Squash Futures III: Networks, Constructs & 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 Network Squash Futures III: Networks, Constructs & ProbesOver 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!

Archetypes Squash Futures III: Networks, Constructs & ProbesUsing 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 230x300 Squash Futures III: Networks, Constructs & Probes‘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 and Human Nature: Part 2 – Food, Sex and Gossip

In the first part of “Squash and Human Nature” we looked at three of the six characteristics that encapsulate what it is to be human: playfulness, scientific thinking and rule-making. Those characteristics, along with the three described in this article, have been identified by anthropologists as the ones that clearly set us apart from other species. Together, they offer a surprising insight not just into what we all do, but into the underlying nature of our relationships with each other and our shared passion for squash.

women competition squash 300x229 Squash and Human Nature: Part 2 – Food, Sex and Gossip

Women in Competition

It’s that passion which drives us in ways that, sometimes, we’re barely conscious of as we focus on the playing aspects of squash. But there are other aspects of our relationship with squash, and those who share our passion for it, which also have their origins in human evolution and pre-date such relatively recent developments as the acquisition of language. In this context, squash is not just a game, it’s a shared expression of human nature.

Participation in the game of squash is, of course, subject to the adherence of its players to a universal codified set of rules. But participation in the story of squash comes in many forms, and is influenced by a wide range of cultural, social, political and economic factors. What’s more, it’s not confined to those who play the game.

Whatever your view, one thing is clear. Woven into the fabric of squash are behaviours  which reflect human characteristics drawing on all of those senses we share with other mammals; sight, taste, touch, smell and hearing.

But not in the way you might think.

Being Epicurean – Squash Feeding

Where other animals just eat, we make a meal of things. And the main difference is down to one of humanity’s greatest inventions: cooking. “People of every culture cook at least some of their food,” says Richard Wrangham of  Harvard University. He’s made a very persuasive case that cooked food, which delivers more calories with much less chewing than raw food, was the key innovation that enabled our ancestors to evolve big energy-hungry brains and become the smart, social creatures we are today. In fact, humans (well most of us anyway) spend less than one hour a day chewing, all of which leaves plenty of free non-feeding time for other cultural activities, squash included.

meat cars Squash and Human Nature: Part 2 – Food, Sex and Gossip

Culinary culture includes the phenomenon of ritualised, familial, food-sharing, otherwise known as mealtimes. In every human society, people naturally gather in family groups at more or less regular times of day to eat what has been cooked. And, wherever you go, these everyday meals tend to be cooked by women. We don’t really know why, but it could originally have been in exchange for men’s protection, and because childcare kept women closer to home.

Individual participation in playing squash imposes its own feeding patterns. Eating and drinking before, during and after matches is typically influenced by rules of thumb which vary from culture to culture. Muslim players, for example, will fast from dawn to dusk during Ramadan; and their family mealtimes will also be subject to change.

Then there’s feasting. From sharing the spoils of a good hunt to celebrating a special occasion, every society does it. Here’s where you’re more likely to find men cooking. We even see this in our own gardens and backyards, where they do most of the barbecuing.

There are, of course, some similarities between feasting and the post-match meals sometimes  shared by participants in team squash or social squash events. But perhaps it’s in meals celebrating significant anniversaries or the formation of new squash clubs that the true parallel lies. “In all cultures,” says anthropologist Polly Wiessner of the University of Utah, “food is used to form social bonds.” Mealtimes are the centre-piece of family life, feasting bonds friends, colleagues and communities, and we also use food to consolidate more intimate relationships, such as  sharing a fancy meal with someone special, whether they love squash or not!

So food draws us together, but also sets us apart. Every culture has its own food traditions and taboos, which help define the boundaries between “us” and “them. They have distinctive cuisines too. “Ethnic differences are marked by what kind of food you eat,” says Weissner. “You are what you eat.”

All very tasty! But, just to heighten the sensual aspect of our relationship with other squash lovers, let’s focus on the intimate, shall we?

Being Clandestine – Squash Sex

Nothing reveals an animal’s nature quite as well as its sexual practices, and humans have some rather strange ones. Unlike other animals, women are continually sexually receptive and have concealed their ovulation; in other words, there is no external sign that they are in a position to conceive. Also, we’re the only monogamous primate to live in large mixed-sex groups. But nothing is quite as strange as our predilection for clandestine copulation. Why, across all human cultures, do we have sex in private? And what’s the connection to squash?

Sarah FG Naked Squash and Human Nature: Part 2 – Food, Sex and GossipA hint comes from Clive Wynne of the University of Florida in Gainesville. “Sneaky mating occurs in species where there is a lot of inter-male competition and males control sex by controlling females,” he says. Frans de Waal of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia agrees: “I think the origin of privacy [in humans] has to do with competition.” And not only between males. Women have been competing with men and with each other throughout human evolution. As a result, human sexual politics has become a lot more complicated, influenced not only by the need to survive and reproduce, but also by the emergence of culture.

For a start, women won some control from men by evolving concealed ovulation and continual sexual receptivity to confuse paternity. Then our ancestors did something completely different from other great apes; males and females started sharing parental care. And monogamy was born. “Infidelity among couples living in large groups became more risky than ever, with infanticide by males the ultimate price,” says Robin Dunbar of   the University of Oxford. So there was a need to strengthen relationships. “We have this odd thing called love,” he adds, suggesting that sexual privacy may also have emerged as a way of increasing intimacy.

