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Campion on England Squash, The Next Generation and COVID-19

Exclusive by RJ Mitchell

As squash activity around the globe gradually starts to pick up, England Squash National Senior Coach David Campion has provided a unique insight into the work that has gone on behind the scenes at England Squash to insure the nation’s top players have been fully supported.

Courts opened in Egypt last weekend, New Zealand has enjoyed squash activity for over a month and Australia is rolling out a state by state opening but the UK government has only just allowed elite players who are part of the NGB ( National Governing Body)  programme to return to court under stringent protocols.

However, the good news is that the National Squash Centre will be up and running from July 14 and a southern base at the English Institute of Sport, in Hatfield, has just opened up.

Yet with the professional game and all WSF events having been suspended for almost four months, Campion and his coaching team are having to work overtime to ensure a positive focus is maintained and the head coach has revealed he has adopted an ‘outside the box’ approach to make sure he can keep his stars in the best place possible during these challenging times.

But while some of the foremost practitioners of sports psychology in the games of Rugby Union and League have provided invaluable contributions, the proud Yorkshireman has also highlighted the contributions of two England greats in this vital process.

“There has been a lot of work put in during the lockdown and suspension to maintain players both mentally and emotionally of that there is no doubt,” said David.

He continued: “We enlisted the services of Jason Brennan, who worked with the All Blacks and is one of the foremost practitioners working in sports psychology plus Denis Betts from the world of rugby league, who works with a couple of the players individually, has also done some invaluable group work.

David Campion (right) in discussion with Declan James (left)
David Campion (right) in discussion with Declan James (left)

“This has also been combined with our national coaching team and Nick Matthew and Laura Massaro have played a key part in developing workouts and providing match analysis sessions which have been very well received by the players across the various age groups.

“But I think Jason and Denis have been particularly good for our athletes, making them aware of the benefit of being good to yourself and but not worrying or obsessing about things you can’t control.

“I also believe you’ve always got to look outside the box and not become insular in your sport and we have attempted to do that to best effect and benefit for the players and I’m confident it has kept them in a good place.”

Yet the 1990 WSF World Junior Squash Championship runner-up admits that the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have been different for every individual.

Campion explained: “Everyone is different in terms of what their own environment has offered them during the lockdown. But everybody has a racket and a ball and can find a wall and get some hand eye drills done but for some the option to ghost has not been there.

“Also it has been about players finding areas they can make the most of outside and get plenty of running done to maintain and build endurance, but some players are more lucky than others in terms of their own particular environments and we have had to take that into account in what home based equipment they have access to. We have also considered their mental well-being and avoided being too prescriptive.”

When it comes to the positives that may be taken from the suspension, Campion is keen to cite the case of former three-time British and World champion Nick Matthew as a guiding light: “There is an opportunity here for our top players to really have use the suspension for their benefit. I remember when Nick Matthew had a shoulder injury [in 2008], he ended up putting in almost two back-to-back training blocks and really made the most of it,” recalled Campion.

He continued: “With our courts starting to open again, we hope later this month, and the PSA World Tour suspended until mid-August and probably not restarting until the new season in September, there is a huge opportunity here in this respect. 

Campion (right) coaches Laura Massaro during the 2014 WSF Women's World Team Squash Championship
Campion (right) coaches Laura Massaro during the 2014 WSF Women’s World Team Squash Championship

“The guys also have the benefit of a library of top-class match action to view thanks to SQUASHTV and match analysis during this period can be hugely beneficial.”

Right now, English squash’s highest ranked man is 30 year-old Adrian Waller at No.19 in the PSA World Rankings, while 36 year-old James Willstrop at No.20, is the only other Englishman in the men’s top 20. In the women’s rankings, although Sarah-Jane Perry is at No.5, 36-year-old Alison Waters is the only other top 20 performer.

Yet Campion remains sanguine about what he views, with plenty of evidence to support his theory, is a cyclical issue.

He said: “English squash has just enjoyed a period in which we have had three of our best ever players performing at the very top of the game. It’s not so easy to produce your best ever players again in the immediate cycle that follows, maybe even unrealistic to expect that.

“Before Laura Massaro, Nick Matthew and James Willstrop came along we’d had top players, but we were just short on getting a World No.1 or a major winner and then all of a sudden we have three World No.1s across both the men’s and women’s games and multiple major winners.

