court mood ebbs and flows dramatically as the rules are bent and both players test their opponent’s mental and physical endurance. And not in a nice way!

Boulot et Squash from Fort Mathieu on Vimeo.

Squash and Fair Play

Four years after its initial release, Bailliu expanded Squash into a bitter and nail-biting commentary on the cut-throat nature of office politics in his feature debut Fair Play.

Eric Savin reprised his role as Charles, a shrewd businessman who takes his scheming employees on an ultra-competitive weekend outing. Featuring rowing, jogging, canoeing and rock climbing as well as squash, the weekend is less to do with team-building than the survival of the fittest. And although Charles may be top dog today, ambitious worker Jean-Claude (played by Benoît Magimel) is determined to make his way to the top no matter what the cost.

Check out the Fair Play website, and your French, at:

http://www.tfmdistribution.com/fairplay

The First Nuclear Squash Court

My First Time on Court

I remember it distinctly. A weekday lunchtime in Spring, sometime in the mid-70s. Rather gloomy weather I recall. I’d only just discovered that the game of squash existed never having come into contact with anyone who’d ever played it – or watched it being played, for that matter. But the company I’d recently joined straight from university as a research scientist ran a sports centre, known as the ‘Rec Soc’ or Recreational Society. The Rec Soc building was located just outside the company’s perimeter fence and included a bar, a lecture theatre and four squash courts. I’d watched a couple of squash matches from the balcony and been offered a game by a work colleague. So there I was. Complete with new squash racket, non-marking squash shoes – and not the faintest idea of the rules or how to play the game.

Oh, and one other thing. The company I was working for, and who owned the squash courts, developed nuclear weapons.

The Manhattan Project

Re-wind to World War II. In 1942, American scientists were competing with Nazi Germany in a race to create the physics behind the splitting of the atom. The Manhattan Project was the code name for the US government’s secret project to develop a nuclear bomb. Work on the project was taking place at sites all over the US but needed to be centralised. But where?

Step forward University of Chicago physicist Arthur Holly Compton. A Nobel Prize winner, Compton ran a well-respected laboratory, and had plenty of space to accommodate the scientists – including another Nobel Prize winner, Italian physicist Enrico Fermi. So the scientists and their families made their way to Chicago.

The World’s First Atomic Pile

But Fermi and his team (see photo) didn’t just need accommodation. They needed a certain type of space for their experiments. An extremely important space. A space to build an atomic pile which they could use to start – and, hopefully, stop – a sustained nuclear chain reaction in uranium. This was the material which would later be used to build an atomic bomb.

The Chicago Nuclear Pile Team (Enrico Fermi is on the left in the front row)

A squash court, or more probably a rackets court, located under the stands of the recently-closed football stadium seemed like the perfect place for Fermi and his team to build their atomic pile. Known as Chicago Pile 1, it was literally a monolithic construction of graphite bricks and uranium fuel (see picture). On December 2nd, 1942 Fermi and his colleagues gathered on the balcony of the court to test the reactor. The sustained chain reaction took place and the scientists stopped the reaction, without incident, after 28 minutes.

After the experiment, the scientists decamped en masse to Los Alamos in New Mexico where they subsequently developed the world’s first atomic bomb, testing it for the first time in the Nevada Desert. The rest, as they say, is history.

Fermi himself became known as The Father of the Atomic Bomb. In 2009, over 65 years after Fermi’s famous atomic pile experiment, his granddaughter, Olivia Fermi, visited Los Alamos. She was filmed for a local TV station trying her hand at squash on the local YMCA squash court.

“It’s my first time here,” she said. “I’ve wanted to come for a long time.”

Footnote: The Meaning of Squash

After the end of World War II, due to a mistranslation of the word squash, Soviet reports  of Fermi’s experiment claimed that it was carried out in a converted pumpkin field instead of a converted squash court.

But that’s another story.

For a Chicago-centric view of the atomic pile story , read Alex Beam’s 2008 article for Vanity Fair, ‘The Most Important Squash Court, Ever.’

Squash in Pakistan – Girl from the Badlands

The Great Game

What’s your first reaction when you hear the word Waziristan? Depending on your grasp of world geo-politics and history, not much perhaps. But when you realise that Waziristan borders the North West Frontier, the territory between Pakistan and Afghanistan, then you just may associate it with tribal unrest, lawlessness and even international terrorism.  After all, this is part of the area where The Great Game was played out between the British and Russian Empires for supremacy in Central Asia during the 19th and early 20th centuries. An area branded The Badlands by the Pakistan Government and by Washington as the most dangerous place in the world. Synonymous with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, it’s rife with militant groups while tribal customs often force women to remain at home.

