I, Robot Squash Coach

A month ago, Scottish Squash confirmed that the game would return without Covid-19 restrictions, in all clubs and facilities in Scotland. Just the time, you might think, for committed players of all ages to refresh their squash skill-sets with a spot of one-to-one coaching.

Fast forward a few weeks and, conveniently, the UK’s National Robotarium presented the world’s first robot squash coach. The robot, developed in collaboration with industry partner RacketWare for on-court use, utilises motion tracking sensors and interfacing technology to collect data from players practising a variety of shots. The data is then analysed in real time and interpreted by the robot in order to communicate with players.

To date, communication strategies have been developed for twelve coaching exercises by observing one-to-one sessions between qualified squash coaches and players. Artificial intelligence software then enables the robot to give instructions about what each solo player should practice next, using hints, tips and positive reinforcement encouragements. Research has shown that solo practice, typically used by professional players and committed amateurs, increases the skill and motivation levels of players of all abilities.

Promisingly, a new National Robotarium facility is due to open in Edinburgh in 2022 housing three distinct research and development areas, including Robotics & Autonomous Systems (RAS), Human & Robotics Interaction (HRI) and High Precision Manufacturing.

In my opinion, the sooner the next generation of squash coach robots can help me perfect a backhand cross-court volley nick off the serve the better.

Sources Thanks to The Engineer, Heriot Watt University, the National Robotarium, YouTube and the BBC.

The Real Squash Housewives of Beverly Hills

I may have a terrible memory but I’m pretty sure that no squash-themed sex story has ever appeared in the pages of The Hollywood Gossip blog. Yet that’s exactly what happened recently with the revelation that Barstool Sports CEO, Erika Nardini, had been having an affair with a ‘married squash coach’. Not only that, but Nardini’s investment banker husband had signed her up for lessons with said coach, Yvain ‘Swiss’ Badan, as a Christmas present.

By way of context, Barstool Sports is a digital media company that produces blog, video and podcast content focused on sports and pop-culture. In stark contrast, The Hollywood Gossip is a celebrity gossip blog with the latest entertainment news, scandals, fashion, hairstyles, pictures, and videos of ‘your favourite celebrities’; at the time of writing, its coverage focuses on such globally-popular reality TV series as ‘The Bachelor’, ‘Sister Wives’, ‘90 Day Fiancé’, ‘Teen Mom’ and ‘The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’.

Yvain ‘Swiss’ Badan

Any doubts as to the veracity of the ‘married squash coach’ story would appear to have been put to rest by its appearance in Page Six, another US celebrity gossip, er, organ, and, on the other side of the Atlantic, in the well-known UK squash news sources The Daily Mail and The Sun. There is, as one would expect, enough detail in the coverage of the story to form the basis of a screenplay for a straight-to-video film or a teleplay for a squash-themed reality TV series, or both.

If that’s not an opportunity to insert squash into the global consciousness, I don’t know what is.

Note: On reflection, I think it’s possible that the The Hollywood Gossip may well have printed a squash-themed sex story in the past. I may not have recognised it at the time but, then again, I’ve got a terrible memory.

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia, The Hollywood Gossip, Page Six, Barstool Sports, The Daily Mail and The Sun.

Why Is Egypt So Good At Squash? (BBC Africa Short Film) – 2018

There are some sports which certain countries are just really good at. We’re talking New Zealand and rugby union, Brazil and football, and Kenya and middle distance running. Well, it might surprise you that an African country dominates the sport of squash. In this short film, BBC Sport Africa’s Isaac Fanin looks at why Egypt is so good at squash.

OK, so I admit that this BBC Africa feature passed me by when it first appeared in 2018. However, when I did unearth it, it did inspired me to look further afield for explanations as to Egypt’s current domination of the game.

Why Is Egypt So Good At Squash? (2018)

Here’s a reason for Egypt’s success given in an interview for Culture Trip by current World number 1, Ali Farag. “We had a lot of champions growing up so there was always someone to look up to and aspire to emulate,” he explained. “Those players were always generous to give us advice or step on the court with us. We’re all concentrated in Cairo or Alexandria so we can play against each other unlike in the United States, for example, if people are in different states and not concentrated in one or two cities.”

