WPH Interview Series: Martin Mulkerrins

Posted on Jul 17 2024 - 1:13pm by DV

Race 4 Eight Interview Series

WPH Press, 6/28/24

Martin Mulkerrins has established himself as one of the best players of his generation, while quickly joining the discussion of best of all time. The 2024 Race 4 Eight Player’s Cup champion won his second WPH Player’s Championship at the 2024 WPH Aces Player’s Championship to add to his 2023 USHA Four Wall National singles/World Singles title, nine Race 4 Eight titles, Race 4 Eight #1 ranking, two All-Ireland Senior Singles Championships, two All-Ireland Senior WallBall Singles Championships and countless more titles.

Martin has become a crowd favorite across the world for his outstanding play, humility, sportsmanship and propensity for playing many of the closest and most exciting matches in pro handball.

In this wide-ranging interview, Martin discusses his start in handball, how he prepares for tournaments, what he considers to be his best tournament, his favorite tournament, his greatest rival, his position coaching handball at Texas A&M, playing the Race 4 Eight tour with his brother Diarmuid, the best player he has ever played, the difference between playing handball on the Race 4 Eight compared to playing in Ireland, plays Word Association and much more.

How Martin started in handball

I started playing Handball in late 2004 when the new 40×20 Handball court was opened a few miles from my home in Moycullen, Co. Galway, Ireland.

My father, Brian, initially got me involved as a sport to keep me fit over the winter and develop my hand eye coordination for Hurling and Football, which were the other sports I played. A big selling point for me was that many elite Hurling and Gaelic Football players played Handball and I hoped it would help me reach those levels too. Once I started playing, I realized more of my older family members, such as some of my granduncles, had played or tried handball. On my mother’s side, her grandfather, John Hardiman, played a pivotal role in building an outdoor Handball alley in a place called Bellanamulla in county Roscommon. Sadly, he actually passed away from a heart attack while cycling home after playing a game of Handball with some friends when my grandmother was only 19. She turned 90 last weekend and we were talking about that and I actually went to see the court later in the day.  

Playing 40×20 and 60×30

I started big alley about two years after starting 40×20. We didn’t have a 60×30 court of our own until I was in my 20s so we used to travel a 100-mile round trip to Williamstown on the far side of the county during big alley season to train until we got our own state of the art court later on.

Preparing for tournaments

There are many elements to performing at my best at tournaments. I set my goals each year (or in some cases they may be longer term) and then prepare accordingly. But in a general sense I prioritize court time, all else being equal I believe there is no substitute for skill. I spend a lot of time in the court on my own and then use training games and tournaments to implement what I have been working on and help guide me on what I focus on improving before the next tournament. I also have a strength and conditioning program and that can be 2-3 sessions a week on average, but the load and quantity of sessions varies depending on when the tournament is. Although S&C is obviously very important, I think sometimes it can be easy to get overly focused on this, especially as a younger player, and neglect what I mentioned earlier about court time. The mental side of the game is also critical and this is something I have worked harder on over the past ten years with regular interaction with sports psychologists.  

Martin’s best tournament

In Ireland I think winning the 2018 Men’s Senior Singles against reigning champion Charlie Shanks was a great win for me. I had been in 3 or 4 semifinals in a row and lost many of those in tiebreakers, so 2018 was a breakthrough year at the top level and it was extra special, as it made me joint captain of the Irish team with Martina McMahon for the World Championships later in the year. Internationally, I think winning the 2022 and 2024 R48 Players Championships in Salt Lake City were particularly good wins. I think I played very well in both finals.

What Martin loves about handball

I love being able to test myself against the best players in the game. The individual nature of the sport appeals to me. Handball also requires you to learn, develop and perform shots with both sides of the body which makes it significantly more challenging, in my opinion, than most other sports I have played.  I really enjoy the international element and the opportunity to travel. I have played handball in Ireland, of course, but also in Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Australia and even in Uganda. Meeting new people and making new friends in each place along the way has been great too.

Martin’s handball inspiration

I think I have been inspired by many players and people throughout my Handball career. In terms of actual players, when I was a junior player Paul Brady was the dominant player and of course seeing how he played definitely influenced me and how I play. But from watching them play in person or watching videos online I was always trying to learn shots and serves from other great players. I watched quite a few of David Chapman’s matches. I also really enjoyed how Luis Moreno, Allan Garner, Sean Lenning, Armando Ortiz and others played and I tried to learn from watching and playing them.

