A Look Back At The U. S. Junior Team's Performance
by Rob Dinerman

August 9, 2006
-The 2006 U. S. Junior Boys team performance in the biennial World Junior competition, held this year in New Zealand, came to a chastening conclusion late last month, from which the overmatched Americans emerged winless in the team Pools competition (prior to which not one of the eight Americans who entered the Individual tourney survived the second round of the 128-player draw), 13th in the overall team standings and with all four members of the team roster hobbling with injuries by the end.

Although team members Mark Froot (who reached the final of the Plate) and Reed Endresen played exceptionally well and the official finish represented a statistical one-spot improvement over the 2004 14th-place result, it needs to be remembered that three countries---namely Wales, Mexico and Kuwait---that placed ahead of the '04 squad didn't enter this '06 event, and that Hong Kong, which narrowly nosed out the U. S. in the 13th-place match two years ago, rose to ninth place this week in what was considered a smaller and slightly weaker draw than its '04 counterpart.

Notwithstanding a series of upbeat in-tournament reports, some forceful though unsuccessful lobbying for higher team seeding during the late-July tournament fortnight from some of the U. S. coaches and, confoundingly, a post-tournament USSRA August E-Newsletter praising the U. S. Individuals results as "stellar"----a marked contrast to the forthright manner in which the Malaysian "New Strait Times" and the Indian "Hindustan Times" sharply criticized the under-achievements of their respective squads, both of which wound up way ahead of the U.S., in fourth and seventh place respectively----the inescapable conclusion is that the substantial amount of time, money and focus that the USSRA has been devoting to Junior squash, whether through happenstance or misdirection, has simply not to this point been able to generate anything better than mediocre results whenever this kind of world competition rolls around.

This is true despite significant increases in numbers of junior competitors in the USA, many appearances in international events by various USA junior players, and an ongoing "talent infusion" of high quality, world class coaches into the private club scene of the northeastern USA, where most of the US junior players and team members are based.

Given the host of additional problems currently plaguing the USSRA (which recently lost its USOC funding, approximately $100,000 worth; has been at best stagnant in terms of membership growth for more than a year, both in terms of clubs and individuals; owes some substantial bills; and has just made the controversial decision to raise its membership dues in what could be a double-edged attempt to repair its worsening financial position), the psychological boost of a standout Junior-teams display would have been considerable, had it occurred. Instead, it is now very much back to the drawing board for a USSRA Junior program whose sore and long-apparent need for a better-organized and more comprehensive system was proven out yet again in New Zealand this month.

Why this very visible lack of progress?

Reigning and two-time S. L. Green champion Julian Illingworth, who led American teammates Christopher Gordon, Michael Gordon and Nick Chirls to a 7th-place finish a student generation ago in 2002, recently addressed this issue in an article revealingly sub-titled "Why Are All The American Kids In The Consolation Of European Tournaments?" in which Illingworth persuasively contends that the current crop of U. S. teenagers are, if anything, OVER-coached, relying too much on private-club lessons from high-profile coaches without doing enough conditioning or training, or getting enough competitive tournament experience. American juniors and their coaches and parents also appear to be too ranking-conscious (often with college admissions in mind) and not focused enough on what will improve their games in the long run.

In addition, almost everyone associated with Junior squash seems to agree that the four-member U. S. squad----which this year consisted of Trevor McGuinness, Froot, Endresen and Todd Harrity, every one of whom suffered a leg injury at some stage of the tournament, with McGuinness (ankle) and Froot (shin splints) both forced to the sidelines for several team matches---needed to be practicing together as a team for much longer than the one month they actually spent as a group prior to traveling overseas. Instead, timing and money constraints limited both their ability to grow as a unit (the teams from England are routinely training together for a full year prior to the World Junior event) and the scope and benefits of some of the specialists that were generous enough to contribute to the U. S. effort.

One such individual, Damon Leedale-Brown, based for the past 10 months at the new Reflex Squash Club in downtown Wilmington, DE, spent the full prior decade as the lead sports physiologist and conditioning coach of English squads at both the junior and senior elite level. The 4-5 late-June days that he spent working with the American juniors, considered one of the highlights of their pre-tournament efforts, would doubtless have been even more valuable had they not occurred just 10 days before the team left for New Zealand, by which time Leedale-Brown (who had nothing but praise for the efforts and enthusiasm of both the team players and coaches) was understandably constrained in how much intensive conditioning work he was able to put the players through so close to the start of the tournament. With the English juniors, by contrast, Leedale-Brown was able to put in place a progressive training plan and conditioning program for the players (and tailor his instructions to the individual needs of each team member) a full year in advance of the World competition.

Hopefully, the USSRA going forward will be able to apply lessons like the foregoing, along with Illingworth's compelling thoughts and what is also generally accepted as the need for more disciplined and less haphazard training and practice habits, in a manner that will lead to a better end result in the fierce competitive cauldron of World Junior and Senior tourneys. Doing so will require determination and foresight on the part of everyone involved, as well as an "on the same page" unity of purpose that has not always been present in the American camp.


This first appeared on squashtalk.com

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