I Tried It: Squash at Drexel University

“I’m going to play squash tomorrow,” I told my husband one evening last week.

“Squash? Do you know anything about squash?” he asked, not the least bit sarcastically. (I’m being sarcastic.)

“I’m fairly certain it’s the one where the ball doesn’t bounce, really,” was the best I could do. But it turns out I was right, so that’s something.

What I meant was that I’d played racquetball once or twice, and I was preeeeettttty sure squash was similar to racquetball (at least, in so far as it also included a racquet and a ball and was played on a glass-enclosed indoor court) but that squash balls don’t bounce quite as easily as racquetball balls. I pictured them more like hacky sacks than dime store bouncy balls.

“And this is a squash ball,” said Drexel University’s head squash coach, John White, who gave me a lesson in the ways of squash one afternoon last week. He’d just wrapped up his intro spiel, during which he explained how the game is scored, how to move around the court properly, and why my running shoes would make terrible squash shoes. (The soles would leave marks on the court and they didn’t have enough ankle support for all the lefts-and-rights and backs-and-fronts required in the game. He gave me a pair of squash shoes to borrow.)

“Oooh,” I said, taking the squash ball in my hand and noting, mentally, that it was nothing like a hacky sack.

“Try to bounce it,” he instructed, so I did, then I watched it roll meekly, flatly away rather than return to my hand like a spring. “The more you play, the hotter the ball gets, which makes it bouncier,” he said.

“Interesting!” I said, the first of many similar declarations I would make that day as I learned the first thing (literally, the very first thing) about squash. John had invited me to try the sport as a preview for the U.S. Open Squash Championships, which Drexel is hosting this year for the third year running. It fields players from around the world, so it’s truly a best-of-the-best competition. The fun kicks off this Wednesday, with the tournament running through next Friday, October 18th—which means there’s plenty of time for you to get in on the squash fun.

And if you’re just going to watch it, there are only a few things you need to know to enjoy the show. First, players can score on any rally, regardless of who served, so forget everything you know about tennis because it doesn’t work like that. Second, the ball (you know, that thing I thought was a hacky sack but isn’t) has to at least hit the front wall and can’t bounce more than once before the opposing player returns it. Games go to 11, and the winner must win by two. Once you know that, you can just sit back, relax, and allow your eyes to dart in rapid fire as you try to watch the ball fling around the court at top speed.

If you want to know what it actually feels like to play squash, I can tell you that, too: It feels spazzy, at least at first. I admit that I’ve never been much of a racquet-sport person. Baseball, fine. Baskeball, hells yes. But tennis? Or even ping pong? No, thank you. For some reason, my hand-eye coordination tends to fizzle out on me in racquet sports, whereby I’m able to hold my own well enough at the beginning, but as the games go on the whole hand-eye-coordination thing begins to evade me. I start whiffing balls left and right and missing easy plays. Come to think of it, this is typically closely followed by an increasing level of frustration (imagine that!), which is about when I call it a day and quit.

John and I after my squash lesson.

Lucky for me, John was just about the most patient and forgiving coach out there. Because sure enough, about 45 minutes into the lesson when I started getting reeeeeally spazzy (like, who actually whiffs it, repeatedly, on an easy serving drill??), he was able to laugh with me (not at me!) and assure me it happens to the best of them. I’m positive he was just being nice, but still.

There are two things I will say about squash as a workout: 1) Holy sweaty. I was happy that I’d planned time to get a shower afterward, because boy did I need it. You’re contained in this little box sprinting back and forth, left and right, and inevitably you begin sweating buckets almost immediately. Which brings me to #2: Squash requires a ridiculous amount of fast-reaction agility (all that left and right, back and forth stuff) so if you want to work on improving you explosive reaction, squash is a good choice. The entire game is spent in this ebb and flow of action and reaction, which means you are literally on your toes the entire time. So if part of your conditioning routine includes working on power and agility, consider taking up a two-days-a-week squash habit.

My biggest takeaway, though, was how just fun playing an actual sport can be, and how we lose some of that joy when we phone it in on the treadmill day after day. I’ve written many times on this blog about how I used to play all kinds of organized sports in grade school but how I took up running as a means of staying active on my own when the team-sport thing was no longer a viable option. And don’t get me wrong, running is fun and all, but I think now more than a decade out from my organized-sports days, how fun a little bit of competition can be. Like, guys, you really can (!!) work up a sweat without realizing it if when you’re having fun doing it. I know, mind-blowing, right? It makes me think I should seriously consider finding a team to join, then tailor all the rest of my workouts around that and consider those to be training for the actual competition. Something tells me I’d be more willing to stick with it for the long haul if there was a way to make it fun.

But I’ll save that for another I Tried It. In the meantime, anyone down for some hoops?

>> We try out all kinds of workouts around town. Check out other I Tried It posts here.