In part one of the new ‘Get to Know’ series, former World No.1, WSF Vice-President and current Chair of Coaching Commission, Sarah Fitz-Gerald speaks to Karen Meakins – who recently won the O50 WSF World Masters Squash Championship – to learn more about her decision to move from England to Barbados to coach squash.
Q: Great to chat with you today Karen. Could you start by telling me about how your squash journey begin?
A: “I started playing squash in England 40 years ago at the age of 10. I was a child who tried lots of different sports but didn’t really love any of them and then I tried squash. Although I wasn’t a natural player, I loved squash and through hard work, determination and some great coaches I have had the most amazing journey over the past 40 years.”
Q: And what inspired you to be a coach?
A: “I loved being on a squash court and really wanted to share what I had learnt over the years so when I turned 16 I did my England Squash Level 1 coaching certification and went on to become a Level 3 Coach. Little did I know that this would lead me to a life on a small island in the Caribbean!”
Q: Where and who do you coach?
A: “I have coached at the Barbados Squash Club since I moved to Barbados in 2000. Due to three knee surgeries over the last few years I no longer do much coaching. I mainly focus on the Masters players and a few younger players. I still really enjoy coaching, especially with players who want to learn.
“I am also a WSF Level 1 coach and Level 2 instructor and I was fortunate to be invited to Guatemala in 2015 to take part in the Level 1 course and also qualified as a Level 1 instructor at the same time. I have held Courses in Barbados and Jamaica and enjoy being able to teach and qualify new coaches.”
Q: Can you tell me about a positive memorable coaching moment?
A: “In the summer of 2000 I left England to coach in Barbados. I had never coached full time but the opportunity to live on an island I had grown to love was not one I could turn down. For the first few months in Barbados I mainly did individual coaching sessions and taught at the Squash Association’s Junior Program.
“In 2001, I began coaching the national women’s team and they won the Caribbean Championships for the first time since 1995. In 2002 I was eligible to represent Barbados and so became coach and player. From 2001 to 2017 Barbados won two Southern Caribbean Championships, six Caribbean Championships and finished runner-up six times. They also won bronze in the 2006 and 2010 CAC Games. Coaching the Barbados Women’s Team has without a doubt been the favourite part of my coaching career.
“I think my most memorable coaching experience was coaching the Barbados Team in the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia. It was the most amazing thing to be part of a Commonwealth Games especially in Australia which is one of my favourite places in the world.”
Q: And how about a difficult coaching moment?
A: “One of my toughest coaching moments was in 2006 at the Junior Caribbean championships. Our Under 19 player was in the final and had never won a Caribbean title. This was her last chance as she was 18. She was unbelievably nervous, so much so that she was vomiting between games.
“I had to show a calm exterior even though that was not how I was feeling at all. I think I was more nervous than she was. Any time she hit a bad shot she would look at me and I just tried to look relaxed and mouth ‘it’s ok’. My main job between games was trying to keep her calm whilst giving her small pieces of advice.
“Thankfully, she won the match in a close 5 setter.
“I think one of the biggest challenges of being a coach is motivating younger players. Juniors often have a lot of other pressures such as school, so for me it is important that they enjoy being on court more than anything else. Sometimes it is obvious that a junior isn’t enjoying a session and it is important to communicate with them to find out why.
“As coaches we are not only there to teach them squash but also to help support them through life. Sometimes my coaching sessions have involved sitting outside the court and listening and giving advice on non squash related matters.
“We all know how it feels to have a bad day on court due to outside circumstances. As coaches we have to try and recognise these times and offer help and support. Coaches are very important mentors and role models and we should never forget this.”
Q: And to finish, could you share with me your number one piece of advice for an aspiring squash coach?
A: “For anyone wanting to become a squash coach, know that you will encounter some of the most frustrating times of your life but these will be outweighed by the most rewarding times. Also know that it will most definitely be worth it.
“The most important piece of advice I can give is to be approachable. As coaches, we don’t know everything and we should be encouraging our students to ask questions. It is important that we are challenged as that way we will never stop learning.”