The Squash Racquet Expert

A few years ago, I decided to find a way of making money which would, at the same time, enable me to draw on my passion for squash.

A well-connected friend of mine suggested that I invest in vintage squash racquets. They must be authentic, he told me, or you’ll waste your investment. The problem was, how could I learn to distinguish high value racquets from the inferior article?

I decided to find the acclaimed expert in the field. Everybody I asked mentioned the same highly regarded teacher and so I sought him out. I managed to get hold of his number and rang him at his home.

‘Yes, I can certainly teach you to recognise high value racquets,’ he told me. I asked him how long it would take to earn and he replied. ‘I can teach you in five days, but it will cost you £5000.’

It seemed a high price to pay, but he was reputed to be the world expert and I presumed that I’d learn a great deal in those five days. So, I agreed the contract and sent him a letter to that effect. He told me to visit his house each day between 9 and 11 a.m. starting the following Monday.

Two hours a day seemed a little on the short side for such an expensive training, but I duly turned up and was greeted by a tall, elderly man with white hair wearing a tracksuit. He ushered me into a sparsely-furnished room containing a long, wooden table. In the middle of the table, mounted by its handle on a plinth was a wood-framed squash racquet with what I assumed were gut strings. Placed on either side of the table were two chairs. The Master sat on one side and I was invited to sit on the other.

‘Look at the racquet,’ he commanded and fixed his attention on it.

I stared and stared, expecting that at any moment he would start telling me what I should be noticing. But not a word was said until the end of the hour when he announced, ‘That is the end of today’s lesson. I will see you at 9 a.m. tomorrow.’

I felt that I’d been short-changed on this first lesson, but was sure that tomorrow he’d tell me what I should have noticed.

The next day, at the same time, in the same room, I found myself sitting opposite another racquet.

‘Look at the racquet,’ the Master once again commanded.

My study was intermingled with my growing eagerness and anticipation of what I was going to be told. But not a word came from the Master’s lips until I was once again told that it was the end of the lesson and he would see me tomorrow.

The third day turned out to be the same as the first two. I rationalised my growing fury by telling myself that, this being the acclaimed expert, he was waiting for me to have studied several different racquets before giving me a lecture on how they all differed. Surely, in the rest of the week, he would tell me how the colour of the markings on the racquets differed, how to distinguish the fine-grained textures of the wood used for the head and the handle, the shape and symmetry of the frame and so on.

However, the fourth day came and went exactly as the others had done before them. Another racquet and an hour’s silent study.

I arrived at the last lesson on the Friday morning, keyed up with anticipation. Now all was going to be revealed and I was sure that I was going to have really concentrate to get my £5000-worth of learning into my head in  this one short hour.

I was shocked to find the room exactly the same, with another squash racquet and the same invitation – ‘Look at the racquet.’

I looked at the racquet with urgent anticipation of the wisdom that surely was shortly to be delivered. After ten minutes, I was getting agitated and after fifteen positively desperate. I could stand it no longer; my patience had finally run out. I turned to the Master and shouted at him:

‘I’ve spent £4000 so far and another £1000 today, and up to now you haven’t told me anything, just left me to look at different squash racquets. And what’s even worse, today you have not even had the courtesy to show me an authentic high value racquet!’

Acknowledgement

This kind of teaching story is found in the Zen Buddhist tradition. It’s based on the story ‘Learning from the Experts’ taken from ‘The Wise Fool’s Guide to Leadership’ by Peter Hawkins.

Mr Darcy’s Squash Match (à la Jane Austen)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a broken heart, must be in want of sportive diversion.

It had been above three months since Darcy, having declared to her his most ardent affection and love, had suffered the reproofs of Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Even now, his remembrance of her words caused him inexpressible pain despite his feeling reasonable enough to allow their justice.

“You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.  You could not have made me the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it.”

How those words had tortured him.

In his great disappointment and frustration, he had first determined to busy himself in attending to various business matters which had long required his attention. Now, he found himself  travelling in the North Country with a party including his sister, Georgiana, his friend Bingley, and Bingley’s sisters.

During their travels, Darcy had prevailed upon the good will of Mr. W——– of Pontefract to further instruct him in the sportive art of squash racquets, a pastime in which he had long excelled. He had likewise succeeded, to the great joy of his beloved sister, in securing the services of Miss D——, a lady similarly proficient in that art, to provide her with sportive instruction. Now, as the other ladies of the party expressed their desire to return to Pemberley, he greatly wished to participate in further sportive diversion and healthful recreation as he struggled with his feelings of rejection.

On the morning before his party’s intended departure, Darcy’s spirits were lifted by the receipt of a letter from his steward, Mr. M——, begging his immediate presence to attend an urgent matter relating to his estate. He at once reasoned that his early return would also  provide him with the opportunity of engaging in a game of squash racquets with his steward, a player of not insubstantial experience and skill. However, he determined not to educate his travelling companions as to his intentions of seeking further sportive diversion and, following breakfast, begged his leave of them and set forth on his journey.

His ride being uneventful and the weather clement, Darcy’s thoughts turned towards his  arrival at Pemberley. Notwithstanding the urgency of his journey, he anticipated with pleasure the time he would be able to spend in gentleman-like competition with Mr. M——  in the squash racquets hall adjacent to the stables. Yet, even so, he reflected with regret that his sister knew no other young ladies in the area with whom she could prevail upon to play with her on her return, Miss Bingley and her sister being disinclined during their visits to partake in what they judged to be an un-ladylike manner of recreation. Neither could he, as a loving brother, find any suitable sportive companions for his sister although, as he drew closer to his destination, the person of Miss Elizabeth Bennet once more intruded upon his thoughts.

