As a sports psychologist and high-performance coach, former Armagh footballer Enda McNulty (45) works with elite sportspeople, CEOs and individuals who want to unlock their peak potential
‘My father, Joe McNulty, played for Armagh way back in the early 1970s. He later coached the Armagh senior team in the early 1980s and was the coach of the St Paul’s High School team that won the All-Ireland Schoolboys in 1980.
My earliest memory, as a four-year-old boy, was of being in the old Croke Park stadium with him and that high-school team, and listening as he gave a half-time speech in the changing room.
I can vividly remember the young men’s maroon jerseys and the sweat patches in the middle of their chests. I can remember my father’s body language, his eyes, the tone of his voice… But more than anything else, I remember my father believing in what he was saying.
That day, he turned to the young 16- and 17-year-old men and told them that if they really stepped up to their full potential, they could win this match and it would mean something to them for the rest of their lives.
I still meet a lot of the men who were in the changing room that day by chance in different parts of the world, and they often bring up that half-time speech. One of them is now in a global role for a large tech company. When I met him, he said, ‘I can remember that day like it was yesterday’.
That moment made an impact on me, too. And today, in my work as a high-performance coach, working with everyone from Premier League footballers to elite actors, I often think back on it.
I also think back on a teacher I had when I was 14 or 15. I was a talented enough footballer at the time but I wasn’t going to all the training sessions and this teacher stopped me in the school corridor to ask me why.
I said, ‘Sir, I wasn’t feeling that well’, but then I missed another session. He knocked on the classroom door the next day and said, ‘Enda, that’s two days in a row, what’s happened to you?’
It happened again a few days later but, this time, he knocked on the door of the classroom and asked me to come outside, where he pinned me against the wall.
I wouldn’t advocate anyone doing that, but back then it was just about okay to push me firmly.
He said, ‘Enda, I’m going to give you one more chance. You can come back to training or I’m going to give up on you. I think you have massive potential in life. I think you have a huge gift to be a very good footballer. I’m going to give you one more chance. If you turn up, I’m going to work with you, and if you don’t turn up, I’m going to give up’.
After that, I never missed another training session in my life by choice. If he hadn’t pinned me against the wall that day, I’d say there’s a very good chance I wouldn’t have had the unbelievable fortune to play with a group of very special people for nearly 25 years. I wouldn’t have been in Croke Park when Joe Kernan delivered his famous half-time team talk to the Armagh team who beat Kerry to win their first All-Ireland.
That teacher basically made me committed and accountable for unlocking my own potential. And today, as a coaching and advisory business, we spend our lives doing that with people all around the world.
Whether I’m working with elite performers in Riverdance, amazing adventurers, global CEOs or Olympic gold-medal winning athletes, there are a lot of commonalities in working with the best of the best.
And one of the biggest commonalities is they tend to be highly coachable. I recently did a coaching session with a young man who is the CEO of a company in Thailand. They’re in hyper-growth but yet he came to the session with 25 questions of things he wanted to learn about and develop his thinking on.
Have I ever had to part ways with a client who is difficult to coach? Yes, it happens very regularly with some corporate clients and some very high-profile sports stars.
Sometimes you have to sit them down and say, ‘Listen, I don’t think you’re committed to growing’. It happened with a very high-profile CEO who afterwards reacted unbelievably positively. He came back a week later and said, ‘You’re right, I haven’t been committed enough. I’ve been fooling myself’.
We went on a 10-year journey of incredible breakthrough coaching, so much so that this guy has performed in a multi-billion dollar organisation as a world-class performer.
Many times you meet people who are resistant — and I’ve been in resistant-mode myself so I empathise with that; I expect people to be resistant. But our job is to help them move beyond that resistance and work empathetically so they understand themselves. Why are they resisting? Why are they fearful? What’s the psychology behind that?
I think a lot of people are fundamentally afraid of how great they can become. And I think a lot of people are fearful of the amount of work they have to invest in themselves every single day.
If you want to be the best version of yourself, it takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. There’s a lot of putting social media and other non-essential tasks to the side.
Imagine if everyone who read this article had an hour to invest in themselves every day for the next 24 months? We would be a much better version of ourselves and, I have to be honest, since I was 14 years of age, I’d say at least six days a week I’ve had a chance to invest at least an hour a day in making myself better.
I meditate, I do journalling, I do affirmations to build confidence, self-belief and self-image. I recently began learning to play the drums. When I’m playing the drums, I’m completely in the middle of the moment because you have to be in the middle of the moment, otherwise you’ll get lost.
I think people are tired after the pandemic. There’s a lot of fatigue. Yet if somebody tells me they are feeling demotivated, I ask them if they have a purpose and mission in life. Because when you have that, even though you’re tired, you’re going to have incredible drive.
How do you connect with your mission in life? Silence. Finding time to get away from the busyness of life and having the space to ask, ‘What do I really want from life?’
Thankfully, I did that exercise many years ago when I was at Irish college. A few of the lads said, ‘We’re going down to the village to meet some girls and drink a few cans and smoke’ and I said, ‘I’m going for a run’.
I didn’t want to drink. I didn’t want to smoke. I wanted to invest in my health and my wellbeing, which I knew was going to put me in a better position later on.
We need to invest in our resilience and wellbeing every day so that we’re ready for the storms that are lying ahead in life, and so we have the tools to flourish in our life today.
But working with high-performance coaching alone won’t have the impact it could have if you’re not doing the work elsewhere.
It’s the circle of friends you surround yourself with. It’s that friend or partner who’s going to say to you, ‘Do you know what, Enda, that’s not good enough, you’re letting yourself down’, as my wife Julia regularly says to me.
The coach is part of the ecosystem but they shouldn’t be egotistical enough to think that they on their own are going to be good enough. It’s the entire ecosystem, like a flourishing plant or garden, that lets those plants thrive no matter what the weather is like.”
As told to Katie Byrne