Declan James is Squashing His Competition

Interview: Shariff Ibrahim
Friday 30 June 2017
reading time: min, words

Squash isn’t all about city types taking out the frustrations of failed business deals on little rubber balls. It’s a fun, energetic, social sport, and one in which Notts is lucky enough to stake claims to a rising star. Declan James invited us to his fancy club in The Park at the end of his season to talk about his recent appearance in the British Open, his England call-up, and why more people should be picking up a racket and getting a sweat on down their local squash club…


How did you originally get into the game?
I was taught at home, but my uncle took me to the local leisure centre when I was six years old and gave me a mini squash racket. I just gelled with it straight away. There was my cousin; his son, who also plays professionally; my brother played at the time; and my dad plays as well, so it’s very much a family thing. When I was eleven or twelve, I started playing tournaments and travelling around, so it became a little more serious. Then when I was at college, I wanted to play professionally. I turned professional at eighteen and haven’t really looked back since.

What does a normal week’s training regime entail?
I’ll be on court and in the gym once a day. My day will be broken up into strength and conditioning training which includes weights and strength work. Then there’s the cardio side of things: interval training, high intensity or circuit training. It’s brutal. We refer to it as “going to the well”, where you’re giving everything you can physically. For that fifty-minute session, you’re going into a dark place. In the season, we have league matches in the evening as well, so sometimes you’re looking at a three-session day which is hard. But, to be world class at something, you have to work hard.

Are your coaches slave drivers then?
In addition to the two coaches at Manchester, David Campion and Chris Robinson, I have my own personal coach, Phil Whitlock, who lives in north Wales and whose daughter is also a professional player. Access to world-class coaching is very important. Phil was a top player himself, so he knows what it takes to get there and knows you have to listen to your body; it’s not like driving people into the ground, but he’s instilled a lot of discipline in me.

You recently competed in the British Open as a wild card. How was that?The match sounded like a long slog…
That was probably about 75/80 minutes which isn’t actually the longest match; you get a lot of matches of that length at that level. I played Paul Coll, a guy from New Zealand who’s had a very big year and has risen considerably. It was a good, hard match and, even though I lost, I gained quite a bit of confidence because he’s playing really well.

You won and retained the PSA World Tour title, claimed an incredible seventeen-matches-unbeaten streak, and are currently ranked 35 in the world. Do you just really hate losing?
I enjoy winning more than I hate losing. I think that time came after a hard summer’s work, and was the first summer where I really started to challenge myself in terms of how much I was working physically. It paid off, and I got on a bit of a roll. Equally, after I lost the eighteenth match, I had a couple of tournaments where I had a real downturn and I had to reevaluate things to find the enjoyment again. In the last couple of years, I’ve found that enjoying squash and being more process-driven instead of results-driven is really important for me.

How did it feel to be selected to represent England?
It’s one of the highlights of my career so far. I wouldn’t have thought that at 23 I would be playing for England because the pool of players is very strong, and the players at the top are the golden generation who’ve been in the top ten or twenty for the last few years. Playing alongside Nick Matthews and James Willstrop – two of the greatest players in English squash history – as well as players like Daryl Selby and Tom Richards is incredible. I’m going to get so much experience playing alongside those guys in that environment. And of course, representing your country is very special.

You currently divide your time between your training camp in Manchester, and your home in Nottingham. What’s that like?
Me and two of the other guys have our own apartment in the academy at the National Squash Centre, where England Squash’s head office is. The academy is for players between 18 and 25, and there are six or seven of us. We’re there Monday to Thursday with the coaches, and the setup, coaching, backroom staff and support are all world class. For me, it’s a really good balance. I like Manchester as a city, but from when I get there on Monday morning to when I leave on Thursday, it’s business. Come the end of the week, it’s perfect for me to come back here to my friends and family. I love Nottingham, it’s home to me. Because we travel so much, it’s really important to have somewhere that you call home.

Whereabouts have you managed to travel to and compete?
I always love going to Paris, and Hong Kong is one of the best stops on tour. We were in New York in January for one of the best tournaments of the year. I’ve been to New Zealand and Australia, as well, which was amazing. It’s a very fortunate lifestyle. It’s hard because you’re away from family and friends and have to sacrifice certain things, but you get to travel and meet people at a young age.

When you do manage to get the odd bit of time off, what do you like doing?
Spending time with friends and family. I like to spend as much time in coffee shops as I can, especially 200 Degrees; I’m heading there today to sort a few emails. Maybe a holiday or two in the summer; I’m going to the Caribbean for a few days. I’m big into cars as well, that’s a passion of mine.

What music do you listen to while training?
In general, I’m a hip hop guy, and a big fan of Drake. More Life gets played every day. I like my house music, too. If I’m in a relaxed mood, I’ll listen to something like The XX. I think when you travel so much – we spend hours airports, on planes and trains – music becomes a huge part of it.

Is there a certain level of fitness you need to be at to play leisurely?
The more you play, the fitter you’re going to get. Men’s Health picked it as the healthiest sport in the world, so you’re going to get a wicked workout from it. And the social side of it is great as well; games at a club level are often played between friends, and you can head to the bar afterwards. It’s a lot more fun than going on the treadmill for forty minutes.

If someone was looking to get into squash, what would you recommend?
I would say to watch it on YouTube, then get to your local leisure centre or club. It’s quite likely that you’ve got a friend who already plays, but watch it and give it a go. I think people look at squash and think it’s boring or hard, but people are pleasantly surprised. We need to make squash more accessible at the grassroots level, and to people who don’t know what it is.

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