“At the moment we have Sarah-Jane Perry flying the flag in the women’s top 10 and Adrian Waller, James Willstrop are top 20 level and Declan James just outside. But we also have lots of particularly good younger players and great depth in the English game with plenty of talent starting to emerge such as Lucy Turmel, Jazz Hutton, Patrick Rooney et al. So, we have a good nucleus.

“Beyond these players and into the junior ranks we have several world-class juniors who are either winning British Junior Opens or reaching finals. The British Junior Open is a signpost to the future in the world game and we are competing much better than we have for over a decade against the likes of Egypt.

“I firmly believe we will be a force again at senior level, it will simply take time.”

Campion’s confidence in an English resurgence is borne from his faith in the system already in place at England Squash.

Campion (right) in talks with former World No.1 James Willstrop
Campion (right) in talks with former World No.1 James Willstrop

He said: “We have an excellent system and infrastructure in place at England Squash and have evolved a system where we now have regional performance and talent hubs as opposed to being centralised in Manchester.

“So around the country we have some fantastic coaches who are running the regional hubs. Coaches of the quality of Rob Owen at West Warwicks Club and of course Malcolm Willstrop at Pontefract, Paul Carter, and Adam Fuller in Berkhamsted, all fantastic environments for our programme players. 

“Of course, Nick Matthew runs the Hallamshire hub where a number of our players are either based or visit and Laura Massaro feeds into the younger female group who are embarking on their professional careers. There is no doubt about it, in addition to our immediate national coaching team, we have built a strong system.

“So in total we have five senior hubs and six talent hubs that have been set up in the last 18 months or two years and these are operated at regional level and then as national coach I will feed out to these hubs, attend sessions, communicate and provide support.

“That means that around the country our players are getting consistent access to the country’s top coaches while we also have younger coaches working with the established big names and learning from them. So, both our coaches and our players benefit from this consistency and also it makes sure that there is an awful lot of knowledge sharing going on.

“Clearly our funding situation changed, and it just wouldn’t work to be bringing everyone to Manchester all of the time. The performance and talent hub system works simply because we can increase contact time and all within the constraints of budget.

“But I am 100 per cent confident we will bounce back on the world stage. It used to be that you had the big four squash superpowers in England, Australia, Pakistan, and Egypt and now it is the Egyptians who are dominating and the rest of us are having to bounce back. I have no doubt English Squash will do so.”

As he looks down to the junior game, Campion has no doubt that he doesn’t just see the green shoots of recovery appearing but more a blossoming of homegrown young English talent and there is no doubting his determination to fine tune the system to increase the talent pool and start the junior game earlier.

Campion said: “We are growing the game in England, of that there is no doubt. Regional numbers for our events are up and if you look at the British Junior Open earlier in the year, we had over 900 entrants from all over the globe and in terms of our domestic events at all levels, the numbers are up.

“Now we are also looking at rolling our under-nine age level out and introducing activity for that age group in pockets around the country. You look at Egypt and they have plenty of under-nine tournaments and activity and when I look back at my own junior career, I was being coached at eight or nine years old on national under-10 squads by Jonah Barrington.

Campion and young charge Sam Todd (left) during the 2019 WSF World Junior Championship
Campion and young charge Sam Todd (left) during the 2019 WSF World Junior Championship

“So, I passionately believe we can roll this out and perhaps keep it at a more local level initially. But the bigger picture for England Squash is that our game is growing, it is thriving and there is no reason to be anything other than positive about it.”

Reflecting on his own playing career, Campion remains positive even though injury caused a premature end to a talent that seemed set to flourish on the senior stage: “I was incredibly lucky in my junior career that my first coach was Malcolm Willstrop. I just rocked up at my local club and was just so lucky to step right into an absolutely top-class coaching environment in my local town. I was truly fortunate.

“Then in addition to Malcolm, I had Jonah Barrington as my national coach. I had a great junior career yet sadly, because of injuries, I was forced to retire at 21, but I learned so much from all of that.

“I have also learned so much about the benefits of strength and conditioning work and aspects of sports science that just weren’t there when I was a kid and if I’d had that knowledge when I was a junior getting ready to progress to the seniors, it would have made a huge difference to my own career.”

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