Rockdale ’83 (2003) – Short Film

In 1980s Sydney, Keith and Alan share their hopes and dreams as they take  themselves to the limit in the game that made them men.

A celebration of the popularity of the great game of squash in 1980s suburban Australia. Bad hair, bad clothes, big egos.

The film picked up a few prizes on the Australian festival circuit including Best Film at the Bondi Short Film Festival and the Board Shorts Film Festival.

Credits

Directed and Produced by Mark Alston and Cameron Craig

Written by Mark Alston, Cameron Craig, Loosie Craig, Julia Salaverri

Starring Mark as Keith / Cameron as Alan

Edited by Cameron Craig

Camera by Loosie Craig, Mark Alston and Cameron Craig

Catering by Megan Alston

Costumes by Loosie Craig and Mark Alston

Special thanks to Campbell Barrie and Macquarie University Sports Association

Copyright 2cfilms 1984 and 2003

How To Win A Squash Rally

Most squash coaches and sport psychologists have got this one nailed down…haven’t they? Dominate the play from the ‘T’, force your opponent to chase the ball to the four corners of the court, then finish off the rally with a timely, unreachable shot. Piece of cake.

Which is just what Britain’s James Willstrop was in the process of doing during this rally with New Zealander Paul Coll at the recent Canary Wharf Classic. All except the ‘finish off the rally’ bit, that is.

Coll’s ‘never say die’ attitude, willingness to throw his body around (and onto the surface of) the court, and ability to play shots from a horizontal position resulted in Willstrop tinning his ‘winning’ shot due to what I imagine was a combination of gradually increasing incredulity and mirth.

What the response of the spectators was to Coll’s heroics you can hear mirrored in the reaction of the match commentators.

I definitely need to get hold of the Squash New Zealand coaching manual.

Source

Thanks to SquashTV for the clip.

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.

Squash and the War on Terror: Part 1 – Rummy’s Rules

Nine days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US, President George W. Bush launched an international military campaign. During a televised address to a joint session of the US Congress he said, “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated”.

Almost 10 years after Bush’s speech, the war – since re-branded by the administration of President Obama as the rather less gung-ho Overseas Contingency Operation– is regarded by many as justifying unilateral preventive war, human rights abuses and other violations of international law.

But whatever its purpose or even its name, the war on terror has given rise to many stories, many of them tragic, and some of them sinister.

And, perhaps surprisingly, some of them interwoven with the game of squash.

Squash at the Pentagon

 

The Pentagon, located in Arlington County, Virginia is the headquarters of the US Department of Defense. On September 11th, 2001 – 60 years to the day after the building’s ground-breaking ceremony was held – hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 was deliberately crashed into the western side of the Pentagon, killing 189 people, including 5 hijackers, 59 others aboard the plane, and 125 working in the building.

When it was originally built in the 1940s, The Pentagon’s sports complex included eight hardball squash  courts. When new facilities were built in 2002, one hardball court was kept  for use by those Pentagon employees who still played the version of squash that was most popular in the US until the mid-1990s. Since that time, the hardball game has largely died out with, most US squash enthusiasts now playing the international softball game.

Hardball and Softball Squash Courts

Hardball and Softball Squash Courts

But, in 2002, one of The Pentagon’s remaining hardball squash players was someone who was to play a major role in the war on terror. The US Secretary of State, Donald Rumsfeld.

 

Squash and the Invasion of Iraq

 

Rumsfeld took up squash in the 1980s when he was a business executive working in the pharmaceutical industry. As a former wrestler at Princeton University and a tennis enthusiast, Rumsfeld was obviously no stranger to sporting competition. But taking up such a physically and mentally demanding game as squash in his 50s could be seen as providing a unique insight into his complex psyche.

Donald Rumsfeld on the White House Tennis Court 1975

Donald Rumsfeld on the White House Tennis Court 1975

In fact, during his time at The Pentagon, officials and employees were said to have described  Rumsfeld’s approach to playing squash as closely resembling the way he attempting to run  the Defense Department – where he was trying to gain acceptance for breaking the accepted norms of military operation.

Rumsfeld himself later suggested that his ideas about transforming the military into a smaller, more agile force, like the one he pushed for in invading Iraq, were influenced by his squash playing. In a 2005 interview with the military writer Thomas P. M. Barnett, he said, gesturing towards his squash partner Lawrence Di Rita, “I play squash with him. When I passed him with a shot, and it’s a well-played hard shot, I saw speed kills. And it does. If you can do something very fast you can get your job done and save a lot of lives.”