Describing your handball game

I think I am a fairly aggressive player and I have developed good power from a young age. I think with time, focus and experience I have become more and more consistent and that is something I am particularly happy with.   

Favorite court

My home court in Moycullen. It is where I started playing Handball but aside from that it is a fantastic court and the facility overall is very good. The club has received both Venue of the Year and Club of the Year awards from GAA Handball at different national awards ceremonies. Since I started in 2004, an additional 40×20 court was built as well as a state of the art 60×30 court. The club has upgraded its one wall court in recent weeks as we celebrate 20 years since the original 40×20 court was built.

Favorite handball tournament

In Ireland, for me the Senior Singles Championship is what we all dream about. It is the most prestigious event in Ireland and in the GAA as a whole – winning the Senior All-Ireland Hurling, Football or Handball is our highlight. The format is also unique as it is typically played over a number of weeks and requires you to play consistently well over that 3-4 week period to win. Internationally, there are a number of tournaments I enjoy but I think Salt Lake City for the Player’s Championship is my favorite. It was where I played my first pro-tournament in 2013 and that brings back fond memories. I have played well and been successful there in recent years as well. Being the season ending tournament and having the Player’s Championship title on the line makes it special. The city and state are very nice and the hospitality is always top class.

Your greatest handball rival

Killian Carroll. We have played each other so often over the years and in many big finals including the World U17 Singles and Doubles Finals (2009), the World u19 Singles and Doubles Finals (2012), the Men’s Open World Singles Final (2018) which was also the USHA 4-Wall Singles Final, multiple R48 Pro Singles Finals (Montana x2, St Louis x1 and Salt Lake City x2) and we also played in this years USHA 4-Wall Nationals Final. We have also played each other in the semifinal of the USHA 4-Wall Nationals in 2016, 2019 and 2021. I am sure I am forgetting some events but I have not played anyone else this regularly in the semifinals and finals of events.

You struggled initially on the R48 tour, losing several times in the round of 16 and needing eight starts before winning your first title at the 2019 Memorial. What changed from those early starts to winning your first event and eventually the 2024 Player’s Cup

I think it is difficult to travel to one or maybe two tournaments a year as a young player and deal with not only playing the best players in the world but also playing with a different ball and in courts that often play very differently to home, albeit they are the same size. The scoring system was sometimes different (e.g. games to 25) and I tended to play better in tournaments and events which had games up 21 points. So those were things that presented some challenges and even things like adapting to the time change and differences in food etc. can be a challenge too. So definitely it took a while to adapt to all of that and gain the experience required to go and win the tournament. In 2019, I won my first pro tournament, I had been in the USHA 4 Wall Nationals final in 2018 and 2019 and I was playing well but I lost again in the round of 16 in Atlanta in October 2019. It wasn’t so much that I lost but how I had lost and that this had happened a few times in the round of 16. I knew I could win and I was convinced after that event that it was the strategy with the ball that was the main issue. I went home and focused on playing much more aggressively and a few weeks later I won the pro tournament (The Memorial) in Tucson. Since then I have continued to work on all elements of my game and I constantly challenge myself to improve and be the best player I can be. Thankfully, I have continued to improve and become much more consistent. This past season, although there were bumps in the road along the way, I think I played well in most tournaments and it really all came together for the last three tournaments where I won all three and by doing so I won the Players Championship and Players Cup. I think a willingness to listen and learn coupled with the determination to be the best I can be has helped me progress to where I am today.

The biggest differences between playing tournaments in Irish compared to playing the R48

Typically, we have far less weekend tournaments in a season in Ireland (3-4 ranking events). This may possibly be due, in part at least, to the structure of the championship which takes 3-4 weeks to play the singles alone and that was historically followed by the doubles championship. But I love that format and I think most Irish players, if not all, would say the same. That is what makes it special. Our tournaments are somewhat similar in that they are played over a weekend with games to 15 like the R48. A big difference is that our facilities typically have only 1-2 courts, which means divisions are spread out over a number of clubs, whereas with the big facilities in the U.S everyone plays in the same venue which is nice and adds to the atmosphere. 