Farag’s explanation is echoed by fellow Egyptian and former World number 1, Amr Shabana in an article for The Atlantic. “There’s a quote that says ‘you’re only as good as the people around you.’ Around us were the best players – maybe not the best in the world, but we thought they were. This is the main reason squash thrived,” Shabana said. “Everybody pushed each other.”

In a 2014 article for Serious Squash, Canadian coach Chris Hanebury states, “I know people in Egypt could confirm or deny this and make a better argument on this subject, but I feel that creativity and attacking squash is not frowned upon, and is actually encouraged. They are continually reinventing how the game is played. Even though this may mean a few errors in the short term, these young players are learning to play a style of squash that better suits the glass courts and the lower tin.

But let’s leave the last word to Amr Shabana who, in a 2018 Express Tribune article, offered an explanation suggesting the superior ability of Egyptian squash players to exploit the incredible speed of balls travelling at 175 kilometres per hour or more.

Shabana compared the ability to manoeuvring Cairo’s sometimes chaotic streets behind the wheel of a car. “It’s like our driving,” he explains. “Under pressure, our decision-making process is very sharp.”

Plenty of scope for some innovative coaching techniques there then.

Sources

Thanks to BBC Sport Africa, Culture Trip, The Atlantic, Serious Squash and The Express Tribune.

Broken Strings (2018) – Short Film

What does it take before somebody’s resilience breaks? Sam Halford is tested when his coach pushes him and his classmate, Matt, to their limits. But when does pushing somebody beyond their limits become too much to handle?

Broken Strings (2018)

A Dunley Productions film.

Directed by Alfie Drakeley and Connor Dunham

Written by Alfie Drakeley

Cast: Jake Vermuelen (Sam Wilson) Josh Beardmore (Coach) and Alfie Drakeley (Matt Wilson).

Squash in Sixty Seconds

Take a look at the following two rallies, both taken from Canary Wharf Squash Classic matches played in London.

The first, taken from the 2016 tournament, is from a match between the eventual champion, France’s Mathieu Castagnet, and England’s Joe Lee. The second, from the 2019 tournament, also features its eventual winner, New Zealand’s Paul Coll, and England’s Tom Richards.

Neither rally lasts for much more than 60 seconds but both include a range of shots which could easily form the basis of a ‘how to play’ guide for beginners. If you take forehand and backhand shots separately, I counted over twenty types of shot played from the ‘T’, the front and back corners of the court, and mid-court. There are even back wall boasts and flying (attempted) volley-drops as a bonus.

Mathieu Castagnet vs Joe Lee (Canary Wharf Classic 2016)

Apart from the shots displayed, the ways in which the two rallies unfold lend themselves nicely to higher level analysis for learning and coaching purposes. For example, positioning, footwork, speed around the court and the sheer persistence needed to turn a losing position into a winning one are all on display. The need to retrieve is as important as the desire to dominate a rally.

Paul Coll vs Tom Richards (Canary Wharf Classic 2019)

And what about the value of the rallies in teaching markers or referees? Noticeably,there’s not a sign of an ‘out of court’ shot, a tinned shot, any body contact, or even a possible let or stroke. All players involved just get on with the game leaving the officials free to keep an eye open for anything which could affect their safety.

All that in two sixty-second snapshots. I never realised how easy it was.

Sources

Canary Wharf Classic video clips courtesy of PSA SquashTV .

Squash Coaching and Refereeing by R.B.Hawkey (1975) – Book Review

I can’t say I’ve ever had the opportunity to review a book on squash so when one came along I made like Peter Marshall and grabbed it with both hands. The volume in question, Dick Hawkey’s “Squash Coaching and Refereeing”, was gifted to me by a retired diplomat who, in a previous existence, had made his living selling antiquarian books. Knowing that I was an aficionado of the game he was certain that I would be  the best person to provide a home for the book, particularly as members of his family had started to pressurise him, for safety purposes, into reducing the mountains of memorabilia (‘junk’ in their terminology) hoarded in his one-bedroom flat.