 

Rumsfeld’s enthusiasm for speed was reflected in his irritation with the US’s contingency plan in the event of a war with Iraq. For him, the plan required too many troops and supplies and would take far too long to execute. It was, he declared, the “product of old thinking and the embodiment of everything that was wrong with the military.”

Rumsfeld subsequently won his argument with the US military, the 2003 invasion going ahead with a force of 200,000 rather than the 500,000 proposed in the original contingency plan.

Donald Rumsfeld and Fair Play

Two years after the invasion, Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged that his almost daily squash matches had helped preserve his “sanity’’ at a time when he and the Bush administration were coming under increasing political attack for their handling of the deteriorating situation in the country.

A year later, Rumsfeld’s own deteriorating relationship with the US military was to play a part in the emergence of allegations of him cheating at squash. “He hits the ball well, but he doesn’t play by the rules,” said Chris Zimmerman, a devoted squash player working in The Pentagon’s office of program analysis and evaluation and is sometimes in the Pentagon athletic complex when Mr. Rumsfeld is on the court.

Mr. Zimmerman has never actually played his boss. But he says he has noticed that Mr. Rumsfeld, 74, often wins points because, after hitting a shot, he does not get out of the way so his opponent has a chance to return the ball, a practice known in squash as “clearing.”

 

“When you try a shot and miss, he’ll say, ‘You don’t have that shot,’ ” said Lawrence Di Rita, a close aide who used to played against Rumsfeld regularly. Di Rita, a former US Naval Academy squash player more than 25 years younger than Rumsfeld, said that he’d won his share of games and had never gone easy on his boss. By tradition, the loser would post the score on Rumsfeld’s office door, so his staff would know when he’d beaten Di Rita or his other main partner, his military assistant, Vice Admiral James G. Stavridis, who was also on the Naval Academy squash team.

 

Di Rita conceded that Rumsfeld rarely offered or asked for lets – requests to replay points  when one player feels that they have been obstructed by the other.

Whatever the truth in the cheating allegations, Rumsfeld’s tenure as Secretary of State came to an end when he resigned his position in late 2006. In an unprecedented move in modern US history, eight retired generals and admirals had called for his resignation in what was called the Generals Revolt, accusing him of “abysmal” military planning and a lack of strategic competence.

Rumsfeld’s squash matches at The Pentagon were at an end.

In an article for The New York Times, Michael Aggar wrote:

“While Rumsfeld’s military strategy was sold as revolutionary, his squash game was an anachronism. To put it crudely, hardball squash is mostly played by a bunch of old white guys who don’t want to adapt to the new style. Rumsfeld is one of them. In a further parallel, the last time Americans dominated squash championships was in the hardball era. Once the sport changed to softball, the Europeans and—gasp!—the Pakistanis took over. So you might say that Rumsfeld plays the most patriotic version of squash, that he indulges in a nostalgic relic of American might.”

 

Coming next….

 

In Part 2 of “Squash and the War on Terror”, the story moves to Munich where a chance encounter with a squash coach leads to a squash playing President, the sinister ghost planes, and a surprising connection to the Arab Spring.

 

Acknowledgements

For a detailed description of Donald Rumsfeld’s squash game, read David S. Cloud’s New York Times article “Rumsfeld Also Plays Hardball on Squash Courts.”

 

In his article in The Slate, “Does Donald Rumsfeld Cheat at Squash?”, Michael Agger entertainingly explores the squash / war metaphor.

Many thanks to them both.

Squash and the Brigadier

Brigadier Oscar Jameson (b 1905 – d 1989) had the remarkable distinction of winning the British Army’s Squash Racquets and Lawn Tennis championships four times each. At squash, he first became champion in 1931, retaining his title the following year. Further successes came in 1936 and, after several demanding military postings abroad, in 1946. He was once ranked as high as No 2 in the world and, in 1933, was runner-up in the Amateur Squash Championships to the legendary Egyptian player and diplomat Amr Bey, then the reigning British Open squash champion. His tennis achievements, which included competing at Wimbledon six times, are equally impressive given the fact that he regarded his army career as being by far the most important part of his life.

 

Brigadier Oscar Jameson (Centre)

Brigadier Oscar Jameson (Centre)

But it’s his skills as a writer that set him apart from most of his sporting contemporaries. And, in particular, a short guide to squash that he wrote in the 1950s.

