Reruns : Malcolm Willstrop, the Eccentric Genius

Rerun #1 :
Framboise interview with Malcolm Willstrop, acknowledged as one of the world’s top squash coaches, 2004 at Pontefract.

I’m pretty useless at most things, but I can coach sport, and I found that out, so that’s what I did.

Don’t even think about describing him as “James’ father”

He would give you one of his looks that make you feel you’re back in the classroom.Yes, Mr Willstrop Senior is a tall man, with a real presence, who wears a severe look; but which hides a heart full of compassion and generosity. “I’m happier than I look”, he often says…

He is witty, cheeky, possesses a natural authority that I personally find extremely attractive, and whatever you want to know about squash, he knows… I was lucky enough to meet the master several times, along with some of his players and friends.

Malcolm in 3 words :  Opinionated, loyal, unique.  David Campion


As a squash player, what was your level ?
I was a player at a reasonable standard then, not international, but I was pretty decent.

When did you start coaching ?
In 1960, I started coaching squash in St Peter’s, York, one of the oldest schools in the world, founded in 627. It also has a strong squash tradition. One of its headmasters was the Great-Britain Captain in the ‘30s, and the first ever public school squash match in this country was between St Peter’s and Haileybury near London in 1926. There is actually a photo of the event in the Ealing Squash Club in London.

Tell me a bit about your youth then …
My parents were not wealthy, and I went to public school on a scholarship. So after 7 years in St Peter’s York, it was quite difficult to think that I was going to go to university for three years, then two years National service, so five years not earning anything when my parents had no means of supporting me.

Were you a good student ?
I was a high flyer academically, I even went to Cambridge for an interview when I was only 16, and they rejected me, and I didn’t like that much. So I said to the headmaster that I was not going to university, that I was going to do my National Service, and then try for journalism and various other things. After my service, I went into horse racing for a couple of years.

But you went back to St Peter’s York, didn’t you ?
Well, the headmaster invited me back to teach. And I thought that I would be silly to refuse, and that I’d better go, get qualified, and get a degree. And that’s what I did from 1965 to 1969. In 1965, I went to Durham University to study English and French and to get a teaching qualification.

Were you involved in squash as well ?
Yes, I actually ran the squash section there, and was pretty successful at it. There was a lot of squash going on at that time, some internationals came out of the team as well. During that period, I captained English Universities. It was a very productive time. I was older than the others students, I was 26, 27. I was running university set-up and I was heavily involved in the England University set-up. By the time I left down there, we had a very good squash team.

Did you enjoy your university years ?
Well, I went to University obviously later, because of the 5 year gap. I find that quite good in a way, because by that time I was married, more responsible, I knew what I had to achieve. I got to know the staff at University, because I was older, and that was very helpful later when I went back to teaching. So, I was very glad I went to University later in retrospect, even if it was a bit restrictive financially.

So you really started coaching after University. What did you teach then ?
To start with, English and French. As far as sport is concerned, I was coaching squash, but other sports as well, rugby and cricket. Quickly, I got interested in only high standards. Not exclusively, I coached all sorts of people, but if people could reach those high standards in any sports, I wanted them to get there, and I was producing rugby players and cricketers the same way at that stage.

So you gave up teaching to turn professional ?
Once I started teaching sports, I realised I didn’t want to do anything else really. I was a reasonable teacher in the classroom, but as soon as I got on the sport scene, I realised that I could produce high class sportsmen and teams as well. So, being sensible, I realised that the best thing that you can do, is to do what you do best. You get to be happy, and get a lot of fulfilment out of coaching.

Malcolm in 3 Words :  Opinionated, Controversial, Eccentric Genius.  Mick Todd


As a squash coach, have you been influenced by anybody in particular ?
In terms of squash, I learnt not a lot from any individual coaching person, but a great deal from other influences in other sports. I have been lucky to meet some high powered ones.

Like ?
In 1970, after my degree, I started teaching in 1970 in a school called Gresham’s, in Norfolk. It’s a very high class public school. That was a very productive era for me in every sporting sense, squash in particular.