David Buss of the University of Texas at Austin thinks that sexual privacy could actually be a benefit. “Humans are socially monogamous, not sexually monogamous,” he says. Infidelity is widespread in all traditional cultures and private sex allows it to occur without the loss of reputation.

So, the uniquely human characteristic of sexual privacy really has its origins in a combination  of three human behaviour patterns which will be familiar to all squash lovers: competition, culture and politics.

Which leaves us with a final characteristic which, some people say, actually makes the world go ‘round.

Including the world of squash.

Being Gossipy – Squash Communication

Well, I’ve always said that “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” OK, it wasn’t me, it was Oscar Wilde. But I agree with him anyway.

One of the defining characteristics of humans was once thought to be language, although nowadays we’re  more likely to regard it as part of a continuum of animal communication. Nevertheless, nobody doubts that it’s shaped our nature profoundly. Language is central to many human ‘universals’ ranging from education, folklore and prophesy to medicine, trade and insults. And, arguably, our way with words has reached its apogee in gossip.

Gossip men plus woman 5 small 300x199 Squash and Human Nature: Part 2 – Food, Sex and GossipA compulsion to talk about other people is only human. And it’s not nearly as frivolous as you’d think. Some anthropologists believe we gossip to manipulate the behaviour of others, which may help explain why gossip often takes place within earshot of the person being gossiped about. Says Polly Wiessner of the University of Utah, “A group of girls will gossip within earshot of the girl they gossip about, intending for it to be heard.”

But gossip doesn’t just serve to name and shame. When anthropologist Robin Dunbar eavesdropped on people gossiping, he found that barbed comments were relatively rare compared with innocuous ones. He believes that gossip is the human equivalent of grooming in primates. Our social relationships are too numerous to secure with time-consuming grooming, so we chat instead. “Gossip evolved for oiling the wheels of social interaction,” he says. Even the most powerful movers and shakers depend on it, though they may call it something else. After all, says Dunbar, most business could easily be carried out by phone or email, but people still prefer to meet face-to-face so that they can bond over casual conversation or a meal.

Wiessner observes that a juicy titbit of gossip is actually a gift and, co-incidentally, gift-giving is another human universal. She also goes so far as to assert that a society without gossip would simply dissolve. “People wouldn’t have any common interest to stay together.” In squash communities, as in other social groups, gossip is part of the cultural fabric which holds people together.

So it’s the human characteristics of play, scientific thinking, rule-making, sensual pleasure in  feeding, sexual privacy and gossip that uniquely encapsulate our nature and shape human culture. Underneath them all lie competition and the politics of survival.

In fact, whether we’re conscious of it or not, squash isn’t just a shared expression of human nature.

It’s a matter of life and death.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Bob Holmes and Kate Douglas for their series of articles on “Six Things We All Do” in New Scientist magazine.

Squash and Human Nature: Part 1 – Playing by the Rules

Believe it or not, like all animals, we humans (and I’m including squash lovers here) display  idiosyncrasies and quirks that clearly set us apart as a species. In fact, anthropologists have identified hundreds of so-called human universals, characteristics shared by all people everywhere which make up a sort of parts list for our species.

A visiting alien, of course, wouldn’t have any trouble categorising us as a kind of clever, talkative, upright ape with a love of material possessions (or ‘stuff’ as it’s more commonly known.) But being human ourselves, it’s tricky for us to try and pin down the essence of our own ‘humanness.’ What is it that really sets us apart?

Evolution of squash Squash and Human Nature: Part 1 – Playing by the Rules

The Evolution of Squash

Now, scientists have used our human universals to look at the human animal in much the same way as they would study any other. What’s emerged is a unique suite of characteristics that encapsulates our nature. And a rather peculiar one it is. If you thought you knew what humans were like, then think again.

The suite is made up of six characteristics which together offer a surprising insight not just into what we all do, but into the underlying nature of squash.

Being Playful – Squash Skills

Humans aren’t nature’s only fun-lovers. All mammals play, as do some birds and a few other animals. But no other species pursues such a wide variety of entertainment or spends so much time enjoying themselves. The list of universals includes such diverse pleasures as music, games, jokes, hospitality, hairdressing, dancing, art, tickling and, last but not least, sports.

“What sets us apart is the fact that we play both with objects and with language,” says Clive Wynne from the University of Florida. And we can go beyond the literal. “What revolutionises human play is imagination,” says Francis Steen from the University of California.

Fun Squash Squash and Human Nature: Part 1 – Playing by the Rules“We’re a playful species,” says primatologist Frans de Waal from Emory University in Atlanta, “and we retain our juvenile sense of fun right into adulthood. Human society is also relatively relaxed,” notes de Waal, “and we’ll happily congregate with unrelated individuals, a situation that would leave chimpanzees and bonobos tearing strips off each other.”

“Play isn’t simply for fun,” states Marc Bekoff at the University of Colorado. He identifies four primary purposes: physical development, cognitive development (“eye / paw  co-ordination” as he calls it), social development and training for the unexpected. “Playing is an evolutionary adaptation for learning,” agrees Steen. “Mammals are born inept but can adapt, and playing helps us do that.” Noting that human social and physical environments are particularly complex, he sees playing as a sort of simulator that allows us to imagine and try out different scenarios with little risk. “In play we are most fully human,” he says.

