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Karen Cagliarini: Turning a ‘devastating’ experience into a 32-year coaching career

In part four of the new ‘Get to Know’ series, former World No.1 and Chair of the WSF Coaching Commission Sarah Fitz-Gerald speaks to former World No.36 Karen Cagliarini, who combines coaching at her own Squash Logic Melton club with being a member of the WSF Coaching Commission and member of the Board of Directors for Squash Victoria.

Great chatting to you again, Karen, could you start by telling us a bit about your career and current roles?
And you, Sarah! Over the past 40 years I have played, coached, worked in various administrative roles for the state Squash Federation, run major events and managed a club. Refereeing is the only area of squash I haven’t really ventured into! I’m currently a serving member of the World Squash Coaching Commission and a member of the Board of Directors for our state Squash Association in Victoria.

When and where did your squash journey begin?
My mum worked at the local squash club when I was about eight years old. Both my parents played social competitions across the week too so I was at the club a lot but I was not interested in playing squash at that time. My interests were swimming and gymnastics; I only played squash in a ‘muck around’ capacity on my own from time to time if I was bored while waiting for mum and dad to finish up.

It wasn’t until I turned 10 that I actually wanted to play squash so I joined in the junior club coaching sessions and then went on to play in my first junior pennant team and tournament around 11-12 years of age.

Like most kids my age, I was obsessed with playing squash but didn’t realise at that time that the sport, and in particular coaching it, would become my lifelong passion. I’ve coached for the last 32 years non stop, with the exception of a short period late in pregnancy and shortly after my son, Thomas, was born!

What inspired you to become a coach?
When our squash club was sold, the new owners weren’t too ‘kid friendly’ and our junior player numbers dropped significantly, which impacted our junior pennant teams. I was devastated and wanted to find a way to get more kids to play squash at our club again.

I heard about the work a top Victorian player, Phil Larmer, was doing for our Squash Federation – running clinics for kids using modified equipment in the schoolyard to encourage them to come and try it at their local club. It was a great program that built up lots of junior clubs across the state.

As a player myself, I had several coaches as I progressed through the junior ranks but one in particular, Roger Flynn, inspired me to think about coaching. So at 16 I became a certified coach and set out to do what Phil did – to bring more juniors to my own club.

Naively, my plan was to not only increase the number of juniors at our club but to train these new players to be in my pennant team. Little did I know at the time how long it can take to get new players ‘competition ready’ – I was almost finished my junior playing days by the time most of the new kids at the club were at the standard for pennant!

Regardless, lots of new kids joined our club so I can’t be unhappy with that!

Karen Cagliarini and Sarah Fitz-Gerald at the 2009 WSF Women’s World Junior Championship

Describe a good memorable coaching moment
There are lots of memorable coaching moments and occasions when I’ve felt really privileged to be a coach and grateful for the opportunity to contribute to coaching and coach education. It’s hard to single one out.

Over the years I have coached literally hundreds of kids at our club, firstly on my own and then I convinced my husband, Richard, to join me! Together we have coached many juniors into state and national ranks, state teams, many gaining scholarships with the state institute, selections into national squads and teams, and some went on to try their luck as PSA players too.

At a grassroots participation level I’m proud of how many kids I have introduced to the game at our club from the very first ball they hit, and helped them to develop as far as they wanted to go. Beyond our club, I’m proud of always being part of the system and contributing to its ongoing development in my state and country.

I developed OzSquash, which is the national entry level participation program for children in Australia. It was really exciting to see one of our players start in OzSquash as a five-year-old and emerge seven years later to win two national titles and the Oceania Junior Championships.

At the other end of the spectrum, I loved the opportunity to coach PSA players in the state Institute program and the national junior women’s team on two occasions, in particular with you, at the 2009 WSF Women’s World Junior Championship in Chennai, India.

It’s the little things that I get a real buzz from – like when a beginner finally masters a skill for the first time and the look on their face is priceless. Or when a more accomplished player has that moment of realisation that they’ve learned to self-coach when you’re not there at a match – you know you’ve done your job.

These are all memorable moments for me.

Describe a difficult coaching moment!
Although many coaching scenarios can be challenging, fortunately I’ve not had too many!

I find it difficult when some ‘tough love’ is required and you need to be able to do so while maintaining the relationship you have built with a player.

It’s also hard to show no emotion when watching your players, whether they are winning or losing. But it’s an important skill for coaches, no matter how difficult it is!

Do you have further plans for your coaching career?
I have been fortunate to achieve a lot as a coach having been Victorian state and Australian National junior coach on multiple occasions, and was the Head Coach at the Victorian Institute of Sport. So I’m not looking to pursue any official coaching positions as such and am very content coaching at my own club, where I’m currently focussing on rebuilding the junior coaching programs after the damage from two years of COVID-19 lockdowns here in Melbourne.

I’ve nearly finished completing my level 3 World Squash Coaching certification, which I put on hold during the two years of lockdowns, so I plan to finish that this year.

I have been a coach educator for Squash Australia and my own state Squash Association, in Victoria, for the past 20 years or so. Recently, I became a World Squash Coaching Tutor so I’m looking forward to continuing to contribute to coach education in that capacity.

A number of years ago I was the Australian Deaf Squash Team Head Coach and it was such an amazing experience to work with the deaf community, that I now work as the Leading Teacher at a school for deaf children in Melbourne. I would love to get some deaf squash programs up and going again.

And finally, what’s your number one tip for aspiring squash coaches?
You’ll never know it all, so give yourself permission to be vulnerable. Put your ego aside and be open to learning from and with others.

If you’re a WSF-accredited squash coach, join the official WSF coaching group for more top tips, course information and more.

To find out more on the latest in world squash, follow the World Squash Federation on FacebookInstagramTwitterYouTube and LinkedIn. Watch live and on-demand squash for free at WORLDSQUASH.TV.

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