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.

Squash and the Scientists

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

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

Enrico Fermi

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

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

Squash and the Wonders of the Universe

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

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

Professor Brian Cox

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

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

Dare with Brian Cox (extreme right)

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

Squash and the Human Brain

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgements

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

Squash in Mordor

Amazing what you can stumble across rummaging around on the Web, isn’t it? Take, for example, what happens when you shove the word ‘squash’ into Google. As well as links to information about the racket sport we all know and love, it tends to throw up all sorts of pointers to cookery, the policing of public demonstrations and the repression of popular uprisings. Although not necessarily in that order, or indeed disorder.

But when you inadvertently find yourself straying into the imaginary realm of elves, orcs and hobbits, well that’s another thing entirely. Which just goes to show that internet search engines and  squash know no boundaries.

The Lord Of The Rings

In 2003, Director Peter Jackson’s film, ‘The Return of the King’ won 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture. The film was the third of a trilogy based on ‘The Lord of the Rings’, an epic fantasy novel written by English philologist and University of Oxford professor J.R.R.Tolkien.

J.R.R.Tolkien

J.R.R.Tolkien

The title of the novel refers to the story’s main antagonist, the Dark Lord Sauron, who in an earlier age created the One Ring to rule all the other Rings of Power. The One Ring is Sauron’s ultimate weapon in his campaign to conquer and rule all of Middle-earth, complete with elves, orcs, hobbits etc.

The story follows the adventures of Frodo Baggins, a hobbit, and his comrades in his quest to destroy the One Ring by casting it into the fires of Mount Doom in the Land of Mordor where Sauron’s power holds sway. A rather nasty place by the sound of it and certainly not a tourist destination.

Along with the other two films in the trilogy, ‘The Return of the King’ was filmed in New Zealand, home to a thriving squash community with a distinguished  history (think Susan Devoy and Ross Norman), as well as to plenty of conveniently-located squash courts.

A Squash Court in Queenstown

At the time of filming scenes on location for ‘The Lord of the Rings’, one such squash court proved particularly useful to Peter Jackson and his crew. Located in the resort town of Queenstown on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, it was used to film a scene in which Frodo, accompanied by his trusty gardener Sam Gamgee and their less than trustworthy guide Gollum climb the secret stairway of Cirith Ungol into Mordor as Sauron’s forces march out to battle far below.

Frodo, Gollum and Sam on a squash court in QueenstownFrodo, Gollum and Sam on a squash court in Queenstown

Jackson’s decision to film the scene was triggered by the suspension of outside filming in the Queenstown area due to bad weather, the town itself being hit by extensive flooding. The Cirith Ungol stair ledge was quickly built on a squash court located in a Queenstown hotel.

Actors Elijah Wood (Frodo) and Sean Astin (Sam) both baulked at having to perform  such a pivotal scene without any preparation. At the time, Andy Serkis had not yet been cast in the role of Gollum, so the part was played  by a stand-in member the crew. Filming went ahead, with Astin’s scenes being successfully completed.

The following day, however, the sun re-appeared, the floods abated and  exterior filming was resumed. The intent was always to return to the squash court (where the set remained standing) to film Elijah Wood’s scenes but, for the next five weeks, there was no rain to interrupt exterior filming. The crew moved on to a new outdoor location with Wood finally returning to do his part of the Cirith Ungol scene almost year later.

During the whole of the  intervening period, the squash court still contained the film set, the hotel presumably having agreed an amount of compensation greater than the income it could have earned from a year’s worth of court fees. Action shots involving all three characters in the scene were the last to be shot before the set was finally dismantled in late 2000.

So the next time you watch ‘The Return of the King’, spare a thought for the squash lovers of Queenstown whose playing options were reduced for over a year.

And try to imagine what it might have been like to play squash in Mordor.

Postscript: Walking Into Mordor

If you head over to Google Maps and ask for walking directions from “The Shire”(the home of Frodo of Sam) to “Mordor”, this is what you’ll get…

The warning is the same as that delivered to Frodo et al by another character from ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Gandalf the Wizard. All of which means that I think I’ll give it a miss for the time being.

But, Queenstown? Well that’s another thing entirely. I’ve been there myself and had absolutely no problem with the Dark Lord Sauron. But I wouldn’t go via the Cirith Ungol route if I were you.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to IMDB and Movie Mistakes for their background details on the making of ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Also thanks to Google for their warning about visiting Mordor.

Point taken.