 

A Short Guide to Squash Rackets

Jameson wrote his guide after playing squash for over a quarter of a century. During that time, he developed a reputation both as an elegant stroke-player and as a resourceful opponent possessing incredible stamina. This is reflected in the first chapter in his book where he says, “Squash should be an easy game. All one needs to become reasonably good is to be able to run hard for a long time and to be able to hit the ball somehow – not necessarily with the strings”. That’s my emboldening of the text, by the way, for reasons which will become obvious!

 

The guide’s coverage and description both of the rules of squash and its basic strokes is not only  comprehensive but could easily have been written today given its clarity and accuracy. The text is supplemented with hand-drawn diagrams showing the court positions from which certain strokes may be played during a rally, the angles at which to hit the ball, and the resulting path of the ball via  the front or side walls.

The text also includes some wry humour which adds to the enjoyment of the book in a historical context.

For example, “The Strokes – Miscellaneous” chapter includes the following entry:

“Apart from the corner [of the court], the other main difficulty one is likely to encounter is the ball which clings to the wall. The intrinsic difficulty of this shot is added to by one’s natural disinclination to break one’s racket.

Or, try this entry in the “Tactics and Positioning” chapter:

“If you are trying to win, and not just out for exercise, the pleasantest way of playing squash is to stand in the middle of the court while your opponent rushes in all directions after your shots.”

Matchplay Tips

 

“Most people,” says Jameson “Have their limitations, and they can often beat someone who is reputedly a better player by intelligence – or matchplay.” He goes on to draw a clear distinction between matchplay and gamesmanship. “On the latter,” he continues, “there are excellent treatises to which the reader can refer (for instruction or amusement), so here we will confine ourselves to matchplay,as applied to playing squash, and will exclude verbal, sartorial or other ruses calculated to lower the morale of one’s opponent.”

One can only wonder what treatises Jameson is referring to and wonder how one could get one’s hands on a copy today!

Gratifyingly, one of Jameson’s matchplay tips turns out to be one of my own favourite ploys over the years. “Your opponent’s temperament, too,” says Jameson, “repays study. If he is impatient to win the point, you may upset him by persistent lobbing. Even if he is of the type that likes to go on forever you may worry him by placidly settling down to play the same game, hitting the ball more slowly and higher than he does.”

In other words, slow, steady – and high – wins the match…

Training

 

“Being prostrated with exhaustion,” writes Jameson, ”is not conducive to enjoyment of the game.”

He goes on to assert that, “The best form of physical training for squash…is to play squash, provided you play it hard.” So much for an easy introduction to the game, then.

 

Jameson also recommends, “moderation in smoking, drinking and eating” as well as participating in other sports such as golf, skiing (another of his passions) and fishing. He follows  this suggestion with, in my humble opinion, one of the best passages of the book.

“Whether you do any other form of actual physical training, such as long distance running, in order to strengthen your legs and lungs for the endurance test of a long squash match, must depend upon your own physical and mental characteristics, and probably on your geographical location. If you live in London, you probably have access to plenty of hard squash, so have little need to run around Clapham Common or Berkeley Square. If you live in the depths of the country, far from any squash courts, you may find it necessary to go for runs, provided you don’t mind being thought eccentric by your friends and can bear the undisguised interest of the passers-by you encounter en route. You can console yourself with the thought of the pleasure you are giving to any stray dogs which join you in your travels.”

 

Suitable Equipment and Clothing

Jameson’s observations on squash equipment and clothing are notable by their focus on value for money.

“The equipment required for squash,” he writes, “is not expensive. As the racket is not subjected, as a tennis racket is, to the hazards of damp grass, rain and the grit of a hard court, the strings should last for years. And, a squash ball being light and soft, the frame should last for many more years. That is, of course, provided you don’t hit the wall or your opponent too hard with it.

And so far as expense is concerned squash has a great advantage over, say, tennis and golf, in the longevity of the ball. Admittedly, whereas a ramble on the golf course may reward the keen eyed searcher with enough balls to last several rounds, a ramble in the squash courts is unlikely to yield a rich harvest in lost squash balls. But one squash ball lasts a very long time.”

Nor is any great outlay required on clothing for squash. It might, however, here be mentioned that, though almost any clothing, such as dirty rugger shorts, is usually accepted as adequate for a friendly game, the correct wear for a match is white. This is not due to excessive dandiness on the part of the framers of the rules, but is to prevent the possibility of your opponent losing sight of the black ball against the background of your dark clothing.”

