Saturday 7 December 2019

'I made a decision not to let the criticism hurt me' - Enda McNulty responds to criticism of sports psychology

Former Armagh defender Enda McNulty places a high value on the power of positive thinking and people. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Former Armagh defender Enda McNulty places a high value on the power of positive thinking and people. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Enda McNulty is telling a story about a South Armagh childhood and the audacity of innocence. He grew up at a time when the tendrils of sectarianism were still coiled around communities, when so many lives seemed riven with suspicion, every identity coloured with partisan labels.

A time when acts of terrorism could be local and shocking and yet somehow feel oddly distant. Joe and Mary McNulty taught their kids to be respectful of all sides. They were Catholics and GAA people, but they bore no hatreds.

The McNulty boys often worked on their uncle Patsy's farm in the foothills of Slieve Gullion and from a certain point of the land, they'd often see British Army units out on patrol. So they built a little hut in imitation of the grey monstrosity they'd see towering next to the football pitch in Crossmaglen and there they'd sit with binoculars. Secret agents in short pants.

Then one of them had the brainwave to set a subtle trap.

Two trenches, each maybe three feet deep, the holes covered over with grass. And what happened? Two soldiers, rifles in hand, came walking up the field one day, then disappeared like Laurel and Hardy plummeting through a trap-door. And unknown to them, no more than 30 feet away, Enda and Justin McNulty were bent low in their hut, all but passing out with laughter.

"Total and utter naivety and innocence on our part," says Enda now. "If the soldiers had known there was anyone in the hut, they might easily have opened fire. We could have been shot. But we're in there, literally snorting with laughter.

"That was The Troubles to us. We were children, everything was fun. We could be in the back of a van, heading to a game with the McEntee boys' mother Mona driving. We'd get stopped by the Army just outside Bessbrook, the van obviously from Crossmaglen, GAA bags all over the back and maybe five of us in there, no seat belts.

"The flashlight would come in the window and out we'd have to get to stand in a line on the side of the road while they checked our bags. The conversation wouldn't exactly be polite. But for us, that was fun. For us, everything was just craic and banter."

His recall of those distant days, living in a house full of love and books and easy wisdom in Lislea, runs to the core of what Enda McNulty now represents to those who seek his counsel. To this day, his parents (both teachers) impart such curiosity and positivity for life, there is simply no room in his world for cynicism.

Joe McNulty has always been a left-field kind of dad. When Enda was 15, Joe handed him a book, The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Galway. Neither father nor son played tennis or, for that matter, even had much interest in it as a game. But tennis wasn't the point of Joe's gift.

Galway's subject was the psychology of competition, something that has always fascinated Joe McNulty. A psychology graduate from Queen's, he often played motivational tapes in the car on the way to his sons' games, maybe planting an acorn that, in Enda's case, became a towering oak. Because some of the biggest names in Irish sport and business now swear by Enda McNulty's message.

Over an hour's chat in a coffee shop, his energy levels seem daunting. That energy, he says, comes from the nutrient of interaction with positive people.

And that brings him to mention Alan Kelly. "The Great AK", a stalwart physio to so many iconic Irish sports people, yet a man who has been fighting a tough battle with his own health over the last three years. McNulty first came upon Kelly when he dislocated his shoulder playing for Armagh during a 2003 League semi-final against Laois.

"Most horrible injury I ever got," he remembers. "The pain was disgusting. But my abiding memory in the changing-room after is Gerry McEntee on one side of me, The Great AK on the other. Each one of these tough, rugged men is holding my hand, communicating the kindest, gentlest message of care to me. They knew how horrible the injury was and I'll never forget the tone of their voices, the kindness.

"Alan Kelly is one of the most phenomenal men I've met in my entire life. You think of the legends he's treated in his clinic across the years, people like Denis Joseph Carey, Padraig Harrington, Brian O'Driscoll, Kieran McGeeney, Denis Hickie. . . they'd all tell you they never once left his clinic feeling anything but upbeat.