Hijab Stories: Squash in Iran

In June 2011, Iran’s women footballers were banned from competing in the 2012 Olympics when their qualifying match with Jordan in Amman was called off moments before kick-off. The ban was due to the players’ kit which, following a FIFA ban in 2010, had been changed and (according to the Iran Football Federation’s head of women’s affairs) approved by  none other than FIFA’s beleaguered president, Sepp Blatter. And the kit was designed to meet Iran’s mandatory dress code for women.

Iranian squash player Nazanin Heydari

Whatever the circumstances surrounding the football ban, the reality for female sports enthusiasts in Iran is clear. In the Islamic Republic, women can only take part in their favourite sports whilst wearing full tracksuits and head coverings that conceal their hair. The code, whether driven by religion, politics or culture, is known as hijab and encompasses both the traditional head covering worn by many Muslim women and modest styles of Muslim dress in general.

But Iranian women have been allowed to compete internationally in an increasing number of sports whilst still following the hijab dress code. In weightlifting, in taekwondo, in boxing…..and in squash.

The National Squash Scene

With less than two dozen functioning squash courts in what is a vast country, Iran doesn’t at first glance seem to be in a good position to develop a sustainable squash community at a national level. Government investment in squash  is minimal yet there still exist small squash-playing communities in cities such as Esfahan, Yazd, Gorgan, Arak and Shiraz as well as in the capital, Tehran. The same lack of investment applies to the private sector although, in the last three years, international squash tournaments have been held in Rasht on the Caspian coast and on Kish Island in the Persian Gulf.

The participation of women in the game is reflected in the recent appearance of no fewer than nine Iranian players in the Women’s Squash Association Top 250 rankings for January 2012. The National Women’s squad is currently coached by Muqaddas Ashraf, a former Pakistan No.2 with the National Girls squad being managed by Iranian-born Nadjmesadat Kasfimofrad. The Iranian Squash Federation (SFIRI) also arranges coaching for National squad members by overseas  players such as Pakistan’s Carla Khan, a former World No.18.

Carla Khan with Iranian National Girls Squash Team 2009

But whatever the limited resources available to the Iranian squash community, it’s the passion and enthusiasm of its members which helps it to survive and, occasionally, to show others how to overcome seemingly immovable obstacles to achieve success. Such as the   involvement of its male and female players in squash competitions held overseas despite the restrictions placed on their participation by politics and prejudice. And to embody the achievement of that success, you need pioneers.

The Hijab Pioneers

In many ways, the relatively recent success achieved in helping female Iranian squash players compete abraaod is a tribute to the inclusive nature of the international squash community and those who govern the sport itself.

Sahar Saaremi

In March 2008, Sahar Saaremi became the first female Iranian squash player in history to take part in an international tournament wearing hijab.  The 20 year old student of metallurgy at the Sharif University of Technology wore specially designed kit recognised by Iran’s Physical Education Organisation. The Iranian Squash Federation not only gave her permission to compete but negotiated with the tournament organisers to allow her to play wearing hijab-compatible kit. Saaremi’s family paid for her to travel to Switzerland for the tournament where she lost her qualifying match.

Just under a year later, Saaremi’s pioneering experience was repeated when three Iranian girls travelled to Chennai to compete in the Asian Junior Squash Championships. Pariya Ahinejad, Siadeh Mazidi and Sogol Samodi were leaving Iran for the first time in their lives,  courtesy of their national governing body. Unsurprisingly, they draw curious looks from organisers, spectators and players alike at the SDAT stadium because of their ‘whole body’ squash kit. Although Iranian women chess players had been a common sight in the Tamil Nadu capital, it was the first time that their girls had been seen playing in an international squash tournament.

Sogol Samodi of Iran in action against Lee Ji-Hyun of Korea at the Asian Junior Squash Championship 2009

But after these initial successes, how can the Iranian squash community continue to press its case for more recognition, more support and more investment? Well, surprisingly enough, taking a leaf from football, or rather the artistic presentation of football as a  passion shared by different sections of Iranian society, may help.

The Art of Sports Passion

In 2006, Iranian film director Jafar Panahi’s cult film, ‘Offside’, about a group of football-crazy girls trying to smuggle their way into a World Cup qualifying match successfully gave the outside world a peep into Iranian society, complete with its politics, prejudices and passion, not so long ago. The film, banned in Iran, won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival Grand Jury Prize and was both critically and commercially successful worldwide.

Not so widely known is the Iranian short film, ‘In a Closed Room’ (‘Dar Otaghe Basteh’) also made in 2006 and directed by Ali Alaie and Roya Majdnia. The film follows an  English squash player who is scheduled to coach members of the Iranian Men’s National squad. Players from the Women’s National squad also want to learn from him but are forbidden from doing so due to…well, you get the picture.

