Going solo

Something different today. Usually I write about running but I’m going to looking back to one of the first sports I played seriously – thirty years ago in 1991 – it was squash. I have no recollection of the specific moment I decided to try it or why. Working at Chase Manhattan Bank, squash was a popular sport and there were two courts onsite with a competitive league and an annual knockout cup. My boss, Jon, was one of the best players in the bank. Nigel, his boss, was also very good. As I recall, Matt, Rick, Gareth and Alan all played, as did Pete and Greg, two Aussie contractors. I think JohnnyG may have played but Benardette didn’t and neither did SteveS. I can’t imagine Bernard, Charles or SteveT playing and certainly myself and Danny, the new kids on the block, didn’t. Quiet Nigel may have played but he was so quiet, he never uttered a word in his six months of being in our department so I never found out! But when you look at it, half our department did and I suspect it’s that which led me to start playing.

If you’ve never played squash, or quite possibly in this day and age even seen it being played; I’ll give a recap. During the 70s and 80s it was very popular with every sports centre having courts and leagues. It was something of a corporate sport, played by middle class office workers, yet by the late 1990s it was dying out. Certainly that’s what happened at Chase. The league had been very popular when the bank first came to Bournemouth in 1986, but was all but gone by 1994-95ish. When I started there, you’d always hear a ball echoing around the court as you walked over to lunch, or to the onsite bar at 5:15pm. But slowly the distinctive sounds faded away and often the courts would stand empty in darkness.

Eventually as the bank’s workforce expanded, office space became a premium and the courts were converted. That’s similar to what happened to many of the local courts – Littledown Sports Centre turned their courts into part of the fitness studio, the Lanz Club in Boscombe got knocked down and rebuilt as flats, the South Dorset Squash Club on Ringwood Road is now a Co-op supermarket. When I worked at Broadstone Sports Centre there were two courts but these were converted into additional changing rooms and a soft play area when the swimming pool was built circa 2000. There are still courts around – Haymoor in Canford Heath, Ferndown Sports Centre, Two Riversmeet in Christchurch but they are few and far between. Apparently there’s a decent size league in Dorset of 400+ players but that’s next-to-nothing when you consider our local parkruns attract that many runners every Saturday.

Walking onto a squash court always had a special feel. You walked through the doorway into a cavernous white room with high, white-washed walls. At least they were originally white but now covered by hundreds of marks from squash balls. The room would echo, the lights needed to be bright and on closing the door, the handle dropped flat making for a smooth surface. If you turned round and looked up there was a balcony for spectators to look down on you. Above and behind you, people could sneak a look over and you’d never know they were watching. The cold, echoing, emptiness with just the two of you made it feel like a gladiatorial contest. The only noises were the grunt of long rallies, the squelching and braking of feet in motion and the ball ricocheting off the walls.

The ball was a small, black sphere of hollow rubber. Flexible once warm, it could reach speeds of well over 100km/hour. Some balls had a yellow dot, others a red one, each of which indicated a different speed. You’d have to agree with your opponent which ball to use – a slower one being more advanced because it didn’t bounce as much. I quickly found any decent opponent would snort contemptuously if I even considered offering up the lesser ball. Once agreed you then had to warm the damn thing up. Usually that involved hammering it repeatedly against the front wall, which was easy for people like Jon or Nigel who had the skills, but for a beginner like myself it simply displayed my ineptitude. Two or three hits then the ball would skew out of control and I’d have to scramble over and pick it up. A feeling of embarrassment towards my opponent and a shame that I was irritating or holding them when they wanted to get warm. In winter the courts would be chillingly cold which made warming the ball up even harder. There was a shortcut available though, rolling it vigorously back and forth under your shoe. Occasionally in matches the ball would split or, more likely, get lost in the rafters. When that happened you had to suspend play and warm up another ball. Another opportunity to display ineptitude.

Being the first individual sport I’d played, I now realise I felt a sense of responsibility not to show myself up with the wrong etiquette, so I’d go through the motions of warmups that I didn’t know or understand. All my routines were copied from the players I met over the following months. If someone jogged around the edges of court or up and down in the corridor then I did that. If they swished their racket and did some hip looseners or shoulder swings then I did them too. Mostly I stood there thinking “Can we just get on and play?”.

