Teaching the Game: Women & Squash

By James Zug
Photography by Michael T. Bello/mtbello.com

It was a Sunday in the winter. Chris Brownell was giving squash lessons. She taught all afternoon, working with youngsters, teenagers, adults. She wore a black shirt and black shorts and a big white watch on her freckled wrist. She was encouraging and forceful.

“You’d have a better view at the T if you moved faster,” she told a fifty-something man who had been admiring one of his shots and hadn’t bothered to get back into position. She set up orange cones as targets and later switched to little orange clementines: if you hit the clementine, you got to eat it after the lesson. She loped around the court but never ran.  She distributed high-fives. At least once in each lesson, she dropped her racquet in mock surprise or joy at her pupil’s shot. She smiled a lot. A couple of times she cackled. She had an engaging laugh, a sonorous, cachinnating squawk.

Her sessions were at the Newton Squash & Tennis Club, a club outside Boston, with two courts tucked inside a white house and four tennis courts outside. It was an old-line club. Some squash trophies in the gallery above the courts dated back more than a century, to the earliest days of squash in Massachusetts. Brownell was the head pro. She ran clinics and lessons. She took Newton juniors to tournaments and helped them get into college and kept track of who could do figure-eights or hit ten consecutive forehands.

It was an ordinary Sunday for Chris Brownell, but pretty unusual for the U.S.: she was one of the few American women in the country working on court as a head squash professional.

Chris Brownell was the first woman to coach a men’s collegiate
squash team when she took over at Dartmouth in 1993. She is the mother and coach of Timmy Brownell (r), an All American at Harvard.

Thousands of girls play junior squash around the country. About a hundred women a year graduate from collegiate squash programs. Nonetheless, women are vastly under-represented in leadership positions in squash.

Gender bias is a global issue that pervades all areas of sport and squash is no different. At the Commonwealth Games this month, it will be hard to spot any woman coaching a squash team. Only one of the eight people on the board of the PSA is a woman. Five of the fourteen people on staff at England Squash are women. Two of the eleven people on the executive board of the World Squash Federation are women.

There are nineteen U.S. youth enrichment programs affiliated with the Squash & Education Alliance; six of their executive directors are women. There are eighteen full-time staff members at US Squash; four are women. No more than a half dozen American-born women work full-time as teaching professionals at clubs in the U.S.

Coaching is a challenging realm. At the younger ages, it appears to be more equitable and in line with national patterns. Of the forty-five boys’ teams that came to the 2017 Middle School Team Championships, ten were coached by women; of the twenty-two middle school girl’s teams, ten were coached by women. Nine of the 105 boys’ teams that came to the 2017 High School Team Championships had women coaches; thirty-three of the seventy-six girl’s teams had women coaches.

Carol Weymuller is the only woman in history to spend her entire collegiate career coaching a men’s varsity squad, when she led the Hobart Statesmen from 1995 to 2011. (image: Michael T. Bello/mtbello.com)

The issue of women in leadership roles is most severe within the high-profile U.S. collegiate squash world. Two generations ago. back when Title IX was passed, most women’s collegiate teams were separate from the men’s teams and had their own coach who was usually a woman. In the 1990s, athletic departments merged programs, synchronized schedules and appointed just one head coach for their squash team, not two. Invariably, the new head coach was a man. Today only a handful of collegiate squash programs—Penn, Princeton and Trinity are the most notable ones—have separate head coaches for their men’s and women’s teams.

A national longitudinal study, “Women in Intercollegiate Sport” from 1977 to 2014 by two professors at Brooklyn College concluded that participation is up: there are more collegiate female athletes than ever (nearly 10,000 NCAA women’s teams and double the number of women’s squash teams). But women coaches are a different story. A June 2016 report on NCAA teams by the Women’s Sports Foundation found that just 43% of the coaches of women’s teams and less than 3% of the coaches of men’s teams were women. A 2017 report by the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota and the Alliance of Women Coaches found that the percentage of women coaching women in Division I sports is basically the same as it was in 2011. Some sports—water polo and alpine skiing—have no female coaches in Division I. The report emphasized that the number of women coaches has stagnated but expressed relief that at least it is no longer declining.

Squash, it turns out, is worse than the national average. Today there are thirty-four men’s varsity teams and three have women coaches; there are thirty-one women’s varsity teams and just six with women coaches.

Just 12% of the time will an athletic department replace a male coach with a female coach. Twice in squash that a woman has been appointed to replace a man and solely be a men’s collegiate squash team coach: Carol Weymuller, the Hall of Famer who coached at the men at Hobart from 1995 to 2011 and Wendy Lawrence at George Washington who coached the men’s team for three years starting in 2007 before adding the women’s squad.