On this occasion, however, he did not hear Miss Bennet’s words but was perceptive only of her dark eyes, her lightness of movement and her healthful manner. Did she not love running? Did she not find joy in country dancing? Was she not determined to journey everywhere on foot if circumstances would allow it? At once he remembered her dancing at the ball at Netherfield, and, yes, the occasion of her walking from Longbourn to Netherfield to attend her sister! Now, as he drew near to his destination, Darcy made a firm resolve to explore every avenue which might be available to him to win the affection of the woman with whom, he now confessed to himself, he was still in love.

On his arrival at Pemberley, he rode through the woods, crossed the bridge and made directly for the stables where, as fortune would have it, he was greeted by his steward. Anticipating his master’s desire to enjoy some time in the squash racquets hall before attending to any matters of business,  Mr. M—— had prevailed upon Darcy’s valet to bring his master’s racquet and rubber-soled squash shoes to the court in advance of the latter’s arrival. Darcy declared himself pleased with his  steward’s initiative before removing his riding jacket, waistcoat and boots, putting on his shoes and taking his racquet before joining his steward on court.

The encounter proved to both players at once demanding and challenging, Darcy triumphing over his steward by the narrowest of margins in just under the hour. Having complimented each other on their endeavour, the two competitors agreed to meet in an  hour to discuss the issue which had caused Darcy’s early return. Darcy then put on his riding boots and began to walk along the road leading to the house where he could refresh himself and change into fresh clothing following his sportive exertions.

Carrying his clothes and racquet, he had reached the lawn when he became aware of the presence of the gardener whose expression of surprise, on beholding his master, must immediately have told it. He then spied at some yards distant, a party of two ladies and a gentleman, whom he took to be visitors, the latter of whom he overheard to be conjecturing as to the date of the house. But it was only as he approached further towards his destination that he at once found himself standing within but a few short yards of…Miss Elizabeth Bennet!

He advanced towards the party and spoke to her.

As she saw him, she had instinctively turned away; but stopping on his approach, received his compliments with, had he but know it, an embarrassment impossible to overcome.

Her companions stood a little aloof while he was talking to her whilst she, astonished and abashed, scarcely dared lift her eyes to his face, and seemingly knew not what answer she returned to his civil enquiries about her family.

The few minutes in which they continued together were some of the most uncomfortable of his life. Nor did she seem much more at ease; when he spoke, his own accent had none of its usual sedateness; and he repeated his enquiries as to the time of her having left Longbourn, and of her stay in Derbyshire, so often, and in so hurried a way, as plainly spoke the distraction of his thoughts.

At length, every idea seemed to fail him; and, after standing a few moments without saying a word, he suddenly recollected himself and took leave.

As he strode towards the house, Darcy at once became aware of the mode of his dress, the  dampness of his attire and the disarrangement of his hair, directly come as he was from his exertions in the squash racquets hall. Yet, as he entered the hallway, any consequent  embarrassment he had begun to experience surrendered itself to the intensity of his desire to return to the presence of Miss Bennet; and this, in its own turn, gave urgency to his thoughts as to how he could realise such a happy situation before she and her friends might  end their visit to Pemberley.

No sooner had he begun to cross the hall towards the staircase, however, than the appearance of his housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, gave him cause to believe that he would soon be able to re-join Miss Bennet’s party. Mrs. Reynolds’ astonishment at seeing her master  was quickly replaced by a willingness to assist him in fulfilling his earnest wish to know in which direction their visitors were going, and in having his valet attend him with all urgency. Expressing his profound gratitude for her assistance, Darcy then made to ascend to his dressing room with all speed.

Now, as he set aside his racquet and busied himself in preparing to follow Miss Bennet and her friends, Darcy at once vowed to himself that he would again begin to hope.

Notes

Extracts from Chapters XXXIV and LXIII of “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen, published in 1813.

For further reading on women’s sport in the early 19th Century, see “Healthful Sports for Young Ladies” by Mademoiselle St. Sernin, published in 1822.

Squash and the Art of Espionage

If you visit Central London, you can easily find the futuristic-looking headquarters of Britain’s Special Intelligence Service on the banks of the River Thames at Vauxhall Cross. The SIS, also known as MI6,  supplies the British Government with foreign intelligence and operates alongside the country’s internal security service MI5.

MI6 Headquarters in London

Since the end of the Second World War, the espionage activities of MI6 have been fictionalised (often in thrilling fashion) by many writers one of whom, David Cornwell, actually worked for the Service during the 1960s. Writing under the pseudonym John Le Carré, Cornwell’s Cold War spy novels contrast with the physical action and moral certainty of the James Bond books written by Ian Fleming. His characters are mainly un-heroic political functionaries aware of the moral ambiguity of their work, and engaged in psychological game-playing and deception rather than physical drama.

And it’s in Le Carré’s novels that psychological games occasionally manifest themselves in the shape of sport. Not just in the description of sporting encounters (such as the tennis match in his novel ‘Our Kind of Traitor’) but in the form of memories, cultural references and the discovery of artefacts.

Including those relating to the game of squash.

Squash and Special Intelligence

If you’re fortunate enough (or even cunning enough) to gain access to MI6’s archives, you’ll find – alongside a briefcase containing a document copier and a stethoscope-like ‘hushaphone’ for eavesdropping on conversations in bugged rooms – a squash racket with a secret compartment in the handle. To contain what, we can only guess.

Visit MI6’s website and you can find more up to date evidence that squash is still part of the culture of Britain’s intelligence service. Not surprisingly perhaps, MI6 offers would-be staff the opportunity to experience ‘foreign travel’ and  ‘excitement’ (possibly an understatement) as well as to design ‘hi-tech gadgets’ for its agents (think ‘Q’ in the James Bond movies). And last, but not least, staff facilities at the Service’s headquarters include squash courts as well as a gym, a restaurant and, thankfully, a bar.

