27 December 2022 / 4-Min Read
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Yesterday, I wrote about the different aspects of mindset in relation to amateur sport. I wanted readers to understand that "mindset" wasn't some esoteric concept that didn't affect them, but actually something almost mundane and boring, yet incredibly important. In some ways, I want to continue that theme and try to take the glamour out of being a professional squash player.
It's only fair to clarify that I have never been a professional squash player, but during my time as a professional coach, I spent a lot of time with pro players, and have some insight to their life and world.
Even though I was never a pro player, I was good enough to be asked to play for a number of club teams across the England. Certainly not a cool as travelling around the world, but also close enough to have personal experience. So let me talk about some of the often forgotten or unknown aspect for being a tour pro. Oh, by the way, if you are actually a tour pro and are reading this, feel free to email me with your experiences, and I'll add them to the article as a post-publication section.
As luck (bad?) would have it, I am typing this article at just after 5am in an airport. In an hour or so, I am flying to the UK. Fortunately, I won't have to play squash when I get there. I won't have to rush to a venue and perform well enough to earn enough money to cover my costs. And here is our first non-glamourous aspect: travelling and playing don't always mix. Young pros can cope with this better than older players, but they also have less time to acclimatise to the country and venue due to the costs involved. It's not unheard of for players to land in a country, catch a bus, train or taxi (rich much?) and go straight to the venue and play a few hours later.
Many times, I drove from London to Leeds and had to play a match half an hour after arriving. Sitting in the car for three hours is not the best preparation for playing, so international flying can only be worse.
Factor in layovers and other delays and it only gets worse. I recently saw a tweet from Amanda Sobhy about sleeping on a cote in a an airport terminal due to a 9-hour layover. Luckily, It seemed to be on the way back from the event rather than on the way there, but that might not always be the case.
As an amateur, probably 90% of your matches are on your home courts. You know them, you are comfortable with them. Maybe they have their quirks and idiosyncrasies, that you either love or hate. But they are YOUR courts. As a professional squash player probably 90% of your time is spend on new courts.. Literally, every event is somewhere new. At least as an amateur many of your away matches are at the same venues again and again. Can you imagine playing in wildly different conditions, with the added pressure of having to win to pay for the flight and hotel!
tI can't stress this enough, the variety of courts around the world, yes even for pro events is amazing. "Arh, but Phillip, that's what they are paid for; that adaptability". And you are right, they are, but that doesn't mean it's easy. I've known incredible squash players who just couldn't perform with the travelling and venues issues. It is part of my point, that being a touring pro is more than just being able to play fantastic squash.
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Next is the fact that could be playing your friends most of the time, and that's true for amateurs, but you are not playing for ranking points and money with your friends. Switching between friend to enemy is hard for some. Imagine sharing a hotel room with somebody and then later that day having to play against them. Separating work and friend relationships is hard at the best of times, but in a competitive situation even more so.
Time for an anecdote. Nearly 30 years ago, I was very friendly with a young pro. I wasn't his main coach, more of his coach/training feeder, as well as somebody to talk to about matches etc. He started on the tour and was doing well' moving up the racks quite fast and taking games off top ten players. His future looked bright. However, he found the whole non-playing experience very difficult. He talked about spending hours in hotel rooms alone, as well as travelling alone. It was horrible. He wanted me to travel with him and be his on-tour coach as well as travelling companion. The problem for me was the money. I had a good coaching job at a club, as well as doing national squads and working with Dunlop. There was no guarantee of money. I had to decline his offer and am disappointed about it all these years later. If this were tennis, he would have been earning enough to pay a fair wage. He stopped playing pro about 6 months to a year later, having got into the top 50 of the world.
How many other potential pros, then and now, could have made an impact on the squash world if they could have survived the tour life?
This is a tough one. You can training really well, doing safe routines, prehabilitation and regular stretching etc, and still get really unlucky with injuries. If it happens to you or me, then we just shrug our shoulders and say "Oh well, I'll take a few weeks off and try again". As a pro, you have to get it seen by a medical professional, which may cost money. Then you have to reschedule your tournament obligations and probably other stuff.
Now imagine it happens a few times a season. How frustrating is that? Is it you body telling you that you shouldn't continue? At what point do you stop? It's one of the worst things to happen to a potential pro. Better to not be good enough than to keep getting injured and never know how good you could have been!
Success is more than performance. It's about everything working the way you dream it will. And let's be honest, life rarely works out how we expect it.
The next time you watch a professional squash player play, know that being on that court took more than hard work, it took a little luck and adaptability that not everybody has.
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