Sport England survey highlights the challenges that squash faces post the pandemic

June 30 2023

Squash participation in England has experienced a further decline, with figures from Sport England indicating a drop of just over 10% since the year preceding the pandemic. The latest data from the Sport England Active Lives survey reveals that, between November 2021 and 2022, 264,100 adults (over the age of 16) played squash or Squash57 (racketball) at least twice in the past 28 days. This represents a decrease of 30,100 individuals compared to the last set of figures unaffected by Covid-19, recorded in November 2018-2019.

While the current decline of 10% over three years shows a slight improvement from the pre-pandemic annual drop-off of 4%, it remains disheartening evidence that the sport continues to shrink, despite the efforts of dedicated individuals and England Squash at the grassroots level.

The release of the delayed Active Lives survey has prolonged the anticipation for England Squash and other sports governing bodies, as they hoped for evidence of a complete recovery in participation levels.

The survey, which engages over 200,000 interviewees annually, reported an overall year-on-year increase of 1.7% in the number of adults meeting the Chief Medical Officers' guidelines for moderate physical activity of 150 minutes or more per week. Since the initial edition of the survey in November 2015-2016, there are now 1.5 million more active adults in England.

However, squash remains an exception to this positive trend, as the number of regular players continues its alarming long-term decline. This decrease primarily affects a core group of dedicated players who engage in the sport at least twice a month. Since the Covid-19 lockdowns prevented access to clubs, over 10% of these players have not resumed their involvement.

Even more concerning are the figures for occasional participation, representing those who played squash at least once in the past year. The new Sport England data reveals a significant drop in this category. In November 2018-2019 (prior to the pandemic's impact on subsequent surveys over the following two years), 1,056,300 adults had played squash at least once. This number has now plummeted to 773,300, representing a decline of 27%.

While occasional squash players may be of less concern to the industry, this substantial decrease, in contrast to the overall increase in physical activity levels across the population, indicates a diminishing number of individuals opting for squash as a sporadic recreational exercise or leisure pursuit.

The reasons behind these worrying statistics have been extensively discussed within the squash community and beyond. Notably, commendable efforts have been made in various regions to reverse these participation trends. The challenge lies in replicating these initiatives on a larger scale to achieve a more widespread and positive impact.

Merthyr Squash Club, a thriving and successful operation, has been honored with the prestigious Squash Wales' Club of the Year award for the second consecutive year with the club again proving to be a vibrant force in bucking the trend of declining squash participation.

Under the leadership of Chairman and Coach David Cope, Junior Coach and Fixture Secretary Mark Palmer, and Club Pro Lewis Poole, along with the dedication of several enthusiastic volunteers, Merthyr Squash Club has established itself as a hub of squash activity. Located in the recently refurbished three-court facility at Merthyr Tydfil Leisure Centre in South Wales, the club has around 70 adult members.

The club boasts an impressive junior membership of 60 young players, who are welcomed with two free coaching sessions upon joining. Juniors can gain access to a comprehensive program, complete with a racket and a t-shirt. Families with multiple children enjoy special discounts, fostering a self-perpetuating growth as children bring their friends to join in on the fun.

Innovative ideas have been key to Merthyr Squash Club's success. David Cope, a true ideas man, has explored various strategies to attract new players and enrich the squash experience. Even seemingly unsuccessful initiatives, like early morning squash sessions with just one participant, have led to unexpected success stories. Through this approach, the club has managed to grow its membership by turning a single player into three new enthusiastic members.

Central to their accomplishments is the emphasis on fun and inclusivity. Hilarious match reports featuring quirky nicknames and designated "Man of the Match" recognitions have become legendary throughout the town, engaging even non-squash enthusiasts in the community.

Merthyr Squash Club's triumphs are even more remarkable given the challenges they face, including the decline of squash participation, reduced physical activity levels, and competition from other sports and leisure pursuits. Additionally, the club operates in an area with high levels of social deprivation, but they have successfully utilised squash as a means to uplift the community.

Support and funding from Squash Wales, Sport Wales, and the National Lottery have been instrumental in sustaining their efforts. Furthermore, local partners have played a significant role, considering themselves an integral part of the club's journey.

Looking ahead, the club aspires to achieve an ambitious milestone – moving out of the leisure center and establishing its own dedicated facility, aptly named "Project 50." This grand vision aims to have the club's own premises ready in time for their 50th anniversary in 2025, demonstrating their unwavering commitment to securing the club's future for generations to come.

Merthyr Squash Club's impact extends beyond their own success, as neighboring clubs have begun emulating their innovative ideas. Thrilled by the recognition and imitation, the club seeks not only to grow itself but to contribute to the growth of squash on a broader scale.

Merthyr Squash Club stands tall as a shining example of a community-driven, innovative, and successful squash institution. With their dedicated team, passionate volunteers, and a culture built on fun and inclusivity, they have defied the odds and created a thriving squash community in Merthyr Tydfil.