Smash!

I’ve always been somebody who’s keen to share the latest ideas about how squash can gain new followers. So here’s one from 1959, courtesy of British Pathé News.

‘Smash’ was an indoor game invented by David Petrie which combined elements of table tennis and squash. Played with table tennis rackets and ball, the game featured the use of a sloped table to which two angled surfaces were fixed. Together, these surfaces functioned as a squash-style front wall with the table surface acting as the floor of the Smash ‘court.’

The Pathé News video shows Petrie demonstrating his new invention by playing Diane Rowe, twice World Doubles table tennis champion (in 1951 and 1954) with her twin sister, Rosalind.

Diane and Rosalind Rowe

Diane and Rosalind Rowe

In the video, Petrie hands over mid-rally to another celebrated British table tennis player of the 1950s, Johnny Leach. Leach won the World Men’s table tennis title in 1949 and 1951, elevating him to the same iconic status as Britain’s other men’s racket sports star, Fred Perry.

Table tennis was massively popular in 1950s and early 1960s Britain, tournaments being regularly televised by the BBC. In contrast, squash was neither widely known about – and certainly never televised – even though English players reached the men’s final of the British Open four times between 1947 and 1953.

Johnny Leach

Johnny Leach

And Smash? Well, with both players hitting against a front wall, there were definitely some similarities with squash. What’s more, the table could certainly be used for solo drills to improve hand-eye co-ordination and foot-work.

On the other hand, it’s not at all clear from the video whether the rules of Smash really did allow players to take over from each other mid-rally, either for a breather or for a smoke.

One for the governing bodies to consider, I suspect.

Sources

Thanks to British Pathé for publishing the Pathé News clip. Johnny Leach died in 2014 aged 91; you can read his obituary here. The Rowe twins celebrated their 80th birthday in 2013; you can read a celebration of their achievements on the European Table Tennis Union’s website here.

Pathé Squash

It may surprise you to know that in the mid-1930s the soft-ball version of squash appears to have been pretty well established in the US as well as the UK. The evidence comes in the form of three video clips you can view on the website of British Pathé. Pathé News was a producer of newsreels, cine-magazines and documentaries in the UK from 1910 until 1970. Its founder, Charles Pathé, was a pioneer of moving pictures in the silent era.

The Pathé News archive is today known as “British Pathé” and, in April 2014, the company uploaded its entire collection of 85,000 historic films to its YouTube channel as part of a drive to make the archive more accessible to viewers all over the world.

Hampstead Squash Club 1936

The first video shows two men on court at a “recently opened” facility in Hampstead, North-West London. They wear similar clothing to that worn by many tennis professionals of the era.

One of the players is identified by the commentator as Mr. D.G. Butcher, a “professional champion for five years.” Mr.Butcher demonstrates the serve and plays a rally with Mr. A. Biddle, a “former junior professional champion.” The commentator describes the sport and states that there is an “estimated 50,000 players in England.”

The clip ends with two women, Mrs. Brian Wolfe and a Mrs. MacKechnie, playing a rally.

Squash 1937

The second clip, dated 1937, is somewhat of a novelty item. It shows a rally between two men, one of whom is wearing roller skates “as a handicap.” The skater is revealed as Charlie Arnold, a “famous Bath Club pro” and his opponent as Mr. Arthur Wood, the squash professional at the St. Regis Hotel Club. The whereabouts of the St. Regis Hotel is not identiified although the West Country of England may be a possible location.

The second part of the video shows woman using an exercise bicycle on a squash court. It is electrically powered, so that when she pedals, the seat rises and the handlebars go back and forth providing her with a full body workout! The less said about the commentary accompanying this sequence, the better.

US Squash Rackets Championship 1938

The final clip shows action from the 1938 US National Open Squash Racquets Championship.

The players are identified as Johnny Summers and Ben Pope (in shorts), Summers being revealed by the commentator as being the eventual winner of the title.

Sources

Thanks to British Pathé and to Wikipedia.

Squash Futures IV: Community / Coaches

N.B. This article is the last in a series. The first three articles, “Sense / Leaders,” “Culture / Clubs” and “Network / Probes” were published previously on this blog.

Background

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.

There is more than one kind of life coaching, and more than one kind of squash coaching.

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.

Summary

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.

References

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.