My strategy in tournaments is not much different, but in Ireland rallies and games on average tend to be longer as the ball is slower, which allows for more roof rallies and less roof shots that result in back wall set-ups. Championship in Ireland is quite different in terms of strategy as we typically play one match per weekend. Where in tournaments you may be somewhat conscious of pacing yourself over the course of the tournament, in Irish Championship there is no match later that day or the next day usually so that creates a different dynamic.

The best handball player you have ever played

Paul Brady, he is the greatest 40×20 player of all-time in my opinion. I wish I had got the chance to play him more but in my experience he was just so consistent, the titles on both sides of the Atlantic over such a long period of time speak for themselves and highlight this consistency of top-level performance.

Martin’s home club in Moycullen, County Galway, Ireland, Moycullen Handball Club

We have two 40×20 courts and a 60×30 court as well as an outdoor one wall court. Historically, there were a number of outdoor courts dotted around Moycullen. The sale of the old 60×30 court in the village provided much of the funds needed to build an indoor 40×20 court beside our Hurling and Football pitches. That court opened in 2004 but there is approximately 100 years of history and great players coming out of Moycullen. It did not take long for numbers to build in the new facility, pre-Covid we were in the top 3 clubs in Ireland in terms of Handball membership and at one stage – we had 106 juvenile players. It is so great to see that we are now back up at similar numbers again and we also have approximately 40 adult members.  The population of the area is around 2500 according to recent statistics (it feels like more than that!), so our playing numbers are very strong, which is a credit to all the volunteers and administrators who have worked tirelessly over the years to develop the club. We are now in our 20th year since the building of the original 40×20. In that time another 40×20 court was added, as was a 60×30 court to accommodate and cater for our growing membership. In recent weeks our outdoor one wall court has been upgraded as well.

The handball courts at Texas A&M

The facility at Texas A&M is World Class. We currently have 14 courts and although it appears we may lose a couple of courts, the facility is still well positioned to host big tournaments and to cater for the growing team at the university. There are two show courts, similar to those at the University of Minnesota, with a glass back wall and sidewall. All of the courts have panel sidewalls.

Discussing your position at Texas A&M

I am an Assistant Instructional Professor at the University, which involves teaching both Handball and Racquetball classes to students. Of course, Handball is my main focus and the second aspect of my role is as the Head Coach of the Texas A&M Handball Team. I am fortunate to have great support in my role from my fellow colleagues but also from graduates and supporters of Texas A&M Handball. We have multiple volunteers who assist me with coaching, logistics and fundraising and it is that team effort and community that has helped us grow so quickly.

Discussing the handball program at Texas A&M 

The Handball Program at Texas A&M has a long and rich history, in fact 2025 will be 100 years since Handball was recommended as a sport to be promoted to the student body at the University. There have been many top players over the years and probably the most famous is  former World Champion and multiple time National Champion, Pricilla Schumate. Covid-19 had a very negative impact on Handball around the world, especially indoor codes of the game, which is what is played at the University. However, with hard work and a great team effort, we had 42 registered members in the spring of 2024 and we were the biggest school (25 players) outside of Mankato to travel to the 2024 Collegiate Nationals. From my perspective winning is very important. Success breeds success. We have been very successful over the past two seasons.  However, I think introducing as many people as possible to the game and striving to make it as fun as possible for them with the aim of continued participation in Handball post-graduation is much more important.

What is it like playing the R48 tour with your brother Diarmuid

It has been very special. We will have memories for the rest of our lives of playing on the tour together. I think he played very well and learned a lot this year. He had some very close matches against many of the top players so hopefully he might be back for another season and continue the great progress he made this year.

Who are your frequent training partners in Ireland and in the U.S.: 

My brother Diarmuid is a regular training partner. Diarmuid Nash, Brian Carroll, Joe McCann, Rikki O’Gara were probably the players I have trained with the most over the years at home. In the U.S. it is harder to get training games due to the size of the country and distance from other players. But there are so many tournaments compared to back in Ireland so I think that helps. I have played Adam Bernhard a few times in practice in Texas and Kevin Holmes and other members of TAMU Handball Club give me games in between tournaments which is a great help. In my first season in the U.S I played in 18 tournaments and this season I played slightly less, 15. But that is still a lot more tournaments than I was used to!

Best moment on the handball court

There have been a number of great moments and memories over the years that stand out. But I think that moment I hit the winning kill shot to win the World Singles Title and USHA 4-Wall Singles Championship in 2023 was the greatest moment. Of course it was a dream come true, but I think the fact the game was so tough and so close in the tiebreaker makes it a particularly emotional moment.