American Squash and Englishmen

 

At the time Jameson’s book was written, the English and American versions of squash were not only  different but showed little sign of merging to create a truly globalised sport. In the last section of his book, Jameson discusses the two forms of the game, and presents a range of suggestions about how to play them.

“Many Americans are capable of playing delicate angle shots,” he writes, “but on the whole their game is dominated by the hard hitter. In my opinion the tactics and finesse which are possible in English Squash make it incomparably more interesting, and I think this opinion is shared by the majority of Englishmen who have played both games.”

Interestingly, there is no mention of what Jameson thinks the majority of American men might think about his opinion but then it’s probably safe to assume that he wrote his book for a predominantly English, male and indeed English Squash-playing audience.

Jameson certainly appears to be writing from experience when he describes a typical outcome for an English Squash player using an American Squash racket and squash ball for the first time:

“The result, in the Englishman’s first game in America, is apt to be a series of air shots, amusing for the spectators but humiliating for the Englishman.” This observation clearly relates to the heavier American Squash ball which “necessitates a heavier racket, which is not so easy to wield.”

“An English racket” writes Jameson, “would not last long with an American ball. So if you are going on a visit to the United States or Canada, and intend to play squash, get your host to lend you a racket. Or, better still, take an English ball with you and lure him into playing you with it. He will probably miss it, but at least he shouldn’t break his racket.”

Playing Conditions

Jameson goes on to describe another “slight handicap” under which, in his opinion, English players then operated in America.

 

“The superiority of American central heating is well known, but one is apt at first to experience some discomfort in playing in a court whose temperature (before the match) is about 80 degrees, as it sometimes is. I think this is preferable, though, to playing in an “outside” unheated court in an American or Canadian winter. At a temperature around zero the limbs are reluctant to move, and the ball still goes very fast, in this case apparently straight along the ground.”

From personal experience, I’d disagree with the Brigadier’s assertion that a squash ball “still goes very fast” on an unheated court in winter, even in the comparatively tropical (compared to North America) English climate.

But then I’ve never won the British Army’s Squash Racquets Championship. Well, not yet  anyway.

Postscript

 

Jameson revised his book in 1973 but, apart from some observations relating to a change in the squash rules relating to obstruction made few alterations. After retiring from the army, he continued to play county squash for Kent for many years, and was a member of the Jesters Club, an international racquets association. Even in his eighties he was still playing squash and tennis despite having been diagnosed with motor neurone disease.

Jameson was a born leader, who was a superb example of his own theory that success depends largely on one’s own effort and willpower. His greatest pride was not his own spectacular games career, but the achievements of the soldiers he trained.

His book, A Short Guide to Squash Rackets, is a valuable document of a bygone era of sporting excellence written by a gifted amateur.

Enjoy it and remember him. We’ll never see his like again.

Squash and Sudden Death

In a recent blog posting, I described the longest squash match ever played. It took place in 1983 between Pakistan’s Jahangir Khan and Gamal Awad of Egypt. In a postscript, I mentioned that Gamal Awad died of a heart attack in 2004 at the early age of 49.

But four years before the match between Khan and Awad, the men’s world-ranked number 13 player, then aged 27, also died of a heart attack. Except this time, it was on court during a tournament match in Australia.

The heart attack victim was Jahangir’s elder brother, Torsam Khan.

Squash and Heart Disease

Seven years after Torsam’s death, I was working as a research scientist for what is now one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. I was also spending an inordinate amount of time playing squash at the company’s sports club which was located on-site just a couple of hundred metres from the research library. And it was while I was browsing the scientific journals in the library that I came across a very interesting article.

It was written by Robin Northcote, Clare Flannigan and David Ballantyne of the Department of Medical Cardiology at the Victoria Infirmary in Glasgow, Scotland. Now, some of you may know that Scotland had (and still does have) one of the highest levels of heart disease in the world, a situation not helped by certain local dietary preferences such as the infamous deep-fried battered Mars bar. So, looking back, the appearance of the Northcote article in the British Heart Journal didn’t come as an enormous surprise to me.

The article had the arresting title, Sudden death and vigorous exercise – a study of 60 deaths associated with squash’. And, by the way, sudden death was defined as “death occurring within 1-24 hours of the onset of symptoms” with the study looking at subjects who had “collapsed while playing squash or within an hour of playing”.