Games were, of course, preceded by the need to decide who would serve first. No flip of a coin, play for service or “Which hand is the ball in?” deciders as some sports do. The tradition of squash was to spin a racket on its head having identified a logo on each side of the racket to represent each player. One of my few moments of one-upmanship was having a racket that had “My Serve”, “Your Serve” printed on it precisely for this situation. Opponents would begin to ask whether I wanted the Slazenger logo or blank side of their racket, and I’d proudly interject and show them the “My Serve” / “Your Serve” markings. Of course there’s always one person who doesn’t get it and I recall showing this to an opponent who then said he wanted to take the “My Serve”! Didn’t seem to understand the implied ownership of my racket, my serve.

A difficulty of squash is that it’s not a sport where the ball easily goes out of bounds, it usually stays in court until it can’t be returned.  Out of bounds happens if you hit it upwards enough, or aim too low at the front wall thereby hitting the bottom 18-inches of the metal “tin”, but most of the time you’re playing until one of you is unable to return the ball before it’s bounced twice. The front wall is theoretically unmissable, it’s 20 feet wide stretching up to 15 feet. You can play the ball off the side walls before or after hitting the front wall. It can rebound off the back wall if it goes deep enough. This is what begins to make squash so difficult for a beginner, it’s a game of angles and you have to be able to read the flight of the ball, predict where it’s going and get into position for your next shot.

Skilled players have an ability to keep rallies going for an average of 15-20 seconds, but as a beginner mine were often over before I’d even started. My opponent would serve, I’d lunge to volley the ball in mid-flight and misjudge it. Even then, I still had the chance to scrabble around and try to play it before the second bounce. But I rarely had the technical skill to play a good shot. Good players knew how to exploit my weaknesses. They’d play the ball off the front wall to die in the back corner. They’d play every shot in a rally to my backhand which was technically harder to co-ordinate returns from. They’d play drop shots after pushing me deeper and deeper to the back of court.

I dived in enthusiastically, playing lunchtimes and evenings – whenever I could get a court booking and find an opponent. With the games popularity, that might mean arriving at 7am for a pre-breakfast game or waiting until 2pm for a late lunch – the courts were well-used at peak times. With regular play, my understanding of the game grew gradually. I no longer lunged wildly at serves which I should have waited to bounce. I began to learn the footwork and technique for a backhand. Jon taught me how to face into the back corner so that, with a flick of the wrist I could simply sweep a shot back down the line to hit the front wall, then watch it loop back to land in the same corner where my opponent had just tried to put me under pressure. What happens as you learn to play a sport is you develop technically, tactically and mentally. Being a bad player means you physically develop your speed and strength only as quickly as you can learn to play the game well.

One of the key tactics is to control the “T” – the centre of the court – from there you can reach the rest of court easily. Every shot you play is trying to force your opponent off the “T” so you can take it over. Of course they have the same aim. If you watch good players, you’ll see there’s a dance going on as one waltzes off the “T”, the other moves onto it only to vacate it moments later and be replaced by their opponent again. As a beginner there was no such dance going on. My opponent would stand on the “T” and I would constantly be scrambling around them to reach balls at full stretch, just about able to return them. My opponent would take two or three strides from the “T” and play the ball to some corner of court where I wasn’t, leaving me to take five or six desperate lunging steps to try to get the ball while my opponent would waltz back onto the “T” comfortable in the knowledge they had the game firmly under control.

So in my early days, I wasn’t very good. I’d take a couple of steps to return a serve, I’d take a few lunging steps across court to reach a ball, my opponent would kill the rally and score a point. I only needed enough fitness for a few seconds of play. That was the way it was for the first few months.

