Sporting Change

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GREG ZAFF
Founder & CEO – SquashBusters, Inc. 

I

founded SquashBusters in 1996- nearly half my life ago. My simple goal was to do some good in the world using a sport I loved. I had no idea if it would work, but I believed it was worth trying.

We ask our kids to bravely challenge themselves to commit to studying, community service, and – of course, squash. Our major goals are to get our kids graduated from college, put them on a pathway of health and fitness, and contribute to their overall character development.

After my professional squash career concluded in my late 20’s, I was looking to pursue a career in public service. I didn’t immediately settle on starting an urban youth squash program, but one thing led to another. Eventually my athletic and personal passions aligned.

We began in Boston, with 24 middle school students, $5,000 of seed funding, and a goal of leveling the playing field for kids who had less. 23 years later, SquashBusters has successfully served over 700 students and continues to steadily grow. Today, we are the flagship program of an urban squash movement that includes over 2,000 squash students in 19 cities across the U.S.

I believe there are a few core elements that have directly made us the organization we are today. These can serve as a blueprint for anyone looking to make a change though public service.

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Start with the Staff

The key is not the students, as peculiar as this may sound. In other words, there are many deserving and terrific kids in the city. There are not as many terrific, motivated staff. Building team chemistry amongst the organization is the thing that determines whether it’s going to be great or not.

We want the kind of people who would do this for free, if they had to, because they are just that committed. It is vital to find staff not driven by money, but those looking to be completely inspired by their work. As we have grown to be in three cities (Boston, Lawrence, and Providence) serving over 350 students, the importance of retaining great staff becomes all the more critical.

As much as you may want to do it all, you can’t do everything. As your organization expands, you do a smaller and smaller percentage of what’s needed. It may be uncomfortable to hand over the reigns so to speak, but it is an essential step in the growth process. We look for staff who lead by example. If they’re going to demand excellence and dedication from our kids, we expect them to do the same for themselves. Our kids turn to us for motivation and direction. It is essential that each staff member exemplifies the core values our organization has lived by from the beginning.

Not just speaking specifically for SquashBusters, but this is my view on any organization.

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Never Compromise Your Vision. Ever.

People still ask me, “why squash?”

Admittedly, it’s not the first sport that comes to mind when you think of urban youth, but our results speak for themselves. In the end, it isn’t about squash, but about what squash teaches you, on and off the court.

Although, I will say, there are three major distinguishing characteristics that squash does offer.

First off, you are all alone out there on the court.

You have to make up your mind about what type of human being and competitor that you are going to be. You have to make instantaneous decisions about sportsmanship, effort, and how you are going to handle adversity. There is no running away from that, or hiding behind a teammate.

The second thing is, it is a proven means for students of color, who do well in school, to access the best colleges in the country on scholarship. The reason is- it’s a smaller pond to fish in. Think of it this way, if you’re hoping to play college basketball there’s a much larger talent pool competing for minimal scholarship spots.

Thirdly, it’s a lifetime sport. With just one other human being, you can get an unbelievable workout in 40 minutes. You don’t need 15 people to field a team, and when you’re an adult that’s nearly impossible.

So far, we haven’t compromised on our vision and values. I love that, it makes me excited about coming to work. I run SquashBusters with lots of other phenomenal people, there’s no bullshit. Nobody tells us, “you’re not serving enough kids, you should get rid of squash, you should do this, or you should do that.”

It’s very real, what you see is what you get, and we know exactly who we are as an organization.

Believe it or not, some people have told us that we’re spending too much money on each kid. To those people, I ask: how much would you spend to change a life?

We spend $7,000 per student. If that sounds high, consider what a well-off family will spend to give their child every advantage—six figures on education alone. We don’t think of this as an expense, but rather an investment. This is a core value. There might be room for compromise in other areas, but not when it comes to our commitment to the kids.

“In the end, it isn’t about squash, but about what squash teaches you, on and off the court.”

Have Passion? Take Action.

I just have never been comfortable with the inequality and unfairness in the world, I particularly in a society that has so much. I feel that we all have a responsibility to look out for the people who are struggling the most, and I don’t feel that we’re currently doing a good job of that.

From the outside looking in- we’ve had success, we’ve helped kids, and we’ve made a change. But, it’ll never be enough for me.

Despite everything we do here, I think things are getting worse in terms of inequality and division in this country. I feel like I’m swimming against the tide. There’s still so much work to be done. I’d gladly let SquashBusters go if the system were fairer, but until it is, I’ll be here in the trenches every single day.

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When I sit back and reflect on my own small part in this crazy journey we’ve been on, the thing I think I’ve done really well is held true to my initial values and interests. But this extends way beyond me; this includes the staff, the board, the families, and our core supporters.

There were a lot of external pressures to grow, introduce new initiatives, and do things which challenged my original visions. You have to be able to know who you are and stay true to your core values.

You change people’s lives, and people change other people’s lives. That’s all I ever wanted to do and that’s why – day in, day out, you’ll find me here, working harder than ever to make a small difference in the world.

About SquashBusters-

SquashBusters is a sports-based youth development program located in Boston and Lawrence, Massachusetts and Providence, Rhode Island. We use the sport of squash, along with academic support and enrichment, community service, and college mentoring, to improve the lives of our youth and expose them to opportunities. Since its inception in 1996, SquashBusters has served more than 700 young people. Through its unique program, SquashBusters transforms the lives of its students and the communities in which they live.

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  • Greg played squash at Williams College from 1980-1984 and competed on the World Pro Squash Association’s tour from 1985-1992, reaching a career high ranking of #2 in North America. After pro squash, he went on to study at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government where he wrote a paper called ‘Bringing Squash Down from the Ivory Tower’. That paper served as the initial blueprint for SquashBusters. Greg’s success with SquashBusters in Boston has catalyzed national investment for urban squash across the country. In 2012, Greg was named to the United States Squash Hall of Fame for his leadership of SquashBusters and urban squash.

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