Streetfighter to Weightlifter

So when you hear that Pakistan’s number one female squash player, Maria Toor Pakay, hails from South Waziristan you may wonder just  how she got to where she is today. In fact, it was Pakay’s father, Shamsul Qayum, an elder of the conservative Wazir tribe and civil servant, who first noticed her combative potential – brawling with street boys in her home village of Shakai. He took her to the northwestern city of Peshawar and began training her as – a weightlifter – even  disguising the 10-year old Pakay as a boy to enter her in the National Boys Weightlifting Championship. She won in her class.

A Meeting with a Legend

But then came a life-changing event. Pakay met the legendary squash player and eight times World Open Squash Champion, Jansher Khan, himself a native of Peshawar. She took up squash and in 2004, at the age of 14, became Pakistan’s top female squash player. Gradually climbing the international rankings, Pakay is now in the World Top 100 and recently made the semi-finals of the World Junior Squash Championship in India.

Squash Champion to Role Model

Pakay’s  determination to defy tradition and champion girls’ sports in the conservative northwest of Pakistan has, perhaps not surprisingly, won her some enemies. Taliban militants who operate across swathes of the northwest oppose the co-education of girls and boys and advocate a harsh brand of law, often staging bomb attacks to try and advance their aims. Talking recently to Pakistan news agency AFP, Pakay said, “I have received some threats from unknown people who have advised me to stop playing and going out of the house, otherwise they would kill me. But they can’t detract me… I would never quit playing.”

For more on Maria Toor Pakay’s story, read Khurram Shahzad’s excellent article in The Muslim Observer at:

http://muslimmedianetwork.com/mmn/?p=6110

Squash in England – Coach Identities

Squash Coach Roles and Obligations

A few weeks ago I posted on the responsibility of new squash coaches in England to promote a balanced lifestyle, a concept which can mean different things to different people. Since then, I’ve qualified as a squash coach myself, a process which involved meeting and working with a number of experienced coaches.

Not surprisingly, most of them qualified at a time when the role of a squash coach was less complex than it is today. Or, more accurately, the environment within which people now coach squash is more complex. This doesn’t mean to say that, in the past, squash coaches weren’t expected to perform a variety of roles. Far from it. They were certainly expected to be good teachers and to run coaching sessions efficiently and effectively. But the range of issues about which they were expected to have a working knowledge and the statutory obligations they were required to meet were undoubtedly far fewer than today.

Teacher, Role Model, Innovator

By way of example, take a look at the roles of the coach as identified in the current training programme for new squash coaches in England: Teacher, Manager, Psychologist, Motivator, Guide, Role Model, Adviser, Leader and Friend. On the basis of my recent experience alone, I’d also add Mentor and – when coaching young people – Guardian. The course also makes it clear that squash coaches should share good practice with other coaches across the United Kingdom – a social networking role which, I believe, shouldn’t be targeted exclusively at squash coaches. Nor should it be limited to coaches based in the United Kingdom. Good practice, particularly when it relates to such a wide range of roles, can emerge anywhere in the squash world.

Squash Coach Identities

So, which roles will individual squash coaches most identify with? Well, if we return to the concept of a balanced lifestyle, we can at least begin to understand the need for squash coaches to find their own personal balance. That balance should help them to identify not just with their squash coaching roles, but with their other key squash roles (such as Competitor) and life roles such as Life Partner, Parent, Employee, Business Owner and so on.

The Squash Coach as Gardener

As human beings, we all acquire and discard roles throughout our lives – some of us more easily than others. But our own personal identities – the identities we give ourselves – are not so easily changed. Which is where metaphors can be useful. England Squash and Racketball has likened its squash coaches to gardeners, nurturing their coachees by providing them with care, resources and individual attention. In terms of their genetic makeup and physiology, every coachee, every person is unique and needs different types of support at different times as they learn and develop.

Sensing those individual needs as they arise and responding appropriately is the biggest challenge facing squash coaches today.