Kid rowan on court 150x150 Squash and Human Nature: Part 1 – Playing by the RulesBekoff believes that social development is the most important purpose of play for humans, not least because it underpins morality. “Young children will not become properly socialised without it,” he says. For Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford, playfulness is a mainstay of social cohesion. “Play often involves laughter, which is a very good bonding mechanism,” he says. “And physical play, especially coordinated team sports, produces feel-good endorphins.” “Sports also provide a release for competitive urges,” says de Waal. “If people watch others playing, that actually improves their own skills,” adds Steen. Even entertainment for sheer pleasure has benefits. “It’s fun, so it’s really good for mental health,” says Bekoff.

So, perhaps not surprisingly, squash seems to be a typical expression of human nature. It’s certainly a  vehicle for human play, allowing us to use and interact with objects and to use our imagination; think visioning, strategy and tactics. It also helps us to develop physically  and socially in a low risk way. And it’s helps us to meet and bond with others in situations which are good for our physical and mental health.

But what about its learning effect on our cognitive development? The answer, at least to a scientist like me, is unexpected.

Being Scientific – Squash Knowledge

From earliest infancy, humans are constantly sorting the world into categories, predicting how things work, and testing those predictions. This kind of thinking is the essence of  science and shows up in a range of human universals from time, calendars and cosmology to family names and measurement.

“Science is basically working at understanding the world around us,” says Edward Wasserman at the University of Iowa. But it’s not just confined to humans. All animals need scientific thinking to survive although no other animal ‘does’ science to quite the extent that we do. So what sets us apart?

Science Squash Ng Dominick2 199x300 Squash and Human Nature: Part 1 – Playing by the RulesOne likely candidate, as any parent will tell you, is our drive to ask “Why?” Daniel Povinelli at the University of Louisiana taught both children and chimpanzees to stand an L-shaped block on its end, then secretly substituted an apparently identical block that would not stand up. “The chimps just kept trying,” he says, “but the kids would stop and turn the block upside down and feel the bottom of it. They’d shake the block, try to figure out what was inside it. They would do all kinds of things in an attempt to diagnose why it wouldn’t stand up”

Another unique feature of humans is our ability to grasp abstract concepts. Chimps struggle with this. For example, while they quickly learn that heavy rocks are better for smashing nuts, when it comes to grasping the concept of weight, they falter. “If they hear two objects drop and one goes ‘bam!’ and the other goes ‘click’ they can’t infer that one of those objects will be good for cracking a nut and the other won’t,” says Povinelli, “whereas we can.”

Crucially, this kind of understanding allows us to use what we have learned in one domain to make causal predictions in another. So, for example, we can predict that something that goes “bam!” will sink, whereas something that goes “click” may well float. Our nimbleness at abstract causal reasoning is tied up with our facility with language and probably underlies many of our other social skills, such as rituals and rules of behaviour too. Povinelli believes that this is what really sets humans apart from even the brightest apes.

But there’s one more trait that distinguishes us from less-scientific animals: an eagerness to share what we’ve discovered. Once we figure something out, we announce it to the world, which is why all scientifically minded humans, not just Isaac Newton, are able to Stand on the Shoulders of Giants.”

So maybe the science of squash, or the science in squash, shouldn’t be that unexpected. Categorising, predicting and testing are part and parcel of learning the game. “If I stand on the ‘T’, I should be able to reach all four corners of the court it a few strides. Let’s check it out. If I hit the ball down the middle of the court, my opponent will be able to intercept it and maybe play a winning shot. Oops! He just did.” Do’s and don’ts are learned quickly. Experiments are carried out (sometimes repeatedly), experiences gained and habits formed, whether good or bad!

But there’s a third characteristic which certainly shouldn’t be surprise to any follower of squash. And it’s all to do with our behaviour, on court and off.

Being Legislative – Squash Behaviour

The question of whether every human society has formal laws is far from settled, but they do all have rules. This is a peculiarly human trait. Our closest relatives, the chimps, may stick to simple behavioural rules governing things like territories and dominance hierarchies, but we humans, with our language skills and greater brainpower, have developed much more elaborate systems of rules, taboos and etiquette to codify behaviour. Though every society has different rules, they always involve regulating activity in three key areas, a sure sign that these are fundamental to human nature.

For a start, we are all obsessed with kinship, which brings rights, in particular to inheritance of goods and status. “There are always rules about who counts as kin, and what obligations you have to kinfolk,” says Robin Fox at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The rules may favour maternal or paternal links, or treat both equally. Every society recognises the uniquely human concept of kinship by marriage, as well as believing that kinship entails duties to family members – for which there are rules. And all have incest taboos, usually prohibiting sexual intercourse between immediate family (though royalty are sometimes exempted).

After who’s who, everyone worries about safety, so every culture also has rules about when one person can kill another. “I don’t know of any society that doesn’t condemn murder,” says Sally Engle Merry at New York University. “However, what constitutes an illegitimate killing is complicated.” In some societies, any stranger is fair game. Others allow killing to avenge the murder of kin, and many allow the group to kill someone who violates its norms. But every group draws the line somewhere.

Every society also has rules governing the use of objects. The notion of private property is by no means universal but people everywhere do have rules that stipulate who is entitled to use certain things at particular times. These vary widely from a simple ‘first come, first served’ to the elaborate system of private ownership in industrialised societies.