I was also teaching cricket and rugby, and I produced a lot of high class rugby players, some of them played for England, and I was involved with top class rugby coaches, and they influenced me more developing coaching ideals and ideas. John Dawes, captain of the British Lions, coached at the school on more than one occasion, and to watch him work was like watching a supreme man.

So, rugby, and then ?
I’ve learnt a lot from racehorse trainers, I know one racehorse trainer well, Henrietta Knight, and to watch people like that in action, you can learn a great deal. She is a fascinating woman, I’ve spent time in her company and you know, preparing horses is very similar in many ways to preparing players.

It’s quite the same, you are getting ready for a particular occasion, not overworking them, gradually bring them to peaks, very similar. The only thing is that the horse can’t tell you if it’s wrong, or ill, whereas a player can.


What are the qualities required to be a good coach ?
It is a long list! You need some sort of technical expertise, every coach, any teacher needs that, in every sport, in any discipline. High in the list of anything would be enthusiasm, and getting kids or people to enjoy it.

I mean, if you can’t do that, don’t be in teaching, if you can’t enthuse, if you can’t go “yeaaah! Great shot!” or laugh or cry with them, whatever it is, then you are in the wrong game. So I would put enthusiasm and the ability to communicate so people enjoy what they are doing, as the hallmark of a good teacher. I have got plenty of enthusiasm, and I think you need it, without a doubt.

Anything else ?
You also have to understand a certain level of technical expertise, which obviously vary. Some people are better at it than others. And you develop your own technical way. My players, most people can recognise. But, within that, I’ve learnt to let their own personalities flourish.

Lee and James are different characters and yet, they are completely different people. And that shows on the court. I’m happy with that because that means I have given them set techniques, given them a secure way to play and that I have allowed them to be themselves. I haven’t imposed anything on them.

Did you change your coaching over the years ?
When I first started coaching, I suspect I was guilty of being too impositional, but I quickly learnt that that was no good. I think that’s something in my favour, my players have my look, but they are different, and it’s their personalities that you are watching. What they have in common, it’s a way they hit the ball, they hit the ball with a rhythm and a relaxation. I think it’s a success, to let them be who they are.

Are there some common points between coaching different sports ?
Coaching rules apply to all games, whether its disciplines and standards apply to rugby, cricket, it’s all the same. There is a certain level where it’s all the same. Then you need to apply the particular thing, but the overall things, the important ones are identical. I was lucky in those contacts, and then I developed my own coaching techniques, practices.

Malcolm in 3 Words : Determined, single-minded, passionate. Gawain Briars


Did you invent your own exercises ?
Yes, most of them. Well, at the time, I was one of the early coaches in the country, and I had to think about things that were appropriate, that would help, situations, practicality, the dealing with numbers. So you develop a system. Funny thing, when I went to Portugal recently with James, they are doing practices that I invented at Gresham’s, and that’s good, they have spread that far. People will never know that, they will never remember it, they won’t even know that you started it.

What is your method ?
To start with, I hardly ever work with individuals; even with Lee and James. There are a few exceptions, but on a daily basis, they work with other players. Those players can be good standard kids between 15 and 20, or even younger. Twice before the British Open, Lee worked with a 14 year old, because it happened that he was there that day, and had a great practise with him. Lee and James don’t have any problem practising with anybody. They don’t feel they’ve got to practise with someone of the same standard, because it’s never how I’ve worked. So they have been brought up like that.

They are never short of practice partners then ?
Yes, they have a host of people they can practice with. They are not looking for someone to practice because I’ve got probably 30 or 40 players good enough to practice with them, and they don’t think they are beneath them, they accept them as training partners. They are both very good at that. They would never turn their nose up to anybody. If I say to Lee go and work with a 10 year old, that’s the way we do things here, and that’s why there is no jealousy between players, no tension.

How do you deal with players that don’t fit ?
If they don’t fit, generally I wouldn’t have them there, I would get rid of them. And people know how I work, it’s probably quite well known how I work. For instance, if they want individual one to one, there is no point coming to me because they won’t get that. I haven’t the time, I’ve never worked like that.

Malcolm Willstrop Photo Gallery