Mark Toseland has a refreshing perspective on how to drive grass-roots participation in sport and develop practical coaching systems.
He baulks at the suggestion the health of a sport is entirely dependent on the effectiveness of its governing body – or indeed that the responsibility for growing numbers should start and finish with the governing body.
And he believes the weight of media coverage and the abundance of celebrities associated with a particular sport is not the be all and end all in convincing people to get involved.
Rather, a proactive, forward-thinking and committed approach from the network of county sports associations, in collaboration with governing bodies, holds the key to expanding the number of participants and opportunities for coaches.
As chairman of the Gloucestershire Squash and Racketball Association, Mark goes above and beyond the remit of his role, working with local leisure centres to generate innovative initiatives aimed at growing the game.
‘I know that England Squash don’t have that much money, not compared to some governing bodies, so they can’t support the participation drive as much as they would want to,’ he says.
‘So it is important the County Associations take some responsibility. If we all love the sport that much, we must think of ways to do something about it and stop relying on other people.
‘My feeling is, I know I’m not going to get anything done by whingeing at someone else, so I’m going to take action myself.’
The earlier the better
Three-time world champion Nick Matthew (pictured) and 2013 world champion Laura Massaro are the male and female faces of squash in Great Britain. Faces that would go unrecognised if they walked down the high street in any English town.
And while Mark would love to see squash enjoy more public prominence, he does not buy into the view that a wider TV audience would help to significantly swell participation figures.
‘The media does help but, in the grand scheme of things, it does not have a huge influence on people participating. It has a huge influence on people’s interest and people watching a sport but getting them engaged – and certainly retained – in the sport is a different matter.
‘So we are finding, for example, that kids aren’t taking up rugby because they see it on TV, but because they are introduced to it at an early age.
‘And that means we can still fight on squash’s behalf. Let’s go out and meet the kids, get them engaged and help them understand what squash is all about.’
Which is exactly what Mark is doing.
Essentially a facilitator working on behalf of both the County Association and England Squash, he ventures out into communities, whipping up enthusiasm among staff in order to maximise use of existing facilities.
‘Learning as I go’
Before converting to squash, Mark was set on a career in rugby, preferably as a player.
He studied for a BTEC Level 3 Extended Diploma (Performance and Excellence in Rugby) at Hartpury College – which has produced 150 rugby internationals in the past 10 years, with British Lion Elliot Daly and Wales international Alex Cuthbert its two most famous alumni.
A qualified personal trainer, he has held several jobs within the leisure industry but swapped rugby for squash in earnest after college and started coaching at Riverside Sports and Leisure Club in Gloucester, where he is now the head junior coach as well as head coach at Stratford Park Leisure Centre, Stroud.
He is keen to pursue a full-time career in coaching, and is about to embark on the second year of a Sports Development and Coaching degree at the University of Gloucestershire. He is also about to start his Level 3 qualification (Talent Development Award) with England Squash.
‘I am doing a degree, not to get a job out of it necessarily, but because it is helping me understand government and sports policy to tie in with my role as chairman,’ he explains. ‘It covers all bases, as it is also helping with my coaching roles.’
Mark has called on county squash associations to raise corporate sponsorship to fund strategies for sport development.
He has seen the value of investment for himself with his involvement in a three-year mini-squash schools project – set up in 2015 before he took over as chairman – funded by the University of Gloucestershire and delivered by the university students along with the help of the Gloucestershire Squash Association.
To date, this has engaged 2,500 primary school children in the county.
The stumbling block, however, has been converting interest into club memberships.
‘I have been chatting to parents in schools and asking if their child enjoyed their first experience of squash,’ says Mark. ‘Most parents weren’t even aware they had played squash. So there is another barrier. How do we get the parents to find out what their kids have done during a PE class?
‘I am keeping England Squash involved in what we are doing. We are problem-solving as we are going along. Then, once we have got an idea that works we will send it to them, with a view to them rolling it out in other counties.’
A grand plan
Mark is pleased with the rapid progress being made in the three council-owned leisure facilities, managed by Freedom Leisure, he is working with in the Forest of Dean.
The plan is to set up squash clubs within the centres, thereby increasing demand for the underused facilities.
This is a win-win as it helps drive participation while generating more revenue for the centres through extra footfall. And increased use of the facilities in turn increases the chances of England Squash (recently awarded a £7.9million grass-roots investment boost by Sport England) supporting the venues financially – in terms of court refurbishments or building new courts.
‘Instead of having courts on a come and play basis, we are looking to create a club atmosphere, with junior and adult coaching, This Girl Can sessions and racketball,’ he explains, ‘with a view to making it more self-sustainable, where people come to thrive and succeed rather than just use the court as a one-off.’
While there are some great facilities in Gloucestershire, establishing new clubs requires the right personnel infrastructure to be put in place.
So Mark must persuade would-be members, and parents of junior players who have expressed a desire to help out, to agree to form a committee and initiate the necessary organisational foundation.
A work in progress
It is not by quirk of fate that the three centres he is currently working with are located next to schools, providing a deep pool of potential participants.
The problem is, there is currently a dearth of coaches in the centres to deliver to those young people mobilised by the recruitment drive.
‘Our strategy to address this is to engage staff at the leisure centres with a view to training them as coaches,’ says Mark.
‘We have had a chat with their coordinator and said we will book them on a course so they can earn a qualification.’
The proviso is that they need to deliver a six-week block of coaching once they are qualified.
‘We are trying to build interest to aid community development, and so coaches begin using the qualifications they gain as they were intended,’ adds Mark.
Coaches who simply move upwards through the England Squash qualification structure are not benefiting anyone if they are not actually coaching, he says.
‘What I have found is there are a lot of juniors who get coaching qualifications in Gloucestershire but then don’t do anything with them. If we are going to support them with their professional development, then we need to have an exit route in mind.
‘A lot of the guys who are doing their Level 1s are usually around 16 and 17 and are taking the qualification because it looks good as a line on their CV. That is all well and good, but doing a course and then following up with more coaching experience is what I would like to see more of.’
Here’s hoping Mark’s passion and enthusiasm to make a difference will rub off on other County Association executives – not just in squash but in other sports too – so they may follow in his fervent footsteps.