John Le Carre

Back in the 1950s and 60s, when the young David Cornwell was working for MI6 (and, initially, MI5),  squash was also a part of Britain’s intelligence and broader military culture. Squash courts were installed in the basements of various Government buildings in London and were also available to staff based at Special Intelligence sites such as the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) near Cheltenham.

As for Cornwell himself, squash was one of the sports he would have encountered as a pupil at Sherborne School in Dorset which he attended during the 1940s. And it’s perhaps during this period of his life that the game and its psychological aspects first came to his attention and began to feed his imagination.

Whatever its influence on David Cornwell the pupil –and later linguist, interrogator, spy and teacher – squash was eventually to appear in the writings of John Le Carré the novelist. And on more than one occasion.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

In 1961, a year after transferring from MI5 to MI6, Cornwell published his first novel as John Le Carré, ‘Call for the Dead’. The book introduced the character of George Smiley, an MI6 intelligence officer who was to appear in a further seven of Le Carré’s novels. Three years later, Le Carré was to leave MI6 to work full-time as a novelist, after his own career as an intelligence officer career was ended by the betrayal of his British agents to the KGB by Kim Philby, a British double agent and member of the Cambridge Five.

In 1974, ten years after leaving MI6, Le Carré was to depict Philby in his novel ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ as the upper-class traitor (code-named ‘Gerald’ by the KGB) hunted by George Smiley and his assistant Peter Guillam. In the book, the ‘mole’ Gerald is simultaneously being hunted, unbeknownst to Smiley, by Jim Prideaux, a fellow agent and former lover whom he has previously betrayed. Eventually, Guillam realises who the elusive figure following Smiley’s investigations is…

“The night had its own madness after that; events ran too quickly for him to fasten on them singly. Not till days afterwards did he realise that the figure, or the shadow of it, had struck a chord of familiarity in his memory. Even then, for some time, he could not place it. Then one early morning, waking abruptly, he had it clear in his mind: a barking, military voice, a gentleness of manner heavily concealed, a squash racquet jammed behind the safe of his room in Brixton, which brought tears to the eyes of his unemotional secretary.”

A recent film adaptation of the book shows a squash match being played in the basement of a Government building between the Minister with responsibility for the ‘Circus’ (MI6) and his Under-Secretary for whom Smiley is working.

'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy' Squash Match

While Smiley heads to Oxford to consult an old MI6 colleague, the two squash players confer in the changing room with Percy Alleline, the Head of the Circus, who wants permission to share valuable intelligence (code-named ‘Witchcraft’) with American Intelligence.

But the end result of Alleline’s intelligence sharing initiative is to prove catastrophic, both for his own career and that of the Minister…

A Perfect Spy

Twelve years after the publication of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, Le Carré published ‘A Perfect Spy’ chronicling the moral education, from boyhood onwards, of its main character Magnus Pym, as it leads to his becoming a spy and subsequently a double agent. The book is Le Carré’s most autobiographical  espionage novel, the author himself reflecting that writing it was ‘probably what a very wise shrink would have advised’.

‘A Perfect Spy’ has references to squash woven into its fabric and into the thoughts not just of Pym but of his wife, Mary, and son Tom. In one passage, Pym reflects on the lives of middle-class professional men like himself…

“…men who see the threat to their class as synonymous with the threat to England and never wandered far enough to know the difference. Modest men, practical, filling in their expense accounts and collecting their salaries, and impressing their Joes with their quiet expertise beneath the banter. Yet still, in their secret hearts, nourishing themselves on the same illusions that in those days nourished Pym. And needing their Joes to help them do it. Worried men, touched with an odour of pub meals and club squash, and a habit of looking round them while they paid, as if wondering whether there was a better way to live.”

In another, Pym’s son prays for his school ‘house master’, Mr. Caird…

“…Tom prayed earnestly for his dead grandfather’s soul, for Mr. Caird and for victory in Wednesday’s squash match against St. Saviour’s, Newbury, away, though he feared it would be another humiliating defeat, for Mr. Caird was divided on the merits of athletic competition.”

Pym’s wife thinks about her squash dates with a friend from the Canadian Embassy while her husband remembers his con-man father, Rick, as he prepares to meet a senior spymaster…

“The same evening, glowing from the best of nine games of squash, Pym was led to the presence of a Very Senior Member of the service, in a plain, forgettable office not far from Rick’s newest Reichskanzlei.”

But the gradual unravelling of the psychological games played by Pym eventually lead to his exposure and his suicide.

Which also goes to show that deception, in life as well as on the squash court, doesn’t always pay off.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Neil Tweedie for his article “Psst! Want to join MI6?” in the Daily Telegraph. Also thanks to Wikipedia.

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?

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.

“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.

Bekoff 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?

One 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.

My Name Is Maximus Decimus Meridius…and I Will Play Squash

The recent appearance of New Zealand-born screen actor Russell Crowe in the British tabloid headlines wasn’t that much of a surprise. Over the last fifteen years or so, Crowe has been a regular visitor to the UK not least to work on a number of Hollywood blockbusters including Gladiator and Robin Hood. Shooting on both of those films, and on the forthcoming Les Miserables, took place at Pinewood Film Studios west of London and Crowe, you’d imagine, would be more than familiar with the area.

So much so that he should find it relatively easy to locate somewhere to wind down after a hard day’s filming. And, for the famously sports-loving Crowe, where better to relax than at one of the area’s best appointed leisure centres.

Except that staff at Crowe’s chosen venue ‘rudely’ refused him entry as he wasn’t a member. Feeling somewhat miffed, Crowe resorted to Twitter,  accusing the venue of having “hoity toity staff with chav accents.” Again, given Crowe’s reputation for being somewhat ‘difficult’, his attack – delivered via cyberspace – wasn’t particularly surprising either. What was surprising was that he’d travelled to the leisure centre on a combative mission.

Russell Crowe wanted to play squash.

