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Simply Squash: mentorship and education for women with Maya Mibenge

Simply Squash Academy trains women from all backgrounds, be it professionals, university graduate or high schools students. Empowering women through sport, mentorship, education and dialogue, Simply Squash is a breath of fresh air for all women and girls wanting to join the game.

We caught up with their founder Mayase Mibenge to discuss all that Simply Squash does.

Read more on this incredible story of how squash is helping women develop confidence in life, sport and the future with their founder Mayase, or Maya as she is known, all the way in Lusaka, Zambia.

Girls playing Squash
Source: Supplied

Zushan Hashmi: Where and how did you get into squash yourself?

Maya Mibenge: I was born into a tennis family and was given my first tennis racket by the age of 6. Both my parents played tennis and therefore me and my siblings were all wheeled onto a tennis court at some stage!

I played throughout my childhood and boarding school. Squash was not an option growing up as we were told that squash would ruin our tennis grip.

We were always told the urban legend of the family friend who had an aunt, whose husbands’ friends friend lost an eye playing squash. So, I steered clear, as a black eye from a tennis ball seemed preferable to being blinded by a squash ball!

Fast forward to growing up and getting a career. The challenges of finding tennis courts to play on after work, seasonal issues and life just changed things.

On a very random recommendation from a friend, I decided to give squash a try as I wanted a sport which I could play all year round and fit into my schedule as well.

I started playing at various clubs, but finally settled at Lusaka Club and eventually found a super coach, who has been my first-choice coach for about 14 years.

He managed to identify that in as much as I needed something to keep fit, I needed a game that also offered me a strong mental challenge.

Squash for me is a physical, mental and emotional masterpiece. Yes, tantrums on the court when you’ve lost a point are a must!

At my last job away from home, I was in charge of training our squash team for an annual inter-bank tournament and after that, I started coaching a few ladies after work and on weekends launched a ladies squash bootcamp.

When I returned home, I had to accept that my happiest place was on the court and not in an office. So, Simply Squash was launched, initially targeted at Professional women who are in desperate need of intense stress relieving activity!

Throughout my corporate Career – squash was my 40-minute escape from the world which felt like therapy! Add the intensity of chasing a small ball down to hit it and get a point can cure almost any ailment or blues!

We have now expanded and want to get girls involved showing them the power and awareness that sports and physical prowess offer!

Throughout my corporate Career – squash was my 40-minute escape from the world which felt like therapy! I always tell my players to not underestimate the soothing stress relief that can be gained from hitting a ball very hard against a wall repeatedly.

Add the intensity of chasing a small ball down to hit it and get a point can cure almost any ailment or blues!

READ: Farida Mohamed: Egypt’s rising squash star

What do you get up to outside of the game?

Outside of squash I knit a lot, read, bake and garden. Physically, I used to cycle and want to get back to it.

My knitting has a life of its own, and during COVID-19 I was churning out pairs of socks for sale (squash girls roll with the punches)! As I struggle to sit still for long periods of time and can also only meditate in short bursts, I tend to treat my knitting like meditation.

Reading (I’ve finally joined a great book club!) as well and my gardening also helps me throw out any additional energy that I need to get rid of, off-court.

However, as we are seeing the Academy grow and getting new clients, I find outside the game involves a lot of strategising and working on our future growth!

We are looking at launching a sports shop (with our own range of clothes and accessories), a coffee shop (focused on healthy diets and choices) and also alternative fitness classes for ladies (we’re not forcing everyone who comes through our doors to become squash addicts!)

So, outside the game, it is trying to ensure the game keeps on and we have more women focusing on their health!

Four girls pose for Simply Squash.
Source: Supplied

Tell me a little bit about squash in Zambia, in general?

Squash in Zambia is in need of a re-vamp or a fresh breath of life into it. As a country, our priority sport at the moment is football, and as with the majority of sports in Zambia, it is predominantly male-oriented. We plan to bring women to the table.

What I envision as a re-vamp, includes creating an avenue for female athletes to get into the game and gain recognition. We plan to have quarterly tournaments for the seeded women players and also host regional tournaments at least twice a year.

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For the juniors, discussions are being had to ensure that they have regular competitions to keep them engaged and motivated. We are also committing to ensure that women athletes receive the recognition they deserve.

We want to ensure that prize money and rewards are equal to that of any male athlete.

And Simply Squash in particular?

Simply Squash Academy is a coaching academy run by women for women. We aim to play a part in getting women and girls empowered through sport.

  • Professional and urban women have a chance to train and network with a like-minded tribe to get themselves as strong physically as they are mentally and emotionally.
  • For young girls (aged 12 – 18) we’re creating opportunities to identify talent and raise a new generation invested in the game and themselves. This program will include sporta, education, financial literacy and mentorship.
  • For our 18 – 21-year-old school leavers we plan to create employment and career openings in the sports world. Options will be from coaching to being professional athletes.

We plan to launch our ‘Hit Like A Girl’ campaign to combine the three worlds, allowing our juniors to be mentored by our coaches and members who combine career, family and prioritize their health.

Simply Squash believes in empowering women and girls through sport, mentorship, education and dialogue. Our main focus is on health as a healthy and strong woman is unstoppable.

Do you think there are enough opportunities and avenues for women to play squash in Zambia and wider Africa (barring Egypt)?

On a social and a professional level, at the moment, no. Simply Squash has stepped in to make it accessible, safe and fun for women and girls to not only participate but dominate!

Socially – we aim to get women to prioritise their health in a fun and intense way. We ensure that our courts are a safe space for women and girls. Monthly social tournaments are scheduled to keep our ladies active and social.

Professionally – we plan to host women’s and juniors tournaments, targeting a minimum of one annual regional tournament offering women exposure, fierce competition and access to progress to the international stage.

