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.
So, as a squash lover, what the heck have you been doing during the last eighteen months?
Well, here’s at least one thing young squash enthusiast Kiyaan Khalfan has been doing. Kiyaan, a student at the Aga Khan Academy in Nairobi, Kenya, has put together a video exploring the game of squash as part of his studies. Including interviews and demonstrations, the video looks at squash skills, nutrition, fitness and careers. One interviewee, Khaaliqa Nimji, is a professional squash player whose resumé includes playing mixed doubles against Nicol David at the 2010 Commonwealth Games – at the age of 12!
On the leadership front, it’s not difficult to see where student projects such as Kiyaan’s can have a wide influence. Nairobi’s Aga Khan Academy is just one of 17 planned for Africa, The Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia, all areas which could potentially benefit from an injection of squash leadership.
The Academy’s vision is to invest in “education of the highest quality that can prepare young people to lead and enact positive change in the world they inhabit.” The vision focuses on investment not only in teachers but also in “facilities that provide an environment conducive to the less tangible but equally important elements of an education: self-esteem, leadership, tolerance, ethical judgment and moral reasoning.”
And when it comes to inspiration, it’s not just teachers who can help lead the way.
When a former World Number 15 squash player suggests that you check out a video of a memorable PSA Gold tournament rally, you may not be fully aware of the context behind said player’s reason for doing so. Enter Australian PSA TV commentator Johnny Williams who, during a marathon semi-final between Mohamed El Shorbagy and Joel Makin at the recent El Gouna International tournament, drew viewers’ attention to a 2018 encounter between the same two players at the Channel VAS tounament in Surrey, England.
During the 155-stroke rally in question, Makin’s heart rate rose to 195 and stayed there for a considerable part of the 4 minutes and 8 seconds exchange. That El Shorbagy and Makin must have reached a level of fitness which would enable them to sustain such a rally is to state the obvious. But, during his career, Williams himself was a typical product of the famously tough Australian squash endurance trainingculture, once running 32 consecutive 400 metre circuits (separated by 45 second ‘rests’) with each circuit taking less than 75 seconds.
As always context is key. But one thing seems certain. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the lack of on-court competition for many squash players doesn’t seem to have translated into a lack of endurance fitness. In fact, it may have had the opposite effect.
I recently analysed England’s Sarah-Jane Perry’s dramatic 2020 Black Ball Open victory over Egypt’s Hania El Hammamy in the form of a series of shots into the tin at game- and match-ball. Apart from the squash, the match was notable for the socially-distanced Cairo crowd’s vociferous support for the home favourite. Perry’s vocal support was less vociferous due partly, I suspect, to an absence of English supporters who were not only confined to their homes under the terms of a pandemic lockdown but banned from leaving Blighty to boot.
In my analysis I contrasted the Cairo crowd’s involvement in the match to that of the non socially-distanced Doha crowd at the 2014 World Open Championship final.
In that 90-minute contest, Cairo’s Ramy Ashour, returning from a six-month injury lay-off, defeated Alexandria’s Mohammed El Shorbagy 14-12 in the fifth. The cacophony generated by the spectators reflected divided Egyptian loyalties, the victory of a much-loved ambassador for the game over an up-and-coming star, and the sheer drama of the match as it unfolded. Let’s hope we’ll all hear something similar again.
As the basis of a game plan for winning a prestigious PSA World Tour final against an in-form 20-year old defending champion playing in her home town, it looks a bit, well, risky.
Game 1: At 2-2, hit the ball into the tin in
successive rallies and lose the game 4-11.
Game 2: At 9-10 down, hit the ball into the
Game 3: At 10-9 up, get your opponent to hit
the ball into the tin.
Game 4: Save two championship balls. At 11-10 up, get your opponent to hit the ball into the tin.
Game 5: Go 5-8 down. Then, at 10-9 up, get your opponent to hit the ball into the tin.
Yet, in the last women’s tournament of 2020, that’s exactly how England’s Sarah-Jane Perry became CIB Back Ball Open champion, overcoming Egypt’s Hania El Hammamy in Cairo.
Coming from two games and two match balls down, Perry eventually closed out the match in 75 minutes to add to the 10 PSA titles already in her locker. Which, of course, goes to show that some game plans can really pay off.
As comebacks go, Perry’s, in its own way, ranks alongside Ramy Ashour’s against Mohammed El Shorbagy in the 2014 World Open Championship final minus, sadly, the latter match’s deafening spectator involvement.
But with hopeful signs that squash across the world will soon be able to re-emerge from its enforced hiatus, let’s look forward to the sounds of the game being played, and appreciated, with energy and passion.
Even when it’s punctuated by the sound of the ball being hit into the tin.
reports in the Indian media of Saurav
Ghosal’s lockdown experiences come the views of the current world men’s
number 13 on player data, personal privacy and, er, gossip.
The background to Ghosal’s comments lies in the commercial partnership between the Professional Squash Association (PSA) and Sports Data Labs (SDL), a US provider of “human data technology”. The purpose of the partnership is to help the PSA utilise “in-game human data solutions to provide human performance metrics for its live broadcasts, as well as for player optimisation and training purposes.” The popularity of personal ‘fitness tracking’ devices may be one reason why the PSA is exploring the use of player data to attract more interest in the sport.
“There are three
kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” (Unknown but not Mark
The player data in question includes such physiological information as distance
covered during matches, speed and heart rate which, even now, is displayed on
courtside screens during some major tournaments. The PSA knows that, under EU
and UK law, ownership of this data belongs to individual players and that
their personal consent to its use, and re-use, has to be secured on an
individual and, presumably, commercially-agreeable basis.