Russell and Sport

Russell Crowe at Eight

Where Crowe first started to play squash isn’t a matter of public record. As a child, he played cricket and his cousins Martin and Jeff Crowe are both former captains of New Zealand’s ‘Black Caps’ Test side. In 2008, Crowe even captained an ‘Australian’ Team containing former Aussie Test captain Steve Waugh against an English side in a charity ‘Hollywood Ashes’ Cricket Match’.

Since childhood, Crowe has also been a keen supporter of the South Sydney Rabbitohs rugby league team and, in 2006, he and Australian businessman Peter Holmes á Court  bought  75% of the club, leaving 25% ownership with the members. In the US, he supports the University of Michigan Wolverines American football team and, in Canada, the Toronto Maple Leafs ice hockey team. Back in the UK, he follows English football teams Bristol City and Leeds United, both located well outside the London area.

But it’s in the relatively affluent English Home Counties that Crowe’s recent sports-related combat mission took place. And, based on his experience of filming and living in the area, you’d have thought  he’d be well aware of the options available to him to book a squash court.

Russell On Set

The filming of Russell Crowe’s latest film, Les Miserables, started in March 2012 in France and in a number of English locations including Winchester Cathedral Close, the naval base at Portsmouth, Oxford and Pinewood Film Studios.

Pinewood Studios were also used in 1999 to film Gladiator, the production for which Crowe received an Oscar nomination for his performance as Roman general Maximus Decimus Meridius. The opening battle scenes for the film, set in the thickly-wooded forests of Germania, were shot in three weeks in Bourne Woods near Farnham in Surrey. When director Ridley Scott learned that the UK Forestry Commission were planning to cut down the forest, he convinced them to allow the battle scenes to be shot there so that he could burn it down as part of the filming and save them the bother.

Russell Crowe as Maximus in 'Gladiator'

Ten years after the shoot, Scott and Crowe were back in a now rather less thickly-wooded  Bourne Woods filming scenes for Robin Hood. Following that film’s release, Crowe stormed out of a BBC radio interview at the exclusive Dorchester Hotel in London after it was suggested that his accent in the film sounded Irish.

But it wasn’t the first time in his life that Crowe had been involved in an altercation that would subsequently hit the headlines.

Russell On Court

In 1999, Crowe was involved in a ‘scuffle’ in a bar in Coffs Harbour, New South Wales in Australia which was caught on security video. Two men, including a Coffs Harbour nightclub owner, subsequently conspired to extort $200,000 from Crowe to keep the video secret. The matter went to court.

Three months earlier, Crowe was alleged to have attacked several people in a drunken rage outside a Coffs Harbour nightclub, one of whom suffered a bite to his neck and a broken thumb. The matter did not go to court.

In 2002, Crowe was alleged to have been involved in a ‘brawl’ with a businessman inside a trendy Japanese restaurant in London. The fight was broken up by a fellow actor and did not go to court.

In 2005, Crowe was arrested and charged with second-degree assault by New York City police after throwing a telephone at hotel employee who had refused to help him place a call when the system didn’t work from his room. He was charged with fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon (the telephone). The employee, a concierge, was treated for a ‘facial laceration’.

All of which would seem to indicate that Russell has good eye-hand co-ordination occasionally, but not always, linked to an appearance in a court.

Although not necessarily a squash court.

Russell in Command

To end on a positive note, Crowe’s squash mission did come to a successful conclusion  when he gained entry to a nearby leisure centre. “A friendly spot, where regular folks hang” he later commented.

All’s well that ends well, you might say. And nobody hurt.

Sadly, I haven’t managed to find any images of Crowe actually playing squash. However, here he is dealing impressively with a large number of black balls flying towards him at enormous speed.

And he doesn’t even have his squash racket with him.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the Daily Mirror for it’s article documenting Russell Crowe’s squash altercation. Also thanks to all at Maximum Crowe, a website dedicated to chronicling Russell’s ‘bad boy’ behaviour.

Plaudits as always to Wikipedia and to Gawker for its article “I Will Kill You with My Bare Hands and Other Fun Tales of Russell Crowe.’

Enjoy!

Snookered in Ooty: Squash in Tamil Nadu

In January, 20-year old Dipika Pallikal became the first Indian ever to contest the final of a World Squash Federation ‘silver event’ when she faced the Netherlands’ Natalie Grinham in the Tournament of Champions in New York.

Less than a month later, in her home city of Chennai, Pallikal was again in finals action in the inaugural WSF Under-21 World Cup. This time, the event was held before an ecstatic crowd at the Express Avenue Mall, the largest shopping complex in Southern India. Throughout the 3-match final, a significant percentage of the estimated 75,000 ‘walk through’ crowd were either surrounding the all-glass show-court or hanging over the balconies of the three floors overlooking it.

Squash Court in the Express Avenue Mall, Chennai

Squash Court in the Express Avenue Mall, Chennai

A week after the final, I arrived in the Tamil Nadu capital at the start of a journey across the subcontinent. I wasn’t exactly on the lookout for signs of squash, you understand, but sometimes you do tend to stumble across them.

Even if you’re just passing through.

Heat and Dust

With average day-time temperatures in the mid to high 30s Centigrade, Chennai in February isn’t exactly the ideal place to wander around seeing the sights. Except for Mad Dogs and  Englishmen that is. Even so, a fair amount of my time in the city was spent in the air-conditioned confines of my hotel and, on one memorable occasion, in a vegetarian restaurant overlooking a chaotic petrol station forecourt.

Despite India’s recent successes, I found absolutely no coverage of squash in the media, either in the newspapers or on any of Tamil Nadu’s numerous TV channels. Instead, there was wall-to-wall, non-stop coverage of India’s most popular sport, cricket, the main topic of interest being India’s performance in a tri-series ODI tournament being played in Australia. “Will Sachin (Tendulkar) get his 100th international century?” was the question on everyone’s lips. Three weeks later, when I was still travelling, India had been dumped out of the tournament, and he still hadn’t.