Kinship, safety, stuff. Across the whole range of human cultures this is what our rules say we care about. But perhaps there is a deeper part of human nature that underlies all these concerns: a desire for rules themselves. “Rules help us navigate the hazardous waters of interpersonal relationships and provide a framework for knowing how to act,” says Justin Richland at the University of Chicago. That makes them an essential part of us. “It’s the most basic feature of human nature,” agrees Fox. “We’re the rule-making animal.”

So there we have it. Rules about what constitutes acceptable and ethical behaviour both on and off court. Arriving for matches on time. Wearing appropriate clothing, eye protection  and footwear.  Warming up. Keeping score. Rules for playing squash matches in leagues or tournaments. Asking for lets or strokes. Squash club membership rules. The list goes on. No rules about favouring kin, killing people, incest or other sexual activities, of course, but that’s typically where formal laws come in.

And, besides, we’re only halfway through our exploration of squash and human nature. Somewhere in the third game I’m guessing.

I hope you’re keeping score…

Coming Next…

In the second part of “Squash and Human Nature” we investigate the final three characteristics which encapsulate our human nature as we look at food, sex and a uniquely human form of communication. Now I’m not one to talk, but…

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Bob Holmes and Kate Douglas for their series of articles on “Six Things We All Do” in New Scientist magazine.

Squash and the Scientists

I first came across squash early in my professional career when I took a job at a UK scientific research establishment. The main research site covered a huge area and housed offices, laboratories, bunkers where things got blown up, warehouses, a nuclear reactor (just a little one) and, outside the heavily-manned security gates, four squash courts.

It was on those courts that I first saw squash being played, where I first learned to play the game, and where I first won a match, even though I don’t exactly recollect who my hapless opponent was at the time. But, whoever it was, there was a fair chance that it was a fellow scientist; a chemist, a physicist or maybe one of the nuclear-flavoured scientists who made the sharp bits to stick on the end of missiles.

fermi and diagram 150x150 Squash and the Scientists

Enrico Fermi

It’s pretty well known, of course, that the first atomic pile was constructed on a disused squash court in Chicago by an international team of scientists led by the Italian-born physicist, Enrico Fermi. There’s no evidence that Fermi or any of his team were squash players but one thing is certain. If you bring together enough scientists to work on pioneering initiatives or to push back the boundaries of scientific knowledge, they will inevitably want to socialise. They’ll want to share their leisure time, their news, their hobbies and their interests.

And, given the opportunity, they’ll want to play squash.

Squash and the Wonders of the Universe

One current pioneering initiative is the search for the Higgs Boson, the elusive nuclear particle which gives all objects their mass. The search is taking place at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, near Geneva in Switzerland. CERN, , operates the world’s largest particle physics laboratory including the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a particle accelerator designed to unlock the secrets of the Universe.

CERN employs almost 8000 scientists and engineers representing over 600 universities and more than 100 nationalities. Plenty of people to support a few squash leagues you might  think. And you’d be right. The CERN Squash Club was formed in 1999 and currently boasts a league membership of over 100, many of whom, I expect, will be called ‘Doctor’ or ‘Professor’ Something-or-Other.

Brian Cox Wonders 150x150 Squash and the Scientists

Professor Brian Cox

One of the scientists currently working at CERN (but apparently not competing in the squash leagues) is the British particle physicist, Professor Brian Cox. Cox is well known not only as a leading scientist but also as a presenter of popular science television series including ‘Wonders of the Universe.’

However, Cox does have form when it comes to squash both as a player and as a former rock musician. His first band, Dare, rehearsed and played its first gig at the Maple Squash Club in Oldham, Lancashire. Dare’s second single, ‘The Raindance’, was released as a 7” vinyl disc in a gatefold cover featuring five profile cards, each with trivia about the band members. Interestingly, Cox listed his hobbies as “squash, running, eating,” with no mention of physics, particle or otherwise.

Dare with Brian Cox Squash and the Scientists

Dare with Brian Cox (extreme right)

In fact, you can still check out Dare with Brian Cox on keyboards (and extremely long hair) on YouTube. But I really wouldn’t recommend it.

Squash and the Human Brain

What I would suggest you check out on YouTube, however, is Brian Cox’s lecture in late 2011 at The  Royal Institution of Great Britain, the oldest organisation dedicated to scientific education and research in the world. Squash doesn’t get a mention, I’m afraid, but there is an unusual connection between the Royal Institution itself and another prominent squash playing  scientist.

Baroness Susan Greenfield is a former Director of the RI as well as being a neuroscientist and Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford. She’s written several popular-science books about the brain and consciousness, regularly gives public lectures, and appears on radio and television. She also holds 20 honorary degrees.

Fullscreen capture 24042011 2231071 Squash and the ScientistsThe Baroness, who’s a relatively recent convert to squash, plays three times a week and must be one of the most ennobled and highly academically qualified squash players in history. In recent years, she’s expressed concerns that modern technology, and in particular social networking sites such as Facebook, may have a negative impact on child development. However, she’s also attracted a fair amount of criticism from other scientists who’ve questioned her claims, suggesting that she hasn’t carried out any meaningful research or properly evaluated the available evidence.

This kind of controversy is, of course, part and parcel of science which uses ‘peer-group review’ to question scientific methods and findings as well as their interpretation. Nevertheless, things can get rather personal as passions rise, egos intervene and the science gets forgotten.

