It’s safe to say that Chris Walker boasts a pretty enviable CV. As a player, the Englishman – who rose as high as World No.4 – picked up medals in the World Championships, the World Team Championships, the World Doubles Championships and the Commonwealth Games, before going on to begin a successful post-playing career that included coaching the US national team.
Since January 2022, Walker has been working with the Squash Rackets Federation of India (SRFI) as Foreign Coach, helping guide the players from his base in New York. Just three months in to Walker’s tenure, India picked up two major honours, winning gold medals in the mixed and women’s events at the 2022 WSF World Doubles Squash Championships in Glasgow – India’s first and second ever wins.
In a WSF Q&A, Walker reveals the key qualities of a squash coach and provides an insight into the finer details of his role.
Q: Thank you for chatting with us today Chris. To begin, can you tell me a bit about how you first started working with India?
“It’s a conversation that started almost two years ago, until COVID really slammed the brakes on everything. So we officially started in January 2022, with the plan to have some activity here in New York around the Tournament of Champions, but again COVID delayed that, so I was just able to connect with all the team via WhatsApp but it wasn’t until the WSF World Doubles Squash Championships that we were able to really get going.
“Initially there was an advert for an overseas coach for the team to dovetail with the great programme they’ve got in Chennai. Chennai is the main base, but the SRFI were looking for a base for players to be able to come to between tournaments while they’re travelling around the world, because obviously going back to India isn’t necessarily the best option if you’re touring, and there are a number tournaments in the States as well as around the globe. New York is a good hub for a lot of a lot of them as they’re travelling to and from tournaments. Thus as a base it is great for all the team to be able to access in between events, especially with the Arlen Specter US Squash Center just a short drive away in Philadelphia, which has the international size doubles courts with the lower tin. It helps us to prepare for the major games that are coming up.
“I think it is excellent that the Squash Rackets Federation of India had the vision of an experienced foreign coach in the lead up to the 2022 Commonwealth Games and Asian Games and even better the Ministry of Sports in India has backed that.”
Q: Speaking of doubles, the year got off to a great start for India at the WSF World Doubles Squash Championships, with Saurav Ghosal and Dipika Pallikal Karthik winning India’s first ever gold in the mixed doubles and then Pallikal Karthik and Joshna Chinappa winning the women’s doubles gold immediately afterwards. How much time were you able to spend together as a squad in the build up?
“That’s a good question. And really, ‘not a lot’ is the answer, because of the restrictions preventing everyone travelling. So we started off a little bit on the fly but I felt confident in the team and I do have some solid doubles experience – even going back to having won the inaugural World Doubles Championship with Mark Cairns in 1997!
“Even though I hadn’t had a chance to work with them as a group, I’d spoken to them and had a clear idea of our strategies, particularly with Saurav, and about our expectations and getting everyone in the right frame of mind. I think as a coach, having been a player, that was my focus: get everyone in the right frame of mind for competition and it probably helped because I knew most of the players even from seeing them on the circuit over the years. Once we were together, we learned rapidly and knew what everyone wanted, what they needed to produce their best performances, what each person had done individually in their preparations and where everyone was mentally.
“Working on the right frame of mind and expectation was something we could do before, which was valuable, because doubles is all about working together and having synchronicity is important. A lot of the players, like Saurav and Dipika and Joshna have a lot of experience together, so they have a good understanding and a lot of patterns around their movements and who’s covering who.”
Q: The India team seemed to get better and better as the tournament progressed. What was team management like once things had started?
‘So all of them, and especially Saurav and Dipika as a team, have got a lot of things that they’re already great at, and I’m not coming along to try and change everyone’s game and upset that rhythm. I wanted to have everyone feel that they were free to play as they want to play, and then, when I could, I would add a couple of tweaks and a couple of ideas.
“A lot of that happens during the matches. The preparation is getting mentally focused and up for each day in each match because there’s a lot of squash in that period of time for the championships. But then there’s the smaller tweaks that happen along the way because you’re playing the matches against different opponents and there are different strategies. So there was a bit of a two-pronged approach.”