After leaving Chennai, I caught the India Railways sleeper to Vilapuram before heading for the former French colony of Pondicherry. Next stop was Madurai followed by Rameshwaram and then Thanjavur. The city was hotter, and dustier, than anywhere I’d visited so far but did provide me with the first sign of squash since leaving Chennai. In the window of the Deepu Sports shop, I spotted a squash racket.

Deepu Sports Shop, Thanjavur

Deepu Sports Shop, Thanjavur

Inside the shop, I asked one of the assistants whether I could play squash in the area. “Certainly!” she replied enthusiastically. After a lengthy pause, I cracked and asked where. “Chennai!” she beamed triumphantly. I decided not to point out that a 200 mile round trip to Chennai for a squash match might not be something that a Thanjavur-based squash player would wish to undertake. Even for a vital league match.

Back at the hotel, I switched on the TV to be rewarded with recorded highlights from the semi-finals of the Under-21 Squash World Cup. I started to feel that I was getting warmer. Figuratively speaking.

Into the Hills

Squash on Indian TV

Squash on Indian TV

To escape the heat of the plain, I did what European colonialists in India used to do in summer-time. I headed for the hills. Travelling from Thanjavur via  Erode to Mallapuram, I caught the Nilgiri Hill Railway via Wellington to Ootacamund, known to British colonialists as Ooty.

Situated at 2200m (nearly 7500ft) above sea level, Ooty, known as ‘The Queen of the Hill Stations’, is one of 80-odd high altitude towns used as places of refuge from the summer heat. The British Indian Army built 50 or so of the Stations, the remainder being built by various Indian rulers over the centuries as places of leisure or even as permanent capitals.

Before I got to Ooty, I knew that in 1890, His Highness the Maharaja of Vizianagaram presented a squash court to the Ooty Club. Nestled in the hills above Ooty, the Club is fondly referred to as the “Snooty Ooty Club” and also as “The Morgue” due to the many hunting trophies adorning its walls. It’s also the place where the rules of snooker were formally finalized in 1884 by Sir Neville Chamberlain. They’re still posted in the Club’s Billiards Room.

The Billiards Room in the Ooty Club

The Billiards Room in the Ooty Club

I asked the Ooty Club’s Secretary whether squash was still played there. “No” he said. “The squash court was dismantled many years ago and never replaced.” Despite searching for it, he still didn’t know where in the Club’s grounds the court had been located. He also told me that the rival Wellington Gymkhana Club no longer had any squash courts although he did know that the first one built there had been commissioned in 1927. However, he said, there were two courts at the Defence Services Staff College also located in Wellington.

Squash at Wellington Staff College

Squash at Wellington Staff College

So, squash appeared to be alive in the Nilgiri Hills and being played by the officer classes of the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force.

But what about the civilian population of Ooty?

Did any of them still play?

And, if so, where?

Back to School

On my second evening in Ooty, I stumbled across another sign of squash life in the Charing Cross district of the town. Painted on the wall next to the Shanghai Company Sports and Chinese Footwear shop was the legend ‘squash racket’. And, lo and behold, displayed in the window itself were several rackets….of varying vintage.

Shanghai Company Sports and Chinese Footwear shop, Ooty

Shanghai Company Sports and Chinese Footwear shop, Ooty

The mystery buyers of the shop’s rackets proved, in one instance, to be less than 15 minutes walk away from the shop. The Hebron School, located near Ooty’s Botanical Gardens, was founded in 1899 to serve the mission community of India and South-East Asia. Now, it’s a co-educational and predominantly boarding school for children aged 5 years to 19 years. And squash is one of the school’s ‘curriculum’ sports.

Slightly further out of town is the Good Shepherd International School, a full time boarding school located on a 70-acre campus near Ooty Lake. Established in 1977, the campus include classrooms, laboratories, lecture theatres and sports facilities including squash courts. All of which gave me the feeling that squash was being passed on to at least some of  India’s younger generation in the Hills of Tamil Nadu.

Outside the Shanghai Company shop

Outside the Shanghai Company shop

The day after my Shanghai Company experience, and amid reports that a leopard had been seen in the grounds of Hebron School, I left Ooty for Cochin in neighbouring Kerala. In many ways, I was sad not to have had the opportunity to meet Ooty’s squash players. But, on the other hand, I’ve never been keen on the idea of encountering a leopard on the way to the squash courts.

I don’t think having a racket with me would help much.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to The Hindu newspaper for its article on the Express Avenue Mall and to Al-Ahram for it’s report on the WSF Under-21 Squash World Cup.  Also, thanks to the Secretary of the Ooty Club for his insight into the local squash community.

The Psychology of Buying a Squash Racket: Part 2

In Part 1 of ‘The Psychology of Buying a Squash Racket’, we looked at the internal factors which influence us to make buying decisions. Our personal perception, knowledge, attitude, personality, lifestyle, motivation and the roles we play in our lives all affect the way we buy. Marketers know this and are experts in finding out just how potential buyers live their lives so that they can work out what kind of products to develop.

But apart from internal factors, there are external factors which influence our decision-making. Factors which are outside our control but which directly or indirectly affect our lifestyles and what we consume.

There’s also a well-known process that all buyers follow in making purchases. And, not only that, there’s a typical feeling that some buyers experience after they’ve made a certain kind of purchase.

The wrong one…

Outside Edge

The Cultural Connection

Culture is made up of inter-woven sets of shared values, attitudes, goals and practices which we learn by observing or interacting with other members of society. It also incorporates shared behaviours  and actions based upon what is a uniquely human capacity for symbolic thought. In other words our capacity for associating strongly with stories, iconic objects and other cultural references.