Simply Squash
Source: Supplied

Simply Squash is a first of its kind Academy around the world. Tell me a little bit about that?

Simply Squash believes in strong women. On a personal note, in my previous life as a banker, I worked side by side with women juggling careers, family life and cultural and social obligations.

Despite saving the world for everyone else, I found all these commitments leaving them too busy to take care of their own health and self-care.

As I looked around at younger generations, opportunities for girls to find employment and careers in sport remain limited. Options for athletic girls are predominantly in football and netball.

Girls continue to be raised with cultural handicaps and beliefs that serious sports are for boys and that they should aspire to attain traditional careers and family life paths.

Simply Squash believes in empowering women and girls through sport, mentorship, education and dialogue. Our main focus is on health as a healthy and strong woman is unstoppable.

Why do you believe squash is a great means to develop and provide opportunities to women?

Squash in itself is a game which requires immense mental, physical and even emotional strength! I believe anyone who steps onto a court leaves with so much more!

Because squash is so intense, I find our customers leave empowered, energised and self-aware.

Socially – we aim to get women stronger than they already are. For our members and professionals, we want them to create a new tribe of women. A lot of them are looking for ways to keep healthy and give back, so we believe tying in mentorship gives them an overall community and health awareness.

Professionally:

  • We want to give female athletes a chance to excel. As at now, we are able to create a platform that engages, mentors and trains them. As we are women -ed, we hope that we can nurture and encourage future talent to not only think out of the box but smash it.
  • For our younger girls with exceptional talent, we hope to help them go as further than they expected! We will explore international scholarships tied to sport to ensure that they continue to rise! For any girl on our court, we plan to create awareness of their physical strength and bodies. We want to ensure that all our girls get squash as a lifelong skill and appreciate and prioritize their health as they go through life.

READ: Janet Vidhi on taking Squash in India to the next level

What has it been like running the academy so far?

Running the Academy has been such a great adventure. We have had all sorts of women come onto our courts from all walks of life. After surviving a 40-minute session with us, we’re pleasantly surprised that they keep coming back!

I can say that I have tapped into my tribe, from the other coaches to our players, I have met such a diverse set of ladies with spirit and spunk!

Many of the women have never played squash, let alone held a racket before in their lives! I watch with such delight as they slip into ease into their game.

As we continue to grow, I remain excited about the characters we come across, each with their own story and reason for being there.

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Many of the women have never played squash, let alone held a racket before in their lives! But I watch with such delight as they slip into ease into their game. These ladies who prioritise their health are Simply Warriors in my eyes.

Do you coach the game yourself? Who else is involved?

I definitely coach! As Head coach, I ensure that every new player (time allowing) is introduced to the game by me and then I assign them a coach.

For those I don’t get a chance to induct, I try to ensure that I play them within the first month so I can give feedback on their game and to their coaches.

There are 3 other coaches:

  • Christine who is our 2nd seeded female player in Zambia.
  • Alison and Esther, who were brought in as interns, then Assistant Coaches and are now full coaches. They joined us at 18 years old, and as they came to the end of their gap year after high school.

We are looking to grow and will look continue with our policy of targeting girls who are between high school and University ensuring that they stay engaged in a healthy and empowering way.

Tell me a little about the challenges and successes of running the organisation?

The biggest challenge we have received so far was weathering the COVID-19 pandemic. Just as we were growing and going from strength to strength we had to close, re-strategise and regroup.

We got through it (are still going through the new norms!) but managed to acquire our own courts during this time. Getting our own courts was always part of the plan but getting them in a suppressed economy has been the biggest challenge.

Simply Squash
Source: Supplied

We have had to navigate how to run them as safely as we can. Social distancing on court, maintaining high levels of cleanliness, ensuring customer and coach safety.

On the back of this, again, our biggest success was acquiring our own courts! This was negotiated pre-COVID and finally signed off and launched as facilities started to re-open in the midst of COVID-19.

We were able to not only welcome several of our previous members but allow new members in as safely as possible. Having our own premises has given us a chance to prioritize women and ensure that they are able to train in a safe space.

We have the privacy and discretion to ensure the environment is conducive for women to play strong with minimal distractions. Also seeing women being able to support each other through sport has been overwhelming!

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What do you aim to achieve in the future with Simply Squash?

The aim for Simply Squash is to be the starting point for many women and girls to grow in a women-centric sports environment. We plan to grow nationally and regionally ensuring the women and girls get a chance to experience and thrive with through sport more specifically squash.

Perhaps one of our biggest goals for Simply Squash would be to turn on the TV one day and see one or several of our girls killing it in the squash world.

Following a dream that we planted, nurtured and encouraged. Knowing my ladies as I do, I can see us all cheering our girls on in their race for excellence.

But having said that, I hope that any girl that passes through our courts and whichever path they choose, they know that they have a strong network from their peers and also from our lady player mentors!

I personally hope whatever life they chose is simply their best life and we have left an imprint that helps them keep in touch with their selves and inner strength.

The president of the WSF recently said Africa is one of the key markets for the growth of the game, what are your thoughts on this?

I believe that there is so much untapped talent in Africa, but it needs to be identified, nurtured and supported.

Sports is such a gateway to whole other worlds, and hopefully, the time for change is now. If we can get our infrastructure, coaching, financing and priorities aligned, our players could be unstoppable.

As of now and the pace we’re going at, this could be in a decade or two, with so many missed opportunities. In Africa, we have the raw talent and even the willingness, but access, support and motivation is required.

As Simply Squash, we hope to simply play a role as an accelerator to this growth and development.


Follow Simply Squash on Instagram, Facebook or visit their website here.
For more Squash related content, visit Sportageous.
Kinza Tahir assisted in the curation of this article. You can follow her here on Twitter.

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