Each week our sports explorers try out a new activity to find out exactly what it’s like so you know what to expect. This week we paid a visit to Squash House in East Berlin and found out one very important and unexpected benefit of the sport…
It’s 5pm and the streets of East Berlin are ink black except for foggy patches lit by the dim glow of streetlights. Brutalist blocks of flats loom and stretch either side of the gaping highways and cars zoom past, full of people eager to get into the warmth of their apartments and out of this cold, damp winter night.
It’s particularly challenging to get out of the house to do sports this time of year, which is why I’ve had to call in some extra motivation for my workout today. I don’t know if I would have made it out on this cold November evening if I hadn’t called in back-up – it’s tough to face the gym or even a yoga class alone in this weather. The only thing that’s motivated me to stick to this plan tonight is my friend Laurence. We’ve made a plan to play a game of Squash and I just can’t let him down, even if it is miserable outside.
The gigantic, bold letters of SQUASH HOUSE loom through the darkness, and I enter the colossal sports complex. As soon as I see Laurence’s happy face I feel glad I forced myself out of the house. Because Laurence loves Squash. It started when he was 21 and bored out of his mind in his hometown of Stroud in the west of England. He’d just finished university and despite the beautiful countryside, cobbled streets and adorable independent shops and cafes, Laurence and his mates were going mad with boredom at home with their parents.
So, very much in the spirit of Urban Sports Club even though we had not yet been invented, Laurence and his friends made a pact to try a new sport every week to ease the monotony. “Me and my mates went to our local leisure centre and we tried everything,” Laurence says. “Badminton, table tennis, indoor football, the gym (which I didn’t like), swimming, and we played squash. And that just stood out to us as really fun – mostly because we just liked whacking a ball really hard. And when you play with your mates it just turns into this competition to see who can hit the ball the hardest.”
Squash House is similar to the leisure centre that Laurence describes. Sitting on the border of Lichtenberg and Friedrichshain in Berlin’s east, Squash House spans hundreds of square meters and Urban Sports Club members can take their pick from badminton, squash, table tennis and bowling. All you need to do is call ahead, book the necessary court and check in with your USC membership.
Laurence and I head to Court 8. The court has four walls and is so brightly lit I spend the first five minutes squinting. The walls are littered with black pock-marks from where previous players had thwacked the black rubber squash ball against it. The wall in front of us has two red lines that clearly mark when the ball is in or out and the floor itself has red lines that mark where we should stand to serve. But, Laurence explains, as soon as the ball is in play the Squash court is a free-for-all – you can go wherever the hell you like.
I’ve played squash only once before at university with my flatmate, but I’ve forgotten most of the rules so Laurence starts by teaching me how to serve. “You need to stand in this red box, look at the opposite corner and hit it so it bounces in my corner,” Laurence explains. I make several attempts that fall entirely flat, but after a little while I thwack the ball hard enough to get it to bounce in Laurence’s corner.
When you hit a rubber ball really hard against a wall your brain gives out a little puff of serotonin. It is unbelievably satisfying. “It’s one of those sports that just makes you feel really good,” Laurence says as he thwacks the ball against the wall. “Like once you’re finished you feel really exhausted and elated.” Our squash game is made a little more complicated because Savannah is on the court taking photos. Laurence and I start playing a game while Savannah takes snaps. We have every intention of playing softly so the ball doesn’t hit her or damage her equipment, but after two shots my competitive side takes over and I can’t help but bang it against the wall as hard as possible. Savannah is forced to run around the court, trying to take pictures and simultaneously avoid getting smacked in the arms, face and head by the ball. I keep apologising but end up just smacking it all over again. Eventually Savannah says she’s got all her shots and quickly evacuates the court. Urban Sports Club work with only the bravest of photographers.
After about twenty minutes I am full-on sweating. It’s very fast-paced – the ball can only bounce once on the floor and Laurence makes sure I have to sprint from one side to the other, forward and back with every shot. “It’s a really nice feeling like you’ve done a proper workout,” Laurence says. “And it doesn’t feel long or boring or tedious, it’s really exciting, fast-paced, full of action, I’ve always really liked playing it.”
It’s a great winter sport. When it’s cold and bleak outside I usually only meet friends in bars or restaurants – but with Squash you get to socialise and exercise at the same time. “That’s why I like it,” Laurence says. “It’s a really good way to get together with my mates, otherwise we tend to just meet in the pub. But this is an opportunity to meet and do a social activity together.” Laurence and his pals tend to book a court for 1 hour 30 minutes. Four of them will come and they’ll play on rotation. “We just swap out until we all got tired,” he says.
By the time our 45 minutes on the court is over I am both exhausted and delighted in equal measure. Even though I have spent much of the time cowering against the wall, terrified of getting lamped around the head by the rubber ball, I’ve also had more fun than I ever thought possible on a Monday afternoon in November.
After our game Savannah, Laurence and I get a hot drink and catch up in the communal area of Squash House, talking about the joys of racket sports. And afterwards, when I step back out onto the dark streets of East Berlin, I feel like a different person – like someone who has truly earned an evening at home, sitting in front of Netflix.
If you’d like to try Squash, Urban Sports Club has tons of Squash partners across Europe. Take a look at our site to see what’s on in your area.