Friday, December 1, 2023

Squash Mad Interview: Alan Stapleton chats to South African star Steve Coppinger

Miguel Angel Rodriguez takes a dive against Steve Coppinger
Miguel Angel Rodriguez takes a dive against Steve Coppinger

Steve Coppinger makes giant strides for South Africa
By ALAN STAPLETON – Squash Mad South Africa correspondent


Steve Coppinger is one of the most successful South African squash players of all time. He is the first Springbok to break into the world top 20 since the 1970s, and has reached a career-high position of 14th.  

He recently beat his acrobatic training partner, Colombian superman Miguel Angel Rodriguez, the world No.4, in the first round of the US Open.

He reached the quarter-finals of last year’s World Championship, and recently collected his seventh South African national title. A former national junior champion at under-16 and under-19 level, he is a formidable athlete.

At 6ft 3in tall, he has a great reach. Coached by Rodney Durbach at home in South Africa, and learning from David Palmer at his Orlando academy, Coppinger is reaching for a place in the top 10.

Squash Mad columnist Alan Stapleton caught up with the popular Coppinger back home in SA.

1. When and when did you start playing squash?
I started playing in Mombasa, Kenya. I started so early that I don’t actually remember having to start: My parents played a few times a week so my brother and I went along to the club and started mimicking the adults and zipping onto court between games and once they were cooling off afterwards.

2. What other sports did you play ?
I played everything at school: football, swimming, basketball, hockey, rugby, cricket with hobbies as cycling and windsurfing. Now I love kitesurfing when I get a chance and will have a go at anything around

3. What do you love about squash ?
Firstly I just love the feeling of hitting a ball, in any form or sport. Then there are all sorts of subtleties and challenges that you never stop learning about. The sport teaches you so much about balance and not just on your feet: attack/defence, speed/endurance, open/conservative. In general I love the fact that there is no ‘right or wrong’ way to play, you just have to find your own way, your own balance.

4. Any tips for juniors ?
Have fun with squash. Always. If you are ambitious then find people to play and practice with that can challenge and beat you, once you get close then find new people. To improve it’s important to have good people to learn from and have fun with.

5. How often do you do solo practice ?
Once every 2 weeks, probably not as often as I should but I’m fortunate to have a great training partners and coaches to fill all the gaps

6. What has David Palmer done differently to change your game ?
The biggest secret to squash success, and probably a lot of other types too: There is NO secret. You have to do the work. The intensity of the training with David is like a new world for me and has really helped my physicality. We also work a lot on simplifying my swing, working out tactics and mental tricks.

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7. Mental tricks? what do you do to develop and strengthen your mental approach to the game?
There are a number of different mental methods to explore and work on, 2 of my favourties are:
– Affirmations: these are like tricking your body/mind or subconscious to believe things that will help you. Mostly they are about believing that you are better than you are which then leads you to act on those beliefs and fulfil them. Sounds easy 🙂
– Triggers: during matches these will help keep you focused and not let you stray away from the game plan. I often go into a match with 1 or 2 mantra-like phrases that I can keep repeating and reminding myself of, they can either be tactical or motivational

8. From a South African perspective, what are the advantages of playing overseas ?
EXPOSURE! It’s so important to see what’s out there and where you need to be aiming for, training and playing with world class players on a daily basis. Even if it is just to go away for a tournament or two at a time, you will get to see very quickly where you stand, what you can work on and get a bit of inspiration and new targets rather than the same league players that just keep eluding you.

9. What do South African players lack… need to do , to get themselves up to international level of play?
I think this is very closely linked to the previous question. If we look at our strengths very generally:
We have great numbers of junior players, although on leaving school this dwindles quickly.
Guts/determination/mongrel. Effort and commitment are never short in almost any SA player.
I think what is missing is a closely linked combination of exposure to world class squash as just discussed and the belief that we can be world class. To solve those two isn’t trivial although more tournaments and players coming to our shores will help significantly and there is some exciting talk bubbling about the near future too…

10. What are the difficulties of playing on the international circuit?
Embarking on a professional career is expensive. Playing in tournaments will cost you at the start. Lots of time spent away from home. Squash is tough, everyone else is just as hungry as you are.

11 .It must be difficult playing against guys who are on the circuit, trying to climb the rankings and yet you live in each other’s pockets? Is there a good sense of camaraderie among the players?
There really is and it was one of the things I enjoyed the most about my first few years on the tour. You got to know lots of people who were also learning the ropes and enjoying the experiences that life on tour throws at you. Of course there comes times when you are up against close friends in competition and that’s not always easy, although it’s important to still play at 100% because what’s worse than playing a good friend is losing to him too.

Beating Miguel Angel Rodriguez in the US Open was a giant stride for Steve Coppinger
Beating Miguel Angel Rodriguez in the US Open was a giant stride for Steve Coppinger

12. Your “sparring partner” Miguel Rodriguez is becoming a bit of a legend for some of his miraculous recoveries. Your comments ?
Miguel, when are you going to teach me some of that crazy stuff? It’s awesome to watch and great for the sport, less so when he’s your opponent. It’s great to be able to train with Miguel when he makes it to Orlando. He had a dream season last year so it’s a good bit of inspiration for the rest of us. I’m still waiting for the lesson on the dive to one-handed push up to wild-swing-behind-your-back to wall-run volley winner though.

13. South Africa did not participate in the Commonwealth Games last year. Your views ?
Basically, I think it’s a great shame. It’s one of the greatest platforms for our sport and for us not to get the opportunity to perform there was hugely frustrating. I think I’ve proved that I could have been a medal contender there, so for that to be the official reason for not being sent seemed a bit silly. And for none of us to have even been considered for the doubles either? Hopefully, we will get a chance to represent in the next edition in 2018 and show that we deserve to be there.

14. Life after squash ? What are your plans?
Good question, I do think about it a lot and still have no concrete plans. There are a few ideas rumbling around in a bit of a melting pot but I think I will have to wait until the time comes to find out what lies ahead. Half of me wants to stay in squash and challenge myself as a coach and/or tournament promoter and the other half says it’s time for something completely left field. Hopefully I have a few good years of playing left in me before that becomes an immediate concern, though.

Pictures courtesy of US Open Squash and Alan Stapleton

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