It has been a long time since my last post here. Time enough to leave a job to go to grad school, finish grad school and start a new job. And time enough to understand how much I really like coaching this sport. So many people out there who are keen to get better, to get fitter, to keep up with their kids (or beat their parents!). Being able to help just a bit is really gratifying. So thanks, everyone I am going to be seeing over the next few months, thank you for giving me the opportunity. I know we’ll have a great time and that we’ll all be better for it!
I reckon that anyone who has taught even a few private lessons has experienced that sinking feeling that comes when your player’s eyes sort of glaze over in the middle of one of your expositions, or when they nod repeatedly in response to your rhetorical questions but fail to make any adjustment as a result. And worst of all, when they actually stop trying. What has happened? What have I done to make this game (which both of us really like, maybe even love) so dull and tedious? It’s a nasty, niggling feeling. But ignore it at your peril. As a club coach, you live and die by one thing: players that come back for more.
Clue: Would you rather do something that is good for you, or something that you enjoy?
There’s no question that being a coach (or any other type of teacher) requires you to play a role. And yet how many of us would want to get up on stage? The difference is that as a coach, you are also always yourself. Your knowledge, your skills, your philosophy of the game and how to teach it. All of these can remain in place no matter whether you are on court with a middle-aged man or a girl in high school. What changes is the way the player experiences those things.
Two or three of the middle-level men that I coach are sort of obsessed with technique. Some lessons all they want to do is hit backhand drives. We compromise. Partly so for my own sanity, but partly because I don’t believe that working on a stroke in isolation is particularly useful. It’s a moving game, after all. Other players – the younger ones in particular – just want to play games. Well and good, I say, but there have to be other stages in the lesson, too. Otherwise, being on court with me is not much better than playing with a friend. At least, that’s the way it sounds in my head.
Not much fun, right? It’s true that I am not a joke-around sort of person, but I do get very happy and enthusiastic when my players make breakthroughs. And sometimes I don’t pick up on the signs that what we are doing on court has become more about me than about them. The player knows almost instantly, however. And that’s lousy.
So here are three types of questions I use whenever I realize that I’m being kind of a benevolent bully out there.
- Can the player do what I am asking them to do?
- Who’s doing the talking? Who’s asking the questions?
- Does what we are doing now “fit” with the rest of the lesson? Better yet, does it move us forward? Or is it just killing time, just more of the same?
The answers are obvious, but I tell you this: my lessons are much better if I run through them before the lesson, and use them to shape not necessarily the content or activities, but the way the player experiences those things.
There is a fierce battle on court 12 when I walk up. The players have been on court for almost an hour, trading point after point, making each other stretch for every ball, pushing themselves to work harder, be smarter and tougher. The shouts of encouragement from teammates drown out the marker’s calls, but the players are silent as each looks for a way to attack.
Each hard-fought point in this match has led to this awesome exchange at 7-9 in the fifth. And it is almost over. But not yet. Another superb get, a smashing cross-court, a punishing drive to length. …
There is nothing except the ball, the court and the will. Neither player is thinking about the miles covered in the last four games, nor the other matches played in the last two days. She is here, right now. Locked in. Unyielding, resourceful.
This is the squash I was privileged to see over and over during this year’s Howe Cup. Thirty-six teams of five, in four singles divisions, and fourteen teams in two doubles draws: it is a huge event – one that Peter Heffernan and crew at Meadow Mill Athletic Club managed with exceptional skill. But, although this is the largest women’s event on the calendar, that actually doesn’t tell you why it is so important.
Why am I here? Well, I am coaching five fantastic teams from New York. We’ve had almost two months of practices and now it’s time to let them play. For three days, the players come off court and tell me what they need, and I tell them what I see. They come off court confident, bewildered, receptive, chatty, distracted, and I try to get them back on court ready for the first serve with a plan and a relatively clear head. Then, somewhere between the 40th and 50th match, I begin to see real changes in these players.