Weymuller, a U.S. Squash Hall of Famer, came into the game via tennis. She had been a junior tennis prodigy (she won the Orange Bowl three times) and was a star in college—she played in the U.S. Open at Forest Hills in 1968. After she started teaching tennis at the Heights Casino in Brooklyn in 1970, she took up squash. During her decade there, she started the first women’s squash league in New York and directed the nation’s first women’s pro squash tournament, as well as founding what is now her eponymous tournament at the Heights Casino. Then she taught at the Genesee Valley Club and the Rochester Medical Center Athletic Club before coming to Hobart.

Wendy Lawrence, who has been coaching at George Washington since 2007, was the first woman to become a head pro at a major American squash club when she helmed Uptown in New York in the 1970’s.

Wendy Lawrence fell into coaching by chance. After she played tennis and squash at Vassar, Lawrence returned to her hometown of New York and got a job at Sullivan & Cromwell, the law firm. She took some squash lessons and played at Uptown, the public New York club. One day a pro there, Lawrence Franklin, asked Lawrence if she could cover one of his ladies’ clinics. She liked it and found it a fun way to make a little extra money. She eventually left her law firm and went to work full-time at Uptown, rising up to become head pro—the first woman, it is believed, to be the head pro at a major squash club in the U.S. In 1981 when her husband got a job in Washington, she moved south to be the head pro and general manager at a new club, Capitol Hill Squash, and later became one of the owners of Results The Gym.

Besides Lawrence, only two other women today coach men’s collegiate teams. One is Niki Clement. She grew up at Merion Cricket Club and played at Bowdoin. Vijay Chitnis at US Squash asked her at a U23 tournament if she might want to intern at US Squash’s offices one summer. That job catalyzed her career. She earned a masters in sports management at the University of San Francisco, thinking that she might become an athletic director. She worked at the Decathlon Club and with Stanford’s squash team and then spent a couple of years at Squash Alley in Connecticut before returning to Philadelphia. At Haverford, she started part-time as the women’s coach at Haverford and took over the men’s team after Sean Sloane left.

“In part it is about confidence,” Clement said. “There are these studies that say in a team locker room after a loss, men will blame each other and women blame themselves. Whether that is inherently in our nature or the way society teaches us, I see that.”

The other woman coaching collegiate men is Shona Kerr. She grew up in Cardiff, Wales, and developed a resume stuffed with qualifications—a level 3 coaching certificate, a lot of experience—but had trouble getting a job in the U.S. until she landed at Wellesley. “It was a difficult job for Wellesley to fill,” she said. “It was a .75 position, not full-time and Wellesley didn’t have their own courts.”

After four years, Kerr got hired as the men’s and women’s coach at Wesleyan. It wasn’t a plumb job: Wesleyan had had four coaches in the previous five years, losing records and a sense of a program adrift. Kerr, the first woman to coach squash at Wesleyan since the program was started in 1940, was asked in her interview: “How do you coach men?” and she answered, “Well, how do you coach women?”

Nikki Clement who reached world No. 78 as a player, became the coach at Haverford College in 2010, four years after graduating from Bowdoin.

Usually, women in squash leadership roles are like men in that they have benefited from having a mentor. Kelsey Engman, a pro at the Racquet Club of Philadelphia, first jumped into coaching when John Illig, her coach at Bates, heard that there was a job opening and immediately thought of Engman. She went onto be the head women’s coach at both Tufts and Columbia before working as an assistant coach at Drexel.

In 1980 Gail Ramsay, while a senior at Penn State, called the Heights Casino in Brooklyn and got a job coaching tennis and squash. She had been encouraged to apply by her tennis coach at Penn State, Candy Royer (Royer went on to become the athletic director at MIT). After three years at the Casino (including directing the famed 6am to 8am session), Ramsay moved across the river. She worked part-time as a teaching pro at Uptown and then at Park Avenue; and she was part-time as the squash coach in the physical education department at New York University. In the fall of 1987 she left New York to become the women’s coach at Williams and in 1994 she assumed her current role as the women’s coach at Princeton.

“There are not enough role models,” said Hope Prockop, a part-time teaching pro in Boston. “Women don’t see a lot of women out there so they instinctively turn to other jobs.  The game is so contagious that for so few women to stay in squash there must be something wrong in the flow-chart.” Women see very few women coaching. Hardly any pros—men or women—have a woman coach. In fact, only one top male player, Chris Robertson, has ever been known to ever have had a woman coach (Rita Paulus).

Some of the problem is burnout. The high pressure, year-round training, parental involvement—it now extends from early childhood through college. Players want a break after that. “Girls are sometimes more sensitive than boys,” said Prockop, who played squash at Harvard. “The toll on the body and the brain from collegiate squash is huge. They want to hang it up when they finish. They are exhausted by the parental pressure.”

