12 May 2019
This is a story about mindset, ambition, compassion and belief, and, to some extent, chance. For anyone to say that luck is not involved in success is impossible. There’s an argument that you make your own luck but you can’t stop certain things colliding, people’s paths crossing for example, both good and bad. We have to make the best of every situation we find ourselves in.
One such situation like this occurred when I bumped into someone called Laura. She was being trained by the person I play squash with – a man called Whippy. Whilst I waited for my game with Whippy, I watched this young lady get stuck into him, competing for every point as if it were her last. It was incredible to watch.
When the game finished I asked Whippy who she was. Turns out Laura Massaro back then was ninth in the world, an extraordinary player with huge amounts of potential. To put it into context, Whippy had played the then number one squash player in the world, a woman called Nicol – who is now undeniably the greatest squash player that’s ever lived – and he had beaten her 27-0 a few years earlier!
So as Laura sat down, catching her breath, I cheekily asked her: “Do you not want to be number one?” I won’t tell you the whole exchange as I have a podcast coming up and I don’t want to spoil the story, but essentially Laura pointed out there was a rather big hurdle in the way, Nicol.
It ended with me naively saying,“If I could show you how to beat Nicol without any extra effort, would you be interested to learn how?” It turns out that that was a very naive question indeed – little did I know that the current world number one had been in that position for nine consecutive years! Laura had grown up like everyone in that era with the unstoppable Nicol Davis in their path!
In all honesty, I had no idea how big that challenge was going to be, but I think my certainty and confidence must have intrigued Laura and from that day on we worked together, putting the lessons I had learned in business to test in the sporting world.
I was just a small part of her team but during that first era, she went on to win the British Open and became World Champion – a huge accolade.
When you hit a goal like this, it’s natural to celebrate. That doesn’t have to mean popping champagne corks, it can mean being a little softer on yourself with training, or taking some time out. That was also the time that I moved over to Switzerland for a year to eighteen months, and we stopped doing what we’d been doing.
Competition is tough in the PSA World Squash community and, for a number of reasons, Laura began to drop from her number two spot in the world back down to four or five. While I was away, I watched every match and kept track of her progress, in the hope that that one day our paths would cross again and I could work with her more permanently.
Sure enough, when I came back over to the UK in 2015, she was playing locally with Whippy again so I sat at the back of the room and watched her play. At the end of the match, I went over and once again, cheekily, asked:
“Do you not want to be number one?”
This time, we made it more official. I never charged Laura to work with her, it was a partnership of mutual benefit really, we were both learning and growing. This time, we found the magic formula.
To be the greatest in the world
Laura came over to my house to get our plan together. The very first time that she came to our house, I had got a whiteboard out and she’d written her ultimate goal at the top: “To be the number one squash player in the world.”
That was years earlier. Since then, the kids had written all over the board, I’d used it a don’t know how many times, and we’d used it for work and board meetings. So, when Laura came around that day and I pulled the whiteboard around to set goals again, there was something special in the moment when she looked at the top of the board. There, for all to see, was her goal still written from all that time ago.
I asked her if she takes her goals as seriously as I do. The writing on the board showed clearly how much I believed in her and just how seriously I took her goals.
It was just six months later that Laura became the World Number One, after going on a massive rampage winning a string of tournaments.
Of course, I was lying when I said it wouldn’t take any extra effort to get to that point. It was the extra effort that got Laura there, the dedication, the passion, the focus and the belief.
She was on a phenomenal run, absolutely incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it. Before every single game, Laura called me. We’d discuss her frame of mind and she’d write down the outcome of the match ahead. I loved our calls. She’d put down the phone, go on court and annihilate whoever stood in her way.
Helping get someone into the right mindset before a crucial game is very important. With pressure of the lights and the crowd, it’s easy to consider rankings and past results and talk yourself out of winning long before you stop on to court.
This wasn’t always the easiest call to arrange considering more often than not we were on different sides of the planet. While she was playing in Asia, I was busy working in Manchester. While she was playing on home turf, I was in the Maldives. No matter the hour, the time difference, the location, we always made that call happen and I’d watch every shot holding my breath, feeling sick throughout every point.
An incredible character
Having Laura coming around to the house was amazing for me, particularly because I have four daughters. They’ve been brought up around incredible people, and having a World Champion squash player coming round with her trophies and bouncing squash balls around the house with them (often putting dents in the ceiling and walls!) no doubt has a hugely positive impact on them.
Not only is squash a brutal sport, it takes an incredible character to be good at it. Think about it, you’re locked in a glass cube until you win or you lose. That’s Laura summed up: an extraordinary character. She has determination, focus, dedication and passion. She gives it her all.
This week has been undeniably emotional. A few weeks ago, Laura came by to share with me that she was planning to retire. At 35, she’d been doing an awesome job maintaining her fitness levels, but sport is brutal and age takes its toll. Now was the right time.
On Wednesday the news broke to the public and Laura announced that this season would be her last. It has been a true honour to work with Laura over the past ten years or so. This is a thank you to her for all that she has taught me along the way, for proudly wearing the UKFast logo on her kit for so long, for always giving it her all, and for being a great friend.
Thank you Laura, it’s been quite the journey!