Which all sounds like an opportunity for scientists to incorporate a friendly game of squash into the peer review process. That’s just my opinion of course.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the CERN Squash Club. You can find out more about Professor Brian Cox’s rocker past at ‘Love it Loud’ and get to know Baroness Susan Greenfield through her recent interview by the Financial Times.

The Psychology of Buying a Squash Racket: Part 1

When I told a friend of mine that I was writing a squash blog one of his first suggestions was that I should write a post on how to buy a squash racket. Not surprisingly, this followed a series of questions including, “What is a blog?”, “Who’s going to read it?” and, my personal favourite, “What for?”

At the time, I was pretty clear in my response to the first question, less clear about the second one, but perfectly clear about the third. I had to write about something that would motivate me to explore it  from different angles and maybe discover new things about it that I didn’t already know. And, having been involved with it for most of my adult life, I felt that squash would do quite nicely. Which it has.

Nevertheless, the squash racket suggestion stuck in my mind, and stayed there until I’d qualified, both as a squash coach and as a personal development coach. By that time, I’d already come across dozens of articles and videos on ‘How to buy a squash racket’, all of which focussed on the technical aspects of the rackets themselves; racket head size, weight, grip, stringing and so on. All of them useful in their own way, but all of them fairly dispassionate. Which got me thinking.

Manta Racquet Archive LG The Psychology of Buying a Squash Racket: Part 1Coaches of every denomination will tell you that people are passionate about things and that  different people are passionate about different things. They’ll also tell you that different  people are motivated to do different things in different ways and in different situations, whether it’s at work, in business, in their personal lives or, more specifically, on a squash court. And, at different stages of their lives, different people, including squash players, are motivated to achieve different things.

In fact, through psychology studies, we now know more than ever about what kind of things influence people not just to do things, but to make choices about what to do. Choices about finding a partner, choices about pursuing a career, choices about playing a sport and choices about what to buy.

Including a squash racket.

What Kind of Things Influence Us to Buy?

So what influences us to buy?

As you might guess, the factors affecting how customers make decisions are both numerous and complex in the way that they relate to each other. Buyer behaviour is deeply rooted in psychology with dashes of sociology thrown in for good measure. What’s more, since every person in the world is different, it‘s impossible to define simple rules that explain how buying decisions are made.

But researchers who’ve spent many years studying buyer behaviour have come up with some useful guidelines to describe how someone decides whether or not to make a purchase. The guidelines describe two distinct categories of influence, internal and external, how they influence buying decisions – and how they influence  marketing strategies.

And those are what we’ll look at in this article.

Inside Job

If we want to understand the first of these categories, we need to look inside ourselves to see which are the most important factors affecting how we make choices. In fact, there are seven to choose from which, together with the external factors we’ll learn about later, should give you a feel for what’s going on when you consider what to buy, or whether to buy something at all. Obviously, the number of possible combinations of factors affecting buying behaviour is astronomical. But, if we stick to a single type of purchase item (a squash racket), then at least we’ve got a fighting chance of understanding what might be driving our own buying behaviour as individuals.

So here goes.

Perception is Reality

The first internal influence is perception, the way we filter information – such as the information obtained from a conversation with a fellow squash player, from watching a squash match or from reading an advertisement for a squash racket – and then make sense of it. How we perceive, as individuals, is determined by our personal approach to learning which, in turn, affects how we act.

And we all learn in different ways. For example, some people are able to focus their attention on a specific advertisement and remember some or all of the information it contains after being exposed to it just once. Other people need to be exposed to the same advertisement many times before even recognising what it is advertising, let alone what brand of item it is advertising. Also, people are much more likely to retain information if they have a strong current interest in the stimuli associated with the information – such as the pleasure of owning and using a shiny, new squash racket.

Marketers, of course, spend huge sums of money in their attempts to get buyers to form a positive impression of their products. But, clearly, the existence of people’s widely differing  perceptual filters means that achieving this isn’t easy.

Know Your Squash Racket

Knowledge is sometimes defined as being (amongst other things) the sum of all of the  information of which an individual is aware. In other words, the facts of their world as they  know them. On the other hand, the depth of someone’s knowledge can be thought of as a function of the breadth of their worldly experience and the strength of their long-term memory. So, what exists as knowledge to an individual depends on how that person’s  perceptual filters make sense of the information they’ve been exposed to.

When it comes to selling a squash racket, marketers typically carry out research to find out what people know about their products. As we’ll see later, it’s likely that other factors influencing buyer behaviour are largely shaped by what’s known about a product or a brand. So perhaps it’s not surprising that marketers are always trying new ways of encouraging potential buyers to accept more information.

Whether it’s factual or not.

Buying with Attitude

Attitude refers to what a person feels or believes about something and may be reflected in how they act, based on their beliefs. Once they’ve been formed, attitudes can be notoriously difficult to change and, if buyers have a negative attitude toward a particular squash racket or brand, marketers have to make huge efforts to change what those buyers believe to be true.

So, marketers competing to attract  customers typically try find out why people buying rival brands feel positive towards those brands. On the basis of their research findings, they then try to meet or beat their competitors on the most important issues; for example, the range of squash rackets on offer, pricing, appearance and so on. Alternatively, marketers may try to find rival customers who feel negatively towards their competitors and then try to increase their brand awareness.

