Lachlan Johnston on High Performance and Squash Australia

Lachlan Johnston has been involved in sports for most of his life. From playing the game to working in high performance, he is currently Squash Australia‘s High Performance Manager. We caught up with him to hear about his career and the game.

Sportageous is a proud media partner of Squash Australia. Stay tuned for fortnightly stories from Squash Australia on Sportageous.

Lachlan Johnston cycles as part of his job as high performance manager before Squash Australia
Lachlan Johnston (L) cycling during his role with Rowing Australia. Source: Supplied

Zushan Hashmi: Tell me a little bit about yourself outside of and prior to getting involved in the sporting world?

Lachlan Johnston: There’s not really much about me which is outside of the sporting world! I went to a rugby-mad school, Nudgee College, before studying Exercise and Sports Science at the University of Queensland and then spending six years at the Queensland Academy of Sport in the High Performance space.

I really can’t think of a part of my life where sport isn’t involved. Until recently, the greatest moment in my life was when Adam Scott won the U.S. Masters in 2013 – I think that’s a bit of a measure as to how much I get into sport.

And within sports?

I started playing squash when one of my school mates took me along to Wavell Squash Club in Brisbane when I was 8. I’ve played ever since and tried to play at a decent level in the last few years as a junior. I was OK as an Australian junior but nothing amazing.

I spent 5-7 years working at Wavell as I was going through school and university and I ended up doing a lot of coaching there in my last few years of university.

What motivated you to pursue sports as a career, particularly within the performance space?

I probably don’t see working in sport so much as a career – it’s just my life; as you’ve probably gathered from my first few answers!

To be honest, I just love winning, and I love being involved in, and contributing to, winning performances. That can be as a coach, scientist or manager.

In each role you have to play a vastly different role, and I enjoy the challenge of being able to find my place in a support team, in whatever role I’m in, to try and find a way I can contribute to a successful performance.

You’ve worked with a range of different athletes from across varied sports at the Queensland Academy of Sport, tell me a little bit about them along with the work you did?

You hear this all the time from people who work in sport, but many elite athletes are just such easy people to get along with.

In that sense, they’re not a whole lot different from everyone else. What I learnt from working with a diverse range of sports is that the best athletes all have the same determination to find a way to win. They don’t look for excuses when something doesn’t go right.

They don’t seek any additional help of special treatment from others. When you work with athletes like that, your role becomes much more about removing obstacles for them to allow them to achieve success.

Lachlan Johnson (L) with the Australian men's squash team (Source: Supplied)
Lachlan Johnson (L) with the Australian men’s squash team (Source: Supplied)

Rowing was one of the key focuses, at the time, and I believe you’re still involved with the sport in some capacity, how did this happen, considering you started off far away from the sport?

Yes I’m still involved in rowing. I helped coach the Brisbane Grammar School 1st VIII to victory this year – that is the moment which overtook the Adam Scott Master’s win as my most memorable!

I started out as a sports scientist with the rowing program and gradually became more a more embedded in the program. I learnt to drive the tinnie when the head coach was away, then I just started taking my own squad more of the time.

I still had a lot of support from the Head Coach – there are a lot of technical elements I couldn’t work on since I’ve never rowed! My progression in coaching I’d say comes from the fact that I don’t necessarily try and ask my athletes to row a certain way – it’s more about asking good questions and letting them work things out themselves to become autonomous.

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That’s my general philosophy and I’d say I’ve developed that over many years of just being involved and watching good athletes work. Good athletes problem solve on their own.

More recently, you’ve been working as the High Performance Manager at Squash Australia, tell me a little bit about your experiences within this role and at the organisation?

It was a really nice fit for me to take the job when it came up in May 2019. As I mentioned before, I have a long history with squash and I saw the position as a great chance for me to take the skills I’d developed in my six years at the QAS and start to use them at Squash Australia.

We’re in a bit of an unfamiliar position at the moment with many of our elite players recently retiring.

We don’t have the same number of players in the top 20 or so as we once did, but that is a key challenge I knew I’d be tackling when I took on the role.

We’re obviously a bit short on players at the top end of the world rankings at the moment, and getting more players back near the top is going to be crucial for us for Commonwealth Games and World Team Championships success.

People often ask what High Performance involves, could you elaborate a little bit on your role and what you do?

Good question. I was at a conference in November last year where Peter Keen, who was the Performance Director for UK Sport at the time of the London Olympics, spoke.

What he said provided me with a lot of clarity – and I’ll probably paraphrase him badly here. He said Performance in sport (i.e. executing on the day) is about emotion, artistry, courage, passion, etc., while Strategy and Management is about logic, consistency, transparency, etc.

