The long-term future of squash in a complex, dynamically-changing world lies in the continuing emergence and vitality of multiple squash communities, many of which will prove short-lived. In this context, traditional ‘static’ methods of sport development – typically based the local provision of standardised, participation-oriented squash programmes – will increasingly need to be augmented by ‘rolling programmes’ of innovative and culturally-sensitive communication and leadership initiatives.
Without these, squash will not be able to sense and respond quickly enough to changes in the socio-economic and cultural environments within which it’s competing for participation, with other sports and with non sports-related activities.
Dynamic leaders from different age groups and backgrounds will always be required to activate existing squash networks and inspire existing squash communities. But so too will people who can coach new squash communities into existence and squash agents into leaders.
Our understanding of what squash coaching will have to become will have to change.
Sense / Leaders
Squash communities aren’t just local populations of players, nor are they just groups of members of some squash club or institution. They’re dynamic groupings of individuals with shared ‘tribal’ identities, even though they may have their own individual (and shifting) perceptions, preferences and priorities.Active squash agents, including those who govern the sport, run squash clubs or offer squash programmes, fail to sense those shifting perceptions, preferences and priorities at their peril.
Of course, many people who are members of squash clubs may not even behave or wish to behave as squash agents, for example by offering to introduce people to the sport, running competitions, organising social events or even helping to run squash clubs. In fact, many may be happy just to ‘consume’ the occasional squash experience, e.g. by playing a friend or watching from the balcony while others play.
Yet the existence and involvement of active squash agents is essential to sustain living squash communities; and living squash communities are essential to the transmission through time of the squash life story.
Unfortunately, squash communities can’t be built to a blueprint, like machines. Nor do they spontaneously emerge from local populations, whether somebody belonging to those populations is already playing squash or not. However, their emergence can be stimulated and their vitality sustained throughout changes in the demography and interconnection of those whose participation breathes life into them. And while individuals are required to lead squash communities, others will always be needed who can catalyse squash community emergence and vitality. Otherwise, there will be no communities for leaders to lead.
This catalysis role is entrepreneurial rather than managerial or operational in nature. To perform it, individuals are needed who are explorers with a healthy scepticism of ready-made ‘expert solutions’ to squash participation ‘problems.’ The wreckage of many a failed squash development initiative sits on top of a ‘best practice’ blueprint. And the catalysts are also risk-takers who are prepared to encounter failure on the road to success.
Above all, the catalysts are curious, persistent and collaborative. People who are prepared to ask, and help others find answers to, difficult questions. To stimulate networks, generate interest and gain support. To coach communities into life and coach life into unhealthy ones.
Culture / Clubs
How did you come to love squash? I don’t mean when or where did you start to learn the game or even play the game. I mean what’s the story behind how you come to realise that squash was something that you had to be – or already were – actively involved in?
Whatever your answer, it will have something to do with your introduction to and interaction with one or more squash agents, individuals who already loved squash and were happy to share their stories.
What was the context within which you came to love squash? How were your family, friends (or even enemies), work, home location and other life passions involved? What about your background and the background of those who made up the ‘supporting cast’ of squash agents in your introduction to squash?
What identity or identities do you believe that squash has helped to give you, or maybe to strengthen? Which of your values do you feel that it chimes with?
These are all important coaching questions focusing as they do on community and belonging.
Whether we realise it or not, we all play parts in the communities we find ourselves belonging to. Communities aren’t clubs or institutions. You don’t just apply, fill in a form and pay the subscription. You don’t come to love squash just by joining a club.
Squash is a culture and its transmission depends on its agents. It’s that agency that must be nurtured, directed and amplified if new squash communities are to emerge and remain vital.
Vitality must be coached into squash communities; squash agency must be coached into squash leadership.
Network / Probes
A key feature of squash community coaching is the nature of communication, not just between squash agents but between all existing and potential community members. Just because a community appears to be healthy does not mean that hidden changes are not underway.
What is the demographic profile of the community? How is it changing? What are the current perceptions, preferences and priorities of the community and how are they changing? What is the participation demography of community members in current activities and programmes and how is it changing? What new programmes and activities are you proposing to try out? How do current and proposed programmes and activities reflect changing community demographics?
What squash networks enhance the vitality of the community? How and by whom are those networks currently being used? How are they being stimulated? Even the individual members of a single squash club will typically use a number of networks each functioning via its own unique mix of messages, meetings, gatherings, visits, customs and technologies.
The ongoing health of squash communities is vital to their quality of life. Clearly, it’s sensible to give them the occasional check up. But it’s also vital to monitor their day to day well-being.
Emergency treatment is no substitute for the early detection of warning signs.
The purpose of this series of articles has been to raise awareness of new ways of thinking about the future of squash. These new ways have addressed a wide range of issues such as sense-making, leadership, culture, community, communication and innovation, all of which will affect the vitality of squash in a complex and dynamically-changing world.
The age of measuring the ‘success’ of squash and other sports solely in terms of participation now belongs to a ‘classical’ period which, in many Western cultures in particular, has now ended. We are now in a ‘post-classical’ age in which perceptions, preferences and priorities can not only change in an instant, but be largely unpredictable.
Like global finance, the future of squash will play out in an age of uncertainty.
“A Leader’s Framework for Decision-making” by David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone is published in November 2007 issue of The Harvard Business Review.