RJ Mitchell Exclusive
Despite spending the bulk of his coaching career in the high-performance sector, former New Zealand national champion Glen Wilson has revealed that his return to grassroots coaching has ignited a passion in him for squash that has evoked memories of his youth treading the boards of Maidstone Squash Club, Wellington.
In 2019, the former World No.24 was appointed Squash NZ’s National High Performance and Men’s World Team coach, where he guided the side to a creditable fifth-place finish in Washington DC.
But within months of beginning his tenure, the Covid-19 Pandemic had struck and Wilson found his plans in ruins as New Zealand’s lockdown restrictions brought most activities to a halt.
When normality returned as the impact of the pandemic dissipated, Wilson, who had also been the Head Coach for the successful New Zealand team at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in 2018, began to reappraise where his skills could be employed to best effect.
It was then that he threw himself into developing a grassroots junior coaching programme at Auckland’s Howick Squash Club. The programme already has close to 100 participants, starting from five-year-olds, and is even being introduced into the local high schools.
The success of the programme leads Wilson to admit his surprise at the inner fires it has stoked: “I didn’t think I would be as passionate about grassroots coaching as I am, especially having worked in high performance for the last 10 to 15 years.
“But you get satisfaction from seeing kids having fun and getting something out of the sport that is just on a different level. For me, seeing these kids giving it 100 percent is just really inspiring.”
Wilson, who benefitted from the coaching of legendary Egyptian coach Dardir El Bakary, who mentored Dame Susan Devoy amongst other NZ squash legends, recognises the influence El Bakary has had, alongside his other coaches.
Wilson said: “I worked under Dardir for four to five years with him as my main coach and of course there is a bit of an Egyptian influence in there, but also an English one with a bit of structure as I’ve worked under English coaches as well.
“So, I would say I am probably in the middle and my coaching is not too risky, not to open or too structured.
“I am sure a lot of programmes start off with: ’This is how I’m going to make you a national champion,’ but that isn’t how I run my programme.
“Mine is purely on teaching the kids how to serve, hit a forehand and backhand, learn the rules and have some fun. That is how I start them out and if they show some interest in wanting to do better and maybe play a tournament I will progress them to a different group with more technical coaching.
“I was in High Performance full-time before COVID hit and as all the international stuff got cut I ended up going back into grassroots and that has been just over two years now and it has been a lot of fun.
“I am based at the Howick Squash Club in Auckland and we have four courts with tennis also attached and it has become pretty much full-time with around 90 juniors on the books and 60 of them are on our programmes.
“This has grown from around 15 when I took over and they are all local kids within 10-15 kilometres of the club but we all came through clubs and as you move through the ranks, its district then national then overseas.
“What I had been doing for the last 10 years was more high performance, but what I am doing now is nothing different to the coaching that was created for me when I was nine years-old and starting out.
“But with the junior side of things it started out as a hobby to get a few things going and now has grown into a busy programme. A couple of my own kids have been in it for the last year which is nice and my son played his first tournament last weekend and that was really satisfying.
“So we have a five- to seven-year-old programme and then the next group and an advanced group and then it is another one on top of that when we have two 90-minute training sessions and it’s no different really to what I experienced 40-years back.
“But I also have three or four assistants from the local high school kids and they have been a huge help, especially when I’m not there they make sure things run smoothly.”
Such has been the success of the Howick programme that the local schools have now become involved as. Wilson explained: “One of the things that has been going well is that we have a group of schools who are now playing squash and that is not easy to bring about but we have four schools within the area that play in competitions and feature in the nationals.
“I also have other schools that have registered with us and that is because kids that are with our programme have gone to them asking to put squash on their curriculum, which is great.
“It has been a big mover for the programme getting the schools on board and I’d say we will have close to 100 playing through the schools and we also have schools coming during the day around five or six times a week with squash as a PE component and this is something we are trying to run out with other schools.”
Combining his roles with the national team and at the grassroots level, Wilson is always on the lookout for the next future star.
The three-time New Zealand national champion said: “We are all hopeful of discovering another Paul Coll or Joelle King and it all starts at grassroots. If you can start a programme where you have a high-performance coach who is coaching at grass roots level then that tuition will be at a higher level.
“Then if you can find some kids who have the mentality of wanting to take it more seriously you can tailor the programme accordingly. My programme is just two years old and I would say that maybe in three or four years we will have players who are nationally ranked. Whether they go on and make squash their career we will see, but there are opportunities there for them.
“But part of that journey will be getting them exposed to competition out of New Zealand. In that respect, myself and two coaches are taking 25 kids to North America later in the year. We’re getting a chance to show our kids what events are like abroad and open their eyes and they might come back, train a bit harder and you never know as it has been a while since we have had that opportunity.
“There will always be juniors coming through in New Zealand at a high level, but turning them into professionals is not easy as a lot take the college route and getting them to see creating a career as a squash pro is tough.
“So, getting them good early as opposed to being late developers is the key and then getting them overseas and getting them to compete with the best kids in the world and dangle that carrot well that can make the difference.
“When they see they are not way off the mark that gives them a boost just like it did for me when I was a kid.
“But we had Paul and Joelle over for a couple of weeks recently and had a camp with them and it was phenomenal how many people turned out to watch them and they are just great role models for our kids.
“The media were here every day following them around and they were both on Sky Sports, which is our main sports channel and the coverage was massive and that really enhanced the profile of squash in New Zealand and you never know the positive impact all of that could have on our kids.”