Wooden Squash Rackets – The Sound of Music

Squash Racket Strings

Well, I’m just about old enough (really!) to remember playing with a wooden squash racket – or at least a squash racket with a laminated wood frame. Not only did it have a frame made from ash but, in common with the guitar I was learning to play at the time, it also had natural gut strings made from animal intestines.

Squash Rackets, Guitars and Scientific Research

Now, at the time, I certainly didn’t want to feel instrumental in causing cruelty to animals purely to help my development either as a squash player or a guitarist. In fact, as a scientist (and consequently someone who’s naturally curious), I did carry out some basic research into what was involved in acquiring gut from the appropriate animal(s) and transforming it into racket strings and guitar strings. Without going into details, I decided to play on, my conscience being clear on the animal welfare front, or at least as clear as it could be at the time…

Squash Racket Repair

The approach to repairing squash rackets in those days seemed to vary from the professional (re-stringing and frame repair by a specialist) to the amateur (involving the use of a mind-boggling variety of adhesives and other materials then in domestic use. I personally remember using Araldite, Evo-stik, paper clips (straightened of course), fuse wire and electrical insulation tape to repair my squash rackets, some of which were contributed by my fellow squash players along with bold claims as to their effectiveness.

Racket Skills

So, when I recently came across some footage from 1976 of a squash match involving eight times British Open Squash Champion, Geoff Hunt, using a wooden racket – the memories came flooding back. Here it is, posted on the internet by Hernan Dubourg, himself a nine times Argentina National Squash Champion.

One feature of the match – between Hunt and Pakistan’s Mohibullah Khan – is the length of the rallies. I’ve seen a longer recording from the match which shows many of these lasting for 50 shots or more. Perhaps the footage shows that the rackets of the time were just as good as those of the modern era (in terms of the power of shot they could be used to generate) but were not as suited to touch play at the front of the court. Who knows? But let me invite you to just listen to the sound when the squash ball is being hit.

I don’t know about you but, as a former wooden squash racket user, it certainly does sound like music to my ears.

The Inner Game of Squash

Holistic Sports Coaching

In the 1970s, American tennis instructor Tim Gallwey wrote The Inner Game of Tennis, a book which described his own novel approach to sports coaching. His approach included aspects of what are now possibly best  known as sports psychology, performance coaching (or life coaching) and meditation. Gallwey proposed that, for each player, their sport is made up of an outer game – played against an opponent – and an inner game, which takes place inside the player’s mind.

Tim Gallwey

Tim Gallwey

Squash in the Mind

The inner game approach requires players to make specific non-judgmental observations about what Gallwey called critical variables associated with playing their sport. Amongst other things, these variables could include the flight or bounce of the ball during rallies, the position of the player’s feet or their squash racket head, or even the sound made when they or their opponent hit the ball. The purpose of making these observations is for the player to become increasingly aware of their playing state, leading their body to automatically adjust and correct itself to achieve the best performance it can. This inner game effectively takes place inside the player’s own mind and is played against lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt and self-criticism. In other words, it’s played against self-imposed obstacles put in the way by players themselves – a problem which will be equally familiar to squash players as to tennis players!

Squash Health

In response to the book’s success, Gallwey followed up with further inner game books on golf, music, skiing, work and, in 2010, stress – possibly written in recognition of the increasing work life challenges faced by many people as a result of global economic uncertainty and changing employment trends. This series of writings has gradually expanded the range of tools and techniques which can be used to coach the inner game in different life contexts – from sport, to work and, increasingly, to health. In fact, the series could be seen as harmonising approaches to coaching the body and coaching the mind.

Squash for the Soul

The idea of harmonisation fits neatly with the concept of a balanced lifestyle or a healthy work life balance – something which many people strive to achieve during their lives and which squash coaches are expected to promote. And one strand of the inner game approach which Tim Gallwey describes at the end of The Inner Game of Tennis
deals directly with this. He talks about “the inner game off the court” and the need for players to realise that the skills they need to achieve their life goals and overcome barriers are the same whatever they are doing. Under the memorable (and very 1970s) heading ‘Unfreakability’ he outlines the need to acquire the ability to see the true nature of what is happening around you – “and to be able to respond appropriately”.

The skills Gallwey is describing are characteristic of meditation or what he calls ‘the art of quieting the mind’. And it’s the ability to concentrate and maintain a state of inner calm off court as well as on court which is a key teaching of the inner game approach.

Squash for the soul, you might say…