This article has been adapted from a piece written by Mike Dale for the WSF-endorsed Squash Player Magazine.
A year ago, Aron Harper-Robinson was in a rut. Working as a chef to subsidise a music career that wasn’t taking off and with a family to support, he felt “totally demoralised.”
During a lunch break, he sat down and wrote a list of mantras for what he wanted to achieve with the rest of his life, including: ‘Be your own person,’ ‘Don’t copy anyone,’ ‘Get creative,’ and ‘Trailblazer.’ It led to an epiphany.
In his early 20s, Harper-Robinson had coached squash on a programme which engaged children from under-privileged areas in Manchester, England. Almost two decades on, it was that early experience which inspired his career pivot.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’m better than this,’” said Harper-Robinson, now aged 40. “I decided to go back to squash coaching but do it differently: totally blow the doors off it!”
Now, almost one year on, Calder Community Squash CIC is flourishing, with programmes that use squash as a vehicle to enrich lives in under-served communities in Halifax, West Yorkshire.
Although Harper-Robinson is based at Old Crossleyans Club in Halifax, he says that his success comes from taking squash to the people rather than waiting for them to come to the club.
“We’ve got to get creative and get out of the clubs to increase uptake in the game. 90 percent of people I bring to Old Crossleyans never knew the club was there, and they only live round the corner!” he said.
‘Squash at the Mosque’ was Calder Community Squash’s first programme. At the beginning, Harper-Robinson had youngsters hitting up against a wall in the car park of a mosque in one of Halifax’s most deprived areas.
The kids had fun and now the programme’s name has been tweaked to ‘Squash from the Mosque,’ with youngsters visiting Old Crossleyans to play twice a week.
That early success reinforced the importance of actively engaging communities on their own doorstep, putting rackets in hands and giving them the opportunity to fall in love with squash.
‘Squash and Scran’* at a local youth club was Harper-Robinson’s next venture. It drew on his knowledge of food preparation and nutrition to teach youngsters how to cook basic meals, combining it with street squash outside the wall or rebound nets.
As a member of Rackets Cubed, he delivers the model of squash coaching as well as maths, English and nutrition education to children from the nearby Warley Road Primary School at Old Crossleyans once a week.
Partnering with International Mixed Ability Sports [IMAS], he has started mixed ability racketball classes for young people, including those with disabilities and special needs. They’re called the Calder Crocs and training sessions are full of music, movement and fun.
A new project, ‘We See You,’ engages refugees and and asylum seekers in squash and relevant education opportunities, while ‘Bounce Back’ uses squash and physical exercise to support men experiencing mental health issues.
One participant said: “At my first squash session, my self-esteem was pretty low. But it has given me a real boost to be learning something new. Every session is different and always great fun. It [was] a real antidote to the isolation during the pandemic.”
Calder Community Squash is set to go on tour to educate other clubs in the art of outreach work so they too can break down barriers with their local communities and get more people from all sorts of different demographics on court hitting balls.
“I have yet to meet a kid who doesn’t have a good time on a squash court,” Harper-Robinson said.
“The more kids you work with, the more uptake you will get. You’ve just got to keep providing more opportunities that offer a pathway into the club.”
All this innovation has attracted funding from the National Lottery, Sport England, Yorkshire Sport Foundation, England Squash and the Community Foundation for Calderdale.
“The more creative I become, the more people want to come on board,” Harper-Robinson said.
He added: “ I genuinely believe that making these small changes to people’s lives is utterly necessary because the bigger picture right now is pretty alarming and overwhelming.
Over a lifetime you learn things that are really important to you and it became clear I was really interested in trying to unite people and communities. Squash just happens to be my game and the vehicle I use to do that. Growing the game and showing it in a positive light to new audiences is a bi-product.
“It gives me a lot satisfaction, especially considering where I was a year ago!”
*Scran: a British slang term for food