As I improved I began to make rallies last longer. I began to win more points which made games last longer and, consequently I got fitter, which in turn helped rallies to last longer. I began to understand the angles involved. Experience told me that when a ball hit this point on the front wall, it would go over there. When it hit that particular spot, it went there. I began to be able to position myself earlier for return shots and gradually my technique improved.  Mentally, my shot selection improved as I learned when to play a drop shot, when to play it deep and when it was inadvisable to play them. I started playing better opponents who in turn pushed me for longer rallies, better shots, and fewer mistakes and so on. That’s the nature of the improvement, there’s nothing radical in this if you apply yourself.

The highlight moment of my squash years was taking part in the annual tournament. Maybe I played in two, but I only remember the game where I was knocked out by Mack. An experienced player, I’d guess he was around fifty; he was lean, wily, whitehaired, a talker and he was full of gamesmanship. He’d take any ‘let’ he could, slow the game down when he was losing and find ways to take breathers after long rallies. Fitness was my greatest asset, so of course I tried to run him ragged but he’d take every second he could and every break between sets to recover. Looking back, I can’t blame him.

With my boss Jon being a good player, I’d already seen and heard about the tournament before I played in it, I probably supported him in the previous years. I reckon the tournament was played over two weeks of February, in the evenings with a straight knockout. What I remember distinctly is the hubbub associated with it. The balconies overlooking the courts would be crowded with supporters and players who’d entered, especially those still in the tournament or due to play later. And like Wimbledon fortnight or the FA Cup, as you got closer to the final, the interest level increased. If you arrived late you’d be watching over the shoulder of others or trying to squeezing into the gap at the end of the row by the wall. The support generated oohs, aahs, and rounds of applause for exciting rallies. It was nothing like playing on a lunchtime when a couple of friends might watch for five minutes to fill time before they had to return to the office.

I played Mack in, what I think would have been, the third round of the tournament. The winner of the game would then play Paul who I’d become good friends with. We often played matches and he always beat me. Always. But I was fast-improving whereas he’d been playing for some years; I felt I held something back in our friendly games and that the do-or-die nature of the knockout would give me a sharper edge. I was sure I’d beat him if I could get past Mack. And if I beat Paul then I’d probably have been in the quarterfinals.

But I had to get past Mack first. And initially that didn’t seem too hard. The matches were best of five games and I easily went two-nil up running him round court with repetitive whipping forehand shots, gradually pulling him off the ‘T’ until, I’d drive an unreturnable cross-court shot to his backhand to win the rally. It was all going to plan and then as victory closed in during the third game, I tensed up and began to make mistake after mistake.

It was a classic case of choking and Mack was wily enough to just keep popping the ball up for me to smash it into the tin or mishit. It was terrible. Not just because I was losing but because I knew the whole balcony were watching me throw the match away. I’d shown them how well I could play for two games, now I was showing them how badly I handled pressure. I could hear gasps and mutterings whenever I played a bad shot. It became obvious I was going to lose the third game and then the fourth. A friend or colleague would shout down a word of encouragement but all it did was remind me that I was playing badly and now needed some kind of external support that I hadn’t needed when I was playing well. I don’t recall the details of how I came to lose the deciding fifth game, only that I went from two-nil up to losing three-two. I think Mack went on to beat Paul in the next round, it’s not etched in my memory, as it wasn’t something I wanted to be reminded of or talk about.

I don’t recall exactly when or why I stopped playing. I first touched a volleyball in the summer of 1992 and decided I wanted to get good at it. The bank also opened an onsite gym which was a bargain at £6 per month and it began to take up my lunch times and evenings. I believe that’s how I got into running and entered my first 10K. Either there were some entry forms on the reception desk when I walked in, or someone at the gym talked me into it. It was also the winter I moved out of my parents’ home and began growing up and looking after myself. Extra time from living closer to work and a need to recreate my routines saw me move away from old friends and habits.

I’d guess the gym hastened the demise of the squash league. The guys who’d enthusiastically competed five years before were getting older and gaining more family responsibilities. Hitting their thirties and forties their knees were creaking and they knew their place in the pecking order of the league. The competitive fires were probably beginning to die down as they knew who they could beat and who they couldn’t. The gym presented an exciting new, alternative for keeping fit with no dependency on finding opponents or booking courts. It could easily be fitted in around the rest of their lives.

