Canadian native and Princeton squash player Nicole Bunyan talks about her injury and her journey into coaching and training.
Zushan Hashmi: Tell us a little bit about your background (life outside of squash etc)?
Nicole Bunyan: I’m originally from Victoria, BC, Canada, and then moved to the US for University. I played a few sports growing up, but I competed at a high level in soccer and squash. To this day I still love team sports, and enjoy jumping into volleyball or soccer games & leagues whenever I can. In my late teens I also picked up road biking. I competed in some races in the squash off-season at University, and in a couple of triathlons. It was a good way to get fitter and also compete in something new.
How did you get into the sport? And why you continued to play?
My parents both play recreationally, so I grew up hanging around the squash courts as a kid. I originally tried squash when I was about 7 and didn’t really take to it. I begged my mom to let me quit tap dancing. She said I could if I picked up another sport. I chose squash! At ten I started by taking semi-private lessons with one of my best friends.
I whole heartedly believe the reason I continued to play was because of our coach, Stuart, but the social aspect helped. Stuart (who unfortunately passed away in 2019 from a long fought battle with cancer) had an unusual and exceptional ability to coach beginners, national champions, and everyone in between. It was remarkable to see him teach squash to newcomers. His methods always revolved around the fundamentals, yet had a heavy encouragement for creativity.
When I was about eleven, I hadn’t been playing long and my shots weren’t very accurate and my focus wasn’t good either! I believe I had to hit one straight drive, then one cross court drive. I hit the shots in the opposite order, perhaps by accident, or perhaps just to joke around! While some coaches would have been strict and annoyed by this lack of focus, Stuart took a different approach. He laughed and said, “well, that was VERY deceptive” whenever I mishit the ball, or poked fun at the fact that I always seemed to do the opposite of what he had said. I know that Stuart had a huge impact on many people’s lives. I am certain that he is a large part of the reason that I took to the sport.
What was it like playing the game at Princeton, and what did you enjoy most about varsity squash?
At first, college squash took some getting used to. I wasn’t prepared for intense weekly challenge matches determining your spot on the playing ladder. I was no longer in control of my training week & practices. It took me a couple months, but I sorted myself out and learned how to compete against my teammates so we could bring the best out of each other.
I also learned that I needed to do some extra work on my own to enhance my strengths, such as fitness and movement. My coach wasn’t too happy about it. She believed that I wasn’t going to be able to put enough work into her practices. This certainly started a few quarrels. However, I honestly don’t believe that I would have succeeded as a college athlete if I hadn’t put in those extra sessions outside of practice. Aside from the physical benefits, I became disciplined, gritty, and mentally tough.
Was it challenging to make the transition to the pro tour? Why/why not?
I had a slow start to the pro tour for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I graduated University with injuries. I went into knee surgery for a slightly torn meniscus, and was also been in a severe car accident. Fortunately I had no internal injuries, but it damaged my knee further, and also caused some back and chest issues. Since I couldn’t run without pain, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to play squash at a high level anytime soon. I therefore launched myself into my other passion: fitness!
After a few months of rehab and strengthening (it certainly helped working at a gym), I began playing a few events. It was difficult, because I quickly realized that I needed more commitment than college to play at the pro level. Every little difference matters. I wasn’t a highly world ranked junior, so I had a lot of catching up on my understanding of the game.
It proved very difficult- training clients, and coaching some squash on the side, while also trying to fit in my own squash and gym sessions. Perhaps my rate of improvement was not as quick as it could have been, but I don’t think that I can look back upon that time and regret it now. I wouldn’t be in the position I am today without those years of experience. I also don’t think I was ready to commit fully to playing as a full time professional. At Princeton I saw people excelling in several areas of their life, not just academics or athletics, and I wanted to do the same. I think this is why I took on a few coaching/training jobs while also training to compete professionally.
You are serious, like any other athlete, when it comes to your fitness, but you also like to talk about training drills and coach people on that front. Why is this important in your opinion?
I have always loved training- the process of determining weaknesses, figuring out a plan, and then executing it. I used to, and still do this for myself, and wanted to help others achieve their goals as well. Physically, strength and conditioning fascinate me because I believe you can always improve at something. With strength, mobility and conditioning, if you have a good plan, set your mind to it, and execute, you’ll improve. Of course, you can’t improve at everything at once. Progress isn’t linear, but I believe the mental and personal growth you gain from this process is just as valuable, if not more, than the physical benefits of the training.
More recently you have launched the training program squashlete, can you tell us a bit about it?
The training program is Squashletic, derived from Squash + Athleticism! Squashletic is the name of my online training brand (soon to be app) for Squash Fitness. I have been training & creating programs for clients virtually for the past year, and realized that there is a lack of accessible training knowledge for squash.
There are some online coaching resources, but I plan to focus solely on the physical & training aspects of squash, (less so the tactical and technical/swing side) to help self-motivated squash players get the best out of themselves! The Squashletic app supplements your usual squash playing routine. There will be warmups, cool downs, strength sessions, conditioning workouts, ghosting sessions, and much more. I am also aiming to provide lots of resources surrounding the topic of training. With these resources participants can improve their Squashleticism in all areas!
What has the response been like, and what took you in that direction?
The response has been excellent! I don’t have anything to compare it to, so I am merely judging on the basis of having been able to grow a modest following online, and gain some custom clients as well.
Coming to squash in Canada, do you think COVID has impacted the game (in terms of participants etc)? Why/why not?
Covid has certainly impacted squash in Canada. Every province is different depending on the severity of the restrictions. I know that Squash Canada is making a big effort to raise awareness of the sport across the country. There are also some pathways in place to encourage younger generations to keep playing at a high level. Since squash is an indoor sport, there are challenges. However, on the bright side, many people appreciate the sport more than ever since being forced to hang their racquets up.
You can follow Nicole Bunyan and her budding squash career on her Business Instagram, Personal Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
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