Squash and Sudden Death

In a recent blog posting, I described the longest squash match ever played. It took place in 1983 between Pakistan’s Jahangir Khan and Gamal Awad of Egypt. In a postscript, I mentioned that Gamal Awad died of a heart attack in 2004 at the early age of 49.

But four years before the match between Khan and Awad, the men’s world-ranked number 13 player, then aged 27, also died of a heart attack. Except this time, it was on court during a tournament match in Australia.

The heart attack victim was Jahangir’s elder brother, Torsam Khan.

Squash and Heart Disease

Seven years after Torsam’s death, I was working as a research scientist for what is now one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. I was also spending an inordinate amount of time playing squash at the company’s sports club which was located on-site just a couple of hundred metres from the research library. And it was while I was browsing the scientific journals in the library that I came across a very interesting article.

It was written by Robin Northcote, Clare Flannigan and David Ballantyne of the Department of Medical Cardiology at the Victoria Infirmary in Glasgow, Scotland. Now, some of you may know that Scotland had (and still does have) one of the highest levels of heart disease in the world, a situation not helped by certain local dietary preferences such as the infamous deep-fried battered Mars bar. So, looking back, the appearance of the Northcote article in the British Heart Journal didn’t come as an enormous surprise to me.

The article had the arresting title, Sudden death and vigorous exercise – a study of 60 deaths associated with squash’. And, by the way, sudden death was defined as “death occurring within 1-24 hours of the onset of symptoms” with the study looking at subjects who had “collapsed while playing squash or within an hour of playing”.

Squash and Psychology

After consulting a few of my fellow squash-playing scientists, I remember citing the article in the squash club newsletter I was then editing. It didn’t generate much, if any, feedback from squash club members even after I’d pinned a copy of the article to the noticeboard outside courts 1 and 2. Anyway, it certainly didn’t result in an exodus from the squash leagues or a noticeable reduction in the number of squash courts booked.

Nearly 25 years after it first appeared, the Northcote et al article is still worth reading. The authors state that, “Many individuals in this study with known medical conditions continued to play squash. Men in middle age seem reluctant to acknowledge that they may be in poor physical condition or health. We and others have noted that sportsmen tend to deny physical infirmity and prodromal symptoms.” Prodromal symptoms (or sets of symptoms) are ones which might indicate the start of a disease before specific symptoms occur.

Most of the people in the study had professional or executive jobs with only 2 of the 60 subjects working in what were regarded as ‘non-sedentary’ jobs. The authors go on to state that, “In addition to a tendency to ignore prodromal symptoms and pre-existing disease at least half of the subjects in this series may have been type A personalities, and this in itself may have increased their risk of sudden death and the development of coronary heart disease”.

Personality typing theory emerged in the 1950s and described two common but contrasting types of people, the highly-strung Type A and the easy-going Type B. These types were regarded as  corresponding to patterns of behaviour that could respectively raise or lower a person’s chances of developing coronary heart disease. Despite its citation in the Northcote study, the theory has since  been regarded as obsolete by many researchers in contemporary health psychology and personality psychology.

But, whatever theory you choose to believe, the overall message remains the same. The risks associated with playing squash and experiencing sudden death originate, at least partially, in the mind.

Exercise-related Sudden Death

In 1994, Northcote published another exercise-related sudden death study in the Oxford Textbook of Sports Medicine (Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK). This time, he looked at a range of sports and activities including running, swimming and soccer, and sudden deaths occurring in the mainland UK, i.e. England, Scotland and Wales. His findings are presented in the following table.

Sport / Activity Number

(Male)

Number

(Female)

Mean Age

at Death

Squash 124 2 44
Soccer 53 32
Swimming 50 6 53
Running 38 1 37
Badminton 26 49
Rugby 14 30

Although squash is at the top of the table, Northcote emphasized that there is a very low statistical risk of sudden death from any sport and that the figures don’t  imply that squash is more dangerous than other sports. Nevertheless, his table does show that a significant number of squash players have probably died unnecessarily, for reasons not unconnected to those proposed in his 1986  article.

Squash and the Mind

So, nothing for squash players to worry about?

Well, in 2004, I had a heart attack. Not something I’d recommend although I’ve certainly found it to be character forming if not personality changing. Unfortunately, or come to think of it fortunately, I wouldn’t have made Robin Northcote’s original study as I hadn’t been playing squash immediately beforehand. But the incident did lead me to take a renewed interest in my own psychological makeup, how it influenced my approach to squash, and how I could change it for the better. In other words, how I could change my mindset to re-connect with squash, feel the passion again – and reduce the risk.

Well, I’m still taking an interest and things certainly do seem to be getting better in all respects. Although I am, of course, still working on it. Promise.

The Longest Squash Match Ever

The Chichester Marathon and Hand-out Scoring

After March 30th, 1983, answering the question “What is the longest squash match on record?” got a whole lot easier. That was the day that Pakistan’s Jahangir Khan and Egypt’s Gamal Awad played a match in Chichester, England which lasted 2 hours and 46 minutes. And it didn’t even run to five games, Jahangir eventually winning 3-1 after losing the first game 9-10.

It was the era of hand-out scoring where only the server could win the point for that rally. Lose the rally as server and you lost the serve. That’s all.

In many ways, the match statistics reflect the scoring system. It was almost 15 minutes before a point was scored. One rally alone lasted for 7 minutes and ended in a let. The acrobatic Awad, known as The Rubber Man or The Grasshopper, took the first game after 1 hour and 15 minutes, still the longest on record. After that, the rest of the match almost raced by, the next three games taking a mere 1 hour and 31 minutes.

