Stephen Martin: Leaving the comfort zone

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By Sarah Juggins

Stephen Martin has been immersed in Olympic sport for most of his life. Known as Sam, he was one of a number of Irish players who were part of the Great Britain squad in 1984 and 1988. 

From there he moved into sports administration, taking on the role of Deputy Chief Executive of the British Olympic Association from 1998 through to 2005, where he was one of the key stakeholders in the London 2012 bidding process.

His love of sport, and involvement in high performance sport, has continued with posts including Chef de Mission of Team GB at the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games. 

Martin has seen huge changes during his time working in the Olympic environment but one thing that he says has remained consistent is the need for athletes to put themselves outside their comfort zone. It was as true in 1988 as it is 30 years on and in their manager Roger Self, the Great Britain team had found someone who was prepared to push the team to their limits. 

But, as Martin laughingly recalls, the players were equally hard on themselves as they searched for the key to success. “From Los Angeles through to Seoul we were building on the bronze medal we won in 1984 so there was a lot of pressure and tension within the team that frequently spilled over into fractiousness.

“We were ranked two in the world and we had high expectations. There was a lot of tense moments in the build-up, so the first match was a release. In training you would get players really going in hard and we had to remind them that they were needed in one piece for the actual event. There were quite a lot of tensions among the English players in particular because of their club affiliations. Of course, the Irish just got on with everyone, but the key was that respect was very high.”

It is with real pride that Martin says the team “gelled into something really special”. All the players interviewed agree that they weren’t the best team there, and in the pool phases they lost a game but, when it mattered, they were able to find a way to win. “You saw that same desire to not lose among the Great Britain women’s squad in Rio,” says Martin. 

There is also an echo of the Great Britain women’s squad when Martin refers to the 30 or so players who were in the training squad. “Each of them could have been in the squad and I hope that they all took some satisfaction from the success of those who were there.”

Martin’s experiences in sports administration also enables him to appreciate the work that went on behind the scenes in getting the Great Britain squad onto the podium. “It was a fantastic environment to be in. While we were all pushing each other to the limit, we also had the services of a lot of support staff – doctors, physiotherapists and many more people. We had no lottery funding then, so it was important that the Great Britain Hockey Board fought for us and made things happen. It was so much more than just the 16 guys playing on the pitch.”

The main person driving the team on was manager Roger Self. His methods weren’t textbook but he was ahead of the game in many ways: particularly in his desire to develop robust and resilient players. “Roger Self believed in Great Britain hockey,” says Martin. “He liked the characteristics that the Irish and Scots brought to the mix. He always challenged us and he never wanted anyone to feel ‘comfortable’. 

“And he encouraged us to talk about behaviour and the culture that we needed to be the best we could. We would always look at everything and ask: ‘Will this make us play better?’. Whether it was a training session or something we were eating – we were doing what they do today but we were doing that alongside work and not as professional athletes.”

With the players continuing to work as they trained, they had little time for recovery. The Irish players had the added challenge of crossing the Irish Sea every week. “Our weeks would be Monday to Thursday in Ireland, where the six of us in the squad would meet up and train together. Sometime David Whitaker (tactical coach) would join the players and run the session. He was a very inspirational coach.”

The Irish players would then travel to the UK on a Friday and stay until Sunday night. They had pressure from the management to join English clubs but, as Martin says, that was a step too far as it would mean leaving their families and their jobs behind. For the last six weeks before the Seoul Olympics the Irish players were asked to move to Bisham Abbey to train full-time with the rest of the squad. The required time off work was too much for some employers and several players lost their jobs.

I asked Martin who he felt provided the crucial glue that held the squad together. “I don’t want to single anyone out because we all played various roles at various times. Sean, for example, bossed Australia in the semi-final; Batch would plague a defender; one of us would put in a crucial, match-chains tackle. But I would say we had two types of leaders. There was someone like Paul Barber who was a giant among men. If needed, he would turn on the screw. But then you had people like Richard Dodds, who was a quite leader. Sometimes you needed one style, sometimes the other. But everyone played their part.”

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