The Personality Puzzle

David Funder The Psychology of Buying a Squash Racket: Part 1

David Funder

In his 2007 book The Personality Puzzle The Psychology of Buying a Squash Racket: Part 1, psychologist David Funder described personality  as “an individual’s characteristic patterns of thought, emotion, and behaviour, together with the psychological mechanisms (hidden or not) behind those patterns.” So, an individual’s personality should show itself through the characteristics they typically exhibit, particularly when they’re in the presence of others. Furthermore, in most cases, the behaviours people  display in one situation are similar to thosethey display in other situations.

Last, but not least, we all have our own vision of our own personalities, called a self-concept. Which, of course, may or may not be the same as others view us.

So how does all this influence our squash racket purchasing behaviour?

Well, marketers know that buyers make purchase decisions to support their own self concepts, even if those self-concepts have little or nothing to do with the demographic category they fall into. For example, senior citizens may make purchases which help make them feel younger. So, appealing to the buyer’s self-concept rather than their age, occupation or income, can help marketers to increase the size of their target audiences.

Living Your Life

What’s your lifestyle? How do you live your life through the interests you have, the things you do, and the things you spend your money on? Put simply, our lifestyles reflect what we value in our lives.

People buy products and services to support their lifestyles. And marketers have always  tried to find how potential buyers in their target markets live their lives as this helps them to work out what kind of products to develop. It also helps them to work out what  promotional strategies are most likely to be successful in selling those products, and even how best to distribute products based on where most of their buyers live.

So how does squash support your lifestyle? Is it in a social context, a cultural context, a health and wellbeing context, a commercial context (think squash coach) and so on. It may support your lifestyle in a number of ways, some of which you may not even have thought about. Whatever your own personal involvement with squash, your values, and how you honour them, directly influence your lifestyle.

And which squash racket you’re likely to buy.

The Motivation Factor

Motivation relates to our desire to achieve things. Some of the influences we’ve already  discussed, can affect a buyer’s desire to achieve a certain goal – but there are others. For example, when it comes to deciding what to purchase, a buyer’s motivation may be affected their financial position (“Can I afford to buy this?”), time constraints (“Do I need to buy this now?”), overall value (“Am I getting my money’s worth?”), and perceived risk (“What happens if I make a bad decision?”)

From a marketing perspective, motivation is linked to the concept of involvement. And involvement is all about the amount of effort a buyer is prepared to exert in making a decision. Highly motivated buyers typically want to get mentally and physically involved in the buying process.

Obviously, not all products (milk, for example) attract highly motivated buyers. But marketers promoting products that invite a high level of buyer involvement (such as a squash racket) will typically use strategies that are attractive to this kind of buyer. So, they will tend to make it easy for buyers to learn about their product; for example, by providing information on a website or providing access to video footage of the product being used or just described. For some products, they may allow customers to use the product in a free trial before expecting them to commit to buying it.

Handling a squash racket or even taking it on court to try it out are examples of this kind of marketing involvement strategy.

Who Do You Think You Are….or Would Like to Believe You Are….

In the natural course of living our lives, we all perform multiple roles. Roles in the context of our personal lives, our professional lives, and our working lives.

Outsize Squash Racket The Psychology of Buying a Squash Racket: Part 1Roles represent the positions we feel we hold or that others feel we should hold when interacting with other people in a group context. These positions carry certain responsibilities, some of which  may, in fact, be perceived and neither agreed or even accepted by others.

Buyers tend to make product choices that vary depending on which contextual role they are assuming. In other words, their buying decisions support their role identities. So, the captain of a squash team selecting a racket for use in competitive matches may choose a more expensive or ‘higher perceived status’ racket than they would choose for use by a member of their family.

So, marketers often show how their products will benefit buyers as they perform certain roles. Typically the underlying message of this promotional approach is to imply that using the product will help raise the buyer’s status in the eyes of others whereas using a competitor’s product may have a negative effect on status.

So, now we know about the internal influences on our buying behaviour, what else is likely to affect the way we decide which squash racket to purchase?

Next Time

In Part 2 of ‘The Psychology of Buying a Squash Racket’, we’ll look at the external influences affecting our buying behaviour. We’ll also find out about how consumers buy – and how they feel afterwards.

Acknowledgements

For a fascinating description of ‘Consumer Buying Behaviour’, go to the excellent  KnowThis.com marketing website. You’ll never look at the process of buying a squash racket in the same way again!

The Mathematics of Playing Squash

Today, military strategists resort to the mathematics of decision theory in developing war games. So perhaps it’s not surprising that mathematics or, to be exact, the mathematical theory of probability, can be applied to the game of squash.

Mathematical modelling can describe the main features of the game pretty well and, at a practical level, can reveal the best strategies available to the squash player. In fact, it’s also proved useful over recent years in deciding whether the scoring rules of squash should be changed; first for professional tournaments, then for national and regional competitions and, finally, at club level.

And it’s all due to a 19th Century Russian mathematician.

