Monday, November 18, 2013

Article From My Malaysia Websiye

The Rise of Squash

Malaysia has produced her share of world-class squash champions. Jon Chew finds out how it all started, and the promising future of squash here.

As you walk into the National Squash Centre at Bukit Jalil and turn right, you’ll stand before an ‘altar of worship’. It’s a shrine that reenacts the life and journey of Nicol David, the current world’s best women’s squash player, and with a record seven World Open titles, one of the greatest to have ever stepped into a squash court. The gallery shows pictures of Nicol’s schooling days in Penang, her two World Junior wins, and how she became one of the country’s most famous athletes.
This tribute can be found inside one of the country’s top sports facilities; 10 squash courts can be changed into eight doubles courts with the press of a button, while around 1,000 spectators can sit and watch the matches or sparring sessions taking place. This complex, built in 1997 for the Commonwealth Games the subsequent year, is a symbol of the incredible developmental work done by different parties in Malaysia to make this country a hub for world-class squash players.
“We, as the whole Malaysian squash fraternity, are quite keen on keeping Malaysian squash as one of the sports Malaysia excels in,” says Allan Soyza, the director of coaching at the Squash Racquets Association of Malaysia (SRAM), when met at the premise. Appointed in 2011 to the post, Soyza’s responsibilities include overseeing the whole coaching structure of squash in Malaysia, and the development of its players under his charge. “A lot of people like to say, I’ve got a very important job,” he says with a laugh.
The growth of squash can be traced back to the 1998 Commonwealth Games, a seminal moment in Malaysia where it was the first time the games were held in an Asian country. In an effort to boost the competitiveness of several sports in time for the games, squash was one of the sports earmarked for growth in a programme launched in 1992. Aside from this facility, a significant amount of funding was poured into the development of players, and the result was a generation of youngsters that came through the system: world top-ten players such as Ong Beng Hee and Azlan Iskandar, and precocious young girl by the name of Nicol David.
“It was what kickstarted it all,” says Soyza. It has led to a structured, three-tiered system of identifying and grooming new talent. The first occurs at the grassroots level; 12 active state affiliates of SRAM run junior programmes that help unearth new talent in places like Selangor, Sarawak (which operates three district squash centres) and Kedah. “At least what we have are centres where anybody around that centre can have an opportunity to pick up squash and showcase their talent,” says Soyza.
Interested young players receive concerted training from the 20-odd full-time coaches strewn across the nation, and if they start winning state-organised competitions (where youngsters can compete in a wide range of age groups, from under-nine to under-19 tournaments), will be tapped for national junior competitions. These important events have received welcomed support from various groups like the CIMB Foundation, who contribute around RM2.7 million annually to the development of the sport. The most talented ones, of course, will join the back-up or elite squads, of which there are currently around 20 team members.
The work doesn’t just stop at talent-spotting. The programme includes element of sports science training provided by the National Sports Council that encompasses video analysis, nutrition and the psychological development of the athlete. “For kids coming through at a very young age, we try not to focus too much on squash issues... There are sports science elements already in grassroots programmes, and we look at it and study how to incorporate certain kinds of games to develop coordination, let’s say,” says Soyza, who believes in a unique way of building the sport’s fundamentals into those at a tender age. “I break fundamentals into “fun” and “mental”. It’s very apt for kids who like to do fun things, and for kids at a young age, nothing is impossible.”
But has it worked? Will there be someone to take on the mantle of championship-level squash when the likes of David, who is already 30-years-old, leave the sport?
The proof is in the results; 23-year-old Low Wee Wern is a product of this squash programme, and is currently the world’s sixth-ranked female player. The hope, however, rests on the growing shoulders of the very young, such as 17-year-old Asian Youth Games double gold medallist Vanessa Raj, 15-year-old two-time British Junior Squash Open champion Ng Eain Yow and 17-year-old Asian Youth Games silver medallist Syafiq Kamal.
“We’ve always had talented squash players coming through. A lot of it now depends on how we nurture them, and also how they develop individually. It’s easy winning in the junior ages, but what I’d like to see is how they handle setbacks. How you handle setbacks tells you a lot about a person,” says Soyza.
The path through the future isn’t easy, Soyza reminds. There are obvious budget constraints, and the task of convincing these youngsters to pursue squash full-time instead of taking up scholarships to study overseas “is gigantuous.” And all this without succumbing to the pressure of following in David’s footsteps.
“Nicol’s world benchmark is up there,” says Soyza, placing his hand high above his head for emphasis. “In the world of squash, she is a legend already.” Having had the privilege of seeing Nicol play at the age of six, Soyza always knew she was destined for greatness. “She had this natural stubbornness. She didn’t want to lose, it was a competitive mentality from a young age. And she was very gifted physically, as a girl she could cope with the boys... she had the x-factor.”
As we sit and talk, grunts, sneaker squeaks and the sound of the squash ball slapping repeatedly against the wall can be heard on the courts outside. Ironic, because as we chat, Nicol David is training with national squash coach Peter Genever, honing her craft, swinging her racquet, and paving the way for the next generation of Malaysia’s squash talent.


