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Exclusive Interview with Ramy Ashour
Sport as a key for a violent-free society

Ramy Ashour
Foto: Axeer © Goethe-Institut

The Egyptian three-time world champion Ramy Ashour, who recently retired from playing squash professionally, engages himself actively in the fight against violence in schools. Not only by offering kids new violent-free sport programmes in his own academy, but also by supporting the project “Violence-free schools” by the Goethe-Institut, which aims to raise awareness for bullying and violence in schools by giving trainings to PE teachers from Egyptian public schools on this topic.

Childhood and beginnings

Ramy, you won three world championships and you are considered as one of the best squash players in the world. We heard that you already started playing squash intensively in early age. Could you tell us more about your childhood and your beginnings in playing sports: how old were you and why did you start playing squash? 

Ramy Ashour: I started playing squash when I was six years old. My family strongly believed, that everyone has a talent inside of them and thus made me try many different kinds of sports. When I was young, I watched the Squash ‚Ahram Championships‘. They took place in an illuminated glass court in front of the Pyramids, which attracted me enormously and therefore made me decide to try squash. From the first day that I have entered a squash court, I have never left it again. I have been playing now since 26 years and with every year my dream to become a world champion kept getting bigger and bigger. Starting at 13 years old I trained three times a day until I was 30 years old. Winning the first world championship made me want to win the next and the next and having this positive determination and eager inside of me to fulfil my dreams has helped me immensely.
What did you like about playing sports and what attracted you to playing squash? 

What I love about sports in general is the feeling of being tired and exhausted at the end of the day, but also starting the next day knowing that I am doing something valuable. These aspects add to your soul, character and personality and it adjusts your mental chemistry as well as your way of life. It makes you see things in a different way. Therefore I consider sports to be a true blessing.

Character building and developing the right mind-set

How did playing sports change you and affect the development of your character? 

Over the years I have realized how much sports has changed me. First and foremost it taught me how to take responsibility and it added many values to my life, which I would have never learned if it wasn’t for playing sports. One of the first things I have learned is how to be honest with myself – e.g. you have to invest a lot of work into yourself and your skills in order to be able to stand in front of the mirror and say that you are really good – you can’t lie to yourself and pretend that you are good because your skills will show. I have also learned how to rely on myself and develop self-control.
Moreover, I have gained self-respect and to be accepting and grateful for the things that I do. After playing team championships, I have also enjoyed being a team player and enhanced my teamwork skills.
How did sports teach you to control your (negative) emotions and deal with them in a positive way? 

Controlling your emotions is one of the hardest things that you can learn. When you are trying to improve yourself, you have to learn how to listen. Many times when things aren’t going your way, you can get angry, nervous and frustrated, so you must learn how to control all these negative emotions and listen from those, who give you advice. I have tried before to let out my anger and aggression and realized that this is not the solution. The biggest and hardest issue in controlling yourself is controlling your ego – when you learn how to control your ego, you will learn how to improve. Gaining self-discipline and self-control is also what helped me a lot in controlling my ego.

Working as a trainer and influencing young people

What does it mean to you to train children at your squash academy and what have you learned from it?

It has been one of my biggest dreams for a very long time to teach sports to children and the upcoming generations. There has been a long period in my life where I didn’t have a coach or someone that I could look up to and from whom I could learn. For many years, I had to rely on myself and learn a lot by myself. Therefore, it is my wish to make it easier on the youth and help them be successful and productive, so that they don’t repeat the same mistakes that I have made.
Taking on this ‘coach’ role has given me a huge sense of responsibility and made me pay attention to my behaviour and the things that I do in life. Working with children has also made me understand myself more and see who I am and what my weak points are. Children are extremely honest and will let you know immediately what they truly think of you. This is one of the things that I have enjoyed while playing with them.
What positive impact were you able to see within the children that you are training through playing sports? 

Thankfully, I was able to see a lot of positive changes in many children. For example, I have trained children who at the beginning were extremely shy and weren’t able to be themselves or even express their emotions around their peers. But after a year or two they have completely changed through playing sports. They have received the space to develop their persona and express themselves and their emotions and at the same time they learned how to listen and this is exactly the philosophy that I teach in my academy.