Q: How did you work with fellow coach Harinder Pal Sandhu to get the most out of the players?
“Harinder was great. He’s got a good rapport with all the players and we spoke a lot throughout.
“We were both there in the corner for the players and we were very conscious about not overloading them with two minutes of dialogue in between games. It was important to try to keep the points very clear and succinct and back each other up with what we were saying. I think it’s always good to have someone in your corner, spectating alongside you who’s knowledgeable, has another view of the game and their own ideas. It can really help in avoiding missing something.
“This is even more the case in doubles, since there’s a lot going on on the court. It was beneficial to have two pairs of eyes on the game sometimes. Often, we’d have one of us watching one player and one watching the other. You can’t watch all four players at once and the ball, there’s a lot going on. So it was really quite handy and I think it worked well.”
Q: Can you tell me a bit more about your coaching philosophy?
“I think that I, as a coach, take each person as a new project. I have all my ideas and my experience from what I’ve learned as a player, but I’m only one type of player, right? There’s a lot of different types of players, lots of different levels of skills, and abilities, and fitness and strength etc. All of these things subtly make each player individual, for example different height players have slightly different ways to move and play as well. So I bring the experience of understanding all of those different things to then offer what I think can benefit the individual I’m working with at the time. And the more time I spend working with an individual, the more I get to know them, the more we can expand on these to help them become better players.”
Q: Do you take any inspiration from any of your former coaches?
“Oh yeah, my coaches have been a big influence on my coaching. In particular Jonah Barrington, who coached me from U10s at the Jonah Barrington National Junior Squad training camps as well as then being there whenever I needed support through my professional career. He led by example in so many ways, such as showing the value of hard work, dedication, discipline and creating a fun environment within our groups and teams of training with each other to push us all along.
“I need to mention my first coach, too, Frank Barrett back at Chelmsford Squash Club when I was a real youngster. His passion and joy for the game got me hooked on squash as much as anything.
“Then as a professional there are people like Dave Clarke, David Pearson, Stuart Courtney, Paul Wright and Bryan Patterson, who were all in my corner at various stages of my career but a special shout out would be to Neil Harvey who was incredibly influential in the second half of my career in teaching me about the mental and philosophical side, and about maturing and getting a more balanced view as I was coming into coaching. I would say he added three or four years to my playing career from just being more intelligent about my approach to life and training.”
Q: You’ve mentioned the mental side of the game, which is something we hear about a lot from players and coaches. Do you think that part of the game has developed since you were playing?
“Yes, I think it’s getting more professional. You have to find the inches and the little improvements of those details, which are everywhere on the court and within a person and find a way to improve them, the best you can and, and that can be achieved more effectively with a great team around you. You hear more and more from the top players who are giving after tournament speeches about their team, and it’s true. There’s more people involved to eke out those little details, the sports psychology side of things, alongside the fitness, the nutrition, the mental toughness and the skills on the court.
“That’s what the top players are doing; they’re all trying to find the extra bit, the extra way to improve all areas of their game, to get the next ball back, be a bit smarter, do everything a little bit better and raise their game. That’s been a journey since I was playing, I probably had a smaller team back then but there’s no way I could do it alone and to see what’s happening now, where a lot of the players have got some great support and really value it as well, is fantastic. It keeps the game moving forward.”
Q: Looking at your own journey, what’s been useful to you, as your coaching career has progressed, to your own development as a coach?
“I think staying involved in the game and watching so many matches, because you see the game evolve and different players bringing new ideas about how to play.
“It’s a constant learning process and I will never believe that I know everything. There’s always new stuff coming along, new things to learn and new problems to solve. I think that’s another part of being a coach that I haven’t mentioned, that problem solving part. You’re an extension to the people that you’re coaching, really, to help them solve their problems as far as being squash players and giving them ideas to do that which, over time, also translate to life skills as well.”