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APRIL 2, 2023

Upon entering the

Arlen Spectre US Squash Center,

I was struck by how underwhelmed I had initially felt first looking at the subdued facade of the building. I heard raucous screams rising and descending intermittently as I walked through the main entrance. The banging sounds of matches being played became more pronounced the deeper into the space I drifted, as did the continuous sound of voices of varying density and intensity. The website uses the words "world's largest community squash center" and is indeed a cavernous space with two all-glass show courts dropped in the center and rows of courts splattered along the sides, with two levels of viewing. The building itself has been converted from a Historic Armory on the campus of Drexel University. Along with the 18 squash courts which also include two blue North American Hardball Doubles courts, you'll find training and office spaces on 3 levels, a pro shop, and a section allotted for a Hall of Fame.

All the noise was generated by the participants of the Squash Education Alliance (SEA)Team Nationals. SEA was formed in 2005 to bring together the blooming urban squash education programs around the country in the name of sharing knowledge and support. These types of events are an integral part of the comprehensive engagement produced by the alliance. This year's SEA Team Nationals saw 450 high school and middle school participants from 21 member organizations throughout the country show up for this 5-player team tournament.


Until recently, I hadn't played or engaged in squash regularly since the couple of years I lived in Vermont, well over a decade ago. I have somewhat followed the sport since, in a casual fan-to-PSA Tour-type way. My reintroduction to actual squash play came by way of Robert Gibralter who manages a rather unique court dropped inside a welding yard. Robert is also the new Director of Growth for SEA and offered up the invitation to observe the event. If you know me, you'll see the irony in that I found myself in this space consequently by the draw of an outdoor squash court made of steel, in an industrial part of Queens, New York. Go figure.

My knowledge of these organizations is basic in that I understand they use squash training to incentivize and enhance academic and personal performance. I also know they operate with some sort of connection to the schools their participants attend. In this respect, I know the Squash Education Alliance enables member organizations to maintain operating standards that ensure cohesive programming and safe practices. Yes, maybe an over-simplification but that's my take on their core endeavor.  

I'll add these base SEA stats in now…

2500+ students in member programs

94% College matriculation rate

153 participants have played varsity since 2005 and 42 at the club level.

Entering this scene sorta cold with the latter two statistics resonating from either reading SEA information or conversation, I had no agenda other than to carry around my camera and frame some perspective. Having spent the last ten-plus years extensively engaged in the landscape of professional racquetball here in the US, I instinctively start gaging talented athletes when they're holding a racket of some sort. In that respect, the word potential resonated with me as I began drifting toward a familiar sound and energy. It's in this presence of mind, that at one early point in this observation, my 12-year-old self was mad at my life's timing. I began to feel a familiarity with particular players as they interacted with one another with confidence, while quickly changing energy to consult with coaches or address administrators with similar command of their confidence. Similarly, I observed the vastly different styles of communication used at various times by coaches or admins. Not looking too deeply into the supporting factors for the energy or trending fashions, but it felt almost timeless to me. I grew up in NEW YORK CITY in the 70s and 80s, and on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I remember this particular sound of exuberance as a common thing in the various street games and sports leagues I could find my way into. I was struck by how these kids visually felt to me, as though that-me would slide right in. 


Trending aesthetics aside, SEA has brought these particular young people together, from different urban programs that are standardized by affiliation and mission, yet, still presented with variable environments and challenges. I could feel the ranging enthusiasm that the young sometimes exhibit, as some walked fully immersed in the experience with certainty as others were waiting for matches as though simply on a field trip. I witnessed how some administrators tap into the cultural and generational flows as others presented more traditional coach/athlete vibes. I could see and hear some of the nuances, as well as the responses the differing approaches generated in some of these students. A good degree of flexibility is required to facilitate the game of squash and facilitate life in these scenes. A squash ball barely bounces. But learn how to use the racket and it comes to life. Seems metaphorically perfect.  





I'd like to restate that, potential, the word, resonated with me. Of course, the obvious reason being this type of social investment translates into athletic and educational success for young students in poorer urban environments. Pepper in social growth and development into everything. Add in high-performance development for participants that show advanced skill and post-educational programming and you have all the related philanthropic benchmarks checked.

But my sense of the word was sparked more by what I was most drawn to. The kid who could have been me growing up. I felt like there were a few of them. They had that city-urban accent thing that rolls in and out of sentences. Their style and form of the game mattered, deliberate with flair, and fashion and celebratory behaviors were culturally appropriated from the pros they may watch.

And I thought, with confidence, oh, they're watching this or that professional player. As I do.