Sports in the context of a violent-free (Egyptian) society

For many years, violence has been a huge problem within the Egyptian society, especially in Egyptian schools and among the Egyptian youth – for e.g. between young peers but also between teachers and students. How can sports affect structures within the Egyptian society in a positive way and add constructive values to it in order to contain violence? 

First of all, sports enhances people’s way of thinking, so that they can find solutions to their problems. Secondly, it helps release the negative energy for those who have built up frustration and anger inside of them. When those two aspects change within a person, consequently it will affect the community around them in a positive way.
If every person exploited sports in order to let out their negative energy, then also teachers, trainers and school supervisors will be able to treat their students in a better, peaceful, civilised and violent-free manner. They will be able to validate the youth in their persona, help them express their opinion and develop a solid character, which will assist them immensely while transitioning into adulthood.
Moreover, sports enhances certain societal values, such as team-work, dialogue and open communication among people, patience, reliance on each other and last but not least respect. All these aspects affect people’s character and foremost how they react to difficult situations. I believe that sports truly can change our language of communication.
In what way can Egyptian schools create educational P.E. lessons for children in order to generate violent-free schools and reach the long-term goal of violent-free Egyptian communities? 

I am of the opinion that the focus of P.E. lessons should be on (developing) the character of the children rather than on their pure physical activity.
For example, teachers should use 15 – 20 minutes of a P.E lesson to sit with their students and allow them to ask questions and talk about the topic of violence. Also teachers should question the children about violent incidents and ask them, how they would react in certain situations, for example if they witness violence or are affected by it themselves. Through dialogue, teachers can promote acceptance among peers and emphasise the importance on winning each other as friends first rather than winning in a sports game.
I truly believe that it is essential for teachers to invest time in developing the character of their students and promote a positive interaction among their peers rather than on winning or losing a game.
If you could share one message with Egyptian youth, who experienced violence in their lives, what would you say to them? 

The message that I would tell a young person, who has experienced any kind or form of violence, would be that life will go on and it will not stop because of a person or a negative situation that has happened to you. You have to understand that only you and you alone can help yourself reach what you want in life and push away the negative experiences that have happened to you.
I advise every person to try to move on and find an outlet or a way, such as a friend, a sport or a passion, that can help you process and overcome what has happened to you but also show you that you should be proud of yourself and ultimately make you feel stronger than anything that has ever happened to you in your life.
How can playing sports lead to a violent-free society, where conflicts can be openly discussed and people treat each other in a positive way? 

First of all, through playing sports the body releases endorphins which make you feel happy and peaceful within yourself but also towards other people. Playing sports makes you more patient and makes you think in a different way, which helps you achieve what you want. It makes you learn how to develop several solutions and plans, not only in the game, but also outside of it, which reflects upon your private life, for example while trying to solve a problem. Sports also teaches you teamwork and how to rely on other people, which leads to a more violent-free community.
Moreover, sports makes it easier for people to connect with each other and build new friendships. It is a universal language that everyone understands without speaking one word. Sports makes you become a more social person that loves to be around others.
In what ways do projects like „Violence-free schools“ by the Goethe-Institute funded by German Foreign Ministry, impact Egyptian society? 

I believe it will hugely and widely impact the Egyptian society however it all depends on how inspiring, emotional, powerful, and relevant the project is and the way it’s presented to the Egyptian society as Egyptian people are emotional by nature and they will get very engaged with anything that is genuine and feels true.
What does the cooperation with the Goethe-Institut and being a representative for the project „Violence-free schools“ mean to you? 

I am personally very proud and excited to partner with such an insightful and visionary institution like the Goethe-Institut on a project, which is that meaningful and relevant. I believe in giving back to the community and using my platform to be positively influential on every level and fortunately that aligns perfectly with Goethe’s vision. I believe this campaign will raise a lot of awareness and should definitely reach many schools, institutes and entities to have them reconsider and follow the way education is supposed to be approached.

Marie Sacher & Ruth Müller in conversation with Ramy Ashour