Squash has flirted with the Olympics since 2005 where squash made their first real bid to enter the 2012 Olympics and since then have failed to get included in the 2016 and 2020 Games. It is only the failed bid of the 2020 Games that has gotten the attention on the Malaysian public where our own Nicol David personally put in a great effort for the inclusion into the Games.
In 2005, squash missed the chance for the 2012 Games because it missed the two-thirds majority required to be included in the 2012 Games which meant no sports was added despite the IOC dropping softball and baseball. Squash then lost out to rugby and golf in 2009 for a slot in the 2016 Rio Games but the hardest defeat must be the most recent failure to get into the 2020 Games where squash despite its best presentation could only finish last. To add salt to the wound, wrestling which was initially dropped got reinstated! The IOC is really messed up with their internal politics. How can a sport be considered dropped when they have not missed an edition of the Olympics? IOC, please explain.
Instead of putting the blame on the IOC, I’d like to focus on squash itself and why I think it didn’t appeal to the IOC and also why squash should forget bidding for inclusion for the 2024 Games.

Medal Count

Squash despite being a sport that fulfills all the Olympic ideals, failed in one major area for all IOC members, the total medal count. Wrestling has 21 events for men and 4 for women in the previous Games and 52 countries have won medals in the past! Multiply that by 3 and you have 75 medals to compete for in each Games. That was clearly reflected in the voting when wrestling got 49 votes which I deduce are from medal winning countries. Squash’s bid only offered 2 events with 6 medals at stake. Obviously we can see a greater chance for wrestling to gain more votes based on probability of total countries participating versus medals to be won as compared to squash.


Despite squash pitching a bid that is low cost, dig deeper and look at the bigger picture we will find that it is more costly than wrestling. Why do I say that? In terms of hosting, squash needs a dedicated facility, be it a permanent complex or the portable/movable courts while wrestling on the other hand just needs a hall. Of course wrestling needs more officials but with 75 medals at stake, I do think that is justified. In terms of athlete preparation, again the same issue comes up. Wrestlers can train in any hall or space but squashers need their squash courts! And squashers need shoes, rackets and balls while wrestlers need a mat. Imagine a 3rd world country to invest a medal potential sport, wrestling then looks a whole lot cheaper doesn’t it?

Administration of Squash

Squash has 3 major bodies, World Squash Federation (WSF), Professional Squash Association (PSA) and Women’s Squash Association (WSA). PSA runs the men’s professional tour while WSA runs the women’s tour and both are affiliated to WSF who in turn is the world body that is recognized by the IOC. Each body has their own agenda and goals which are more often in conflict with each other. The only common ground they stand on is the Olympics and all 3 are based in England. Then there is the Pro Squash Tour (PST) in the US which is at loggerheads with the PSA.
Member nations of WSF gain no major benefit except the obvious recognition as the governing body at the country level and hosting or participations into WSF event. And the sad thing is that the same concept is used by regional and national associations.
However, anyone can join PSA or WSA and participate in any of their events and anyone can organize an event under these 2 bodies.  And then we have both these bodies (WSA and PSA) having different operating procedures and objectives. This is a long story which I will not go into details.

