Published courtesy of Squash Player magazine. Full details on the latest magazine here.
Mike Dale meets legendary coach Hesham El Attar, whose tutelage helped mould many of Egypt’s modern-day stars.
What do Ramy Ashour, Tarek Momen, Nouran Gohar, Karim Abdel Gawad, Karim Darwish and Omneya Abdel Kawy have in common? The answer is coach Hesham El Attar. His influence on these Egyptian titans’ careers has been truly profound.
The mercurial Ashour calls him “one of the best coaches, if not the best, I have ever dealt with.” Ex-world No.1 Gawad says: “He totally changed my game.. by far he is my favourite coach.” And for World Champion Momen: “Coach Hesham provides guidance to his players that far exceeds the boundaries of a squash court.”
So what’s his secret? It lies partly in El Attar’s detailed vision – “a complete picture” – of what makes a good squash player. “I’m a huge believer in the mental, physical and technical parts all being linked. You can’t have any loopholes,” he explains.
“If a player’s approach and exit from a shot isn’t efficient, you can’t build a good strategy around that. When one shot isn’t technically perfect, I can tell what will happen to that player in a rally, the problems they will encounter, when they will physically suffer and how long they can maintain their intensity.
“It’s the same with the psychological part. Players had their own sports psychologists and mental trainers and I was able to convert that general work into specific examples within rallies, situations with opponents or referees they weren’t coping with, or their response to defeats.”
El Attar’s fascination with squash began aged six in India when he peeked over the balcony to watch his father play. The family flitted between Egypt, India and England and when abroad El Attar would fly back to Egypt for tournaments.
He studied economics and psychology at the University of Cairo and took a gap year in London to try out as a professional.
Unsponsored and unsupported, he slogged around the ISPA circuit and played the likes of Phil Kenyon, Hiddy Jahan and Ross Norman in the American Express League.
After transferring to the American University in London and graduating in 1986, he was taken under the wing of the great Abdel Wahed, then Egyptian national coach, as his assistant, working with a young Ahmed Barada (who won the World Junior Open and four British Junior Open titles) and Omar El Borolossy (later part of Egypt’s first ever World Team Championship winning side in 1999).
El Attar took Abdel Wahed’s place as Egypt’s national junior coach before taking a club job in Turin, where he married and started a family. He missed Egypt while in Italy and his passion remained with nurturing the young players of his homeland.
“I really love helping young people,” he says. “Young, prominent squash players are upbeat, energetic, ambitious, a different breed. We’d be around the club a lot and talk about their concerns and attitudes outside of squash. We formed great friendships.
“It’s part of my job to help them deal with personal things that could upset them and have a negative effect on their training or performance. It’s important for them to feel in control, happy and confident.”
Much work went into re-moulding Momen and Gawad’s natural, flamboyant attacking instincts. “They were such good movers and that gave them the confidence to back up their risky shots which so often opened up the court,” El Attar explains. “They just thought that was normal! Being solid and having a structure, then surprising your opponent with something creative, that was what I tried to teach them.”
El Attar talks at a length worthy of a whole separate article about working with the young Ramy. “It all came so naturally to him that he didn’t rationalise it,” he reveals. “We worked on making better choices at, like, 9-9 in a game; we studied his opponents’ movement to look at which shot combin- ations they would find most disturbing and we improved his consistency in training.
“Being such an artist, so creative and ener- getic, we needed to maintain his interest and focus long-term by going beyond certain thresholds in training. I knew that better preparation would send him into tourn- aments with higher confidence.
“If you just rely on pure talent, it doesn’t work every day. He would talk aggressively and negatively to himself on the bad days. Making him analyse and rationalise was crucial for those days when it didn’t quite come so naturally.”
El Attar left the Egyptian job in 2013 and moved to the US. Now 56, he has built a four-court academy named Squash Advantage in New Jersey which opened in February 2019.
Having built up his personal client base in the US from three siblings on a private court to nearly 70 youngsters at his own facility, coronavirus has cut income, staff and player numbers by more than half. “We’re surviving though,” he says with a smile. A man with his calibre and zeal cannot be kept down for long.