Squash and the Markov Chain

Andrei Markov 150x150 The Mathematics of Playing Squash

Andrei Markov

Believe it or not, squash offers a simple example of a mathematical structure called a Markov chain. The theory of these non-deterministic random structures was  first developed at the end of the 19th Century by Russian mathematician Andrei Markov (1856 – 1922). According to fellow mathematician, Hungarian Lajas Takacs, Markov got the idea for his chain by studying the occurrence of vowels and consonants in the poetry of his compatriot Alexander Pushkin. But, despite its unlikely beginnings, the theory is now used in a wide range of contexts, from telecommunications to genetics and even sociological modelling.

A Markov Chain identifies a system that can occupy a ‘countably finite’ number of states, and which can make a transition from one state to another after a unit interval of time. The likelihood of a transition depends only on the system’s present state and not on its previous history.

So, let’s take a single game of squash as an example of a rule-based system. Starting at ‘love all’ (and omitting rallies which end in lets), the game moves from one state to another as points are scored. With each rally, one of two outcome states will be reached corresponding to whether the server wins or loses the rally. That outcome state becomes the ‘new’ present state for the game.

Whether a player wins a particular rally will obviously depend on a range of factors such as their skill, fitness, judgement and (not that I ever need it myself) luck. Whether a player serves or receives will also be a factor, so we can reasonably state that ‘Player A’ should win a certain fraction of rallies when serving and a certain fraction when receiving. In other words, the probability that A wins a rally when serving is pA and when receiving it’s qA. If we calculate the corresponding definitions for Player B, then (because the total probability of any rally being won is always 1) it’s evident that pB = 1 – qA and qB = 1 –pA because when A serves, B receives and vice versa. With me so far? Good.

The Probability of Serving and Receiving

The simplest possible game to imagine is one in which pA = ½ and pB = ½. In other words, both players can expect to win 50 out every 100 rallies when serving and when receiving. Clearly, in such a match, A and B are equally balanced.

But now, let’s denote the probability that A wins the current rally (and a point) when serving by the character PA and when receiving by QA. Subscript B will denote the corresponding probabilities for B, in other words PB = 1 –QA and QB = 1 – PA. The probability that A wins the current point, however, depends on whether A or B is serving.

In the example, where pA = ½ and pB = ½, the probability of A winning the point when serving, PA, is 2/3 but when receiving it is only 1/3. To understand this surprising statistic, we need to realise that the probability of winning the point is equal to the sum of each winning sequence of rallies possible in the game. In other words:

pA = ½ + ½4 + ½8 + ½16 +…

This is a geometric series which, when added up, approaches (but never quite equals) 2/3. So the probability of A losing the point must therefore be 1/3.

And how many winning sequences can there be in a game? Well, that’s what the superscripts are in the above equation. Just consider the possible sequences for the first 2 points (A win – A win, A win – B win, B win – A win or B win – B win). Four possible sequences.

Or, what about the possible sequences for the first 3 points:

A wins – A wins – A wins

A wins – A wins – B wins

A wins – B wins – A wins

A wins – B wins – B wins

B wins – A wins – B wins

B wins – A wins – A wins

B wins – B wins – A wins

B wins – B wins – B wins

That’s eight possible sequences, rising to sixteen for the first 4 points. Complicated, eh? Well, not really if you understand probability which I’m sure the gamblers amongst you do.

We can use this approach to analyse squash games between any two players of arbitrary standard; that is for any values of pA and qA and the simple expressions derived for PA and QA in terms of these. For example, a player with a pA of 2/3 and a qA of 3/5 may be expected to win two out of three service rallies and three out of five returns of serve.

But what can mathematical studies of the game of squash tell us about how to play the game? For that, we need to skip the difficult stuff and look at the results of a scientific study.

Squash Studies and Player Tactics

Scientists at the University of Glasgow and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxford created a mathematical model of squash in the late 1980s. They tested the model in true scientific spirit with two of them playing an experimental series of 29 squash matches including 105 squash games over a 3 month period. Just think of two guys wearing white lab coats running around carrying squash rackets and you’ll get the picture.

As both of them had no idea whether their theory was accurate or not, there was no chance of them ‘cooking the books’. Nevertheless, the recorded frequency of the scientists’ game and match scores – and the point scores predicted by the model – were remarkably good with pA = 0.59 and qA = 0.56.

The scientists also came up with some interesting findings.

For example, a player receiving should always choose to set two. If A were to choose no set,  A would need to win the next point and, as we’ve seen above, the probability of doing this is QA. On the other hand, if A chooses set two, the winning sequences for the next two rallies are:

A wins – A wins

A wins – B wins

B wins – A wins

B wins – B wins

Three out of the four sequences will involve A regaining the serve meaning that A’s PA is more favourable to winning a point. Player A should, in fact, choose no set only if A’s pA is less than about 0.38, a situation which would place them in the company of higher  performing squash players.

Minding Your P’s and Q’s

Obviously, players (even scientists) can have off-days or may tire at different rates during a match. However, the  model reproduced the broad features of squash: the clear advantage of the first server, the setting choice, and the frequency with which a player wins a game  without their opponent scoring. It also shows that the probability of winning a point is much greater for the player who won the last point. And, perhaps more than anything else, this is the factor that gives squash its reputation of being such a highly competitive game; players need to fiercely contest every point.

So what tips does the mathematical model offer? The first is for players to estimate their p and q coefficients by assessing their performance against similar standard players. They can then choose set two or no set in a tie-breaker with some confidence.