“Squash Coaching and Refereeing” by R.B. Hawkey

The paperback book, originally published in 1975, is one of several written by R.B. (“Dick”) Hawkey who served as Director of Coaching at the UK’s Squash Racket Association in the 1960s and 70s. Most of them can still be obtained via archival  book services such as OpenLibrary and Alibris, and even from Amazon.

Split into separate ‘Coaching’ and ‘Refereeing sections, the overwhelming majority of the book’s content is as relevant today as when it was written almost 45 years ago. In fact, with the exception of references to the marking system (‘hand-in’ rather than ‘point-a-rally’ is mentioned throughout), the information, insights, advice and guidance presented are as clear and concise as any coach, marker or referee could want. I particularly liked Hawkey’s statement as to the purpose of coaching squash, i.e. to help players enjoy the game more. Having fun was clearly part of Hawkey’s approach to the game as was its social side, from watching matches, chatting with others (players and non-players alike) and drinking at the bar.

The purpose of refereeing, states Hawkey, is three-fold: to prevent injury; to prevent the “unpleasantly ruthless player” from having an unfair advantage; and, to ensure a “fair result” for every match. Safety, on-court manners and fairness are the watch-words.

On the subject of playing style, Hawkey is definitely not a purist. He observes that “virtually every player who has reached the top in any sport has his own idiosyncracies, his own pet shots, strokes of his own invention, things he can do that others cannot and shots he plays a little differently.”

“If,” he continues, “the correct and orthodox way were always the best for everyone, it would automatically follow that every champion was the perfect example of complete orthodoxy.” He goes on to name several great sporting champions (including Mohammed Ali) whose styles clearly disprove such a hypothesis. “In squash,” writes Hawkey, “the greatest of all time, hHashim Khan, was a complete novelty in the game. He held the racket nearly halfway up the shaft and as he raced around the court at unbelievable speed, he would improvise shots at will.”

In summary, Hawkey’s squash philosophy is based on enjoyment, sociability, safety, good manners, fairness and improvisation. Not a bad message to pass down through the generations.

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia for entries on Peter Marshall and Hashim Khan.

Lahore Squash

After two weeks travelling along the Karakorum Highway, arriving in Lahore in late June can be quite a shock. With bustling streets, noisy traffic and pre-monsoon temperatures in the mid-40s, life in the city stands in stark contrast with that found along the cool mountain roads winding north towards the Chinese border.

Punjab Squash Complex

Posters stuck on telegraph poles opposite my hotel announced the Pakistan International Squash Circuit-II tournament being held at the city’s Punjab Squash Complex. Unfortunately, I’d missed the finals by one day but decided to visit the venue on Lower Mall Road where all three recently-renovated courts were in use. There, I met Khurram Shehzad whose coaching pedigree extends to Dubai and Malaysia.

Compared to the glory days of Gogi Alauddin, Hiddy Jahan, Qamar Zaman and the Khans, Pakistan’s international squash presence is now relatively low key. Its two highest ranked male players, Asim Khan and Tayyab Aslam (both from Lahore), currently occupy positions 88 and 95 respectively in the PSA world rankings. In the women’s rankings, Sialkot-born Faiza Zafar, currently resident in Lahore, is the country’s highest ranked player at 99. Both Aslam and Zafar featured in the Circuit-II finals, Aslam going down 3-2 to Peshawar’s Farhan Mehboob and Zafar 3-0 to her younger sister Madina.

Pakistan International Squash Circuit II Awards

But it’s the restricted access to visas, said Shehzad, that, together with limited funding, continues to limit the opportunities for home-grown players to develop through international competition.

In a recent exception Mehboob, Aslam, the Zafar sisters and Peshawar’s Farhan Zaman all featured in the 2018 Commonwealth Games, held on Australia’s Sunshine Coast. Aslam and Zaman reached the last 16 of the men’s doubles with Aslam also reaching the last 16 of the mixed doubles with Madina Zafar. Zafar also reached the women’s singles plate semi-final, losing to the eventual winner, Barbados’s Meagan Best.

****

The day after my visit was the last I spent in Pakistan. It was also the first day of the monsoon.

Sources

Thanks to The Nation, the Khilari sports website, the Squash Info website and, as always, Wikipedia.