Marketability of Squash

How marketable is squash? All we know is that from the Back the Bid brochure is that squash is played in 185 countries and 50,000 people. Where did these figures come from? Is it by a research company or by WSF themselves? How many people know about squash? In Malaysia where Nicol is endeared by the nation, squash has a very small following. If there is a telecast of a squash event featuring Nicol, the maximum viewership is 20,000 including the repeats. This is however based on paid TV but with local football able to reach in access of 100,000 viewers despite it’s standard, the numbers are low. Even the official back the bid Youtube video for Back the Bid got 175,000 hits compared to some videos of the Malaysian badminton team training which has excess of 150,000 hits. Worse still, Malaysians would not be willing to pay to watch squash!
How to increase the marketability of squash? Starts from the top with WSF. Instead of wasting money with the Olympic bid and hiring consultants for the bid, invest the money in a proper marketing team/person that has real marketing background and not just ex-players. This is imperative to allow the sport to generate income which can then be channeled back towards development of the sport in form of technology, information and assistance to member nations. And bear in mind that most sports that have gotten in the Olympics in the last decade are economically viable on their own before the Olympics.
PSA and WSA need to work with WSF to form a higher tier circuit with the member nations. 185 countries and if 10 countries out that can host an event of either USD 200,000 event for men or USD 100,000 for women, there will be a big additional number of events for both the circuits! And remember that national associations have the support of their governments unlike independent promoters. On top of that PSA and WSA also need to relook their policies to support promoters of events rather than suppress them or be overly concerned about their members’ welfare as promoters for squash events do not make money. They’ll be lucky if they make a small profit. Let promoters clash events as they will be the ones trying their best to please their sponsors and keep the events running year after year. The industry needs to grow not restricted.
PSA and WSA too need to get better marketing people. I do support the idea of ex-players having a role but are they qualified to plan and strategize on how to capture new markets or sponsors? Would you take an engineer and put him/her in charge of marketing? Point to ponder.

Olympics will bring more money to the sport

This thought is slightly flawed as there will be more money pumped in by governments for preparation of athletes to win medals. On the contrary, will it bring more sponsors or boost the popularity of the sport all by itself? Of course, WSF will get some financial returns from the IOC as part of the Olympic Games but does it really bring a whole new level of financial benefits? Will sponsors pour in and bring the prize money on the circuits to the levels of badminton? With no marketing strategy, I don’t think so.
For Malaysians we have to also remember that once squash gets into the Olympics, the Olympic giants will also start funding their own squash teams. China, US, Japan, Korea, Germany, Great Britain and so on will start their mechanism moving and even if their funding can exceed us anytime. They already have world class mentality in sports and their support systems and with the additional funding, who knows what would happen especially with China.


Yes, squash has come a long way since the days of Jahangir and Jansher Khan. The technology of courts and ball together with high definition cameras make watching squash much better on TV. The addition of video review and the use of the 3 referee system have changed squash although I think if the referees are good, only one is needed. 3 wrongs don’t make a right. However, the fundamentals of the game are still the same. It is like having an old Proton Saga with a new coat of paint and a new sound system.
I say let’s take a bold step forward in changing the game. I remember watching cricket when I was young and was wondering what boring sport it is when someone runs and pitches a ball and the batter just blocks it and everyone around them just stands looking. Little did I know I was watching a Test Match. Much later, I watched a special 7 Overs match and that was a totally different cricket match! There was hitting, running and excitement. So I decided to watch the 20/20 cricket World Cup and I was amazed with how interesting the sport was even though there were parts that were boring but nothing like Test matches.
So why not have a squash match decided by time? Each game ends at whoever reaches 11 or the 10 minutes duration is up with a single point playoff if tied at the end of each game. This will then shorten the game to an hour more or less and makes matches easier to plan. Or team events run on continuous scoring till a team reaches 100? Changes like these could spark interest of the public with more dynamic rallies like what some of the Youtube videos shows of the squash compilation instead of the long drawn matches.


Maybe it’s just me and how I see things. Maybe I am wrong or inaccurate. But I am strongly of the opinion that the Olympics don’t need squash but squash needs the Olympics. Instead of trying to convince them to accept squash, why not develop squash to a point that the Olympics must have squash in the Games and offer/invite squash into the Games.
Improve the fundamentals of the sport and the economics of the sport as well for all levels not just players but promoters, racket companies, court makers and so on. More promotional videos need to come out from WSF and WSA like what PSA have done on the social media (their Youtube videos). Major events should be a 3 party cooperation between host, PSA or WSA and WSF. The Women’s World Open debacle could have been avoided if WSA and WSF had worked together to source a global sponsor for the event instead of waiting for a host to work out everything. It would be great if the idea of PSA and WSA merging into one body becomes a reality but they still need to work with WSF

There is a lot of work at all levels if squash is to attract the attention of the IOC and the focus should be on squash itself rather than convincing an uninterested partner.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Happy New Year

Happy New Year to all the readers be it the Gregorian calendar or the Chinese Lunar Calendar.

I have been with the National Team set up for close to 3 years already and how time flies including how infrequent I update this blog. Anyway, new year and new resolutions for everyone!

Things have happened in squash and latest in the arrival of our new coach, Peter Genever.                                          
He coached Azlan and Wan in England before taking the position here. He has settled in well in role as Head Coach and is driving home the message of quality of training in the players. The players are having it tough daily and they will have to cope.

To Peter or more commonly referred to as PG, "Welcome to Malaysia".