Squash and Psychology

After consulting a few of my fellow squash-playing scientists, I remember citing the article in the squash club newsletter I was then editing. It didn’t generate much, if any, feedback from squash club members even after I’d pinned a copy of the article to the noticeboard outside courts 1 and 2. Anyway, it certainly didn’t result in an exodus from the squash leagues or a noticeable reduction in the number of squash courts booked.

Nearly 25 years after it first appeared, the Northcote et al article is still worth reading. The authors state that, “Many individuals in this study with known medical conditions continued to play squash. Men in middle age seem reluctant to acknowledge that they may be in poor physical condition or health. We and others have noted that sportsmen tend to deny physical infirmity and prodromal symptoms.” Prodromal symptoms (or sets of symptoms) are ones which might indicate the start of a disease before specific symptoms occur.

Most of the people in the study had professional or executive jobs with only 2 of the 60 subjects working in what were regarded as ‘non-sedentary’ jobs. The authors go on to state that, “In addition to a tendency to ignore prodromal symptoms and pre-existing disease at least half of the subjects in this series may have been type A personalities, and this in itself may have increased their risk of sudden death and the development of coronary heart disease”.

Personality typing theory emerged in the 1950s and described two common but contrasting types of people, the highly-strung Type A and the easy-going Type B. These types were regarded as  corresponding to patterns of behaviour that could respectively raise or lower a person’s chances of developing coronary heart disease. Despite its citation in the Northcote study, the theory has since  been regarded as obsolete by many researchers in contemporary health psychology and personality psychology.

But, whatever theory you choose to believe, the overall message remains the same. The risks associated with playing squash and experiencing sudden death originate, at least partially, in the mind.

Exercise-related Sudden Death

In 1994, Northcote published another exercise-related sudden death study in the Oxford Textbook of Sports Medicine (Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK). This time, he looked at a range of sports and activities including running, swimming and soccer, and sudden deaths occurring in the mainland UK, i.e. England, Scotland and Wales. His findings are presented in the following table.

Sport / Activity Number

(Male)

Number

(Female)

Mean Age

at Death

Squash 124 2 44
Soccer 53 32
Swimming 50 6 53
Running 38 1 37
Badminton 26 49
Rugby 14 30

Although squash is at the top of the table, Northcote emphasized that there is a very low statistical risk of sudden death from any sport and that the figures don’t  imply that squash is more dangerous than other sports. Nevertheless, his table does show that a significant number of squash players have probably died unnecessarily, for reasons not unconnected to those proposed in his 1986  article.

Squash and the Mind

So, nothing for squash players to worry about?

Well, in 2004, I had a heart attack. Not something I’d recommend although I’ve certainly found it to be character forming if not personality changing. Unfortunately, or come to think of it fortunately, I wouldn’t have made Robin Northcote’s original study as I hadn’t been playing squash immediately beforehand. But the incident did lead me to take a renewed interest in my own psychological makeup, how it influenced my approach to squash, and how I could change it for the better. In other words, how I could change my mindset to re-connect with squash, feel the passion again – and reduce the risk.

Well, I’m still taking an interest and things certainly do seem to be getting better in all respects. Although I am, of course, still working on it. Promise.

Squash en français – At the Movies

Un Film de Lionel Bailliu

I’m pretty sure there aren’t many movies featuring squash that have been nominated for an Academy Award. But French director Lionel Bailliu’s Squash is just such a film. Nominated in 2003 in the Best Live Action Short Film category, the action in this 27 minute film takes place entirely on a squash court. Two businessmen, Alexandre (played by Malcolm Conrath) and his boss Charles (Eric Savin), play a squash match. The on-court mood ebbs and flows dramatically as the rules are bent and both players test their opponent’s mental and physical endurance. And not in a nice way!

Boulot et Squash from Fort Mathieu on Vimeo.

Squash and Fair Play

Four years after its initial release, Bailliu expanded Squash into a bitter and nail-biting commentary on the cut-throat nature of office politics in his feature debut Fair Play.

Eric Savin reprised his role as Charles, a shrewd businessman who takes his scheming employees on an ultra-competitive weekend outing. Featuring rowing, jogging, canoeing and rock climbing as well as squash, the weekend is less to do with team-building than the survival of the fittest. And although Charles may be top dog today, ambitious worker Jean-Claude (played by Benoît Magimel) is determined to make his way to the top no matter what the cost.

Check out the Fair Play website, and your French, at:

http://www.tfmdistribution.com/fairplay