Squash and the Syrian Girls

Hot on the heels of news that Serbia’s Cricket Federation has established a government-sponsored programme to encourage migrants and refugees to play cricket, comes an equally inspiring story from the world of squash.

The source of the story is the Kingdom of Jordan which, by early 2017, had seen over 650,000 Syrian refugees seeking shelter from the civil war raging in their country.

In 2016, US charity Reclaim Childhood, in partnership with the Jordan Squash Federation, announced an initiative to introduce Syrian girl refugees to squash. Fast forward a year and fifteen girls are now playing the sport coached by some of Jordan’s top-ranked players.

One of them is eleven-year-old Raghda Hasriyeh who practices with two of her sisters in the Jordanian capital of Amman and now dreams of a career in squash. Her father, Nizar Hasriyeh, says: “I don’t understand anything about this sport but I am so happy to see my three daughters playing squash. I hope to see them become world champions one day.”

Raghda Hasriyeh

With its costly rackets and purpose-built courts, squash might not seem an obvious choice for children displaced from Syria. But Reclaim Childhood says that getting the refugee girls involved in the sport can be invaluable in helping them deal with the hardships they face.

Life for Syrian refugees in Jordan is difficult but the families of those girls taking part in the squash programme have been able to move out of crowded camps to accommodation on the outskirts of Amman. At least in a small way, squash has proved a godsend for them and their children.

Sources

Thanks to The Gulf News, NAIJA Squash Media and The Daily Mail.

Note

You can find a French language article on Jordan’s Syrian Girl Refugee squash programme on the IP Reunion website.

How To Win A Squash Rally – Part 2

Those of you with a good memory will remember my previous attempt at identifying the behaviour pattern required to win a squash rally.

Unsurprisingly, it drew on those old themes of dominating the ‘T’, sending your opponent to all four corners of the court, and then finishing off the rally with an  unreachable shot.

So just in case you didn’t grasp it the first time, here’s another example.

This time, it’s Britain’s Daryl Selby who demonstrates what the pattern looks like during a second-round match against France’s Mathieu Castagnet at the 2016 Windy City Open in Chicago; all except the ‘unreachable shot’ part, that is.

Which begs the question, is there another ‘hidden’ pattern and, if so, what does it look like?

Here’s a suggestion:

  1. Return the ball from whatever part of the court your opponent sends it.
  2. Wait for a feeling of ‘hubris’ to manifest itself in your opponent. This may be fed by a combination of impatience, boredom, frustration, over-confidence, fatigue, incredulity and even mirth over your retrieval efforts.
  3. Trust that your opponent’s hubris will mutate into ‘self-doubt’ in respect of his or her ability to successfully kill off the rally.
  4. Await the inevitable.

In this scenario, of course, there’s no need whatsoever to worry about your opponent’s actual ability to win the rally. You do, however, need to acquire Zen-like powers of patience and trust, as well as being able to reach and retrieve the ball for long periods of time.

When I come across a fool-proof method for perfecting this, I’ll let you know.

 

Squash Futures IV: Community / Coaches

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

Background

The long-term future of squash in a complex, dynamically-changing world lies in the continuing emergence and vitality of multiple squash communities, many of which will prove short-lived. In this context, traditional ‘static’ methods of sport development – typically based the local provision of standardised, participation-oriented squash programmes – will increasingly need to be augmented by ‘rolling programmes’ of innovative and culturally-sensitive communication and leadership initiatives.

Without these, squash will not be able to sense and respond quickly enough to changes in the socio-economic and cultural  environments within which it’s competing for participation, with other sports and with non sports-related activities.

Dynamic leaders from different age groups and backgrounds will always be required to activate existing squash networks and inspire existing squash communities. But so too will people who can coach new squash communities into existence and squash agents into leaders.

Our understanding of what squash coaching will have to become will have to change.

Sense / Leaders

Squash communities aren’t just local populations of players, nor are they just groups of members of some squash club or institution. They’re dynamic groupings of individuals with shared ‘tribal’ identities, even though they may have their own individual (and shifting) perceptions, preferences and priorities.Active squash agents, including those who govern the sport, run squash clubs or offer squash programmes, fail to sense those shifting perceptions, preferences and priorities at their peril.

