Simply Squash Academy is a Zambian squash club that boasts an impressive 60 percent female membership and 75 percent female coaching staff. This stands in stark contrast to a 2020 survey of 24 clubs in England, which revealed only 17 percent of players were female. Founder Mayase Mibenge explains how the club has achieved this and how other clubs across the world can increase participation among women and girls.
What is Simply Squash Academy (SSA)?
Founded in July 2019, Simply Squash has created a safe and fun environment where our clients find strength on court. We predominantly cater to women, though we also have a small but steadily increasing number of men and children as well.
What does SSA seek to achieve?
Our aim is to breathe new life into squash, recruiting players with all levels of experience from beginner to very experienced. We want to introduce women and girls to a sport that requires power, strategy, and finesse and offer players intense but enjoyable sessions. We provide one-on-one sessions and social events, allowing them to de-stress and fight for their physical and mental wellness with other like-minded individuals who prioritise their health.
Despite COVID and adapting to new norms, we have held fast to our underlying belief that creating a community of women and girls through squash will be our biggest reward. Our end goal is to achieve a combination of sport, education and mentorship. We will look to extend our academy to support girls who seek a career in sports that is sustainable and empowering.
What would you say are the key contributing factors to achieving a 60 percent female membership?
On a personal note, after working in the corporate world for almost 20 years, I realised that women talk about their health primarily when they are pregnant or overweight. When I looked a little bit deeper, I saw that schools encourage girls to take up team sports, usually Netball and Volleyball, which are perfect when physical education is compulsory but almost impossible when you’re working, have kids and other responsibilities.
What we are doing right includes:
- Actively recruiting female coaches;
- Offering fun yet tailor-made coaching to draw out each player’s strengths;
- Striving for professionalism in all our services provided;
- Allowing players exposure to playing other coaches and players;
- Hosting Ladies Socials to give our players a chance to network in a non-traditional environment and in their gym kit!
- Organising an Annual Squash Retreat
As women, it is easier for us to relate to some of what we all go through in regards to life, aches and pains (not always squash related) and wardrobe malfunctions on court! We have seen it all!
When recruiting and training your coaches, how did SSA gain higher interest from women?
In Zambia, students typically finish their secondary school and are faced with a ‘gap year’ of 12 – 14 months if they wish to enter Zambia’s primary universities. Our aim is to engage these girls, teach them all things squash, mentor and guide them and allow them to keep coaching around their schooling schedule when they start university so they can earn an independent income.
In addition, the availability of female coaches has been one of our highest selling points! Through our training, we ensure each coach is trained to our standards on and off court. We encourage the coaches to engage with the players and be fully knowledgeable to answer all sorts of squash questions and offer advice.
What advice do you give to other clubs across the world trying to increase their female participation and membership?
Target women PLEASE! Social media is great, but word of mouth is even better! We have so, so much thanks to give to the ladies who picked up a racket for the first time ever and took a chance on Simply Squash. And even more thanks as they recruited their friends, workmates and at times dragged in an unsuspecting husband or children to play!
Provide women and girls with a safe space to play, network and offer equipment. We provide rackets and balls for our players, removing the cost of buying new rackets. This offers a reduction in start-up costs as they decide whether to commit to the game or not and stops new players being overwhelmed.
Create women-targeted activities and socials. In the 15 years of playing squash prior to the launch of SSA, I only played three women socially during that time! Any woman walking through our doors will play two or three coaches in a month and if they attend a social, no less than three or four other players.
What would your message be to encourage women to get involved and try squash?
I played an exhausting number of sports in my younger days including tennis, rounders, netball, hockey, rugby, swimming, and terrible cricket! When I got older and started working, I tried going to the gym, power walking, jogging, cycling, home aerobics, yoga and skipping challenges to name a few. But I’m glad to say that squash has been my sport of choice which has always drawn me back for almost 20 years!
You can play squash EVERY SINGLE DAY of the year, come rain or shine. As intense as squash can be- your best game is the result of a combination of mental and physical strength. Discover your game- own it, your tribe – thrash them (with squash love of course) and enjoy a fitness journey quite unlike any other that gets you fighting fit. Play strong ladies!
Supporting Simply Squash Academy
As more women relate and gravitate to Simply Squash Academy- we continue to evolve and expand. In this regard, we’ve recently launched an online store with quirky ladies t-shirts [more apparel to follow] which started with squash but is now expanding to other sports (Instagram @hitlikeagirl2020). The plan is to use some of the proceeds from the apparel towards funding a project targeted at getting under privileged girls on court and further reducing entry barriers to potential squash players.