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Growing the grassroots: Making squash more popular

With evolving participation programmes, incentives, game-changing coaching technology and a growing number of players, squash is experiencing a revival. Chris Peddy from England Squash explains why the sport is turning heads.

Published in Sports Management Mar Apr 2017 issue 130
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Squash 101 is a fun, social introduction to the sport, where participants learn and practice all the basic skills
Squash 101 is a fun, social introduction to the sport, where participants learn and practice all the basic skills

Squash has been played in front of famous backdrops such as Dubai’s Buruj Al Arab, New York’s Grand Central Station and Egypt’s Pyramids of Giza, delivering excitement and energy to huge audiences.

In the 1980s the sport attracted full house crowds to London’s Wembley Arena, with people often coming to watch Pakistani Jahangir Khan in his incredible 555-game winning streak over five years – a feat yet to be matched by a top-level athlete in any sport. Since then, squash has left the limelight. But England Squash now aims to bring the glamour back to the sport.

Today, England is home to two of the sport’s biggest stars – three-time world champion Nick Matthew and former world number one Laura Massaro. And we’re committed to ensuring the next crop of young talent is well-equipped to take over the mantle.

Recent studies have found that playing squash is one of the best ways to keep fit. And for the first time in decades, participation numbers have increased, with more than one million people stepping onto a squash court each year in England. Studies have shown that more than 200,000 of these people play the sport at least once a week. This is happening on more than 4,500 courts at 1,600 venues across the country.

Growing in popularity
Encouragingly for those of us involved in the sport, participation began to grow in 2015 following a total overhaul of the way the game was operated and delivered. England Squash has since made huge efforts to increase numbers further by improving the sport’s accessibility at grassroots level, despite increasing financial pressures due to lack of funding.

Part of this improvement was the introduction of our new nationwide participation programme, Squash 101, which provides a fun way for people to socialise and improve their fitness through squash. Sessions are coached by England Squash-approved trainers, who teach participants how to play and help them enhance their skills in individual, team and match situations.

Crucially, the programme increases the number of players on a court at one time to six or eight – allowing more people to be active at one time. After listening to feedback, we have altered the training to cater for three different environments – clubs, public facilities and universities. Trainers are supported through an app that will soon be updated with a variety of videos and lesson plans, giving them everything they need to deliver fun, social sessions. We believe this service helps to make the sport more attractive to young people.

We have also taken a more youth-oriented approach when producing content. On Twitter, for example, we have made great strides in producing more engaging, shareable tweets. We now ensure every social media post is constructed with a top-quality image or video clip and in response we have seen a 40 per cent increase in our Twitter following. We are aiming to grow this even further, along with our following on other social networks, including Facebook and Snapchat.

Our new website, launched in June last year, engages users by allowing them to start a profile and account where they can book into tournaments online and receive the latest news and information from England Squash. This is a vast improvement on our previous service and one we plan to develop further.

Girls on court
Another of our key campaigns over the past year has been the Squash Girls Can programme, which is aimed at promoting the game to women and girls. England Squash teamed up with Sport England and our registered charity, the England Squash Foundation, to deliver the project. Women and girls who are new to the game can take part in this course of between six and eight sessions that equips them with the knowledge and skills they need to start playing and enjoying the sport – from serving to scoring. As a result, we saw 2,300 new female players take up the sport last year.

Our foundation has also recently launched a project to provide free squash lessons to children who otherwise would not have access to courts. Children at the Anglo European School in Essex receive transport to and from squash lessons at Brentwood School, as well as extra tuition, all free of charge. The foundation is working to secure further funding to expand this to other schools and areas.

The world stage
England is hosting two world championships this year – the WSF World Doubles and PSA World Championships, both in Manchester – showcasing top players such as Nick Matthew, James Willstrop, Laura Massaro and Alison Waters and inspiring the younger generation to follow in their footsteps.

Also this year was the Blowers Jewellers National Squash Championships, which took place in February and was described by eight-time masters winner Nick Taylor as “the best ever” – further evidence that the sport is moving in the right direction in this country.

England Squash’s performance programme is a success story that would be the envy of many sports. Currently we boast the Men’s World Team Champions, Women’s World Team silver medallist and European champions at every level of the game from seniors all the way through to U19, U17 and U15.

We are working to develop a new generation of world class players at the England Squash Academy, now based at the National Squash Centre in Manchester, which houses seven courts, sports science facilities and medical support. The centre enables players with the highest potential between 18 and 24 years of age to train with the world’s best squash coaches.

The elite pathway is made up of the Aspire and England development programmes, which ensure a clear progression for young players who harbour ambitions of becoming professional players. They also provide coaches with opportunities to spot such talent early in a player’s development. Aspire is led by eight qualified coaches and targets young players at county level to encourage them into the England development programme – the gateway into the national academy.

The results have been clear to see, with England represented in five semi-finals and two finals in the British Junior Open this January. This was the first time since 2001 that England had two finalists in the competition in the same year, and a good sign that a winner could be on the horizon next year. We have also seen fantastic performances in the World Junior Championships over the last two years. This bodes well for future success and our chances of bringing world, European and Commonwealth medals home.

New ways to play
We have attempted to streamline the sports provided by England Squash by rebranding racketball – which is played on a squash court but uses a larger racket head and a bigger, bouncier ball – as Squash57. The added mobility of the ball and the extra head space on the racket make the sport both an ideal gateway into squash and a way to extend the careers of older players. We believe that by marketing the two together, we can entice more players into both sports.

But enjoying squash does not end on court. We are aware that one of the biggest challenges facing the sport is access to courts. So we developed a partnership with Street Games, a charity set up to encourage 14 to 25-year-olds to play sport where they want, when they want, and to reach young people in inner city and rural areas who do not have access to facilities. The programme retains the key elements of squash but allows for it to be played in other environments.

We aim to deliver the sport through Street Games’ tutor networks and have begun to equip them with the knowledge to roll out coaching at their ‘doorstep clubs’, of which there are more than a thousand.

Looking ahead
England Squash strives to grow the sport and has many exciting developments in the works, including a new membership scheme, the completion of a new commercial strategy and a major events strategy that will attract a major international event to the country each year until 2022. We have also developed close partnerships with seven major operators who collectively manage 150 courts across the country, where initiatives including Squash 101 and Squash Girls Can are promoted.

Another exciting development is the creation of technology that could change the way the game is played forever. The Interactive Squash system projects images and games onto the front wall of the court and can be used both to engage children and help elite players train, with games and activities designed to test people at all levels. We have teamed up with our national forum and will soon be installing this exciting new technology in a squash venue in England.

We at England Squash believe that these amazing initiatives and projects will continue to increase the number of people enjoying the sport and ensure it continues to be played on the world’s biggest stages. These are exciting times for the sport, for everyone involved in it and all those who will one day discover it.

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