Ten years ago, there were fewer than 100 female squash coaches in Iran. Now, however, women represent more than 60 percent of the country’s roughly 1000 qualified coaches.
One of the main reasons behind this dramatic rise is the proactivity of the Iran Squash Federation (ISF), which has implemented significant reforms at all levels to increase female representation.
Parand Dolatizadeh, a former Iranian national team player and seven-year coach of the Iranian women’s and female junior teams, explains that in the past Iran’s laws segregating genders made the coaching process challenging.
“Men cannot coach women,” Dolatizadeh says. “So, the only way for women to learn to play squash was to teach themselves, or to find one of the few female coaches.”
When Dolatizadeh, who represented Iran at the highest levels between the ages of 15-30, was learning to play, this meant long journeys for coach and player alike.
In recent years, though, the challenges posed by the gender segregation have been turned into opportunities.
Under ISF President Masoud Soleimani’s leadership, the ISF has dramatically increased its support for women’s squash. One of the first reforms Soleimani made after his election in 2009 was for the ISF to distribute its budget equally between the men’s and women’s game. While much of the financing of the men’s game went towards supporting the top players, in the women’s game, a long-term strategy was put in place.
Dolatizadeh explains that the ISF began offering free training courses for aspiring coaches, a move that almost instantly paid dividends.
Initially, WSF Level One programmes, and domestic ones run by the ISF, were offered in the capital, Tehran. This led to an instant increase in the number of female coaches, who in many cases were then able to return to their home cities and towns to replicate the coaching for other women.
Fuelling this expansion was the desire of Iran’s female population to play the game, with a greatly increased media presence helping to bring squash to homes around the country. “Iran is changing,” says Dolatizadeh. “Nowadays in Iran, more women are playing sport and squash is good opportunity for them to get healthy and have fun. People are also attracted to how tough it is, the physical demands. It burns a high level of calories even in a limited amount of time.”
While many of the women who have benefited from the greatly expanded coaching programme play recreationally, there has been a significant improvement in the fortunes of the women’s and girl’s teams when they play abroad.
Prior to 2018, the Iranian women’s team had struggled when playing international competitions. In the Women’s Asian Team Squash Championships, the Iranian team finished last and winless in the 2012 and 2014 editions, and did not enter in 2016. However, as the ISF’s reforms began to take hold, the fortunes of the team dramatically improved, with Iran finishing sixth from 11 in 2018 and sixth from 12 at last month’s Championships in Kuala Lumpur.
Reflecting on these performances, Dolatizadeh says that 2018 represented her proudest moment as head coach of the national team. “I was so proud of finishing sixth in Korea. When my girls were playing against other countries, seeing all the people come to the courts and then them seeing what Iranian girls can do. It was so good to see and made me so happy,” she says.
While the future of the women’s game in Iran is not without its challenges, Dolatizadeh is confident that the sport is continuing to move in the right direction.
She explains that the ISF has expanded its coaching to include WSF Level Two courses and has continued to invest in a variety of facilities, from the state-of-the-art to the economical, while she herself is confident that Iran’s women’s team is on course to crack the top four in Asia.
Dolatizadeh’s confidence in the future of the women’s game is shared by Soleimani, who concludes: “I am very proud of what the Iran Squash Federation has been able to achieve, particularly in the women’s game. Squash is becoming increasingly popular in Iran and the progress of our players and coaches in recent years has been remarkable.”
Find out more about squash in Iran.