The Liz Irving Centre of Excellence
When Liz Irving accepted the invitation to do some coaching at the Squash City club in Amsterdam five years ago, little did she know that she would make Amsterdam one of the squash world’s centers of excellence. True there were a bunch of Australian men players who had decided that Amsterdam was a pleasant place to live in order to be near the world squash action, but they actually played each other.
What Ms. Irving did was to use all her vast knowledge gained from nearly two decades on the world squash circuit to coach. Furthermore she became the first major women coach not attached to a national association. Her success as a coach was quickly rewarded with the appointment as Dutch national coach.
Her gender was important, certainly for Vanessa Atkinson, the English-born Dutch champion who is now ranked three in the world.
“She speaks to me as another woman. She speaks from experience because she too had mental struggles as a player. I had them – still have them - so she understood exactly what I was going through and that was a great help,” Atkinson said.
Atkinson started traveling to Amsterdam from the The Hague as soon as Irving arrived in Amsterdam five years ago and was then ranked 29th in the world. She has no doubt that Irving had a big hand in her rise to the top ranks of the world’s squash players. Irving thinks the job is not yet finished.
“It’s been gratifying to see Vanessa improve so much, but the really great thing is that there’s more to come, there is still room for improvement, which means she could get to the top,” Irving said, taking time out from watching the Dutch team train during the World Team Championships in Amsterdam tgo talk to Squashtalk..
Her position is a perfect arrangement for two other members of the Dutch team, Annelize Naude and Karen Kronemeyer, who both take private coaching from Irving. The move from private coach to national coach is seamless and the continuity cannot be anything but beneficial for both players and country.
Naude moved to Amsterdam from her native South Africa five years ago; in May 2000 she was ranked 86 in the world. She is now down to 21 and Irving thinks heading for the top ten.
Naude also claims that her improvement is due to Irving’s input – specially on the technical side.
“She is one of the best female coaches – and she really know the technical side. She has helped my technique so much. I just like the way she coaches,” Naude says.
To which Irving responds: “Players have to trust you. If you are radically changing their technique which takes months, not weeks, they have to trust that what your are telling them will eventually improve them.”
Irving puts enormous importance on technique:
“You must have all-round technique. For example, if a player finds an opponent too good at the front and I say ‘Lob them’, well, if they don’t know how to get under the ball and do a proper lob, then they are going to lose. Strategy is important but if you don’t have the technique, you can’t carry out the strategy,” Irving says. “If you can’t play a drop shot from the back of the court, you have problems.”
Can you teach strategy? Irving ponders for a few seconds and replies:
“There are rules in squash and if you follow those rules you will play good squash. It’s no good having lots of shots if you don’t use them in the right place. Or if you are not constantly aware of your opponent’s position. Yes, you can teach strategy,” she claims, implying that technique, strategy and movement are all linked.
This is confirmed by Nicole David, the Malaysian prospect who won the world junior title twice. She dropped by Amsterdam about three years ago, liked the atmosphere that Irving created and then raised funds to move to Amsterdam for three months a year.
“I was looking for something new and Liz’s experience on the circuit is so wide. She brings everything together – the Egyptian style, the English style and tells me how to compete with the top players. She has taught me how to use my speed efficiently and she has given me more options on the ball. My shots are being used more and I am more consistent now. I am definitely a better player now,” David says.
Irving says that as much as she enjoys coaching the elite players she doesn’t make that much money from that side of her work..
“I do about 25 hours of coaching a week and that is mostly amateurs and club members. I do enjoy coaching,” she says with conviction. She is in the process of updating her website, which she uses to spread the word of her methods and is finally, after five years in the country, taking a positive step to learn Dutch by taking a week long Dutch immersion course in a nunnery.
She will tell
you most firmly that you can’t fix your technique in a week, but
obviously believes that you can learn a new language in the same amount
of time. The inconsistency doesn’t really matter, everybody understands
her in English and everybody gets better on the court. Liz Irving is living
proof that excellence can be passed on.
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