Sunday 17 December 2017

Boxing: Coaches need coaching too

Irish sport's pursuit of excellence doesn't stop with the athletes

Zaur Antia and Billy Walsh in the National Stadium
Zaur Antia and Billy Walsh in the National Stadium

John O'Brien

BILLY Walsh was in a fix. The boxer locked inside the lavatory in the athletes' village in London was growing more agitated and had begun to get personal. "It's always about you," he hissed. "It's always about Billy Walsh." The bus to the ExCeL Arena would leave in 20 minutes and panic had set in all around them. Twenty minutes to rescue the situation: what could Walsh do?

Except there was nothing real about the situation. Walsh, alongside 11 other Olympic coaches, was in the Garda Training College in Templemore rather than the athletes' village in Stratford. The distressed man behind the locked door wasn't an Irish boxer but a highly-trained method actor performing a role designed to test Walsh's skills of diplomacy in such highly-charged situations. Whatever vulnerabilities he had, the actor would be ruthless enough to draw them out.

Walsh had made the trip south to Tipperary in a slightly dubious frame of mind. It was five weeks out from the Games. The Indian national squad had flown to Dublin for a training camp and being away from his fighters, even for a day, made Billy nervous and agitated. "I needed it like a fuckin' hole in the head," he laughs now, recalling the strangeness of it all.

But he needed it alright. More than he knew at the time. That same week John Joe Nevin would approach him and drop the bombshell that he wanted to withdraw from the team preparing for London. What Walsh learned in Templemore might not have been the difference between Nevin being talked around and refusing to change his mind, but it was precisely the kind of nuclear situation the 12 coaches who attended the camp were being prepared for.

Walsh says he made the trip out of deference to Gary Keegan and Daragh Sheridan and "everything they had done for me". Back in early 2010, Keegan and Sheridan had designed an ambitious project to support the brightest coaches working with high-performance athletes. Walsh, along with his colleagues, Zaur Antia and Pete Taylor, were among the first inductees.

Keegan remembers the first faltering steps. They brought a diverse group of 24 coaches together, most of them meeting for the first time, and he sensed the unease among them.

"It was the first time we'd tried to put a community together that was multi-sport," he says. "And it was interesting because they weren't comfortable in the room with each other. That was my observation anyway."

It wasn't a Eureka moment. Before Keegan assumed his position as Irish Institute of Sport director in 2008, research had already pointed out the chronic lack of support for coaches within the Irish system. The belief system hadn't evolved sufficiently to consider that there was a world beyond the athletes and that needed care and attention too. Taken for granted, coaches were effectively working in a vacuum.

"Coaches didn't really think of themselves as performers," Keegan says. "They'd no real definition of what their performance needed to be in any context, whether it was in a preparation or a competition environment. All they talked about was their players or their athletes. We had to separate them so they could begin to look at themselves in the context of the needs of their athletes."

In boxing, Walsh was acutely aware of the lack of support that existed. His own formal qualifications consisted of a Level One training course, conducted over a single day and for which there was no failure rate. You turned up, stayed awake and left with a certificate. After that, should you want to broaden your knowledge, there was no guiding hand. You did so on a DIY basis.

Devising a programme to meet that need was the challenge that faced them. "It took a year to get a basic framework together," explains Keegan. "We enlisted help from Coaching Ireland and the University of Limerick who did all they could for us. The title we came up with – Pursuit of Excellence – didn't just come out of a hat. We thought hard about what it meant. It referred to the steps of a journey, not an end-point. And the programme itself was part of the pursuit. We were in it together."

Initially, there were serious teething problems to overcome. "The community didn't engage massively from the outset because, basically, they didn't know how to," says Sheridan. "It was very foreign. And the motivation to learn wasn't as high as it should have been. They just knew they needed to be here – an almost minimum level of motivation. So we restructured the programme to be very focused. Before London we targeted 12 coaches, nine Olympic and three Paralympic, who were responsible for 29 athletes and within that community we could then provide something focused around London."

The Garda collaboration came by accident. Two high-performance Irish athletes, boxer Adam Nolan and cyclist Caroline Ryan, are members of the force and while talking to the director of the training centre in Templemore one day, Sheridan idly wondered how they trained aspiring Guards. The problem-based learning approach they used intrigued him. Instinctively, he wondered if it could be applied in a sporting context.

