Friday 28 July 2017

Gospel of McNulty

Armagh veteran spreads word on 'performance excellence' as the hunger for another Sam drives him to the limit on the field

Enda McNulty at his home in Goatstown, Dublin
Enda McNulty at his home in Goatstown, Dublin
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Ted Williams, the late, great Boston Red Sox left-fielder, was a man rarely hamstrung in the business of self-regard.

Fishing was his second passion and he considered himself rather good at it. "Ain't no-one in heaven or earth ever knew more about fishing," he announced one day to a Boston sportswriter.

"Sure there is!" he was told.

"Oh yeah, who?"

"Well, God made the fish."

"Okay" agreed Williams reluctantly. "But you had to go pretty far back!"

When Enda McNulty was 15, his Dad handed him a book. It was 'The Inner Game of Tennis' by Timothy Galway. Neither father nor son played tennis or, for that matter, had much interest in it as a game. But, then, tennis wasn't the point of the gift.

Galway's subject was the psychology of competition, the search for inner strength, for a Ted Williams-like self-regard even.

Joe McNulty, a teacher, had a specific interest in that field. In the 60s, he had graduated with a degree in psychology from Queen's University and continued to read voraciously on the subject. Actually, he still does to this day.

And Joe reckoned that his son could do worse than have a browse at 'The Inner Game of Tennis.'

Enda McNulty is a cultural trespasser now. A sales rep of sorts, with a suitcase full of positivity. He recoils slightly from the title "sport psychologist", because -- he says --the mind is only part of it. Working "in performance excellence" is how he likes to describe his job.

McNulty's client-base is expanding and includes some of Ireland's brightest international sports stars.

And, therein, lies a beautiful irony. For so much of his message, so much of the competition wisdom he now dispenses, has been crash-tested on the plain, hard football fields of Ulster.

McNulty, you see, is 31 and into his 12th season soldiering with Armagh. Recently, he lined out against Monaghan in a floodlit challenge. January football, a sparse crowd, a heavy pitch, a wind blowing through with serrated edges. Early-season torture. He loved it.

Living in Dublin, he drives north for training every week and has yet to experience that ache of dread old soldiers get at the waning of the light. And, anyway, Enda has a good feeling about Armagh this year. He doesn't want to trumpet it, but he senses a strong glue holding things together now.

A graduate in sports science, McNulty is loathe to depict himself as any kind of guru. He studiously keeps his peace when in the Armagh dressing-room, insisting that he is there simply as a player. But they are accustomed to his intensity. Over the years, McNulty was always the one looking for that extra inch. Playing little games with himself. Stretching his mind.

"A lot of what I did didn't work," he chuckles. "I had to learn by trial and error. Some of the stuff I was doing was way over the top. The other players would have nearly laughed at me because I'd be doing too much. I'd be too focused nearly.

"Like, I always taped my wrists. But I'd have five letters written on the wrist-tape. The letters would symbolise five things I wanted to do. It took me maybe two years before I realised it was too much information. Paralysis by analysis, almost. The thing to do is let it flow. Go with instinct. Don't think, just act. Play.

"It took away from my game I would say for two or three years in my prime."

His gospel now has an enthusiastic market. When Irish athlete, David Gillick, retained his European Indoor 400 metres crown so impressively in Birmingham last year, the Dundrum athlete did not hesitate to acknowledge McNulty's contribution. "I am blown away by how much sports psychology has to do with winning," said Gillick.

McNulty works with a number of rugby internationals too, among them Leinster hooker, Bernard Jackman (arguably playing the best rugby of his career now) and regularly addresses corporate gatherings. His mission is to get people to reach the best of their inner selves. That search is never-ending but, believing, is half the challenge.

As he puts it: "If it can't happen, why did somebody climb Mount Everest when everyone was saying it couldn't be done? Why, when Roger Bannister beat the four minute mile, did others start doing it in the next two or three weeks?

"You have to believe. I mean Armagh had never won an All-Ireland until 2002, then went and beat the greatest county in the game in that year's final. They did it because they believed it was possible.

"I believe there's always a tipping point. It's a bit like the book, 'Tipping Point' by Malcolm Gladwell. There's a tipping point in every team's development. For us, it was probably 2000. Losing that replay in extra-time against Kerry.

"There was a realisation afterwards. 'Hang on here. Only we messed up today, we'd have won the match!'

"So defeat wasn't a disaster. We actually learnt from it."


He continues: "Look, I wouldn't say I know 10pc of what I should know about mental preparation. I'm no Dali Lama. I'm no guru. But I'm hungry to learn. Every single day, I'm reading about it, I'm meeting people, I'm trying to find out more."

The reading, he acknowledges, can only carry an athlete so far.

Maybe the specific appeal of McNulty above others in his trade is that he can apply personal experience to the theory. Apart from his own still vibrant playing career, McNulty was Director of Coaching at Ballyboden-St Enda's for four years before crossing the city to Na Fianna in 2005.

When he talks of the changing-room environment, he need never seek refuge in hypotheses.

"You can do all the degrees, all the courses you want," he agrees. "But don't speak of 'the buzz' unless you've been in the bullring. I think athletes or sports people in general respect people who've been there, who've played in front of 80,000 people, been beaten, been embarrassed even in front of 80,000 people, been almost clinically depressed after a defeat.