Surprising Squash Shots

Having watched plenty of elite squash over the years, I’m beginning to get the feeling that some top players actually inhabit a parallel universe. Not in a quantum mechanical sense, of course, but more in the way of their ability to live in a constant state of possibility and surprise. So much so that, in some cases, it’s difficult if not impossible to tell whether a player has intended to make a ‘surprising’ shot, has made a ‘surprising’ shot without intending it, or has intentionally (or unintentionally) deceived their opponent in the course of doing so. If you see what I mean.

Take this shot by Ramy Ashour against Gregory Gaulter in the 2013 Tournament of Champions in New York.

Second-guessing where your opponent is going to hit the ball and positioning yourself to intercept successfully it would seem to be a ‘black art’ at best. When your guess proves to be correct and your execution is as fortunate as in this case, the effect can be joyful as demonstrated by the reaction of all present. This, in a human sense, is what surprise looks like.

Then, of course, there’s the out-and-out fake shot demonstrated in this case by James Willstrop against Ramy Ashour at the 2013 North American Open in Richmond, Virginia.

In this case, Willstrop has intentionally sought to deceive his opponent as to when he will actually hit the ball even though where he intends to direct it seems fairly obvious. Willstrop’s successful execution of his deception again leads to unbounded joy for all present, with one notable exception. Surprise, in this instance, is not universally shared.

But what about those cases where intention is graced with good fortune? Take a look at these nominations for the 2014 shot of the year.

In elite squash, the margins for error in intentionally attempting a successful shot are small. Yet, there is still room for surprise – the exhilarating effect triggered by a disconnection between the combined expectations of all those present and their subsequent shared experience of a beautiful moment.

Whether we’re playing squash or watching squash, deep down, we all want to be surprised.

Sources

Thanks to PSA Squash TV via YouTube for the video clips.

Squash Horoscopes

Capricorn (22 December – 19 January)

You will have a promising start to the year when you briefly lead your squash club’s internal leagues due to all of the top 23 players being injured, out of the country on ‘business’, or suffering from the Ebola virus contracted from the staff of the local Liberian restaurant. Later in the year you will have your racket re-strung after using it to fend off a swarm of killer bees during a knock-up with your then girlfriend.

Aquarius (20 January – 19 February)

During a session of your squash club’s weekly round-robin, you will take a hard-fought game off a 16-stone guy who once soundly beat a 9-year old Ramy Ashour back home in Egypt, leaving him in tears. That’s Ramy, not the 16-stone guy. Later in the year, you will discover that the father of the Middle Eastern-looking kid you’ve been regularly thrashing at the same round-robin is a known Taliban leader.

Pisces (20 February – 20 March)

This is the year when every single one of your gambles, both on and off the squash  court, will pay off. Actually, no, come to think of it that was last year. Sorry.

Zodiac Signs

Zodiac Signs

Aries (21 March – 19 April)

You will make a special effort to improve your personal grooming. However, you will realise that your new haircut is unsuccessful when the guys at the squash club changing room keep asking if you’ve had brain surgery. On the transport front, when you take your car in for its annual road-worthiness assessment, the only test it passes is the “Isn’t on fire” one.

Taurus (20 April – 20 May)

After you complete a gruelling programme of coaching sessions to improve your focus and hone your killer instincts, a long-term squash opponent and bitter rival suddenly begins to read something into your on-court body language. Then again, it could be the fact that you’ve tied him to a chair on Court Two and are dancing around waving a flick-knife with “Stuck In The Middle With You” playing on your portable sound system.

Gemini (21 May – 20 June)

A quiet year. You will replace your double yellow dot ball.

Cancer (21 June – 22 July)

You will decide that you want to be able to see your feet when taking a shower and start to focus exclusively on your health. You eat less, exercise more and get plenty of sleep. As you become fitter, your stamina, court coverage and reaction times improve dramatically, leading to an upswing in form. As you climb the club squash leagues, you are invited to join the second team at around the same time your sister offers to fix you up with some of the “cute girls” at her gym. You date a series of unsuitable women all of whom turn out to have convictions for assault, develop insomnia and put on two stones. You belatedly realise that your sister has always secretly hated you and will stop at nothing to ruin your life. Nothing.

Leo (23 July – 22 August)

This year all your efforts trying to write the perfect squash-themed novel will finally pay off when you find yourself signing copies in the city centre branch of Barnes & Noble  from mid-day until they catch you doing it.

Virgo (23 August – 22 September)

You know that bit in rom-coms where the ridiculously hot girl ends up with the unconventional-looking guy because he really “gets her” and makes her laugh? And you know that girl down at the squash club you’ve been mooning over for the last two years? Yeah, well next year that’s not going to happen.