It may seem to you that these observations are shallow or simplistic. In that, I'll offer up that my take is, again, one of someone who enjoys watching professional squash highlights and as of late, socially enjoys playing squash on an outdoor steel court in NYC. I've been a casual fan in the truest sense. I follow the pro side of the sport, as much as the easy-to-view PSA Tour highlights keep coming on Youtube and the trickling drama keeps showing up in my Twitter feed.  I'm aware there are loads of other squash events happening here and abroad yet I don't have comprehensive knowledge of how active squash is here in the US.


Charmed by a few of these kids eagerly exhibiting their swings, I was flashed back to when I was their age running around NYC with a paddle in the 80s. But then to see some of them, so naturally, if imitatively, fluid reminded me how I patterned myself after players I tried to emulate. That perfectly matched up with the unreserved interactions between what seemed like a few core groups that found attention.


I could feel the energy I once had about racket sports as a teenager having an affinity for them, priding myself on my hand-eye skills. I played paddleball every day and viewed that as a good probability that I could excel in other racquet sports, and was hungry for anything I could access. I didn't find my way onto a racquetball court until college, well before I ever came across a squash court, let alone LEARN anything about the sport. Those things didn’t happen until I married and moved to another state a decade later. 

  • The US High School Team Squash Championships started in 2005 with 16 teams. The tournament has grown to be the largest squash event in the world with over 170 teams and more than 1, 500 players from all over the country.

  • Since 2011, the Middle School Team Squash Championships has almost doubled in size to over 70 teams and continues to get larger each year.

  • Since 2005, there has been a 61% increase in the number of club and varsity college programs, and can expect this number to continue to grow as the increased junior participation continues to drive more club and varsity program development at the collegiate level.

  • There are now 82 men’s and 52 women’s programs across the country. All Ivy League schools have squash teams.

US SQUASH shows growth HERE


Since 2006, the US Junior Open Squash Championships has increased from 271 to over 1000 players from more than 37 countries, making it the largest individual junior squash tournament in the world.

The Squash Education Alliance's big team event was played over the course of a weekend and some teams were bussed to nearby Penn Squash Center to square away a large number of matches. Over the course of the weekend, there were pockets of activity buzzing throughout the former armory. The space offers plenty of room for small or large breakout groups to claim spaces to settle bags for the day or just gather for whatever. It was interesting to see the two huge American Hardball Doubles courts continuously occupied. The big courts facilitated larger group drilling easily and with their cool blue coloring, required a switch to a harder white ball. It offers a softer-styled seating area and the pajama-set leaned hard into the lounge feel during quieter moments, as these quieter moments were often being sought out by individuals or small pods in the hallways and crevices throughout former Armory.

Strolling through waves of players, I could spot different types of interchanges with coaches and began to see the importance of these moments. I pieced together what I had learned in conversations and what my visuals were telling me, which is that many of these programs serve as a place of continued growth for program alumni... so many of them were here.  As I mentioned earlier, I was enamored by some of these kids. They were me. In the clamor of players who have settled deep into the space of the Spectre Center as the draws thinned up and the mashes of students biding time after earlier exits, the pressure for those still in the contest seemed to require the need for huddles everywhere. I felt the weight in a variety of these points in time. Whether shepherding bands of players through the in-between times or zeroing in on strategic and focal efforts on the court, I saw deeply enriching experiences being provided by this sport... and "the kid who could be me", was my personal takeaway here. I'll clarify a bit by saying, I've known about these programs, and I've mentioned them plenty of times before, but I've never experienced it in mass like this. Squash, stereotypically viewed as a game for the privileged, is far removed from that categorization in this space. The social investment here feels as though it is contributing to the foundational existence of the sport and the way it will survive and thrive alongside the trending court closures and competing interests.

As it is my first time at the Arlen Spectre Center, I was impressed by the scope of the structure. I was equally impressed that it serves as the home facility of SquashSmart, a SEA member program home-courting this event. No doubt, there is a host of programming that call the US Squash Center home and it's apropos they "fit" a program of this type into this building. Many of the Squash Education Alliance members operate out of facilities owned by colleges and the like. And while not every program has it this easy with court access, I find it profound that in 25-plus years of this type of squash program, that of the 20 member programs (and 5 affiliate programs), 9 of them have their own building, add to that, six members who have projects to construct their own facilities. SEA itself has begun a transition to a larger office in the financial district and will be breaking ground on its own building in Bridgeport, Connecticut.