"And what he's been through the last three years, the way that he's carried himself, driving himself to and from treatment, showing the most incredible resilience and appetite to overcome adversity. . . if you couldn't be inspired by a man like that, you're missing something."

McNulty's beat today is broader than just positive thinking, mind. His recently published book, Commit, is part sports psychology, part structuring of life, part evangelism maybe and part anecdotal reference to a life well lived. But he is aware of how besieged the community of sports psychologists in Ireland has, of late, been made to feel.

Recently, Dublin footballer Kevin McManamon was moved to defend an industry that he himself now works in. The obvious question for McNulty then is this:

Q: Are there simply too many people now working under the umbrella of sports psychology?

A: "There's an incredible amount of brilliant people in sports performance psychology in Ireland. There are people who have done 40 years of hard graft in it, people who are a hundred times more qualified and experienced than me, the Aidan Morans and John Creamers of this world. It would be pretty hard to criticise those fellas who've committed their whole lives to it."

Q: So where is the growing climate of cynicism towards the industry coming from?

A: "I think it's a case of people who are naturally very positive being criticised by people who are naturally very sceptical or pessimistic or even cynical. I think it's more about that than the industry itself."

Q: But, hand on heart, are there other people in it who maybe shouldn't be? People who just learn certain lines off by heart but have nothing terribly insightful to offer from within?

A: "I'm sure there are. But let's be honest, there's people in all occupations who maybe are in it for the wrong reasons."

Inevitably, the conversation then turns to Joe Brolly's consistently acerbic commentary on the industry and, specifically, to his recent Sunday Independent column, where McNulty was likened to Alan Partridge.

Q: You have used the expression that you "enjoy the cynicism", but I don't believe that. Surely, on some level, it has to hurt you, especially when it grows into actual ridicule?

A: "Being honest, I've made a decision that it doesn't hurt. The first article Joe wrote having a go was about a year and three months ago and I will admit I was surprised. I didn't know where he was coming from. I was almost wondering 'What is the agenda here?' Did it hurt me? I would never say it hurt me. I'm a massive advocate of making yourself so resilient that things you can't really control shouldn't hurt you. So I've made the decision not to let it hurt me."

Q: So are you saying that that resilience is bomb-proof, that at no moment. . .

A: "No not at all!"

Q: But that's my point. However powerful your mental strength, surely every now and then it wavers?"

A: "Of course it does. There will always come a time you feel sh*t and weak. I've never met any athlete, any performer, any man or woman who has never had that moment of weakness or doubt. Where they go 'Holy sh*t, where's that coming from?' But then it's about making a decision. How do I respond? A lot of my family and friends have said to me 'Enda, you must be really angry!' My response is 'I'm too busy to be angry'."

Q: Fair enough, but you are a brand and Joe's is a very high-profile voice, essentially belittling that brand. Is there not a concern that such ridicule and sarcasm will damage the brand's credibility?

A: (Laughing) "What I would say to you about the brand is I'd rather have my own beliefs, my own character, my own upbringing, my own mindset intact than worrying about what anybody says about the brand. If people from the outside want to say 'This brand has no substance', they're entitled to their opinion. When you've done the hard yards, I actually don't care what somebody else's opinion is."

Q: Okay, but you wrote a book. Most people who invest the time and energy into writing a book end up looking upon it as their baby. The human thing is surely to be resentful when it's knocked, no matter your mental strength?

A: "I work on mental strength every day. Affirmation, gratitude, confidence. The adversity that I've been through, I certainly know I can get through any external criticism."

Q: So what would be your attitude if Joe walked in here now?

A: "My mother's family are from Derry, so I grew up with a grandfather who, though he moved to Armagh, was obviously a massive Derry fan. My second county would always have been Derry. I love Derry people.

"I love the Tony Scullions, the Enda Muldoons, the Henry Downeys. When they won that All-Ireland in '93, I was a massive fan. We modelled ourselves to a certain extent on those guys. The Scullions, the Kieran McKeevers. Anthony Tohill, what a colossus, what an athlete.

"So I was always a Derry fan. And the commonalities I would have with Joe are quite significant. Not only were we on the only teams so far to win senior All-Irelands for our counties, we are both graduates of Queen's.