Libra (23 September – 23 October)

You read that surveys show that people find moving house even more stressful than attending a funeral. When your best squash buddy asks you to help him move, you will decide that there’s only really one option.

Scorpio (24 October – 21 November)

You will decide to lay off the post-match drink for a while when your hangovers move from being merely crippling to plumbing the depths of a howling, nihilistic vortex filled with pure pain and endless death. At least on Tuesdays, anyway.

Sagittarius (22 November – 21 December)

You will finally decide to follow the same principles in your squash-playing life that have helped so many people in their personal and business lives. In other words:  Prepare to fail and you’ll always…no, hang on. Don’t fail to prepare and you’ll fail to…no, that’s not right, either. Damn, I had it a minute ago.

Acknowledgement

Thanks to the “Psychic Bob” column in The Daily Mash.

Hello and Goodbye

Fifteen years ago, I paid a flying visit to a city which has now established itself as a venue for major sporting events. At the time, Doha – the capital of Qatar – had already hosted one World Open squash final (in 1998) in which Canada’s Jonathon Power had beaten Scotland’s Peter Nicol.

Just under a year later, I was working in the Gulf and attempting to follow Nicol’s 1999 Word Open progress in Cairo. In the pre-internet era, this involved the combined use of short-wave radio, occasional (and often imaginatively-censored) local newspaper reports and second-hand gossip gleaned by telephone from a number of expatriate Egyptian colleagues who were themselves in direct telephone and text contact with their squash-loving Cairo relatives.

World Open Final 1999

World Open Final 1999

As the tournament progressed, this strategy proved to be highly effective due largely to the continuing presence in the draw of Cairo-born Ahmed Barada who, like Nicol, was again challenging for the title. By the time the semi-final stage had been reached, I had started to make arrangements for following what was looking increasingly like a Nicol – Barada final when I received a call from my local agent, Fatih, another Cairo expatriate and Barada fan.

“Your visa runs out tomorrow,” he announced. “You have to go and get a new one.”
I was somewhat surprised but not immediately terrified at being thrown out of the country on World Squash Open finals day. Fatih’s efforts in managing my work contract to date had drawn on skills which could only be described as Machiavellian. So, I had no doubt that he would have a plan to rectify my imminent visa-less status.

“Where do I go?” I asked, expecting to be directed to an unidentifiable building on an unnamed street where I would experience bureaucratic torture and a limitless wait.

“Doha,” said Fatih. “I’ve booked you on a flight with Gulf Air tomorrow evening. You’ll be back by ten o’clock.” I waited for him to add his usual “Insha’Allah” but none was forthcoming.

I made a quick calculation. Gulf time was two hours on from Cairo time so, with any luck, I’d be touching down when the finalists were knocking up.

The evening was spent sitting in a hotel coffee shop following the semi-finals with two Egyptian colleagues using the telephonic component of the three-pronged strategy I had been using throughout the tournament. As I’d expected, both Nicol and Barada reached the final, Barada beating reigning champion Jonathon Power (who was forced to retire) and Nicol beating fellow Scot, Martin Heath.

The following day, a Friday, I turned up at the Hilton Hotel sports club for my weekly squash round robin session followed by a visit to the coffee shop to peruse the newspapers. As I expected, neither the Gulf News nor the Khaleej Times included any report of the semi-finals but did present selected first and second round results from Monday and Tuesday. Despite this, the letters pages of both newspapers were, as usual, full of entertaining cricket-themed correspondence from expatriate Indians working in the Gulf.

As it was getting dark, I flagged down a taxi and miraculously arrived at the airport without even once feeling that my driver was about to cause, or at least play a leading role in, a serious road accident. The return flight to Doha plus airport terminal waiting time took all of four hours during which time I read several chapters of my book, drank three coffees and acquired another 3 month entry visa.

One slightly more worrying taxi journey later I was sitting in the Forte Grand coffee shop following the 1999 World Open Final – again using the expatriate Egyptian / telephone method.

The final, won by Peter Nicol, was played on a glass court in sight of the Great Pyramids of Giza in front of a crowd consisting almost exclusively of Barada supporters. My Egyptian colleagues were naturally disappointed; no Egyptian had yet won the World Open and Barada was considered to have a great chance of winning the competition.

Since then, Egypt’s World Open fortunes have taken a dramatic upswing with seven of the thirteen tournaments played being won by Egyptian players. Coincidentally, three more World Open tournaments have been held in Doha, the latest of which saw Ramy Ashour beat fellow Egyptian Mohamed El Shorbagy.