In my previous role, I was heavily involved in the day-to-day work, which included lots of emotion, artistry, courage and passion.

We laughed and cried every day riding the wave of ups and downs of a professional athlete, and I was quite invested in their pursuits – it’s hard not to be when I spend 6-hours a day with them, 6 days a week.

So, in my role as HP Manager, I think it’s about providing the logic, consistency and transparency to allow those performances to occur.

In terms of what that looks like from a work perspective, it’s analysing budgets, writing policies, preparing campaign plans (for Comm Games) and, above all, making sure my team of staff are fully supported to be able to assist the athletes to provide that performance.

Lachlan Johnston on the left with 3 other colleagues from Squash Australia, talking high performance
Lachlan Johnston (L) with Squash Australia members (Source: Supplied)

You focus a lot on enabling athletes to reach their own solutions rather than forcing them to follow a given method. Can you expand on this a little bit?

Yes, and that stems a lot from how I operate in rowing, but it’s applicable in every sport. Every athlete is going to have their own unique way of doing things, and part of someone becoming a great athlete is trying different things, and succeeding and failing along the way.

Athlete’s need to understand themselves really well when they get to competition, or a big point in a match, and allowing them to evolve and learn is a massive part of having them get to that stage with that ability.

That is not to discount the role of coaches. In fact, I think it actually speaks to the importance of good coaches, which I am a massive believer in. Good coaches need to be there along the journey to support athletes through their challenges.

You have a coveted team of professionals working with you in the HP space at Squash Australia, can you share some details in that regard?

The core of our HP team is our newly appointed National Coach, Stewart Boswell, and our Athlete Wellbeing and Engagement Manager, Sarah Roder.

Stewart has been an outstanding addition to the program. He has a great relationship with all of the athletes in the system – not only the players he coaches on a daily basis at our National Centre on the Gold Coast, but also the entire network of players around Australia and overseas.

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He was one of the top Australian players when I was growing up, so it’s great to see him on court now, and his skills as still as sharp as ever.

Sarah started with us in October last year, and she has been brilliant. She takes care of all of the ‘off-court’ matters athletes deal with – education, career, wellbeing, personal development.

It is such an important area for our next generation as well. It’s obviously hard for someone to make a career as a squash player and we’ve seen lots of players not commit to having a proper crack at the tour because they’ve wanted to stay in Australia and set themselves up.

The support Sarah provides gives athletes the ability to pursue their squash goals while still working away at the career and education and overall development as a person. I can’t speak highly enough of the work she does.

We also have Jenny Duncalf on board as our Performance Pathway Coach. Jenny clearly has a great understanding of what it takes to get to the top, and she does a great job at painting that picture for our developing athletes. She’ll be a great asset for us in the coming years.

Man assists lady with rowing injury
Source: Supplied

What are some of the biggest challenges within your space?

We’re obviously a bit short on players at the top end of the world rankings at the moment, and getting more players back near the top is going to be crucial for us for Commonwealth Games and World Team Championships success.

The main thing we’re missing is the opportunity for our developing players to see what being a world champion looks like from close quarters.

Having world class coaches like Stewart and Jenny certainly helps with that. I’d say there are a lot of players in Australia getting good results at a junior level who don’t know how good they can be if they take the next step and put in some serious time at training to go to the next level, and we’re using Jenny and Stewart to identify those players and give them that understanding.

What do you think needs to be done for squash to grow in Australia?

I think it’s really tough in Australia as an indoor sport. Straight away, squash is at a disadvantage in that sense. I know people might say that the weather hasn’t changed in 40 years since squash was a lot bigger, but I think other sports are becoming more accessible through media exposure and the commodification of sport.

We still see a number of squash centres achieve some good growth in their own centre when a really passionate person, who is a good operator, is involved, so it’s not impossible. Getting in front of the schools more is one thing which I think can help, but that needs to be followed up with a good first contact at their local centre. And that is happening in a some places.

On a broader level, we can always keep trying to push for more media exposure, which is why a platform like Sportageous is great.

Squash’s position is not totally unique for Commonwealth Games and Olympic Sports though. Having spent time around the clubs is some of these other sports, they’re not exactly kicking massive participation goals every year either, and they’re all having similar conversations to us.

Which is why I think we have to consider some more external market factors which also have an influence.

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You can visit the Squash Australia website here, and follow them on Twitter and Instagram.
Get in touch with Lachlan Johnston on Linkedin.
Sportageous is a proud media partner of Squash Australia. Stay tuned for fortnightly stories from Squash Australia on Sportageous.

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