"Joe played under Dessie Ryan at Queens and I will go to my grave saying that, apart from my parents, Dessie Ryan has been the biggest influence on my life.

"And one thing that was always pushed home in the Queen's dressing-room was a big respect for those who'd gone before you.

"Joe came before me. I'd have respect for him as a player. If he walked in here now, I'd shake his hand, clap him on the back.

And the last thing I'd be doing is asking him why he's writing what he's writing about me. And, by the way, I have been absolutely steadfast about this. I will not in any way criticise or complain."

Q: Do you think Joe would be uncomfortable if he walked in here?

A: "I don't know and I don't really care. That's being honest!"

The sales of Commit have been decent so far and McNulty's Twitter feed suggests that plenty of purchasers have already found it helpful.And he remains absolute in his belief that a healthy body and mind are the keys to unlocking individual potential. When his schedule allows, McNulty works out at least once a day and places great store too on the virtues of meditation.

"It was practised two and a half thousand years ago, so why has it lasted so long? Because it works," he says.

A huge part of McNulty's appeal is his willingness to focus upon personal moments of crisis and the value of having triggers to rescue the mind from panic.

One such experience came in the 2002 All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin. In a previous visit to Croke Park, Armagh's '94 minor semi-final against Kerry, he'd "capitulated mentally". It was an experience that left him determined never to be overwhelmed by an occasion again. Yet, marching in the parade before that semi-final eight years later, he yet again found himself feeling "petrified".

The difference this time was McNulty had prepared for that crisis. He began picking out the first letters on advertising hoardings and using each one to identify an individual strength. So 'A' came back to him as acceleration; 'S' as stamina; well, you get the drift. By throw-in, he says that had recovered psychological composure.

"We had prepared for that game at an intellectual level," he says now, "but emotions control the show. Emotionally, I wasn't ready in the warm-up because I must have spilled ten balls. And every ball I kicked, it felt as if it was slicing off the side of my boot. But because of my mental training, I was able to re-set.

"And I was okay before the ball was thrown-in, absolutely no question. The whole point was I used my pre-match rituals to get myself in the right mental, emotional and physical state. If I wasn't in the right state, the first ball that came bouncing in between me and Alan Brogan, he would have got it. And knowing how skilful he was, he'd probably have had it in the net.

"Because at that level, if you're even one per cent off, you're not getting to that ball. He might easily have roasted me that day, which would probably have meant that, for the rest of my career, I'd be known as a guy who bottled it on the biggest stage of all."

History worked out differently, of course and, if McNulty has a regret now, it is that he didn't immerse himself more fully in the celebrations for Armagh's '02 All-Ireland win. Most of the squad went to Aidan O'Rourke's stag weekend in Newcastle last year and McNulty admits they had to track him down in a bookshop as the serious drinking began.

Recently, he got engaged to Julia and you wonder aloud how, when he comes through the door in the evening, will she decommission the performance coach and just have the company of a husband?

"But that's who I am, I can't switch that off," he says laughing. "I don't try to. I don't think of switching off. That's who I am."

Q: But could you not derive real satisfaction from just going for a few pints with old team-mates?

A: "I don't do enough of that, no question. I've a ton of regrets in that regard. One of my biggest is that I didn't have enough bottles of beer with men like Kieran McGeeney, Kieran Hughes, Aidan O'Rourke and the others. We won the f***ing All-Ireland and I hadn't enough gumption. . .

"I remember being in the gym about two weeks later and The Great AK saying 'Enda, for God's sake man, will you go and have an ice-cream man. Relax!' Why don't I do more of that now? I suppose because I'm so in love with what I do. But of course I want to do more bottles of beer with real friends.

"This year, for my stag, we might go white-water rafting through the Rockies. Hopefully a few beers at night, but rather than going drinking all day, we'll do some rafting. . ."

Q: And if the boys just fancy drinking?

A: (Laughing) "Well I've already had that warning from a few of them. 'Enda, we're not bringing our gear-bags to your stag!'"

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