Well, you know, one of these days I might actually get a chance to see a World Open tournament live.

But first, I’ve definitely got to leave the airport.

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia for their entries on “World Open (Squash)” and Ahmed Barada. Thanks also to Nashwa Abdel-Tawab for his review of the 1999 World Squash Open final: “Lucky By The Pyramids.”.

Gnomes, Grasshoppers and Squash

Culture is a funny thing, isn’t it?

Ask the British what they feel about gnomes and their opinions will centre on garden ornaments and Swiss bankers. Ask them what they feel about grasshoppers and their answers will probably relate either to insects or, for individuals of a certain age, to the TV adventures of a Shaolin monk travelling through the American Old West.

On the other hand, put the ‘gnome’ question to the citizens of Zürich and I’m willing to bet that the bankers – although not the garden ornaments – will again emerge as a key topic of conversation. This because of the appearance, in the Britain of the 1960s, of the term ‘Gnomes of Zürich’, used by the government of the day to describe Swiss bankers in their ‘secretive’ role as currency speculators against the British pound. The term became established – and has remained – in the English language largely due to the British love of ornamental ‘garden gnomes’ which originated in Germany in the 19th century and become popular in Britain in the 1930s. It also became popular amongst Swiss bankers, and many of their compatriots, as a badge of honour.

But I’m also willing to bet that the ‘grasshopper’ question put to the same citizens of Zürich will, apart from insect-related themes, stimulate responses which relate, indirectly perhaps, to the game of squash.

The Grasshopper Club of Zürich, commonly referred to simply as GC, GCZ, or Grasshoppers, is a multi-sports club whose oldest and best known membership is that of its football team. The club was founded in 1886 by Tom E. Griffith, an English student, and added a squash section in the 1970s.

In 1979, the first Grasshopper Cup competition was held, starting as an invitational tournament but soon developing to become an official World Squash Federation and then PSA World Tour event. In the 1980s and 90s the tournament was at its peak, its winners including Jahangir Khan, Jansher Khan, Rodney Martin and Chris Dittmar. After a break of just over a decade, 2012 saw the re-birth of the Cup which has since continued to grow in stature. Unlike gnomes, of course.

And so why, I hear you ask, would the citizens of Zürich fail to associate the ‘gnome’ question with garden ornaments? Well, the ornaments known in Britain as ‘garden gnomes’ are usually referred to in European languages as ‘garden dwarfs’ from the German Gartenzwerge. I suppose that ‘Dwarves of Zürich’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

That’s culture for you.

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia for its entries on ‘Gnomes of Zürich’, ‘Kung Fu’, ‘Garden Gnomes’ and ‘Grasshopper Club.’ Also thanks to the PSA for its article on the 2104 Grasshopper Cup.

Squash Futures III: Network / Probes

N.B. This article is the third in a series. The first two articles, “Sense / Leaders” and “Culture / Clubs,” were published previously on this blog.

Introduction

What can squash agents do to contribute to the sustainable development of their squash communities?

A range of methods suited to the sustainable development of communities is now available which complements existing expert-informed approaches. These methods replicate how social relationships form, but telescope the time down to achieve this and, as a result, reduce the degrees of separation between squash community members. They do this in a novel way whilst simultaneously addressing the issues and challenges associated with squash organisation and participation.

The use of these methods results in the development of a denser social fabric within and across squash communities which can lead to significant improvements in overall connection, interactivity and participation. When someone joins a squash community, how long does it take until they are well-connected? Years? What if you could condense that time into weeks or months? At a personal level, what impact could this have on their active involvement in the community? And, at community or club level, what benefits could be realised?

Influential people in squash communities are almost always well-connected socially; and, they’re within a few connections of most people in those communities – particularly those who are critical to what they want to influence. This typically occurs as people spend time together, either in conversation or through shared involvement in activities or initiatives which can benefit the community.

The sustainable development of squash communities is a social issue.

Stimulating: Social Networks

All members of squash communities belong to social networks by virtue of their personal connection to others. This form of community membership differs from that of squash club membership or squash programme membership, both of which involve the interaction of people with formal organisational structures and their administrators.

The purpose of ‘stimulating’ social networks is not to seek agreement on the way that a ‘problem’ (such as a dying squash community) should be ‘solved,’ or even to ‘sell’ solutions conceived by committees or experts. Rather, it is to create a framework within which a network of people can itself identify and solve problems in new and unconventional ways by tapping into their combined knowledge and experience.