In the context of squash, it’s easy to see squash balls and squash rackets as iconic objects forming an integral part of squash culture, much of which is passed on from one member of the broader  squash  community to another.  But culture is a broad concept which, to marketers, is less  important as understanding what happens within smaller communities or sub-cultures. Sub-cultures also have shared values but within smaller communities such as those influenced by age, ethnicity, gender, religious belief, geographical location or special interests. Think of women squash players, juniors, veterans, coaches and so on.

So, as part of their efforts to convince customers to buy their products, marketers often use cultural references, especially in targeted promotional appeals. The idea is to connect to consumers using cultural references that they will instantly recognise and embrace. By doing so, the marketer hopes that  the consumer will feel more comfortable with the product or relate to it better as it corresponds with their cultural values. Smart marketers also use culturally-informed research methods to try and identify differences in how sub-cultures behave. This helps them to identify changes in behaviour which they can then respond to by changing their marketing tactics, for example by developing new products, making new offers or opening new sales channels.

Leaders and Followers

As well belonging to specific cultures, consumers also belong to groups with whose members they share certain characteristics. Often these groups contain opinion leaders or other individuals who have a major influence over what members of the group decide to purchase. Some of the groups we typically belong to include:

  • Social Classes – which represent the social standing we have within a society based on such factors as income level, education and occupation
  • Families – which give us a strong sense of identity and can also affect how we make purchase decisions
  • Reference Groups – which many of us either belong to or feel the need to associate with (or, in certain cases, disassociate from)

Characterising the groups consumers belong to also helps marketers to identify target markets, develop new products, and create appealing marketing promotions to which consumers can relate. In particular, marketers try to identify group leaders and others to whom group members look for advice or guidance. These people, if well-respected by other group members, can often be used to provide an insight into group behaviour; and, by accepting promotional opportunities, they can act as effective spokes-persons for the marketer’s products.

So, not surprisingly, professional squash players are often sought out by marketers to lend their image and endorsement to certain (usually expensive) squash rackets.

Reviewing The Situation

The third external factor affecting purchase decisions is circumstance. In other words, the   situations people find themselves in when making decisions. Situations may arise from a  variety of personal circumstances such as someone’s physical environment, their emotional state, or even time constraints. And some situations are uncontrollable, in which case a consumer may not stick to their normal approach to making a purchase decision.

For example, if someone  needs a new squash racket quickly and their local retailer doesn’t carry the brand they usually purchase, they may choose to buy a competitor’s product.

Marketers typically try to take advantage of decisions made in uncontrollable situations in at least one of two ways. First, they can use promotional methods to reinforce a specific selection of products, perhaps by promising to service an item free of charge if the user accidentally damages it. This incentivises the buyer to use the purchased item rather than just keep it as a spare.

Second, marketers can try to convince consumers that a situation is less likely to occur if their product is used. In the case of a squash racket, this may be by claiming that particular materials used to make it are well in advance of those used to make other rackets, making it (almost) indestructible and imbued with magical properties.

Which, of course, it isn’t.

How We Buy

So, having thrashed every last ounce out of the factors that influence our buying decisions, what about the buying process itself? Just how do we buy? Well, researchers have identified five purchase decision steps although whether a consumer will actually carry out every step depends on the type of purchase decision they face.

Purchase Decision Steps

Purchase Decision Steps

In cases of routine, brand loyal purchases, for example, consumers may skip several steps in the purchasing process because they know exactly what they want; it may take them little or no time to come to a decision. For more complex decisions, however, such as those associated with major new purchases, the purchasing process may take days, weeks, months or even longer.

So, in considering the five purchase decision steps, marketers know that, depending on the circumstances surrounding the purchase, the importance of each step may vary. Even though they may not know exactly how.

Step 1: Recognising That We Need Something…or Want Something

In Step 1, the consumer feels that, for some reason, they are not satisfied with their current situation (their perceived actual condition) and wants to improve it; in other words, they want to achieve their perceived desired condition. With me so far?

So internal triggers, such as the dissatisfaction which some players may feel after a run of lost squash matches, may cause them to believe that a new squash racket is needed. External factors can also trigger a consumer’s needs. Marketers are particularly good at exploiting opportunities arising at this stage of the decision-making process through advertising; through features in  squash magazines or on squash websites, or using displays at squash events or  in sports retail outlets.

At this stage the may stall if the consumer is not motivated to continue – and we looked at what motivates people to buy in Part One of this article. However, if they do have the internal drive to satisfy their need they will continue to the next step in the process.

Step 2: Searching for Information

Motivated consumers will next look for information about possible purchases. To get the information they need, they may simply recall information from their past experience (memory), ask other people about their past experiences (always entertaining), or expend considerable effort to access information contained in outside sources such as advertisements, articles and videos. How much effort a consumer will choose to expend on  searching typically depends on such factors as: the importance of satisfying their need; their familiarity with the options available to them; and the amount of time they are prepared to spend on their search.

To appeal to buyers at the search stage, marketers generally make efforts to ensure that they can easily locate information related to their products. So, for marketers whose customers rely solely on the internet as a source of useful information, attaining high rankings on internet search engines is a critical part of their marketing strategies.

Step 3: Evaluating Options

Consumers’ search efforts may – or may not – result in a set of options which they can assess before making a choice. At this stage, a consumer may create a set of possible solutions to their needs simply in terms of product type or, additionally, in terms of the brands on offer for each product type. So, for an adult male wanting a new squash racket, a choice of brands will typically be available, each of which will provide a further range of options relating to racket head shape, stringing, weight and balance, grip, colour and accompanying promotional storyline.

So, marketers need to understand how consumers evaluate product options and why some products are selected to choose from whereas others are not. Most importantly, marketers need to discover which criteria consumers are using to select of possible options and how each criterion is being evaluated. Marketing tactics tend be most effective when the marketer can target their efforts based on accurate knowledge of which benefits are most valued by consumers when selecting purchase options and what is the relative order of importance of each benefit.

