Squash Inequality

William Foley talks to Mark Kelly, the founder of an organisation which seeks to address socioeconomic inequality through the medium of squash.


What is the link between squash and socioeconomic inequality? To many the sport has elitist connotations, depicted in films such as Manhattan and The Ploughman’s Lunch as being a preserve of bourgeois intellectuals and middle class professionals. Some, such as the Harvard squash coach Steve Piltch, worry that the sport’s small size is linked to its perception as an exclusive activity.

Mark Kelly, founder of the Irish Squash and Education Association (ISEA), thinks that squash can not only be a sport enjoyed by all, but also a vehicle for improving the social mobility of young people from communities most in need. ISEA’s flagship programme, Squash Link, aims to enhance “the future of underserved students by building life skills through squash, education and extracurricular activities”. Kelly’s motivation is derived from his personal experience and from his human rights-oriented philosophy which he developed as a law student and researcher.

The “seeds of disaffection” were sown from an early age. For him, experience of school life was “more oppressive than inspirational”. He describes himself as an unconventional student: “to get to university I dropped out of school. I became an autodidact and managed to perform an adequate manipulation of further education college lecturers to admit me to exams. They justified it out of sympathy for the fact that I had no option but to hold down part-time jobs whilst studying. At an early stage of my educational trajectory I was very much a student at risk of leaving school early – just the kind of student we at Squash Link are seeking to develop”.

Later on, at an undergraduate level, and as a researcher at the University of London and the Centre for Rural Childhood in Perth, Kelly got the chance to develop his philosophy of human rights and child development on both a theoretical and practical level. This philosophy includes a social analysis. Human rights are not just concepts established “with a formal tribunal or court of law”. Nor is Squash Link just about the individual development of participants. Instead, the programme is “first and foremost addressing the absence of socioeconomic advantage, fairness, for the most in need of a level playing field”.

The potential of squash

Kelly feels that sport is a unique medium through which to intervene in the lives of young people for the purpose of addressing educational needs. “From my perspective, sport is very important for defining cultural values and vice versa. At ISEA we are concerned with how sport can help to level the playing field in society; with the values that are inspired by it and can be sustained through it. In my mind, one of the most important values is how participation by individuals most in need can be encouraged and used as a positive pathway”.

But why squash, of all sports? “For me, sport in a room, which is what squash is, with all its geometric demands lends itself to the kind of unique mentoring that our students will be benefiting from. This is very difficult to replace with any other sport owing to the confined space of a squash court where body language speaks loudly to those present and must be understood if coach and student are to engage fully and constructively with each other”.

The potential for squash as an outreach initiative was first highlighted for Kelly by his participation in a programme run by Trinity Squash (Dublin University Squash Rackets Club) since 2012. He describes himself as being incredibly impressed by the efforts of Trinity Head Coach, Elvy Da Costa, to train inner city school children. This led him to investigate similar urban squash programmes in the United States, the results of which were ‘mesmerising’. In some areas with historically low school completion rates, one hundred percent of students who attended such programmes graduated from high school and over ninety percent went on to third level.

The figures he cites are impressive. But what are the actual mechanisms through which squash will help to reduce socioeconomic inequality? Kelly thinks that any initiative must be designed to serve the particularities of the local community. Nevertheless, there are some general features he identifies. “Leadership in society must be inspired by meritocratic values. Rising inequality muffles the voices of the affected communities. Developing a leadership that is capable of speaking out is integral to the debate on how inequality correlates with happiness”.

Progress and promise

So far, a board and several attendant committees have been established. A pilot programme has been running since the beginning of November, with pupils from primary and secondary schools in Ringsend attending weekly squash lessons. But Squash Link has big plans for what is to be accomplished in the future. Their website (www.squashlink.org) describes the programme’s aim as being “to transform the lives of underserved students through academic enrichment, health and lifestyle commitments, social and emotional responsibility, character development and life-long learning”.

Kelly’s strategy for accomplishing these goals seems, as of yet, somewhat abstract. This is perhaps inevitable with a project that is still in a prototype stage and which will be shaped by the particular needs and learning experiences of the participants. Still, there is a relatively detailed plan in place for the coming year.

Twenty four students will be recruited from local schools. Selection will be carried out in coordination with Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, and in particular, members of their School Completion Programme which was set up as part of the Department of Education and Skills (DES) DEIS Strategy – Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools. Its aim is to increase the numbers of young people staying in primary and second level school and in doing so improve the numbers of pupils who successfully complete the Senior Cycle, or the equivalent. Students will attend two after-school sessions every week which will combine squash and educational assistance. Qualified teachers and third level educators will be involved in forming a strictly defined programme of development and a small number of teaching staff will be employed.

The gains to be realised from such a programme are potentially very impressive. But in the face of the entrenched social structures of capitalism, what can a project like Squash Link really accomplish? Kelly is sanguine about its prospects: “I think every little can help. We’re opening doors, initially with the support of Trinity’s students and staff, and taking advantage of local facilities. We’re addressing the needs of students who will really appreciate it, and in this sense it’s a win-win scenario”.

William Foley

William Foley studies Philosophy and Economics. He is deputy editor of Trinity News.