Uniforms made it easy to see which programs the players I felt Sympatico with were from. A good number of them played for Street Squash, which operates closer to home for me. I feel like anytime someone mentions these types of programs, using "Street Squash" in the description cuts straight to the familiarity of purpose.  This program is one of the two longest-running groups in the network, having been around since 1999. (The very first program, SquashBusters which launched in Boston, began operating in 1995.) 

I knew Street Squash had a building and couldn't remember when I first learned of that fact. That it didn't remain a pivotal part of my thinking or even visited their set-up, makes me feel like I'm late to the party. Because it sounds to me, like, whether intentioned or not, if indeed these squash programs are building like this, then squash is growing... in this subtlety of social program expansion, during a time when squash courts in health clubs are phased out or repurposed in the name of financial viability.

My quest to capture an objective perspective at the SEA Team Championships quickly led to my understanding that my knowledge of organizational squash and the breadth of its reach is limited. Likewise, my endeavor for objectivity here is limited in this space. 

Coincidentally, the good people at SEA extended another invitation to a more regional event closer to home, giving me a chance to finally get to the Street Squash campus. The Program from NYC is being run out of the SL Green Building in Harlem, on 115th street, literally a few miles from the projects where I grew up. As a kid growing up on the Lower East Side, I went to catholic school and walked that line, while simultaneously flirting with all that comes with unsupervised and unguided preteens hanging on the streets at all hours. That block on 115th Street has a marginally wide enough street that I almost bypassed the fact that a huge NYC housing project is what you're looking at when you exit the building.


Standing inside the SL Green Building, I just know a good number of kids have been tipped to the side of positivity by the mere sight and scope of this building. Growing up not far from here… running around with my paddle in my bag, hopping from park to park in search of games… I know that a young me would have seen this building as a beacon attracting my forehands. (You use both hands on NYC courts.)

What I saw was a squash factory... for all intents and purposes. This building which I came to learn was opened in 2008, leaves little to the imagination when you enter. You immediately see Squash courts in a deep sunken carven of space and the floors feel like deck halls with offices and classrooms and all the necessities to host comprehensive squash events. It's a place where legacy students still flex social cache on the regular. Post-program engagement seemed imperative at SEA, and you can see how this building serves as a foundational space to nurture that, where players grow out, and return to their tribes with the good they've used to help them thrive in their lives. If you factor in that the courts also are available to rent out to other squash organizations, colleges, and the public during specific times of the week, it's obvious the space is coupling social connections and events within the sport in a significantly broader way. 


I'll admit here, I temper my "the kid who could be me" enthusiasm a bit. I'm familiar with how the programming works with specific high schools. The model works extremely well with accountability, I get that. Yet, when I think about the kid who isn't lucky enough to live in the district of those particular school zones... well, the comprehensive stuff is out of reach. That's just the deal for now. I do however know that the energy I feel in this place is special. Familiar even. And I'll be going back soon.


FOR SQUASH, THIS IS LIFE IN THE UNITED STATES. Nothing screams growth to me more than finding out about these stand-alone squash venues, that exist outside of the exclusive membership set or fitness chains. During these weeks I've come to learn about squash venues that were built outside of these types of program models or formal college affiliations, but just as successful entrepreneurial enterprises. What I'm seeing now, that I wasn't aware of before, are thriving venues like Squash On Fire or Open Squash or Nicol Squash.... they're building out plush venues that sustain themselves through public commerce. Options to participate in sports today seem to be increasing and have become more socially integrated with lifestyles. Self-standing venues become more of a necessity for niche sports to cater to this trend.  That squash is trending this way is a kicker for me. While these trends may seem slow-moving for squash, or not to be a trend at all, there are more places now for more people to play. 


WHO is playing squash? Traditional thoughts of college squash aside, I read a claim that squash is the fastest-growing college sport, where either varsity or club sports are considered additions. It may be an arguable statement to say that I know population numbers are in a steep decline. Colleges will become desperate for quality students. Which sport, in happenstance, is pumping out students in this way? How many programs are building actual buildings now? Just simply makes you think. 

Objectively speaking, and maybe even with a bit of hyperbole mixed in, but it seems to me like they’re planting buildings like gardens. What are these generations going to look to keep playing? These aren’t country club kids, they’re smart, street savvy, and comparatively independent. They’ve built much of their social capital into this game, and where do you think they’ll end up playing in say, 10 or 20 years? Sure, drop-off occurs with certain sets of participants, but the programs are only getting better and learning from one another, working to ensure that programmatically increases the chances for lasting engagement. Look, squash is growing here in the US. These programs are quietly grinding out the long-game part of that growth. These gardens are growing their own sustainability.

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