Not an easy task.

Step 4: Making a Purchase

In many cases,  the product chosen by a consumer is the same as that which they have evaluated as being the most suited to their needs. However, this may change when it is actually time to make the purchase. In other words, the intended purchase may be subject to alteration at the time of purchase. The product may be out-of-stock or have been discontinued, often a common situation with squash rackets as product lines are regularly changed. A retailer may offer an incentive at the point of purchase, for example by mentioning a competitor’s offer. A consumer may not have the money they need, or may be adversely influenced by members of their reference group who take a negative view of their proposed purchase.

For their part, current market leaders in particular have to make sure that purchase transactions go as smoothly as possible. Internet retailers in particular have tried to streamline their online shopping cart and checkout processes to reduce the likelihood of consumers abandoning their purchases before completion. Marketers whose products are not currently amongst the consumer’s first choice, may offer last chance marketing incentives, such as getting in-store salespersons to “talk up” their products at the checkout line.

Step 5: After-Purchase Evaluation

Surprisingly perhaps, the buying process isn’t over even after a purchase has been made. The consumer is still faced with an evaluation of their decision.

If a product performs markedly below a consumer’s expectations, then they will tend to re-evaluate their decision to buy it. If they are dissatisfied with their original decision, they may even want to return the product. In less extreme cases, they may still retain the item but hold a negative view of the product, making it less likely that they will purchase a similar product from the same marketer in future. This feeling of dissatisfaction even has a name – buyer’s remorse – and is particularly likely to occur in situations where the buyer regards their purchase as expensive or highly important.

Which leads us even further into the psychology of buying a squash racket

Buyer’s Remorse

Buyer’s remorse is thought to stem from a fear of making the wrong choice, from feelings of guilt about being extravagant, or from a suspicion of having been exploited by a salesperson.

The anxiety which characterises buyer’s remorse may be rooted in various factors, such as the consumer’s concern they may have purchased the wrong product, or even the right product but at too high a price. Other concerns may arise from: the purchase of a current model now rather than waiting for a newer model; purchases made in an ethically unsound way; purchases made using credit or a loan that will be difficult to repay; or even the  purchase of an item which may be unacceptable to others, such as fellow members of a reference group.

Before the buying process starts, a prospective buyer will often feel positive emotions towards their future purchase, including desire, a sense of heightened possibility, and an anticipation of the enjoyment that will accompany the use of the product. Having made their purchase, however, they are more likely to experience negative aspects such as worry that other people may later question their purchase or claim to know better alternatives.

Where evidence exists that it is justified, buyer’s remorse is a classical example of what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. One will either seek to discount the new evidence, or to experience true regret – and try to renounce the purchase.

And you thought you were making a simple choice about which squash racket to buy, didn’t you?

Ah well. Better luck next time.

Ackowledgements

Thanks to Wikipedia for their entry on ‘Buyer’s Remorse’ and to KnowThis.com for their  fascinating 2009 article on ‘Consumer Buying Behaviour.’

Squash and the World of Wodehouse

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“There had been other dark moments in Freddie’s life. Once, back in London, Parker had sent him out into the heart of the West End without his spats and he had not discovered their absence till he was half-way up Bond Street. On another occasion, having taken on a stranger at squash for a quid a game, he had discovered too late that the latter was an ex-public-school champion.”

From “Jill The Reckless” by PG Wodehouse first published in the US in 1920 under the title “The Little Warrior”.
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PG Wodehouse was, and arguably still is, England’s best-loved humorist. Born in 1881, his father was a British judge who spent much of his professional career in Hong Kong, then a colony of the British Empire. In fact, Wodehouse was born, prematurely, whilst his mother was on a visit to England from Hong Kong. When he was three, he was sent back to England and placed in the care of a nanny before being sent to a succession of boarding schools. Between the ages of three and fifteen, he was to spend less than six months with his parents.

PG Wodehouse in 1905

PG Wodehouse in 1905

Despite his unusual childhood, Wodehouse was to enjoy enormous popular success as a writer, poet, lyricist and journalist during a career that lasted more than seventy years until his death in 1975. His many writings, including the Jeeves and Wooster stories, continue to be widely read. In many of them, he pokes fun at the English aristocracy, establishment figures (including judges), and American businessmen and philanthropists. All entertainingly embellished with the use of contemporary London clubroom slang.

But it was as a pupil of Dulwich College in South London that the young Wodehouse came into his own as a sportsman, gaining his school colours as a member of the cricket First XI and the rugby First XV. Not surprisingly, both sports were to feature heavily in his writings along with golf, tennis and a relatively new game which was emerging from the shadows of an older predecessor, racquets, then played at Dulwich.

The game of squash.

Racquets, Fives and the Rise of Squash

Classed as a Minor Sport, the game of racquets was well established at Dulwich by the time Wodehouse arrived as a pupil in the mid-1890s. The sport had originated as an 18th century pastime in London’s debtors prisons at King’s Bench and Fleet where the prisoners modified the even more ancient wall game of fives by using tennis rackets to speed up the action. They played against the prison wall, sometimes at a corner to add a sidewall to the game. Racquets then became popular outside the prisons and was played in alleyways, usually  behind public houses.

Nowadays, racquets is played in an enclosed court measuring 9.14m by 18.28m) with a ceiling height of at least 9.14m (30 feet). The singles and doubles games are both played on the same court, the walls and floor being constructed from smooth stone or concrete; both walls and floor are generally dark in colour to contrast with the white ball. Players use a 77.5cm wooden racket, known as bat, to hit the hard 38mm diameter white ball which weighs 28 grams.