"We had the brass neck to ask if they could help us design a simulated test event we could use to help create a decision-making framework for our coaches. Through their system, they could individualise their learning and teach core decision-making skills across a range of different scenarios. Ultimately, in coaching the environment is always changing so you need skills that help you make good decisions in a changing environment."

And so five weeks before London, 12 coaches were brought to Templemore and subjected to a two-day workshop that was brutal and testing. The camp had taken 18 months to plan, involved five visits from Institute staff and an initial test event in 2011. The centre was adapted to seem like an Olympic venue in London. Coaches were accredited as they entered, actors employed to simulate an environment which, although improvised, was as close to the real thing as they could get.

"That's what made it special," says Keegan. "The Gardaí were brilliant. They made it feel like a real environment. Once the guys clicked into Olympic mode, you could see the difference. The pressure they were under to make decisions that solved problems put in front of them."

Jim Lafferty looks back on Templemore with a mixture of fondness and horror. During one role-play, alone in a room with a distressed athlete, he had been distracted by a security guard checking his accreditation and committed the cardinal error of leaving the room without the athlete. "Basically, I screwed up," he says now. "I didn't show enough empathy towards the athlete."

Screwing up wasn't the point, though. Lafferty is a coach with decades of experience behind him. As head coach of the Paralympic swimming team, he was entering an environment that was bigger and more intense than anything he'd previously encountered. He knew there were skills he needed to learn and he had the humility to accept it and the hunger to learn. Happily, the second crisis scenario he faced had a much more pleasing outcome.

"It was an uncomfortable learning experience," Lafferty concedes. "Afterwards it's played back in front of your peers and the first thing you're asked is how do you feel it went? You're there just thinking, 'Beam me up, Scotty'. At the same time it's a safe environment. You're all in the same place. Everybody will make mistakes. You feel safe to do so. The feedback pulls no punches but it's constructive. It's done for the right reasons."

"I remember during London," Keegan says, "Daragh was receiving texts from coaches around the competition sites talking about, 'I'm using the process, I've had that actual problem and I've dealt with it'. That was great to see. They were there and they had a way of dealing with the issues."

And so the programme evolves. The core group of 12, the Podium coaches, sit at the top of the pyramid with the Horizon group comprising another 18 coaches sitting just below them. Among the 18 are six veteran athletes – Eoin Rheinisch, Mark Kenneally, Kenny Egan among them – being exposed to the high-performance coaching lifestyle to see if it might fit. Keegan likes the fact too that there are five women on the Horizon programme and sees no reason why that number can't rise further.

It isn't designed as a cosy place to be, though. At the end of each year coaches are debriefed and assessed on their performance and each must reapply for inclusion the following year. They have thought about increasing numbers, but Keegan likes the exclusivity of such a small group and the fact that it is such a challenge to break into it. Besides, the resources simply aren't there anyway.

So they make do with what they have. Keegan and Sheridan aren't the kind of people who crave validation for what they do, but it is only a couple of years since Keegan feared the plug would be pulled on the Institute and if the Pursuit of Excellence Programme isn't the most important thing they will ever do, the figures still speak of a valuable contribution: 12 of the 21 medals won in London were assisted by coaches on the Podium group.

"We wouldn't claim to be there yet by any means," says Keegan. "We've created an environment and trust in terms of what we're trying to do around the coaches and that has allowed us to engage in a very positive way. It's not complete yet. If this evolves into something better then we'd be happy to see that happen. But we needed to start with something."

They tell a story that neatly illustrates where they are coming from. A few weeks ago, Sheridan was a bystander as Zaur, Pete and Billy sparred across a coffee table in Bray with Professor Vasiliy Filimonov, a renowned boxing coach from Russia, soaking up as much knowledge and expertise as they could. They spent four days listening and watching the great man work, all arranged and paid for out of the Pursuit of Excellence Programme's modest budget.

"To be in the room with them was humbling," says Sheridan. "These guys had every reason to be chilling out, still enjoying their success in London. But the thing about this environment is it's innovative and science-led. You cannot stand still. So six weeks after London these guys were already rewriting the book. Moving on."

The fear of standing still. Of growing stale and being left behind. In a nutshell, it is what they are all about.

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