Shona Kerr and I were sitting outside the four-glass-walled court in the stifling Cairo heat watching an on-court presentation by one of the Egyptian coaches on “Deception”. We were in Egypt to give our own presentation, Optimal Coaching of Female Athletes, at the 2003 World Squash Federation Coaching Conference, being held in conjunction with the 2003 World Junior Women’s Squash Championships.
The Egyptian coach (and I apologize for not remembering his name), generously and very cordially invited England’s Chris Walker to come out and present with him on an impromptu basis. The Egyptian explained that he would divide his presentation into three parts, front, mid, and back-court; and that he would start with the topic of “deception in the back-court”. Chris Walker immediately blurted out “There is no deception in the back-court”. Shona and I looked at each other in amazement (her because she had been trained from an early age by Pakistan’s Hiddy Jahan, whose use of wrist for power and deception was legendary), and herein lies the reason for Egypt’s recent dominance of the world squash scene, in particular their recent win over England at the 2008 Women’s World Squash Championships.
Historically, over the last 30-40 years, the squash world has been divided in two: the grinding, attritional, fitness based tactical style of the English and Australians; versus the skillful, touch-oriented play of the Pakistanis and Egyptians. Obviously there have been exceptions – Australia’s Martin brothers (and Chris Dittmar) both made excellent use of deception and shot-making, and both Jahangir and Jansher had legendary fitness (as well as Egypt’s Gamal Awad). What a squash culture values, is what squash coaches end up teaching and coaching to their players. On the women’s side, Nicol David the current world #1, has been highly influenced by the Australian volleying, attritional style of play through her Australian coach, Liz Irving. (Canada’s Jonathon Power is another story for another day).
Returning to 2003, all four spots at the semi-finals of the Jr. Women’s World’s were filled with young Egyptian women. Five years later Egypt is the holder of the Women’s World Team Championship, highlighting the relatively longterm nature of development in squash – things do not happen overnight.
How is it possible that that a “poor” third world country like Egypt can overcome a great financial squash power like Great Britain, and is it possible for others to do the same? What are the key factors involved in this “Cultural” World Championship?
Here are my observations based on twenty years of sport science involvement in developing world champions at the Jr. and Adult level in three different sports (squash, tennis, racquetball):
- Centralized control of the player development process. It is essential that a player’s individual coach (versus the National Coach) either cede some control or cooperate vigorously in the National Team Program – which I believe is not always the case in other countries like England (Harvey vs. Pearson vs. Willstrop?). Most Egyptian players train in Cairo with common coaches (although there was another small group of Egyptian players in Alexandria). If players are not all located in the same place it takes tremendous effort on the part of a team of National Coaches and Sport Scientists to communicate and coordinate (but it can be done as we proved with the Canadian National Racquetball Team in the early 1990’s, with team members from Vancouver to Newfoundland). This small group approach to players development has also been used successfully by Pakistan in the past.
- Implementation and integration of sport science knowledge into the player’s training. Having a network of sport scientists is one thing – making sure the player’s get the information in a usable form is another. We did away with annual max VO2 testing of the Canadian National Squash team in the 1990’s. I remember a national training camp with Jamie Crombie, Gary Waite (both pulling scores in the low to mid-seventies – the same level a marathoners), and Sabir Butt (all PSA ranked in the 20’s or below) where we talked about the fact that no one had ever contacted them or written a training program for them based on their test results. As I listened to and read the conference handout of the head of sport science for the Egyptians talk in 2003, it became evident that the Egyptians possessed no special sport science knowledge, some information was outdated, and most of their sport psychology approach (1989, uncredited) was based on one of my own articles. What was apparent was that they did have a system, and that the information was used in developing the training programs for the players.
- Having presented to national coaches from a Muslim culture before (Iran, 1996), I was unsure of how our feminist-based suggestions for coaching women would be accepted during our presentation on Optimal Coaching of Female Athletes. Shona and I should not have worried, as an integral part of the Egyptian approach was to have both boys and girls train together. This is really important, since up until puberty, boys have no innate physical advantage over girls, so there is no reason why they should not train together. And there is no reason they should not train together after that either.
- I was very impressed with the fact that most of the Egyptian juniors stayed in school (including university) as they moved up the world rankings. This indicates perspective on the part of the association and squash coaches, and an appreciation of Long Term Athlete Development in squash where many players do not reach their peak until their mid- to late twenties. Contrasting this with the U.S. model of developing teenagers, it should be mentioned that going to college for four years in New Haven, CT, is probably not the same as going to university in Cairo with access to all the top Egyptian players throughout the year.
- Finally, returning to the opening part of this post, developing skillful players capable both of being deceptive and with a high ability to read the game is probably the most important part of developing a world champion. There are only two Golden Ages of Learning for squash juniors, and they occur at 5-8 years old and again at 11-13. If deceptive abilities and stroking techniques (use of wrist, changes in timing of strokes, etc.) ) are not emphasized and developed at this age, a player will never be able to maximize their tactical attacking potential. Watching both Egyptian male and female players is is evident that these skills are valued culturally and emphasized in training. The time of the restrictive, overly defensive approach of the past is over – although it will get you success in the juniors, and it will get you into the top twenty in the world squash rankings – but no further). Will this message get through to the “English/Australian” adherents? I am not so sure. New Zealand Coach Susan Devoy explaining her team’s loss to Malaysia in the 3rd/4th playoff: “We need to be fitter, stronger, and tougher”.
Let’s hear from the Egyptians themselves:
Application for Squash Coaches
- Spend a significant amount of time (20%) on shot-making and deception skills with young juniors.
- Individual coaches need to integrate and collaborate with National team coaches.
- Sport science knowledge must be made usable and integrated with everyday training.
- A longterm perspective (which includes planned squash and education together) works best.