Primary children are breathing fresh life into squash in the Dundee area, reports Roddy Mackenzie.
Forthill Squash Club in Broughty Ferry traditionally has been one of Scotland's leading clubs but it has seen its membership drop in recent years. The solution for reviving it now appears to have been on its doorstep all along.
This year Forthill Primary has been enjoying weekly coaching sessions at the club under Scottish Squash's regional development officer for the midlands, Mark Beaumont (pictured). The P6 and P7 pupils have been split into small groups for two 90-minute sessions, where they are taught the basics of the game sufficiently to play a match at the end of the second lesson.
"It's all based around fun skills but the children should be able to play a basic game after the two sessions," explains Mr Beaumont.
"We split the children into groups of 15 to make it more manageable and it has gone really well so far, with around 80 children having now had coaching."
He says: "The squash club had hit hard times and stopped its affiliation to Scottish Squash. Then its membership dropped off. Now the new committee is very keen to get more children in. They realise the importance of developing their own players.
"If we can get two or three primary pupils from each group of 15 who want to take up the game, then it will have been worthwhile.
"Once you get a small number involved, then you find their brothers or sisters or friends also come along."
The club is putting some of its members through basic coaching training so that they can teach the children and Mr Beaumont anticipates that the development scheme will run itself before too long.
Derek Welch, the administration manager of Scottish Squash, is aware that participation in the schools has been overlooked in the past. Squash has traditionally been stronger in the independent sector, where schools have access to their own courts, but clubs increasingly allow school players to use their courts at off-peak times.
Mr Welch would like to see the Forthill initiative adopted in other areas of the country.
"Our main target is to get clubs linked with schools and that is what we are working on at Forthill," he says. "That is of paramount importance.
"We also have to train volunteers from the clubs to continue where we leave off.
"There is no problem with children taking to the sport. At Forthill they have been lapping it up and getting them back to school has been the problem. One of the children asked Mark if there was a cupboard at the club where he could hide, as he did not want to go back to school!"
In the early stages, children play with a lightweight racket and a foam ball so that they can enjoy rallies. (A real squash ball has to be warm to bounce consistently and it is difficult for beginners to sustain rallies.) Basic skills, such as grip, swing and eye to ball co-ordination, can be taught in a school gym but, ideally, players need access to squash courts if they are to progress.
Mr Welch is aware that there is a high drop-off rate of those who go on to play squash at a high level, such are the demands of the sport, but by broadening the base of the pyramid of players there is a greater chance of more going higher.
With this in mind, the governing body has held coaching clinics on the Isle of Lewis and on Shetland in recent months and has hosted a level one coaching award course in Orkney.
"It is a sport we have historically done very well in," says Mr Welch, "and much of it has been down to an individual's absolute dedication, as was the case with Peter Nicol, who went on to become world number one."
The national academy at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh takes talented players from under-13 level and currently has 18 at under-19 level. They are given free access to courts and the services of professional coaches.
The academy has established local links so that there is full back-up in terms of physiotherapy, nutrition and sports psychology, plus players are given financial assistance to compete in tournaments throughout Europe.
Mr Welch says: "John White (who narrowly lost in the World Open final recently) was brought up through the Australian system and he is exceptionally talented. Oban's Martin Heath is now based in Toronto and he has excellent racket skills. Some of our top players are based in different countries, but that is not essential. There is no reason why top players cannot stay in Scotland."