By Nell Schwed
The U.S. Junior Open, hosted at Yale University in New Haven, CT, has grown into the largest individual junior tournament in the world. With nearly one-thousand entrants, representing thirty-five countries—the United States led the way in number of entrants; Canada and Egypt were a close second and third—across four venues, totaling forty-two courts; this event is unstoppable.
The USJO, formerly the U.S. Junior Olympics, was founded in 1990. The junior event was not fully-established until 1993, when it was retitled in honor of Hall of Famer Hunter Lott. In 1997, the tournament was rebranded as the USJO, and this year’s event marked an all-time participation high of 920 players.
With such a monster of a tournament, what does it take to coach the juniors who play in it? What is it like to be on the ground, strategizing with your players, competing against juniors from all over the world? Squash Magazine takes an up-close-and-personal look with four coaches who tackled this pinnacle of junior squash.
Many coaches traveled for hundreds to thousands of miles, sometimes even days, to get their teams to the courts. All of them put in extra time with their players: running drills, checking racquet grips, levels of fitness. Some had worked with their players for years, others were headed to the USJO for the first time; this massive junior event took all kinds.
In his first time at the USJO, Kiwi-native Glen Wilson, former professional player and squash coach for the last sixteen years, brought six players, aged between fourteen and seventeen, from New Zealand to compete in the USJO and the Canadian Open.
“As a coach I like the size of the draws with so many different countries competing and the strength of each draw,” Wilson said. “I thought my players would enjoy the strong competition, the size of the event and the amazing venues.”
Wilson cited the logistical planning as one of the hardships facing first-timers to the USJO: “When you are traveling as one coach with players competing in different divisions it’s extremely hard to get around to all the venues, so I had to call on a couple of coaching buddies to help out.” In future years, Wilson hopes to have more funding for a second coach.
Many coaches dream of a super-venue with enough courts for all the matches scheduled. Yale, with the most, has fifteen. Perhaps in future years such a venue will exist, but for the moment the players and their coaches must make do traveling between the four sites; with over 2,000 matches scheduled, it can be a tight finagling of time management.
Squash is a migratory sport, popular here at home—even more so abroad—though the rules may be the same, the way the game is played can vary significantly country-to-country. Wilson, speaking for the New Zealand way, claims: “The style of play in New Zealand for a long time has been based on a get fit, stay strong, work the rallies, work hard kind of thing. The work ethic in New Zealand is never really a problem when you talk about sport. Kiwis love to compete and to win.”
Yet, Wilson admits that because New Zealand is far from other squash-ports, relying often on home-court play, many are concerned that the junior game needs the international stage to make greater strides. The USJO is an answer to this problem.
Yasir Ali Butt, former professional player—with a career ranking high of world No. 40—from Pakistan and coach for the last seven years, returned to the USJO for a second-go-round with six boys aged between the under eleven, fifteen and nineteen divisions.
“The USJO is one of the most prestigious events—well organized and a marvelous environment,” Ali Butt said. “More importantly, the refereeing that kids are doing helps them to learn how to ref and how to behave on court.”
The Pakistani squash game has a storied history, which includes accomplished players from the Khan dynasty like Hashim, Jahangir, and Jansher. Ali Butt cites this history—“thirty-five years of the legendary Khans”—as important inspiration for his players, as well as indicative of the “aggressive game and strong skill” of Pakistan-based squash.
Both Wilson and Ali Butt agreed that a good warm-up is an essential element of the game; an aspect many forget, then pay the consequence with a slower start. Ali Butt, in addition to getting the body warm, emphasized the serve: “If you have a good serve there will be more opportunities for you to keep the ball in your control, then comes the movement and your drive. Three basic things that will keep your focus on the match.”
For Paul Frank, squash program director at the Fairmont Athletic Club, founder of the Scozzie Academy—both based in Philadelphia—and veteran coach of the USJO, the most important thing is: “The great opportunity for players to experience new opponents.”
“With forty players, the goals vary at tournaments like this. Some are there for experience; several are there hoping to win,” Frank said. “You want to see the kids do themselves justice and play to their abilities. All our players have a variety of process, performance and outcome goals—goal setting being a vital part of coaching—and those goals relate to the age of player and stage of their development.”
Frank brought almost an even number of girls and boys to the USJO—combined, boys outnumber the girls’ division by about a 30% difference—and cited members of the first Scozzie Academy class, Sean Hughes and Elle Ruggiero, both Junior Championships Tournament (JCT) top finishers, as two of his strongest players who competed in the USJO.
“As a coach, you’re simply looking for growth and advancement each year across all areas—technical, tactical, physical, psychological and their ‘life skills’ and management of the environment,” Frank said, placing the importance of his players’ improvement, not on their numerical results, but rather on how they handle match-play, what they do with the skills they have practiced in anticipation of this larger event.
Attila Agh, longtime coach and squash pro at the Chatham Club in New Jersey, now a head pro in Southport, CT, has been to the USJO so many times, he can’t recall the exact number—“This might be my eighth consecutive U.S. Junior Open, I’m not sure.”
Agh brought thirteen players to the USJO, all aged between the under thirteen and nineteen divisions, many of whom he had worked with before at Chatham. While coaching, Agh doesn’t like to think about the results, the wins and losses, but rather focuses on keeping his players grounded: “Most children get nervous when the stakes are higher. I focused on keeping them positive and confident.”
Coaches are the first line of defense when a player is struggling on court. They’re watching the game from outside the box, they know what shots are working, the right game plans against hard hitters, lob-droppers, or those pesky retrievers. That isn’t to say that they don’t get it wrong sometimes, but they are a constant source of support and guidance in a highly individualized sport.
And just how to combat those different styles of play takes on a much larger meaning when you add the international element.
“From a coaching point of view, what’s most exciting to me is to see different players from around the world and recognizing their style of play and technique,” Agh said. “My students are thriving in the competition by having the opportunity to play against some of the worlds’ best.”
While many are quick to highlight the international strength of squash—America has only just become a serious contender in the sport, likely due to the late transition from hard to softball—Agh maintained that: “The rapidly growing U.S. junior squash has been attracting some of the best players and coaches from around the world. It is not surprising that U.S. Squash has been growing in both size and quality. If there is anything worth mentioning, squash in America is getting more and more competitive compared to anywhere else in the world.”
Coaching the USJO is incredibly draining. If you’re one against four squash sites and traveling with any number of players, upwards of forty, spread across those venues, it becomes a complicated puzzle in logistical planning. They worked twelve-hour days (sometimes even more), running through Yale’s squash mega-complex (or through Choate, Trinity, or Wesleyan), catching only seconds of their players’ matches, but they were the captains of their respective ships, guiding their players through the brutal, but often thrilling weekend.
It’s no easy task, but those who took it on, whether they were veterans or newbies to the USJO, tackled the weekend in stride.