Some of them started the weekend tentatively, dipping into their first few games but not sure how hard they should – or could – play. Others soared in, bright, determined, already hunting. By Saturday, everyone has found her feet, won a few, lost a few, gained awareness and confidence, scraped off the rust. I can see them starting to grin in anticipation of their next match, even while they are urging each other to give more, try again, not let up.
A national team tournament like this matters so much precisely because it is a women’s event. This is not about affirmative action, although it is true that there are comparatively few opportunities for women to gather in such a large group, to be both the focus and the creators of a remarkable event – particularly in sports. But it is simpler than that: this is community building. The women who play in the Howe Cup go home and spread the word. The juniors go out and tell their friends about it. The WISPA players vow to bring in a few more next year. And so it goes. So it grows.
Consider these: a recent college graduate at the top of her game, a highly skilled elite athlete; a grey-haired woman, strong and sure, whose name is engraved on a dozen plaques and trophies; a teenager who first discovers and then tries to push past her own limitations: a 30-, 40-, 50- something woman thrilled by the physical and mental challenge squash continues to present her.
These are all the same woman. Howe Cup is the place she comes to see herself ten years ago and twenty years from now. It is where she finds friends, support and encouragement. Where she teaches and learns the great life lessons of winning, losing and never giving up, never making excuses. Oh, and where she dances like she is 16.
The future of the game is not tied just to juniors bound for college or the success of national teams: it must involve and support every player, at every level, no matter what her age, motivation or potential. Howe Cup is where you can see what that looks like.
Kudos to the participants, the organizers, the volunteers, the staff, the friends and relations. Howe Cup is unique, not just for its wild mix of competition and camaraderie, but also for its long-standing commitment to all of the women who play this game.
Just one more thing. This year, we were joined by 12 girls (and one very dedicated staff member) from Streetsquash, one of New York’s urban squash programs. Thanks go to New York Squash and Scott Wilson for covering the entry fees for the singles events – and to Scott again for stepping up for the doubles teams.These young women went on court again and again, against much more experienced opponents, and played with all the poise, determination and desire they possessed. Even when they were discouraged by the results or other circumstances, they tried to stay open and positive. They watched dozens of matches and saw how the best competitors dealt with unforced errors, questionable calls, difficult opponents, winning and losing; they learned and they tried to do the same. Point by point, game by game, we all saw them get a little wiser, a little more grounded, and a lot tougher to beat!But this is their most awesome achievement: they have inspired a high school teacher from Toronto to go home and create the first urban squash program in Canada.
Hat off to those girls. I have never, in 20 years of coaching, had so many compliments from opponents and spectators about my players. They really are the ones I most want to see on court in five, ten and twenty years.
P.S. The range of ages is something I think should be celebrated and acknowledged by the tournament organizers in the future. That’s not really going to embarrass anyone, is it?
OK. Yes, like most players, I’m in holiday recovery mode, which means unexpected twinges in my shoulder, a hot message from my Achilles and all that.
Fine. It’s just for a week or so.
But levitation? That’s something else again.
We were playing doubles last night. Struggling to put our game together, or at least look like we’d done this before. Not much luck: our opponents won very handily. Then, in a fit of indifference, we switched sides.
I am lefthanded and don’t get to my backhand very much, but whatever. At this point we weren’t in it for the glory. Anyway, I was up at the short line when the ball went past. Knowing it would come of the back wall I started to turn around to get it. But I turned towards the T instead of towards the wall. Pivoting on my left foot – except my left foot wasn’t on the ground, so it just floated away and there I was hanging in midair. Briefly.
Then there it was. Reassuringly solid. Unfinished birch. Very hard wood it is, too.
Posted on the run!
Location:New York (where else?)
I guess it’s old news now. Players as young as 25 are doing it, so it must be, right? To me, it looks revolutionary, but maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s just a refinement of what the best shotmakers and touch players have always done, an extension of their instinctive compensation for a physical constraint.
There are great contributions being made to the theory and practice of squash in the US by a number of individuals and organizations. Off the top of my head (currently attached to my body and wandering around New York City), I reckon we all agree that CitySquash and StreetSquash are dynamic, effective and worthwhile programs which deliver far more than the sum of their components.