Have you found difficulty in staying motivated after having so much success in the last six years

Yes, there have been difficult times to stay motivated for sure but for the most part I have enjoyed the journey and have been able to prepare well for tournaments. I think having the unique opportunity to come to the U.S. to coach and promote the sport of Handball at the biggest University in the country while also having the chance to compete on the R48 Pro Tour was huge for me. It has kept my motivation levels high as I had always wanted to be able to say I went out there like other Irish players (e.g. Paul Brady, Charlie Shanks and Killian Carroll) had and dedicate myself to the game and compete on a full season on the tour. I have been so fortunate that I have had the opportunity to play two full seasons and I am grateful for that and motivated to make the most of it.

How will you prepare for the upcoming R48 season

I still think there are many opportunities for me to improve and I am excited about those possibilities. I am back in Ireland at the moment for the summer. I have been playing 60×30 and that has kept me focused while also feeling like somewhat of a break from all the “small alley”. But I am excited for the upcoming R48 season, there are some new stops compared to the last two seasons, such as the LAAC, a place I have never been to, which is great. Juarez is happening again, which was also new for me this year and was a lot of fun. The R48 season is long and the World Championships are also coming up in October and early November so at the moment I am trying to work on my strength and conditioning and also dealing with some niggles so that I am fully ready for the season ahead.

Word Association with Martin Mulkerrins

Killian – Relentless

R48 – Professional

Irish handball – GAA sport

Handball goals – Continued improvement in all elements of my game

World Championship – Ireland, 2024

Player you would most like to play from a previous generation – Jimmy Jacobs or Naty Alvarado Sr.

Martin Mulkerrins Pro, Collegiate and Junior Career Highlights

  • 2018 and 2020 All-Ireland Senior Singles Champion
  • 2023 USHA 4-Wall National Singles and Doubles Champion/World Champion
  • Irish 60×30 Men’s Open Nationals Champion (2019)
  • Irish WallBall Nationals Champion (2016 and 2019)
  • 9 Race 4 Eight titles
  • 2024 R48 Player’s Cup Champion
  • 2022 and 2024 R48 Player’s Champion
  • Moycullen Open Champion (2018), Brackey Open Champion (2019), Mick Kerr Memorial Champion (2021)
  • 3-time USHA Collegiate National Singles Champion (2012, 2013, 2014)
  • USHA Collegiate Nationals Doubles Champion (2015)
  • 5-time Irish Collegiate Nationals Singles Champion (2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017)
  • 16 Singles All-Ireland 40×20 Doubles Champion (2008) and u16 Singles Champion (2009), Minor 40×20 and 60×30 singles Champion (2010), Minor 60×30 Champion (2011), other notable early career titles include the All-Ireland 40×20 Intermediate Singles title, two All-Ireland u21 40×20 singles titles, All-Ireland Intermediate 60×30 Singles and Doubles  titles, World u17 singles champion (2009), World u17 Doubles Champion (2009), World u19 Doubles Champion (2012), World u23 Singles Champion (2015), World Men’s Open finalist (2018)

Martin Mulkerrins Bio

9 Race 4 Eight titles

Date of birth: 1/15/1993

Height: 5’11

Hometown: Moycullen, County Galway, Ireland

Residence: College Station, TX

Strong hand: Right

Home court: Moycullen

Favorite athlete: Joe Canning (Hurling)

Favorite pre-match music: whatever is popular at the time

Best/Favorite shot: back wall kill

Strengths: power, poise, ceiling game, pass shots, back wall kills

Summary: Mulkerrins is one of the sport’s treasures, boasting unprecedented two-handed power and a throwback blue-collar approach to the sport. Mulkerrins is one of the game’s gentlemen and greatest ambassadors, as evidenced by building a 1-Wall court and introducing the game to hundreds of youngsters in Adraa, Uganda on his visit to Africa in 2017. When Mulkerrins is not traveling the world to grow the game, this flamethrower is overwhelming the best players in the sport with highlight-reel, 90 mph bottom-board rollouts with either hand and a deft touch to the ceiling reminiscent of yesteryear. Mulkerrins has the game to beat anyone and win any title on either side of the Atlantic and has become one of the Race 4 Eight’s all-time greats

Thank you to Martin Mulkerrins for sharing his handball story

Read many more WPH interviews HERE

David Fink

WPH Senior Writer

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