To complicate matters, not all relevant national and supranational (e.g. EU)
laws require the same level of protection for individuals against the
collection, storage and use of their data without their personal consent. The
concept of ‘personal privacy’ also varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. US
law, for example, does not recognise the right of individuals to opt out of
the automatic collection and use of their personal data for marketing and other
‘re-use’ purposes, e.g. by social media companies and their advertising clients.
Other national personal privacy laws unsurprisingly reflect their countries’ political cultures and social norms. India’s recently-implemented legislation, the Personal Data Protection Bill, follows the EU and UK models as does that of Qatar. The Indian law, however, makes specific reference to certain categories of data, some of which could be regarded as falling under the PSA / SDL player data category, e.g. health data, whereas others such as biometric and genetic may not. In contrast, Egypt’s soon to be implemented Data Protection Law applies only to companies and their responsibilities for protecting the personal data of their employees.
In light of such a complex, and evolving, legal situation the question
naturally arises as to who has the
legal right to assess the risks, costs and benefits to individual players
associated with the sharing of their personal data, and for what purpose?
“There is only one thing in the world
worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” (Oscar
Wilde, The Picture of
To date, Saurav Ghosal has not signed up to the brave new world of player data monetisation but recognises the commercial need for squash to engage with a world increasingly characterised by social media gossip and the popular obsession with statistics. While some may regard player data and derived statistics as being of subjective interest, others may not or remain either disinterested or sceptical. “An ideal heart rate can’t be set as a target,” says coach and current Secretary General of India’s Squash Rackets Federation, Cyrus Poncha. Commercialising access to player data may, it seems, be more effective in attracting the attention of some statistics-loving spectators than in helping coaches or players to improve their approaches to training and performance.
The question also remains as to whether any objectively-valuable player data will ever be collectible using human data technology. As Saurav Ghosal says, “Things like a good read on the game and the mental side cannot be measured. Federer, Nadal, Djokovic are all good, but they are made differently – which can’t be calibrated.”
Straight from the world of Indian social media comes the news that current men’s number 13, Saurav Ghosal, is to host a new web-based chat show. In “The Finish Line”, he’ll interview eight of India’s best-known sports stars including tennis player Leander Paes and five times World Chess Champion, Viswanathan Anand. The show promises to explore how top athletes overcome the odds to achieve success as well as providing Ghosal with an opportunity he would probably never have had were it not for the impact of coronavirus lockdown and travel restrictions on his life as a world-ranked squash player.
It remains to be seen whether Ghosal’s interviewees will touch on the role of dietary discipline in their strategies for sporting success but Ghosal himself described his own lockdown-imposed approach in a recent interview for “Double Trouble”, another web-based chat show. Adhering to a standard breakfast / lunch / dinner schedule, Ghosal’s philosophy was, simply put, ‘eat what you make’ using healthy ingredients. The sole exception to this regime is to bake a cake every ten days and eat a piece after dinner to satisfy his sweet tooth cravings.
His fellow interviewee on “Double Trouble”, current women’s number 10 Joshna Chinappa, has a different strategy: miss breakfast by not waking up until after noon; have a pre-workout light lunch; eat dinner at around seven in the evening and snack on crisps until bed-time at 1.00am. She does not eat chocolate.
With the suspension of the PSA World Tour, the folks at PSA SquashTV have outdone themselves in posting a diverse range of consistently interesting content to, er, divert the locked-down squash lover.
This has included compilations of isolation trick shots, player interviews and the sight of Sarah-Jane Perry being upstaged by her own cat. However, my own personal favourite was this ‘blast from the past’ from the 2010 Tournament of Champions in New York.
Just so you’re clear, the occasion was a match between a left-handed Scot playing as an Englishman (Peter Nicol) and a right-handed Australian playing as a Scot (John White. That’s about all you need to know.
Running from 1994 to 1997, with specials in 2000 and 2014, The Fast Show was a BBC comedy sketch show relying on stereotypical characters, recurring running gags and catchphrases.
Played by Simon Day, Competitive Dad has to be the best at everything, tormenting his long-suffering children, Peter and Toby, with constant challenges they can never live up to. Sport is Competitive Dad’s biggest interest; from cricket to tennis, fishing and, yes, squash.
Watch, in horror, as he beats Toby 9-0 (it was hand-out scoring in those days, remember) without serving a single returnable ball before boasting about his victory to his wife on the telephone.
The eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted that Competitive Dad’s serves at 2-0 and 4-0 didn’t land between the cut and out-of-court lines so Toby should have become hand-in. However, I’m not sure that the result would have been any different.
Stumbling across stuff on the internet can help you unearth a wealth of interesting information. Not only that, it can send you off on a voyage of discovery leading to other interesting (and not-so interesting) information tenuously linked to your original stuff-stumbling experience depending on how far you want to go.
Take this one minute squash-themed video from 2013 by Aroneus Shorts. It’s one of a series of entertaining short videos, some of which feature “Wally”. After watching the videos, I am none the wiser as to whether Wally is: a) a person or b) a dog. Neither am I any the wiser as to the identity of any of the performers appearing in the videos or their directors, producers, video photographers or music directors. And does Aroneus Shorts even still exist?
Despite the mystery, let’s just hold onto the image of a squash ball with attitude clinging to the backhand side wall and a public information sign depicting a pair of shorts. That should be enough to be getting on with.