You have already acquired a long list of achievements and records throughout your professional career, you’ve done it all. What is the next milestone for Nicol David in the coming years?
On the court
As an athlete, I have so many things to improve on, which is why I never feel like I’m done. I also feel my strongest and my body is absorbing things that I did not necessarily understand when I was younger because I still get those “Ahh, now I see why my coach was saying that” moments.
I’m sure I’ll still be involved with the sport. I want to give back to the country with what I’ve done, hopefully have my own academy with enough coaches to spread around Malaysia so I can introduce the game to more children and encourage them in their studies by giving them scholarships.
One of my main goals is to reach out and encourage more girls to pick up sports so they can build their self-belief and self-esteem.
I like drawing and design too, so maybe I’ll do something in design, like have my own design company.
Has the game got any easier since you started?
It never gets any easier, it only gets more challenging but the challenge is what I’m spurred on by. Finding all the small details that need improvement, to see what needs work and not let it happen again. Like after losing a match, I’ll analyse it with my coach and team.
It’s tough to admit to your faults but at the same time that’s the only way I learn and I grow from all my losses to make myself a better player.
I was lucky as well to have mental training when I was in the national team for the 1998 Commonwealth Games programme. We had a mental trainer there who taught us how to set goals by writing them down, and up till now I still do that for myself.
What is it like being at the top for almost nine years?
It’s not easy at all and it has gone by so fast because I’m focusing on my goals, like my yearly plan to work towards the year-end World Championships. And I have been in that mindset for the last nine years.
I was not thinking “I want to win these tournaments for the next nine years,” but I just took each year as it came and kept at it.
My coach sees what happens behind the scenes, all my losses, how hard it is during training, the commitments and sacrifices, but when I do well and everything comes together, I get that high which is partly why I don’t even feel like it has been so long. It has just been so fast, I still can’t believe it really.
You have always had the mindset to keep improving yourself from a young age, how did that happen?
Growing up, my sisters were the top juniors in Malaysia, so they were the benchmark. I was so sure to beat them one day, because the youngest always wants to catch up with the older ones (laughs). And while they gave me a hard time on the court, they were willing enough to, train, run drills and play against me despite being at a much higher level than I was, so I learnt from them.
I say that my motivation is to improve myself as a squash player a lot, but I really find the challenge of playing squash at the top a huge challenge for me.
It’s very exciting to learn more about my game and there are a lot of new contenders with different styles coming up . So the more I learn, the more I enjoy it when I’m competing. And there’s no better feeling than stepping out on the glass/show court and playing your best. So that’s my motivation to play well and do what I do.
Your fitness regime has helped you hold your position as the player to beat on the court, what are the things you never leave out in a training session?
To be a squash player you have to have a strong base level of fitness, skill with sound technique, but when it comes to being in the top four, the mental aspect really comes in to play.
Everybody is just as fit, fast and strong, but it’s how you use it on the day that matters.
Movements, tactics and technique is something I always keep working on because that doesn’t come naturally to me. For me, it’s speed and quickness on the court but I have worked in many things around it, like my strength.
I train six-days a week, twice a day between two and four hours each session. It’s squash and a physical session each day which includes circuit training, gym sessions, speedwork and endurance training. So it’s a full-time job and if I don’t need to run I wouldn’t run. I will be on my sofa all day (laughs).
How do you keep yourself in check in a game where you’re behind?
When I have those moments, sometimes I remember “I’ve been down before and I have pulled through.” But it is easier said than done. It comes with having the experience from being in that position before and knowing that you can come out of it because you have done it before.
Once there is a slight doubt, that’s when everything falters and it’s so easy to have that little inkling coming in, so, it’s really about sticking to your guns and not letting it go.
What separates you from your competitors?
Being Malaysian and Malaysian food! (laughs)
I think my approach to squash is different than most players, I put attention into every detail in every aspect of my game to be an all-round player. My most valuable asset is my mental game, which I’ve worked really on and that “makes it or breaks it” when it matters.
Who are your mentors?
My true mentors would be my parents. They knew that we would do something good in our lives so they didn’t pressure us in sports or even in our studies. They also knew that if they gave us our space and showed support, we would study and eventually do well in anything we picked up.
My coach Liz Irving has also been a huge mentor, she’s so experienced, a great person and very humble, she’s given me so much throughout my career and I’m still learning.
Why did you move to Amsterdam?
I often tell others that even Irving and the top Australian players of her time all moved to England to be outside of their country for the exposure from playing in another environment. This is because you get to compete with the best and you get to know what it feels like when you’re not in your comfort zone.
You just gain so much more having that time away from your own country, and also because competitions are not always in your own country.
Being based in Amsterdam for 12 years, where do you call home?
Home is Malaysia but Amsterdam is definitely my second home. I’m there for five months to train throughout the year and the rest of the time is spent travelling around for tournaments.
What other sports did you try out when you were in school?
I played volleyball in school, basketball, athletics and swimming, but squash really took me to places, like getting to go around Malaysia and travel overseas with my sisters. Plus, I was doing really well with it.
What was it like growing up in a food paradise like Penang?
Just eat lah! (laughs) and then burn it off in training later. I try to make the most of it when I’m home in Malaysia but I still have my training.
What advice can you offer players who are deciding between turning pro in squash and furthering their studies?
It’s down to truly what you want at the end of the day. If you have proven to yourself within the junior stage, have the potential and recognition from coaches as well as their coaches as well as support from associations/government like the National Sports Council then you can always give it a shot and see how it goes for a year or two.
But it is tough. Even though you have the potential and talent, you have to work really hard and be fully dedicated. Be prepared to do that and make the most out of it while you can, and If it doesn’t seem to fit, studying is always there and you can go back to it.