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Open Squash

Apr 23rd 2024

Squash Is Good For Your Mental Health

Exploring the “Inner Game” With Matt Davis

Matt Davis at Open Squash

Matt Davis at Open Squash after a recent league match

Matt Davis, 44, is a British former journalist and writer for good causes, who’s been coming to Open Squash, a non-profit squash club in New York with a mission to broaden participation for all, since 2020.

He describes playing squash as the ideal sport for improving mental health and overcoming personal challenges. Born in Southeast London in a concrete-heavy commuter town called Croydon, Matt went to college for English literature and found his way into journalism.

“The main reason I was curious about journalism was, I gathered, it was a profession where you could drink a lot and still function,” he said. “There were great writers like Ernest Hemingway and Hunter Thompson who’d started out as journalists, and I liked writing, and I really liked drinking. So it seemed like the ideal choice!”

Matt came to the U.S. in 2006 and worked as a journalist in Portland, Oregon, and then in New Orleans, Louisiana, where his work uncovering corruption at the Orleans Parish Prison earned him a Press Club award. He left New Orleans after 18 months, returning to South London. Along the way, he quit drinking, which prompted something of a reevaluation of his priorities.

“It’s safe to say that I’d made a lot of decisions from a place of trying to escape my personal challenges,” he said. “I realized I was healthier without alcohol, and that I’d been drinking mainly to cover up for some depression that had gone unexamined.”

He went to therapy and found he was happier all round. That’s when he discovered playing squash.

“The thing about squash is, there’s no escape,” he said. “You’re playing in this enclosed box and it’s just you and your opponent, and if you want to win, you have to deal with whatever issues come up. In that way, I find that the game of squash is a great teacher. You have to open up and let the game show you what there is to learn. You can’t be impulsive. You have to slow down and think. It’s very good for me to be in a place like that and learn those lessons.”

When he moved again, to Oakland, California, Matt kept up playing squash at a downtown club.

“I found a real community of guys there, we’d play every Tuesday night in a round robin, and they were all really nice to me,” he said. “I still wasn’t very good at the game, but these fellas looked after me and I appreciated that a lot.”

From Oakland, Matt moved to New York City.

“A friend from California recommended playing at the Harvard Club, but I emailed them and they told me I needed to have gone to Harvard to play there,” he said. “I mean, no disrespect to the Harvard Club people. But it’s 2024. We need to be more inclusive if we want squash to thrive as an Olympic sport.”

So, he played for a little while at a downtown club on Wall Street, but the courts weren’t very playable, and instead, he got into yoga, eventually becoming a yoga teacher after extensive training.

“Yoga is all about getting comfortable with discomfort,” he said. “It’s about grounding into your body when you want to escape, and breathing through it. So in many ways it’s good preparation for squash, actually, especially if you want to play at a higher level where you can’t just hack at the ball and hope to hit a winner.”

Doing all that yoga, Matt also gained 20 pounds, and when he Googled “New York, squash” during the pandemic, he found a video from Open Squash, about to open at the Bryant Park location.

“Open Squash takes the credit for my huge improvement at the game,” he said. “I also lost the extra 20 pounds in about six weeks. We were playing in covid masks at first, and I made a few very good friends in those first few months, and we’re still good friends now.”

Going along to round robins and being part of the atmosphere at Open Squash, Matt volunteered to help out at a fundraiser and got to meet Ali Farag, Gina Kennedy and Victor Crouin, who are all associated with the club.

“It’s amazing that these top players in the world are so accessible,” he said. “It’s really humbling to be around them. Particularly when you realize how humble they are about the game.”

Matt Davis with Ali Farag

Matt with Ali Farag at a recent fundraiser

In his first season playing league squash, Matt also got to beat an opponent from the Harvard Club.

“It was a nice moment to respond to their having refused to let me in, a few years ago” he said.

He also started a 4.5 league team called “The Underdogs” at Bryant Park, which finished “not quite bottom” in its first season.

“The best thing about the team is we’re all trying to get better,” he said. “We train under coach Peter Creed and he’s focused on us trying to slow down and build the rallies so that we improve as squash players. For a bunch of guys who are not quite in the prime of our lives, that’s a really rare community of learning and getting better. We come along to each other’s matches and cheer each other on, and that’s a great feeling. I honestly think I’ve got better from watching so many matches, let alone playing them.”

Matt Davis with Underdogs Team

Matt (left) with the Underdogs and coach, Peter Creed, at an end-of-season dinner recently

The team also made some of the most distinctive t-shirts in the league this year and can often be seen practicing and playing in them around the New York’s squash league.

Now, Matt is keen to introduce his three-year-old son Freddy to playing at the club.

Matt Davis with son Freddy

Matt with son Freddy, 3, at FiDi, recently

“I don’t want to pressure him to play squash, but if he learns the lessons I did from playing the game then he can’t start soon enough,” he said.

Above all, Matt’s journey through squash has been about learning the harder lessons of life, and enjoying the journey, he said.

“Mohamed El Shorbagy says this great thing, and I say it now, too,” Matt said. “Because obviously he and I are basically the same level at squash these days. He says he’s a ‘student of the game’, and I’ve realized that’s what I’ve become, too. Coming from a place where I was keen to escape difficult emotions and feelings, to being able to be comfortable with challenges, that’s not just good for me on the squash court. That’s good for me as a person, and I’m very grateful to Open Squash for having given me that benefit as a human being. Particularly as I started playing the game later in life. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s in a similar position.”

You can also watch a video version of this interview at our new Boast About It show here!