In Wodehouse’s time there, Dulwich College maintained courts for both racquets and fives, the latter being built in 1894 and destroyed by enemy bombs in the Second World War. The racquet courts at Dulwich are also long gone although about 20 courts still exist in England’s public schools.

So, Wodehouse would have been familiar with both games, even though he didn’t gain school colours in either of them. Squash, on the other hand, was a new, up and coming offshoot of racquets and, at the beginning of Wodehouse’s writing career, was just the kind of trendy activity sought out by the younger set of London’s upper middle-class.

Including certain members of some of the British capital’s gentlemen’s clubs.

Squash and the Drones

Located off Piccadilly in London’s Mayfair district, the fictitious Drones Club was a recurring setting in Wodehouse’s writing, with many of his stories featuring the club or its members. The Drones was meant to typify the kind of private club originally set up by British upper class men in the 18th century to provide an environment in which to carry out gambling, which was still illegal outside members-only establishments.

Wodehouse’s description of the Drones Club’s young members, precisely fitted the contemporary Edwardian idle rich stereotype. However, he was keen to point out in his writings that some of the club’s members did actually hold down prominent jobs. Reginald ‘Pongo’ Twistleton, for example, was described as studying for The Bar whereas G. D’Arcy ‘Stilton’ Cheesewright (a rival of Bertie Wooster) worked, albeit briefly, as a special constable.

Nevertheless, the Drones with its restaurant, swimming pool and squash court was typical of many of London’s gentlemen’s clubs, even down to its numerous sports competitions, from golf to tennis and squash. Competitions, of course, on which wagers could be made and around which humorous stories could be written.

And one favourite storyline of Wodehouse’s involved young men displaying, or at least attempting to display, their sporting prowess in order to impress young ladies.

Jeeves and the Squash Handicap

Perhaps the Drones Club’s most well-known member was Bertram Wilberforce Wooster.

In Wodehouse’s writing, Bertie Wooster is the young, amiable and naive man-of-leisure, whereas  the older, and considerably wiser, Jeeves is his valet and friend. Most of the Jeeves and Wooster stories involve Bertie getting into some sort of scrape with a young lady, an aunt, a representative of the Law or, in some cases, all three. Typically, the omniscient and resourceful Jeeves  comes to the rescue in his inimitably modest, no-nonsense style.

Lauria as Bertie Wooster and Stephen Fry as Jeeves in ITV's "Jeeves and Wooster"

Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster and Stephen Fry as Jeeves in ITV's "Jeeves and Wooster"

In “Jeeves and the Yule-Tide Spirit”, Bertie and Jeeves arrive at the country estate of Lady Wickham whence they’ve been invited “for the festivities”. Bertie announces that he is in love with Lady Wickham’s daughter (and accomplished tennis player) Miss Roberta ‘Bobbie’ Wickham.

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“During your stay here, Jeeves,” I said, “you will, no doubt, be thrown a good deal together with Miss Wickham’s maid. On such occasions, pitch it strong.”

“Sir?”

‘You know what I mean. Tell her I’m rather a good chap. Mention my hidden depths. These things get round. Dwell on the fact that I have a kind heart and was runner-up in the Squash Handicap at the Drones this year. A boost is never wasted, Jeeves.”

“Very good, sir.”

From “Jeeves and the Yule-Tide Spirit” by PG Wodehouse first published in 1930.
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As revealed Wodehouse’s “The Mating Season”, Bertie is actually a racquets blue, a sporting honour awarded during his time at public school. So the revelation that he’s also a squash player is not really that surprising. He also plays darts and billiards, swims, and plays tennis, all activities well-catered for at The Drones. But which sporting activity should he choose to impress the object of his affection?

A Squash Player at Blandings

The Drones Club also features in Wodehouse’s Blandings novels, written between 1915 and 1975. Blandings Castle is the fictitious seat of Lord Emsworth and home to many of his eccentric family, including his younger brother, Galahad Threepwood. Galahad is, in fact, a member of the Pelican Club, an older, more traditional version of The Drones with it’s more unruly younger membership.

Lord Emsworth is an amiable, absent-minded old chap who loves his home and gardens dearly and is never happier than when pottering about the grounds on a fine sunny day, poking at flower beds or inspecting his champion pig, The Empress of Blandings. For the Threepwood family and their friends, the castle is forever available for indefinite residence, and, in Wodehouse’s writing, is often a setting for love-struck young men and ladies to act out their personal dramas.

In ‘A Pelican at Blandings’, Galahad Threepwood, muses on the appearance of John Halliday, son of the late JD ‘Stiffy’ Halliday who had been a fellow Pelican Club member.

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“There was about him something of the air of a rising young barrister who in his leisure hours goes in a great deal for golf and squash racquets. And that, oddly enough, is what he was. His golf handicap was six, his skill at squash racquets formidable, and he had been a member of The Bar for some five years”

From “A Pelican at Blandings” by PG Wodehouse first published in 1969.
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Halliday later arrives at Blandings in the persona of a psychiatrist ostensibly hired to analyse Lord Emsworth but, in reality, hoping to press his suit with his fiancée Linda Gilpin who is visiting the castle with her uncle, Alaric, Duke of Dunstable. In fact, Galahad has been instrumental in smuggling Halliday, now his god-son, into the castle, having been called on for help after an estrangement between the man and his beloved Linda, caused by Halliday’s zealous devotion to his duty as a lawyer despite his fiancée being a witness in…

…well, you get the idea…

So, does the squash player get the girl? Well, there’s at least one way you can find out.

Acknowledgements

Thanks, as ever, to Wikipedia and it’s army of contributors to entries on rackets, PG Wodehouse and beyond. Also, thanks to the Russian Wodehouse Society and The Literature Network for various articles on the great man and his work.

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.

Coaches 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

David Funder

In his 2007 book The Personality Puzzle, 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.

Roles 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

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.”