‘In a Closed Room’ didn’t gain such a wide release as ‘Offside’ but is nonetheless representative of a kind of storytelling about shared passion and community which is truly international.

And when you watch it or your friends watch it, in whatever country, it really doesn’t matter what clothes you’re wearing.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to James Hardy for his article ‘Iran’s Sportswomen: All Dressed Up and Raring To Go’ in The Times of India. Thanks also to Shirzanan, The First Iranian Women Sports Magazine, for its photographs of female Iranian squash players and its interview with Sahar Saremi ‘Think of the Future Generation’.

The First Squash Court in Cairo

In 2009, the number of functioning squash courts in the world was estimated at just under 50,000. England, with over 8500, was the country with by far the largest number of courts, followed by a number of countries with more than 1000 including Germany, the US, Australia, South Africa, Canada, Malaysia, France, the Netherlands, Spain…and one other.

In third place was the country whose players currently occupy four of the top ten positions in the men’s world squash rankings. Egypt.

But when and where was the first squash court in the country built? And by whom? Well, the answers to both questions probably won’t come as a big surprise. But their appearance during the course of a famous Academy Award-winning film just might.

The British Army in Cairo

After World War II, the Co-ordinating Council for the Welfare of the Troops in Egypt published a guide with ‘a view to providing useful information for Officers and Men of His Britannic Majesty’s Forces staying in and coming on leave to Cairo.’ The guide contained ‘particulars of Services Clubs, Restaurants and places of entertainment’ and included details of clubs operated specifically for service men and women from India, New Zealand and South Africa.

Also included in the guide were details of two sporting clubs which are still in operation today: the Gezira Sporting Club and the Heliopolis Sporting Club. Both were identified as providing facilities for playing squash.

Although the British had first taken control of Egypt in 1801, they were defeated by the Mameluke Army under Muhammed Ali in 1807 and forced to leave the country. It was not until 1882 that they returned as masters of Egypt, bringing with them their institutions, their administrators and their own forms of recreation. At the time, squash was not amongst them but the British love of sport was demonstrated by its establishment, in that very same year of 1882, of the Gezira Sporting Club, then called the Khedivial Sporting Club.

Squash on the Nile

Located on the island of Zamalek, the grounds of what is now the Gezira Sporting Club were carved out of the Khedivial Botanical Gardens, which is why acacias and gardens still decorate the area. After the island had been formally leased to the British military command, club rules were licensed and the land was divided into several recreational playing grounds. At first, the club was for the exclusive use of the British Army but, over the years, has developed into the most important squash training centre in Egypt with 16 courts.

The Squash Building at Gezira Sporting Club

The Squash Building at Gezira Sporting Club

The first squash courts at the Gezira Club were built in the mid-1920s. But are there any older courts in the city?

The Heliopolis Club was established later than the Gezira, in 1910, by the Cairo Electric Railways and Heliopolis Oases Company. The company managed the club until the end of 1921 after which the club members took over its management under the terms of a contract signed with the company.

It’s probable that the appearance of the first squash courts at the Heliopolis club took place after its takeover at the start of 1922. But when was squash first played in Cairo?

Lawrence of Arabia

In 1916, Sherif Hussein bin Ali initiated the Arab Revolt with the aim of securing independence from the ruling Ottoman Turks and creating a single unified Arab state stretching from Aleppo in Syria to Aden in Yemen.

At the time of the outbreak of the Revolt, Aircraftman T.E.Lawrence, later known as Lawrence of Arabia, was working as a cartographer with British military intelligence in Cairo. As someone who had for years travelled extensively within the Ottoman Empire he was sent to the Arabian peninsula to act as a liaison officer for Emir Faisal who commanded a force of Arab irregular troops carrying out guerrilla operations.

T. E. Lawrence

T. E. Lawrence

Lawrence documented his experiences in Arabia in a biography, ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’, published in 1922. Many years later, a screenplay based on Lawrence’s book was written by Robert Bolt and filmed by director David Lean as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. Released in 1962, the film won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. Lawrence was played by British actor, Peter O’Toole.

It includes the following scene, with Lawrence, now promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, returning to British military headquarters in Cairo. His fellow officers have some good news.

So did the British Army really build the first squash court in Cairo? In 1917 or 1918? And did Lawrence ever play on it?

Well, one for another article maybe…

Acknowledgements

For a fascinating view of life in Cairo for ex-servicemen and women, read the ‘The Services Guide to Cairo’.

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!