For men, sports is a big thing—it is a part of their identity. Women are sometimes looked down upon if they act the same way, if they take their squash very seriously. It is then less socially acceptable for a woman to get into the profession as a career. “Some American women feel they should go out and make a lot of money,” said Gail Ramsay. “They’ve worked hard, gone to a good college, made the effort and perhaps they don’t have a huge passion for squash. Teaching squash is a calling. You have to be a teacher at heart and passionate about the sport. You can’t blame squash. It’s our wider culture. Women are not viewed being as capable as men. It is harder for women to get opportunities in sports to show they are capable. It is a man’s world. That is the bottom line. It’s ingrained. It takes time to overcome.”

Gail Ramsay has won five national team titles since coming to Princeton in 1994. She is one of just three players to capture four national intercollegiate individual titles.

Women seem especially vulnerable to career and family pressures. “I see some women playing a lot when they are young,” said Sharon Bradey, an Australian who is head pro at the Harvard Club of Boston. “But then they get married, have children and you don’t see them again until they are in their late forties.”

Another issue is that people equate playing ability with teaching skill. “Any kid that could beat me didn’t want to take a lesson from me,” said Lauren Patrizio Xaba, who used to coach both the men’s and women’s team at Cal-Berkeley and now is solely the women’s coach, alongside being the executive director of SquashDrive, the urban program in Oakland. “That is the mindset and you have to work harder to gain their respect.”

“It is a human thing,” Shona Kerr said. “I might not have succeeded at Wesleyan if at the beginning I couldn’t beat all the men players on the team. As a female, that was powerful. Of course, no man ever needs to worry about that.”

A glass ceiling is also there. Female assistant coaches usually don’t rise up to become head coaches. Bright, well-respected, hard-working women give squash a run for a few years and then, bumping into invisible barriers, depart to pursue other careers. The pathway looks blocked. “It is a skewed cultural viewpoint,” said Alicia McConnell, the former world No.14 and teaching pro. “People are just not aware of it.”

“It’s about opportunity,” said Liz Irving, the former world No.2 and longtime teaching pro and pro coach based in Amsterdam. “Men can be great tactically or about technique. And so can women. But if there is ever a choice, they always give it to the boys.”

It is a serious problem that there aren’t enough women in leadership roles in the game. Children—both boys and girls—grow up without being exposed to women leaders. They don’t see and experience examples of success and accomplishment by women.  This affects them as adults. Men assume women can’t do the job and women don’t try to get the job. The lack of role models becomes a self-defeating cycle. A certain aphasia is endemic in the squash circles. “Women don’t put themselves forward,” said Irving. “They don’t brag about themselves, they don’t fudge their CV.” “Women are humbler,” said Erin Robson, the coach at Mt. Holyoke. “Women limit themselves. Guys tend to just go for it.”

“If you want the job, apply,” said Carol Weymuller. “I had four brothers. I was raised to think I could do anything. But you still have to have a tough stomach as a woman. You get called a lot of names and you have to pretend you don’t hear.”

A half-dozen women told me that no woman applied for the Cornell squash job (a combined men’s and women’s team position) when it was open two years ago because they assumed Cornell would give it to a man. But a woman did apply: Madeline Perry, the former world No.7 from Northern Ireland. She told me she applied because she didn’t know the American squash scene well enough to not apply. “The job was open,” she said. “I’m qualified. Why not?”

If there are far too few women coaching at the middle or high school or collegiate level, there are even fewer who have stayed in the game as club teaching pros. There are only handful—one rough estimate was that there are only about a dozen American-raised women actively coaching today.

Hope Nichols Prockop, Amy Cleaves Milanek and Chris Schutz Brownell are three of the most prominent on the East Coast. They have all found that working part-time as a teaching pro has enabled them to still be the lead parent in raising their children. “The flexibility is great,” said Prockop. “You get exercise. You help others. I’ve always felt that coaching squash is like funding an endowment for my soul.”

Shona Kerr, who appears on the cover, has finished thirteen seasons as the men’s and women’s coach at Wesleyan; Kerr, a former CSA president, has been ranked as high as world No. 11 in racketlon.

Happenstance brought Chris Schutz Brownell into the game. Her lacrosse coach at Dartmouth, Aggie Kurtz, was also the squash coach and Brownell was hooked from the first time she played. “I thought it was great,” she said. “It was like an insane asylum, but I loved it. I loved hearing the snap of the ball hitting the wall. That sound—by the end of my first practice I was hooked.” She became an All American and captain of the team and reached world No.37 on the pro tour.