I’m sure I played the occasional game of squash in 1993 and 1994 but volleyball became my new all-consuming passion. I started playing basketball, going to the gym, there was circuit training in the sportshall on Wednesday lunchtime and tennis lessons on Thursdays. With so many options available, squash fell by the wayside. Just the occasional game now and then.

I’ve only played three or four times since I left Chase in 1997. Each time I played I was in a terrible state the next day. I could still read the game well enough to know where the ball was going. I had the fitness to get into position to play those shots. I didn’t have the fine motor skills to play winning shots so rallies lasted much longer than when I first played. As a beginner, my fitness built up as I got better at the game, now I’d play hard for forty minutes using squash-specific muscles that weren’t used to being used. Deep lunging stretches to reach the ball in all corners of the court. I’d walk off court dripping in sweat feeling like I’d had a good workout. The next day, I’d suffer from muscle soreness that lasted two or three days. I couldn’t take those matches easy but, with decent fitness, I paid for it in the following days.

Nowadays I see the same thing happen with runners returning from injury. Having been used to running regularly for an hour or more they jump back in with a half hour test run. Invariably it’s at a decent pace because their legs are feeling fresh. What they don’t do is go for a gentle easy run to ease back in and be sure the injury has fully healed. If they were running thirty miles per week before they get injured they come straight back running five days per week and quickly back up to that sort of mileage. Then they wonder why the get injured again.

When you come back to running after an injury, you should begin with short gentle runs – possibly as short as five minutes and ideally no more than fifteen minutes. If that’s ok you might do it again the next day but you might take a rest day for extra assurance. If nothing’s causing problems you build slowly back up from there, adding five or ten minutes until you’re sure you’re injury-free. Of course it depends on how big the injury was but for anything major, I’d aim for the better part of a month to rebuild.

Likewise when I went to circuit training after a break, I never pushed it. I took the session easy knowing I’d get a decent workout and consequently I avoided the next day soreness. But I never figured out how to achieve that graduated approach when getting back into playing squash. I don’t think it’s possible. You book a court for forty minutes, you’ve got to use the time up. And you have to give your best efforts for your opponent. All you can hope is to walk away unscathed and maybe to accept you’re going to be sore for a while.

As the pictures attest I still have my squash racket and the Hi-Tec shoes I bought all those years ago. They’ve been up in the loft ever since. I thought I’d barely used the shoes as they look so clean and the soles are hardly worn. But when I looked inside, I could see the insoles had been worn around the ball of my big toe. I spent a lot of time on my toes and driving off the forefoot to get to balls quickly. The cleanliness of the shoes is no surprise because squash courts are clean and shoes don’t get dirty like running shoes would. I was obviously into Hi-Tec as my first pair of running shoes were Hi-Tec Silver Shadows which I think I bought for £25.

Picking up my racket I’d forgotten how light it is. I cocked my wrist and gave it a couple of swishes – the old three finger hold with thumb and forefinger loose came automatically. I regripped the racket a few times myself. It was one of those tasks I’d do periodically, more because I enjoyed doing it than out of necessity. I remember Jon used to have about three grips on his racket so that it was big and fat to nestle in his hand. I also remember if you ever saw him running around a football pitch he ran with one hand open and the other as if he was holding a squash racket!

My racket was made by a company called Unsquashable and the headcover has a stylish mix of fluorescent pink and black. I rarely buy things based on looks but graphite rackets were becoming more attractive than the wooden and steel ones that preceded them and I think I bought this one because it had a larger sweet spot. Unsquashable still seem to be in existence, making rackets and I recall they were connected to Jahangir Khan, who was the best player of the 1980s.

I was definitely not the best player of the 1990s and when I look back squash was simply a sport I played regularly for a couple of years before relegating it to “once in a while” as a way to connect with new acquaintances. There’s a part of me that would love to play again just to experience hitting the forehands and backhands down the line. To stand waiting for the serve and the frustration of trying to dig a ball out of the back corner. Maybe one day the opportunity will present itself  and I’ll be ready to give it another go but I’m also content to leave it in the past. Squash was what I did then and life moves on. For now, I’m far too focused on my running and coaching others to become better runners.

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