"The vast majority of my learning would have been in a practical, applied scenario rather than just reading. You've got to put it into practice and find out if it works."

Joe McNulty was coach to the Armagh team that reached the '82 All-Ireland football semi-final. Enda's brother, Justin, currently manages St Brigid's in Dublin. The lineage is unambiguous.

For years, Joe carried a picture of the Sam Maguire around in his wallet. It was a private, personal gesture, un-connected to any profound mottos or prophesies. Enda believes it might have been rooted to a simple hope that, when Armagh finally crossed the Rubicon, his family's footprints would be in the sand.

They were too, Enda and Justin both playing that famous day.

Under Joe Kernan, Armagh would be the antithesis of their old caricature. They became stony and nerveless and savvied. From a history of self-doubt, they began trading in plain certainty. Kernan, clearly, was the catalyst. But he had the men to carry the message too.

As McNulty recalls: "Look at Munster. Those guys believe they can pull on that Munster jersey and beat any other team in the world. It becomes a culture thing. Same thing with Crossmaglen in Armagh club football. There's no one reason for them being different to other teams. It just becomes an intrinsic confidence. It's part of their ethos, part of their being.

"In gaelic games, rugby, soccer, whatever, I believe you're going to need five to six absolute leaders for that to happen. Leaders, not in terms of being good at talking to the press or even in the changing-room, but in terms of knowing when the chips are down in a game and being able to step up to the plate.

"Luckily, in Armagh, we had those guys. The dogs of war, if you like. I would think back to Kieran Hughes, Cathal O'Rourke, Francie Bellew, Kieran McGeeney, Paul McGrane. Natural leaders. That leadership doesn't come from being in the gym a hundred times a year. You don't develop that from pushing weights. Someone used the word 'eco-system' to me recently and that's pretty much what it is. Just fellas feeding off one another, trying to be better than each other all the time."

He often thinks back to 2002. Back to a chance meeting with Eamonn Colemen, the late, great Derry manager, maybe two weeks before the final. "Any advice?" he asked the canny Ballymaguigan man.

"Aye," said Coleman "enjoy every single bit of it, the build-up, everything, because you might never get back there again."

He has seen ennui and sloppiness in certain Irish sports that professional confidences preclude him from divulging. "You'd be surprised how poor some of the standards are."


So, endlessly he preaches the need for a holistic approach to preparation.

"Mental preparation on its own is a waste of time," says McNulty. "That's why I wouldn't call myself a sports psychologist. Because, if your physical conditioning is not good, if your lifestyle isn't good, if your technical coaching hasn't been good, if your tactical awareness isn't good, you're just not going to win.

"I'd say that to assume that everybody at the top level of Irish sport has looked after all those areas would be a massive assumption to make. In my view, we're not even getting close to world class level in that regard."

McNulty did spend a month in Japan last year at the World Championships with the Irish athletics team and was hugely impressed by what he saw. "Actually, I was blown away by their professionalism," he says.

Yet, almost certainly, most of those same athletes are doomed to a harsh post-mortem after this year's Olympic Games in Beijing. Once every four years we place them under the whitest of lights and wait for coronations. Then the disappointment untaps vitriol.

"What's the point of stabbing people in the back?" asks McNulty. "You can see it now. Athletics Ireland will be blamed. The Irish Sports Council. Everyone will blame everyone else and it won't do the athletes an ounce of good.

"People need to be positive and talk about what we can do, not what we didn't do...

"We're developing great kids in Irish sport, great people. But how do we bring it to a new level? How do we mirror what happened with the Celtic Tiger in Irish sport? Sports psychology shouldn't be out on a limb. It should just be part of it all. It should be run of the mill.

"But every aspect of Irish sport needs to be improved. Not just the facilities, not just the coaching, not just mental preparation, not just developing leaders, every single aspect has to be improved. Because we're so far behind, it's scary."

Confidence, he sees as a double-edged sword. The experience of the All Blacks at last year's Rugby World Cup provided one of the most compelling case-studies of communal meltdown ever witnessed in sport. McNulty, naturally, found the spectacle compelling.

"No-one can tell me that wasn't down to mental preparation," he says. "There had to be a major frailty there in terms of the mental toughness of that team. And, like I say, you don't get that in the gym.

"I was talking to one of their backroom staff when they were in Ireland two years ago about their mental preparation. He told me 'We have a guy the players can go to if they need him!' Well, I'd say they'll probably review that now. They'll probably go to new levels of mental preparation now. It'll have to become part of everything they do.

"You couldn't say there was anything wrong with them physically. I've read a good few interviews with Dan Carter since. He said that, in hindsight, the fact that they hadn't got beaten in the run-up to the World Cup was a major disaster for them. Because when you get beaten, you learn.

"And that's the key to it. You learn humility. Because ego is a dangerous thing in sport."

McNulty reads voraciously -- Bob Rotella, Phil Jackson, his old mentor, John Cramer. He listens to good people. He has a friend, Dessie Ryan, a 65-year-old ex-fireman from New York. Ryan has lived a life worth living.

"We think we're tough," says McNulty. "But it's not tough by comparison with being in a fifty-storey high brownstone building that's falling down around you and you're trying to get a wee girl out. Going for a 50/50 ball in front of 50,000 people pales into insignificance when compared to that."

Even old Ted Williams would have to bow to the blinding truth of that.

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