In September 1993, she became the first woman in the world to coach a men’s collegiate squash team. Dartmouth had just combined the coaching jobs for the men and the women a year earlier. “I think I was hired in part because the athletic director, Josie Harper, was a woman and believed in me.” Brownell was a trailblazer. She was the first coach in memory to give birth during the season—her oldest child, Becky, was born on November 2, 1995 (Becky has just finished her squash career at Dartmouth). After five years, Brownell stepped down and her family moved to Boston. Since then she’s coached as an assistant at Harvard and Nobles & Greenough School and as head coach at Wellesley, taught at Newton and worked for Team USA.

Milanek grew up in the game. Her grandfather, Willing Patterson, won the National Singles in 1941. She played at Merion Cricket Club, Shipley and Middlebury. After college, she drove across the country. In California she picked up a local magazine and saw that a health club, the Santa Barbara Athletic Club, had just converted two racquetball courts into squash courts. She went to the club and ran into familiar faces and got a job teaching there.

It was supposed to be only for a year but it stretched to four. Her husband got a job in Las Vegas and so Milanek moved there and was the pro at the Green Valley Athletic Club in Henderson, which had five squash courts. For a half dozen years, she ran the Bright Lights Open, one of the best stops on the women’s pro tour. Milanek also played the pro tour herself, reaching world No.28. She almost took a job as a collegiate coach. “I got the offer, I had the choice,” she said. “But I was eight months pregnant. Did I want that path, working full-time with a newborn?”

In 2000 the Milaneks returned to Philadelphia and she took a part-time teaching job at Berwyn. “It is hard to find a balance,” said Milanek, with three teenagers at home. “The hours of squash are not nine to five; they are five to nine and weekends. I’ve been asked to coach high school teams and have said no. It is not this way with guys—they have an easier time balancing work and family.”

Working as a female squash teaching pro or coach in America is not easy.

You get ignored. You get bombarded by casual slights, subtle insults, small snubs. You hear comments about your looks. You get less press. You see that some podcasts hardly ever feature women, that some magazines rarely put women on the cover or run feature articles on them, that some press releases favor men. You get put on the back courts or at the other club. If you are a teaching pro, parents often take a junior away from you and move to a male coach once they get good. “They don’t think a woman can take a junior to the next level,” said Shabana Khan, the former world No.23, U.S. national champion and longtime teaching pro in Seattle.

If you coach men, you repeatedly get asked a follow-up question: “You coach the men?” The three women coaching men’s collegiate teams get that every week. Parents, recruits. colleagues. “Dear Mr. Kerr,” reads many emails.  “I kept my formal name as ‘Chris’ rather than ‘Christine’ on my emails as I knew many parents would just assume I was a man,” said Chris Brownell.

“They always assume I coach the women’s team: ‘Who coaches the men?’ is the second question I get,” said Wendy Lawrence.  “Even if you are the assistant coach for a men’s team, parents don’t comprehend it. It always happens in the recruiting process. Sometimes it is a plus, with an international family and the parents are glad their kid is being put in the hands of another mother.”

“They always asked me, ‘Who’s the assistant for the men’s team?’” said Kelsey Engman, “even after I tell them I was the assistant for both the men and women’s teams.”

Kelsey Engman, a former coach at Tufts, Columbia and Drexel, is now one of only a few American women working full-time as a club teaching pro.

Squash is not immune to discrimination in workplace. Even at the same school doing the same job, women coaches get paid less then men coaches. You are treated differently, evaluated differently. You are reluctant to ask for help in a gender-bias situation or to talk with administrators about gender equity, for fear of being seen as too aggressive or troublesome. You have to work harder to get respect.

At the same time, significant efforts are being made to improve the picture. US Squash has been at the front of pushing for change. They pioneered the idea of prize money parity for major professional squash events when they were the first to commit to equal prize money at the 2013 U.S. Open; since then, all the other World Series events have followed suit and the men’s and women’s pro tours have merged. US Squash supported the development of Women’s Squash Week into a global phenomenon that has brought thousands of women and girls into the game. Of the sixteen independent members of the board of US Squash, five are women.  US Squash has two exciting pilot programs in the pipeline: one establishes summer college internships in the area of coaching; and the other is about recruiting graduating college squash players into coaching and teaching professional roles. Both will focus on women.

Moreover, US Squash has made a conscientious push to counteract bias with more coverage of women across all its platforms and more highlighting of women’s achievements. Three of the past four winners of the President’s Cup, US Squash’s highest annual award, have been women. The robust and active Women’s Committee at US Squash has taken on a number of initiatives, including starting the Women’s Squash Fund to raise money to support development.

“Our mission dedicates us to equality and opportunity at all levels,” said Kevin Klipstein, the president and CEO of US Squash. “At the professional level, our efforts appear to be paying off, with the women’s tour getting deeper every year. We are now more focused on the grassroots, on providing access and opportunity for play and for leadership. As we’ve seen, we all have a role in increasing awareness of the challenges girls and women face daily and doing something about it. We all need mentors and positive role models. This is something we are committed to for the long term.”