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Rodney Martin on coaching: “Everyone has little idiosyncrasies. Do not change those if they don’t affect the outcome.”

This article, in which Ian McKenzie interviews World-Champion-turned-elite-coach Rodney Martin, was published courtesy of Squash Player magazine, the associate magazine of the World Squash Federation.

Click here to subscribe to Squash Player magazine.

It is not an easy transition from being a great player to becoming a coach. It is easy to fall into ‘do it like me’ syndrome and easy to assume things that less talented players still need to learn. It is also easy for the coach’s players to think that secrets will be imparted and the magic will somehow rub off.

Rodney Martin is aware of these dangers. He is a deep thinker and a straight shooter. His players will never be left in any doubt what he wants from them. He is not inclined to accept, for example, casual addressing and striking of the ball. Martin understands the fundamental principles of hitting accurately and he expects his pupils to get this right.

He proudly shows a photograph of two of his rackets standing neatly side-by-side outside a court. Right in the middle of the strings there are two frayed circles. That is where he hits the ball.

It was this precision that marked his game and helped him become world champion in Adelaide in 1991, famously beating Jansher Khan, Jahangir Khan and Chris Dittmar on his way to the title.

That precision was influential on the development of the modern attacking game. Jahangir was the incomparable pressure player, Jansher the dream mover and Dittmar the brilliant tactician. Martin was the surgeon, cutting his opponent’s game to pieces with precise attack and combinations. It all ended prematurely, however.

“I was 26 or 27,” recalls Martin. “Chris Dittmar and Jahangir were retiring and I was thinking Jansher and myself were the top players. I thought I would win some major titles. I then hurt my leg and that was it.

“My hip was done. I tried to come back after six months of rehab, but basically it was impossible to rehab what I had. It was bone on bone.

“I had a year of depression. I’d felt I had another seven or eight years at the top of the sport I loved and it had been taken away from me like that,” he says snapping his fingers. “It took me a long time to get over it.”

But then his compatriot Geoff Hunt asked him to work at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) with himself and Heather McKay. “I had always wanted to do that,” Martin says. “When I was on Tour and people asked me, ‘What are you going to do after squash?’ I always said, ‘I’d like to work at the Institute.’”

The AIS squash section was based in Brisbane. Hunt was an eight-time British Open champion and McKay a 16-time champion. Rodney had been a pupil there with many of the golden generation of Australian talent.

“I started working there as a scholarship coach. Geoff knew I could do it and he gave me a free rein to implement the things that I thought the players needed to change in their technique.

“I have always had a technical brain. I think about the game differently from a lot of people – how to play and the tactics to use. I think Geoff saw that. That is where my coaching career started.”

Martin stayed at the Institute for 10 years and when McKay left, he became the High Performance Coach.

Later Hunt moved to Qatar and was particularly associated with a talented young player called Abdulla Al-Tamimi, while Martin moved to America.

There, Martin worked on a junior development programme in Bedford, New York, 45 minutes out of NY City. He coached about 15 juniors out of a private court belonging to the family of Chris Hansen – one of his pupils. While there, Martin also worked with young Aussie players from the AIS who were making the transition to the Tour. 

He has now been in the US for over 20 years and is currently based at another family court in Greenwich. Martin and ex-pupil Ryan Cuskelly are also involved in a club in the area, the Ox Ridge Riding & Racquet Club, in Darien, Connecticut. The club has six singles courts and two large American doubles courts.

The area also has a proliferation of golf courses and Martin’s talent for hitting a ball has proven to be transferable. His handicap fluctuates between scratch and two. “There are a lot of courses in New England,” he says. “I’m lucky enough to have clients who are members of these nice clubs and they invite me to play.”

“However, with the amount of work I do during the season it is full on most days,” he explains. “There is the pro group, elite juniors and club junior development. I’m away at junior tournaments most weekends. 

For seven or eight months I am very busy.”

Martin works with World no.2 Nouran Gohar, Swiss player Dimitri Steinmann, Tamimi (now Hunt has retired) and more recently Marwan ElShorbagy. Sometimes visiting AIS players like Joseph White stay.

The occasional golf relaxation makes a nice counterpoint to squash.

Martin likes to see his approach to coaching as common sense and looks to other sports for ideas.

“I look at golf a lot because it is a very technical game,” he says. “In golf we talk about the contact point – which is the important part of many sports. There are fundamentals in the swing that should be adhered to, to get to that contact point the best and most economical way, so that it can be grooved and repeated.

“In golf they talk about Jim Furyk’s weird swing, but his contact point is good. Do you teach his [unorthodox] swing? No. You teach the fundamentals like in Tiger Woods’ swing which everyone can follow. We need simple things people can follow in order to get the best contact.”

How much to change a player, how much to interfere, how to work with different styles, abilities and personalities is always problematic for any coach. Martin brings more experience to this issue than most. 

“I am not trying to get people to hit the ball exactly the same way as I hit the ball,” he says. “They should, however, get the fundamentals right. Everyone has little idiosyncrasies. You do not change those if they don’t affect the outcome.

“However, my players are seeking out a person like me for a reason. I’m not going to tell them what they want to hear. They ask, ‘What do I have to do to get better?’ I’m up front and I will break down what I think they need. 

“For example, I have coached people to play someone like Marwan in the past, so I know where he is weak, what he needs to fix, where I would attack him if I was playing him myself. That is the way I think about the game and that is the way I talk to my players. 

“I still look at the game and say, ‘What would I do to beat this guy?’ I would say, ‘He is weak there, makes mistakes there, how quickly do you have to play your drops?’

“I think about it as a player, the fundamentals and the weaknesses. Then you look at the player you are coaching and you speak to them differently – for example, Abdullah is totally different to Marwan.” 

So Martin adapts his coaching to differences in each individual, whether it’s kinks in their set-up or aspects of their personality. He also clearly still relishes the tactical confrontation on court. The fact that players gravitate to him from all over the world shows he’s made the transition from world-class player to coach pretty seamlessly.

Click here to subscribe to Squash Player magazine to read the next issue, as Rodney Martin offers more wisdom on coaching, tactics, playing different opponents and game plans.

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