Social NetworkOver time, as people interact with each other and migrate from one place to another, they accumulate a collection of residual relationships. Their participation in these relationships is inherently based on trust and reciprocity. Together, these create social capital that can flow – via social networks – through and between squash communities, and be used to help their continuous development.

Exercises in stimulating social networks must be based on the understanding that a squash community needs some form of ongoing problem-solving or ‘threat / opportunity response’ capability – and that new community members (whether they play squash or not) need to be attracted in order to allow new identities and relationships to form. Once this is accepted, one or more “noble purposes” can be meaningfully identified based on the current state of each squash community. These are the purposes that everyone agrees are worthy but that no one person can spare the time or provide the resources needed to investigate.

The uncovering and stimulation of social networks is a key component in the enterprise of building sustainable squash communities.

Exploring: Social Constructs

The involvement of willing members of squash communities in exploring the nature of their communities is essential. Different groupings of individuals exist within all communities and it is important to identify them and to understand how they view the wider community and their involvement in it. Without such an understanding, it is not possible to take effective action in solving problems in ways which will contribute to the sustainable development of the community as a whole.

One method of exploring a squash community is archetype extraction which is typically carried out by a small group of community members helped by a facilitator. The method helps to collect the views of community members and re-interpret them in the form of ‘typical’ characters (‘archetypes’) which are uniformly agreed to be accepted cultural representations of the wider community. These archetypes may be complimentary in nature – or not!

Archetype SetUsing this method, archetypes may emerge which draw on age, gender, playing standard, marital status, club night attendance, parenthood, profession, team membership, ethnicity, committee membership, social reputation – or, in fact, none of these! In fact, the ‘archetype profile’ of every squash community is highly likely to be different from that of every other community and, unsurprisingly will change over time as members come and go.

Methods other than the archetypes exercise can also be used to derive useful social constructs . However, they all have one thing in common. They can be run in parallel with other problem-solving initiatives, or even as part of larger projects, such as:

  • The development of squash communities across regional areas
  • Conflict resolution between different community groups with opposing views
  • Inducting new members into a community or onto an organising body
  • Offering programmes, services and membership options tailored to members with different world-views

Taken together, social constructs provide squash communities with a much more meaningful, up to date and useful picture of themselves – something which is critical if its members want to help sustain them.

N.B. As with social network stimulation, social construct exploration methods are not only teachable, but are scalable. It’s possible to start small and grow.

Experimenting: Safe to Fail Probes

Understanding the nature of a squash community – and how it is changing – can make it easier to successfully introduce new events, new programmes and new forms of membership. But this doesn’t mean that every innovation will be successful. In fact it’s actually desirable to have a few failures (and even to plan some) so that lessons can be learned. What was being assumed that wasn’t so? What problems arose that weren’t anticipated, or that were? What proved more difficult – or easy – than we expected? What archetypes appeared that we didn’t know about?

And there’s another reason for regularly exploring squash communities. In complex societies, there are no repeating relationships between cause and effect. So, in certain circumstances, and at certain times, an initiative may succeed whereas at others the exact same initiative may fail. It may also be the case that an issue (such as falling squash club membership) may be perceived as a solvable problem, whereas it may be a natural consequence of changes in a squash community emerging from a changing combination of demographic and cultural influences.

Hence the need for experimentation – using ‘safe to fail’ probes.

Safe to Fail‘Safe to fail’ probes are small-scale experiments that approach issues from different angles in safe-to-fail ways. The intent of these probes is to approach issues in a small-scale, contained manner which will allow emergent possibilities (things that we didn’t know about) to become more visible. The emphasis is not on ensuring success or avoiding failure, but in allowing ideas that are not useful to fail in contained and tolerable ways. The ideas that do produce observable benefits can then be adopted and amplified when the complex system (i.e. the squash community) has exhibited the desired response to a probe or stimulus. Where the social environments within which squash communities (and organised squash activities) exist become increasingly complex, what is known and what can be planned for becomes less certain.

Introducing and increasing social and organisational tolerance for failure is more crucial than ever. Some squash communities may not have the social fabric, self-knowledge or creativity to survive.

N.B. A safe to fail probe may take the form of a social squash participation or squash partnering initiative. Creative experimentation is the key.

Next time…

In the next post, I’ll take a look at a new form of squash agency which can stimulate the emergence of new leaders: the coaching of squash communities.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Cognitive Edge for the descriptions of the sense-making methods described above.

References

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.