Next, a player may attempt to vary their p and q. For example, they may choose to expend a lot of energy returning serve in the hope of increasing q even though a possible consequence may be a decrease in p. Whatever they choose, the model found that one result is almost always true: it is to the advantage of the stronger player to concentrate on service returns and, conversely, for the weaker player to concentrate on service by adopting, for example, hit and run tactics.

Last, but not least, the model allowed for a comparison of the European (hand in) and American (point a rally) scoring systems. Supposing that the most probable game scores for three pairs of players under British rules are 9-6 9-3 9-1. A calculation using the model showed that, when converted to American scoring, these translated into 15-13 15-11 15-5. Generally speaking, American rules were far kinder to the weaker squash player, in the sense that the likelihood of an ignominious defeat was small. Matches appeared to be much more closely contested although, in fact, the probability of a win for either player would not be much altered.

So the next time you play squash, be sure to insist on American scoring and try and get your opponent to assess their p and q during the match.

With any luck, they’ll lose concentration.

Squash, Mathematics and Fun

For an explanation of probability in squash scoring – including tree diagrams (!) – see Toni Beardon’s “Playing Squash” article on the excellent NRICH website. You can also test your probability knowledge by answering, or at least trying to answer, a question on the same site. Have fun!

Acknowledgements

The article “Calculating to Win” by David Alexander, Ken McClements and John Simmons originally appeared in the New Scientist on December 10th, 1988. It was subtitled, “If losing at squash dents your ego, don’t resort to feeble excuses such as tiredness or lack of concentration. Blame the mathematics of probability underlying the game.”

The Australian Squash Ball Incident

Even though I’m a follower of cricket, particularly the five-day Test Match variety, I have to admit that the Australian Squash Ball Incident of 2007 – branded Gillygate by the Aussie media – completely passed me by. Maybe it was because it happened during a one-day limited over match, even though that match was the final of cricket’s prestigious  World Cup tournament, held every four years. On the other hand, maybe it was because ‘my team’ England had long since been knocked out of the tournament, not being particularly effective at the one-day game.

However, I suspect that it was more likely that I’d completely forgotten that the tournament was still being contested having been going for nearly 7 weeks. In fact, the final was the competition’s 51st match meaning that it had taken 50 matches, played in locations throughout the Caribbean (and even Guyana in South America) to eliminate all but 2 of the 16 teams competing.

But back to the squash ball incident.

Gillygate: Adam Gilchrist’s Squash Ball

The World Cup final, held on April 28th in Bridgetown, Barbados, was won by Australia who beat Sri Lanka by 53 runs. Big-hitting wicket-keeper  Adam Gilchrist was Australia’s top scorer with 149 runs made off just 104 balls, a highly impressive innings and strike rate in terms of the one-day game.

But after the match, Gilchrist revealed that he’d inserted a squash ball into one of his batting gloves to provide ‘extra grip’ (see video clip).

The Sri Lankan cricket authorities immediately accused Gilchrist of unethical behaviour in using the ball. A debate raged in the media for weeks even though the Marylebone Cricket Club, the body responsible the rules of cricket, judged that Gilchrist had not contravened the spirit or laws of the game. A Gichrist’s Squash Ball ‘Unethical’ page even appeared on Facebook (see link).

http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/group.php?gid=8855860966

Squash Ball Physics

Later in 2007, Vijitha Herath of the University of Paderborn, Germany, wrote to Elakiri.com, the Largest Sri Lankan Online Community to offer ‘a scientific perspective’ (sic) on the squash ball in cricket glove affair. You can read it at:

http://www.elakiri.com/forum/showthread.php?t=29356

Herath’s ‘scientific perspective’ comprised a series of statements unsupported by any scientific evidence whatsoever. It appeared together with the following graphic bearing the less than objective title  ‘Magic ball exposed’.

Squash Ball Adam Gilchrist2 300x188 The Australian Squash Ball Incident

Herath concluded that “Gilchrist’s use of the squash ball allowed him to hit the ball further in the field”. He also stated, in decidedly unscientific language, that, “the squash ball was used not purely as a protective gear but, as a performance enhancer to a player who was playing his last World Cup innings and did not care of the consequences, but was hell bent on rubbing some glory upon himself.”

No bias there then.

The Indian Squash Ball Incident

Herath’s attempt to undermine Adam Gilchrist’s reputation as well as to simultaneously mindread his intentions did not prevent Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the captain of India’s cricket team, from copying Gilchrist. In February 2009, Dhoni inserted a squash ball into one of his gloves before he batted in the first one-day international – again against Sri Lanka – in Dambulla. He made an unbeaten 61 as his team beat Sri Lanka by 6 wickets (see link).

http://www.cricdb.com/archive/international/news/detail.php?nid=1326

The Sri Lankan cricket authorities were, in cricketing parlance, caught on the back foot when asked to comment on Dhoni using a squash ball, as well as on history repeating itself.

“No, I am not aware about this but would certainly find out whether we can lodge an official complaint about it”, said Duleep Mendis, Sri Lanka Cricket’s Chief Executive Officer.

Postscript: Google Keywords

The Australian Squash Ball Incident has now passed into cyberspace mythology, if there is such a thing.  Gilchrist squash ball is now a registered Google Keyword.

At the last count, it gave 6240 results.

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 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.

Enrico Fermi and the Chicago Pile Team 300x224 The First Nuclear Squash Court

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.

CP1 Nuclear Pile Construction 252x300 The First Nuclear Squash Court

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.’