Anyone who sits down to speak with Stanford squash’s head coach Mark Talbott should be prepared to be overcome by one thing: the desire to pick up a squash racket and start playing. Granted, this is the man who runs one of the biggest squash camps in the country and has clearly worked on his squash elevator pitch. Nevertheless, Talbott’s pitch is one that’s especially hard to refuse.
“People love it the first time they play it because after 15 minutes, you’re exhausted,” Talbott said. “You can get the ball; it’s slow. Even if you’re not coordinated, you can get the ball. And you have rallies right away… Squash is easy because it’s low and you just have to be able to run.”
Of course, Talbott calling squash “easy” may stem from the fact that he’s enjoyed much more success in the sport than the average Joe. Talbott was inducted into the Squash Hall of Fame in 2000 after enjoying a 12-year reign as the No. 1-ranked professional in North America. But when asked about a specific treasured memory from his playing career, Talbott seems to favor the off-court moments as opposed to the on-court ones.
“For me, it was really how fortunate I was and how much fun I had,” Talbott recalls. “Really all the guys I ended up coming up with turned out to be my best friends. We have a lot of great memories and stories, and a lot of what I tell the kids is fun stories.
“Playing my brother — my brother used to hate playing me because every time we had to play, and these are real tournaments, I’d always make him dress up in a costume.”
The visual that this suggests seems too far from possible: a professional squash player forcing his brother, eight years his senior, to dress up in a costume in a professional tournament. The antics may seem out of character for such a world-class athlete, but Talbott thrives as a result of his prankster personality — he believes that keeping competition fun and enjoyable really is the best way to success.
“Overall, he’s just such a father to all of us,” said women’s team captain Ally Huchro. “He really cares about what’s going on with school, what’s going on with our social lives…he’s constantly teasing the team about their boyfriends, and making sure they’re treated correctly. He’s such a light character, and he’s always dancing around at practice, so he makes it really easy and really fun to play for him.”
The father figure label is one that Talbott embraces. He proudly accepts being dubbed a player’s coach, trying to incorporate his fun-loving nature into not only the way he coaches but also how he interacts with his players on a daily basis.
“It’s just all about helping them get better in their games but also just make it fun,” Talbott says. “They’re all pretty motivated, these kids all love to play squash, and for them I view it as a part of their college experience and I want to make that part of their day something they really enjoy.”
Squash coaches on the East Coast have a reputation for being very results-oriented and certainly don’t convey the laid-back attitude that is Talbott’s essence. For Talbott, any form of coaching that doesn’t involve positive reinforcement isn’t worthwhile.
“I’ve seen other sports where these coaches just yell and scream at the kids, and it’s just not fun for them anymore,” Talbott recounts. “You don’t need to push them, they push themselves. It’s more like just helping them get there.”
“He really just wants us to do our best,” said men’s captain Nick Xu. “That was his attitude that he carried throughout his professional career as well, he was just known as the biggest gentleman and goofball on the court.”
What makes Talbott a unique case as a players’ coach, aside from his use of odd acronyms to help his players — “tender loving best volley,” as Huchro recalls — is the fact that he attained so much success in the sport he is now coaching. There is always a fear with superb athletes-turned coaches that they won’t be able to convey techniques for improvement. For Talbott, however, it’s not difficult to separate the player and coach aspects of his persona.
“I don’t feel like I have anything to prove and I don’t have a big ego,” Talbott says. “For me, it’s easy; I don’t see any obstacles. Sometimes you see that in sports, with professionals who maybe didn’t play at the top level, that maybe they have something to prove as a coach, but for me it’s just fun… Coaching to me comes down to how you relate to people.”
Talbott has made the player to coach transition about as seamlessly as anyone. After an incredibly successful coaching stint at Yale, Talbott moved to the West Coast, where squash wasn’t nearly as big of a sport. He then went about developing a Stanford squash program still in its nascent stages. He says that the hardest part was raising money for a coaching position. Looking for a way to support his family, Talbott was fortunate enough to secure a job at Stanford in 2004 as coach of both teams, both of which had club status at the time.
For Huchro, Talbott was a large reason that she chose to come play squash on the West Coast. Not only does he form close bonds with his players, but with their families as well. Huchro stated that Talbott frequently golfs with her parents when they are in town, a sign of his willingness to become a familial figure for his players.
“Mark really cares about the player as a whole,” Huchro said. “Unlike other programs that have multiple assistant coaches, Mark will get on the court with us every day and play games.”
Talbott certainly loves stepping on the courts to face his players, but one point where he draws the line is with assistant coach Richard Elliott. The two coaches never play squash together (despite the constant insistence from their players), but Talbott says they enjoy exercising their competitive spirits by playing golf together as often as they can.
Elliott balances out Talbott’s style in many ways. In Huchro’s words: “Mark has all these really good ideas and he’s so dynamic, and Richard kind of puts them into concrete drill. Mark really needs Richard as well. They’re sort of a dynamic duo.”
Regardless of which is the dreamer and which is the do-er, the two coaches have done an impressive job of growing the Stanford squash program to the level it is at now. Both Xu and Huchro claim that the success of the program rests on the strong relationships that both Talbott and Elliott form with their players.
Talbott’s major beliefs as a coach break down into two areas: Firstly, the most important thing to do is to get people to fall in love with the sport, and secondly, it’s really not that difficult to play and that’s why it’s so fun. Talbott represents a beautiful story about a man who enjoyed competing for such a long time that he set out to dedicate the rest of his life to getting others to feel that love of squash.
“Squash is not going away,” Talbott asserts. “It’s not a fad sport like racquetball. Racquetball had a big boom in the ’70s and ’80s, there were thousands of courts built, but now they’re all being torn out. Racquetball is a dying sport, but squash that’ll never happen to because it’s an old traditional sport and it’s gotten so big. Plus it’s the best sport.”
As Talbott says that last sentence, a sheepish grin comes across his face. With the passion he conveys for the sport, it’s hard not to agree with him. Upon finishing a conversation with Talbott, you may find yourself wondering where you can get some squash equipment. It just means that Mark Talbott has converted yet another.
Contact Sandip Srinivas at sandips ‘at’ stanford.edu.