Squash in The City

By the time I was offered my first ‘proper’ job in The City I’d already got form. There’d been a couple of years working on projects for The Giant Vampire Squid on Fleet Street, helping them clear up the mess after they’d been found guilty of aiding and abetting one of their more financially creative clients. Then there was a similar stint with The Thundering Herd, coaching some of their back office people in the creative pursuit of evidence which could help the firm show that their very own Masters of the Universe had been conducting business in a way that was entirely above board, or not. And, yes, there’d been other short-term gigs for investment banks, for retail banks, and even for brokerages. I had City form all right.

Then there was the other kind of form, the squash kind. I’d been playing for more than 25 years, during which time I’d usually managed to arrange one or two matches a week, irrespective of where in the world I was working. Of course there’d been a few squash-free periods (the time I spent working in Texas springs to mind) but, all in all, I couldn’t complain.

So, by the time I was offered the proper job, I was already primed to respond positively to any offers which would enable me to maintain a healthy work / squash balance. It just so happened that the job on offer was based in London’s Canary Wharf, then the venue for a recently announced international squash tournament. And it also just so happened that, in the basement of the building in which I would be working, were the only two squash courts in Canary Wharf.

I took the proper job.

I spent much of the next ten years or so working and studying in and around London. I played on the basement courts and at a squash club located within walking distance of where I was living at the time. Most years, I even managed to get to at least one session of the Canary Wharf Squash Classic, as my local international tournament was now called.

In 2013 it was the semi-finals – and a full house.

The first match ended in a 3-1 victory to England’s James Willstrop over Egypt’s Mohamed El Shorbagy, the knowledgeable and suitably refreshed audience showing its appreciation.

But it was the second match which saw overwhelming audience support for local boy Peter Barker in his match against reigning Canary Wharf Classic and British Open Champion Nick Matthew. Barker, born in the East London Borough of Havering had previously beaten Matthew only once in 21 attempts. But, in a physical match lasting 69 minutes, Barker ran out the eventual 3-1 winner to take his place alongside Willstrop in the final. The applause echoed round the packed arena for several minutes before Barker could begin his post-match interview.

Squash in the City may be international, but when the City boys turn up, it’s personal – and it’s always going to be local.

Sources

Thanks to World Squash for its review of the Canary Wharf Classic 2013 semi-finals.

 

Squash, Gold and the English…

In winning the squash men’s singles gold medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, England’s Nick Matthew repeated the feat he had first achieved at the 2010 Games in Delhi. The Delhi final was Matthew’s first as it had been for his opponent, fellow Englishman James Willstrop, who was also destined to finish as silver medallist in Glasgow.

Yet Matthew’s achievement in reaching two consecutive finals was not exceptional. The previous three men’s singles finals had all featured another prominent Briton and erstwhile England representative.

Scotland’s Peter Nicol.

Born in Inverurie, Aberdeenshire, Nicol represented Scotland in the 1998 Games in Kuala Lumpur, the first in which squash made its appearance. In a tight five-game match, Nicol beat Canadian – and reigning World Open champion – Jonathon Power to the gold. By the time both players had again reached the final four years later, Nicol had switched his allegiance to England, claiming that he felt he was not receiving sufficient support from Scottish Squash, his sport’s national governing body. Unsurprisingly, many of Nicol’s compatriots resented this switch, even going so far as calling it traitorous. To the satisfaction of some, perhaps, Nicol lost 3-1 to Power in the gold medal match.

Amazingly, four years later and still representing England, Nicol reached his third consecutive men’s singles final. This time, it was in Melbourne where, once more, he met a reigning World Open Champion in the form of Australian David Palmer. In a tough four-game final, it was Nicol who outlasted the tenacious Palmer to take gold. Amongst the team-mates congratulating Nicol as he came off court in Melbourne was Nick Matthew, the newly-crowned British Open champion. Matthew was to finish outside the medals in fourth place but four years later would start his own gold collection.

Nicol himself had announced his retirement shortly after his success at the 2006 Games, a quarter-final defeat in that year’s World Open being his last competitive match.

But what of 2018 when the Games are due to be staged in and around Brisbane on the Australian Gold Coast? Well, I certainly wouldn’t bet against an Englishman reaching the men’s singles final.

After all, he might not be.

Sources

To find out more about the careers of Nick Matthew, Peter Nicol, Jonathon Power and David Palmer, see Wikipedia. Details of all Commonwealth Games squash competitors can be found at the Commonwealth Games Federation website.