Point a Rally Scoring – Return of the Epics

The introduction of PARS (Point A Rally Scoring) to the professional game was intended to make attritional contests such as the Chichester marathon shorter, as well as to encourage shot making. A strategy which, to a large extent, worked.

But more recently, the epics have returned.

In December 2008, fourth seeded Shawn Delierre overcame top-seeded fellow Canadian Shahier Razik to reach the final of the Baltimore Cup in Baltimore, USA, in a 5-game, 2 hour 30 minute marathon. At the time, it was is the longest recorded squash match since the introduction of PARS.

In April, 2010 two Malaysians, Ivan Yuen and Mudh Asyraf Azam, played another 5-game match lasting 2 hours and 43 minutes – just 3 minutes shorter than that at Chichester – in a qualifier for the 5 Star Indian Challenger Tournament in Kolkata, India.

And finally, in October 2010 at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India Mohd Azlan Iskandar of Malaysia beat England’s Daryl Selby in a 4-game quarter-final match lasting 2 hours 15 minutes.

Postscript: Gamal Awad (1955-2004)

But even when the 1983 Chichester record is broken, I suspect that it’s the story of that match between Jahangir and Gamal Awad (see picture) which will not only live in the memory but will pass into squash legend.

Sadly, one of its heroes, Gamal Awad, died of a heart attack in Alexandria, Egypt in November 2004, aged just 49. He retired from the professional squash circuit in 1987, following problems with knee injuries. The highlights of his career were as runner-up in both the 1982 World Masters and the 1983 British Open Squash championships – in both cases to Jahangir.

But perhaps he’ll always be best known for participating with Khan in that match in Chichester in 1983.

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…

Enlightened Squash – From Dawn Till Dusk

Outdoor Squash Court

I recently came across an article (see picture below from SquashClub.org) about some enterprising chap in the US (where else) building his own outdoor squash court. His main reason for doing it was that he loved squash but hated to be indoors playing the game when the weather outside was warm and sunny. In the winter, of course, Vermont (where the court was built) can get up to ten feet of snow and experience temperatures of 22 degrees Fahrenheit meaning that – well, I suppose, he would have to revert to playing squash indoors like the rest of us.

Squash Court Design

The squash court design was imaginative to say the least, with no roof, a 4 foot high back wall, and a slightly sloping floor allowing rainwater to drain through two holes in the front corners. There was also 5 foot high netting around the court to catch balls hit out of court so players wouldn’t have to scour the surrounding area looking for  them!

Playing Squash in a Farmyard

But it was the fact that the front wall was built facing North – to avoid having to play into the sun – which brought back memories of my own experience playing in unusual lighting conditions. Or, more specifically, memories of when I used to play squash in a farmyard. Well, not in a farmyard exactly but in a purpose built squash court – complete with entrance lobby and viewing gallery – located in a farmyard. Now, I’m not exactly sure whether the farmyard was already there when the court was built or whether the farmyard developed around the court. But it certainly was there (in East Hertfordshire, UK as a matter of fact) and it certainly was playable. With one small limitation.

Squash Court Lighting

There was no electrical supply to the court lighting. However, there was a skylight which was both undamaged and clean enough (on a sunny day) to let in enough light to brighten up the squash court. The challenging playing conditions, of course, demanded flexibility of thought and movement from both players – as well as extremely good eyesight. As the sun moved across the sky or went behind a cloud, the nature of the on-court light could change, sometimes instantaneously, from dazzling brilliance (depending on the time of year) to Stygian gloom.

Squash Shot Improvisation

The changing visibility also provided an incentive for squash players to improvise shots which would be less effective in normal lighting conditions. The lob into the sun, for example. The drop-shot into the shadows which could suddenly appear in one of the front corners. And even the cross-court drive into the darker part of the squash court from the lighter – or vice versa. There was even a slightly damp patch in the back right hand corner which had a somewhat deadening effect on a ball of good length. All of which could even up a match as players of different standards adapted (or indeed didn’t) to fit the unique environment – rather like finches evolving on an island in the Galapagos.

Well, as far as I know, the squash court’s still there although I don’t know whether a new breed of squash players in the area has colonised, it or even whether the power supply’s been restored. But whatever the situation, I suspect that nobody who’s ever played on it would have any problem adapting to life on an outdoor squash court with no roof.

Squash Life Balance

Squash Coach Responsibilities

Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of the responsibilities of a squash coach – at least according to England Squash and Racketball – is to promote the concept of a balanced lifestyle which will support  the well-being of squash players both inside and outside their sport. This appears to make a lot of sense even when you just consider the amount of time involved in, say, arranging and playing a couple of squash matches a week. Booking courts, finding partners, travelling, changing, warming up, warming down, sharing a drink after the match and so on. I once worked out that it took me five hours a week – and I lived within a ten minute walk of my squash club at the time!

Then there’s the simple issue of a healthy diet. What’s good for you and what’s not? What should you eat or drink before playing – and when? And how should you schedule your meals and balance your intake on match days?

Squash Passion and Lifestyle

Diet, of course, is just one thing you could think of as contributing to a balanced lifestyle. But if you consider your squash playing life – or, better still, all the things you do to feed your squash passion – you may begin to discover what you’ve already woven into the fabric of your lifestyle without even realising it. From the physical (exercise and sleeping are my particular favourites) to the social, from the mental to the spiritual, and last, but not least, to the material. Which, I suppose, could even include shopping for new squash clothing or a shiny new squash racket.

Squash Coaching Sessions

So the next time you think about booking some squash coaching sessions, take some time to reflect on your current lifestyle and what it really means to you.

You just may get more out of the experience than you think…