Of course, many people who are members of squash clubs may not even behave or wish to behave as squash agents, for example by offering to introduce people to the sport, running competitions, organising social events or even helping to run squash clubs. In fact, many may be happy just to ‘consume’ the occasional squash experience, e.g. by playing a friend or watching from the balcony while others play.

Yet the existence and involvement of active squash agents is essential to sustain living squash communities; and living squash communities are essential to the transmission through time of the squash life story.

Unfortunately, squash communities can’t be built to a blueprint, like machines. Nor do they spontaneously emerge from local populations, whether somebody belonging to those populations is already playing squash or not. However, their emergence can be stimulated and their vitality sustained throughout changes in the demography and interconnection of those whose participation breathes life into them. And while individuals are required to lead squash communities, others will always be needed who can catalyse squash community emergence and vitality. Otherwise, there will be no communities for leaders to lead.

This catalysis role is entrepreneurial rather than managerial or operational in nature. To perform it, individuals are needed who are explorers with a healthy scepticism of ready-made ‘expert solutions’ to squash participation ‘problems.’ The wreckage of many a failed squash development initiative sits on top of a ‘best practice’ blueprint. And the catalysts are also risk-takers who are prepared to encounter failure on the road to success.

Above all, the catalysts are curious, persistent and collaborative. People who are prepared to ask, and help others find answers to, difficult questions. To stimulate networks, generate interest and gain support. To coach communities into life and coach life into unhealthy ones.

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

Culture / Clubs

How did you come to love squash? I don’t mean when or where did you start to learn the game or even play the game. I mean what’s the story behind how you come to realise that squash was something that you had to be – or already were – actively involved in?

Whatever your answer, it will have something to do with your introduction to and interaction with one or more squash agents, individuals who already loved squash and were happy to share their stories.

What was the context within which you came to love squash? How were your family, friends (or even enemies), work, home location and other life passions involved? What about your background and the background of those who made up the ‘supporting cast’ of squash agents in your introduction to squash?

What identity or identities do you believe that squash has helped to give you, or maybe to strengthen? Which of your values do you feel that it chimes with?

These are all important coaching questions focusing as they do on community and belonging.

Whether we realise it or not, we all play parts in the communities we find ourselves belonging to. Communities aren’t clubs or institutions. You don’t just apply, fill in a form and pay the subscription. You don’t come to love squash just by joining a club.
Squash is a culture and its transmission depends on its agents. It’s that agency that must be nurtured, directed and amplified if new squash communities are to emerge and remain vital.

Vitality must be coached into squash communities; squash agency must be coached into squash leadership.

Network / Probes

A key feature of squash community coaching is the nature of communication, not just between squash agents but between all existing and potential community members. Just because a community appears to be healthy does not mean that hidden changes are not underway.

What is the demographic profile of the community? How is it changing? What are the current perceptions, preferences and priorities of the community and how are they changing? What is the participation demography of community members in current activities and programmes and how is it changing? What new programmes and activities are you proposing to try out? How do current and proposed programmes and activities reflect changing community demographics?

What squash networks enhance the vitality of the community? How and by whom are those networks currently being used? How are they being stimulated? Even the individual members of a single squash club will typically use a number of networks each functioning via its own unique mix of messages, meetings, gatherings, visits, customs and technologies.

The ongoing health of squash communities is vital to their quality of life. Clearly, it’s sensible to give them the occasional check up. But it’s also vital to monitor their day to day well-being.

Emergency treatment is no substitute for the early detection of warning signs.

Summary

The purpose of this series of articles has been to raise awareness of new ways of thinking about the future of squash. These new ways have addressed a wide range of issues such as sense-making, leadership, culture, community, communication and innovation, all of which will affect the vitality of squash in a complex and dynamically-changing world.

The age of measuring the ‘success’ of squash and other sports solely in terms of participation now belongs to a ‘classical’ period which, in many Western cultures in particular, has now ended. We are now in a ‘post-classical’ age in which perceptions, preferences and priorities can not only change in an instant, but be largely unpredictable.

Like global finance, the future of squash will play out in an age of uncertainty.

References

A Leader’s Framework for Decision-making” by David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone is published in November 2007 issue of The Harvard Business Review.