Friday 20 April 2018

Enquiring minds never cease

Irish sport's finest innovators show no signs of slowing down, writes John O'Brien

IT was somewhere back in time. Towards the end of the 1970s. In 1978, maybe. Or was it '79? Anyway, they were at a tri-nations athletics tournament in Copenhagen. Jim Kilty was the Irish coach, Liam Hennessy a young aspiring pole-vaulter. They weren't acquainted and Hennessy, like a typical field athlete, was inclined to keep his own counsel, cut off from the main body of the team. But something about the coach and the way he talked drew him in. He liked the cut of Kilty's jib.

What intrigued Hennessy was that when Kilty addressed the team, he didn't focus on the blue-chip stars like Eamonn Coghlan, Ray Flynn or John Treacy. They were expected to deliver anyway. Their results weren't critical. Instead, he spoke of those lower down the rankings stepping forward and making the difference. Any one of them could be the hero. He had thought it through and worked out a plan. Hennessy was impressed.

The hero was Gerry Delaney. It had come down to the last lap of the last race, the 400m relay, Delaney side by side with a Dane who had won bronze at the European Championships. "I'll never forget it," Kilty says. "I can still see all the shot-putters and the javelin throwers lining up to watch Delaney. And didn't Delaney manage to beat your man. The whole team was hopping. I think Liam, in his mind, was thinking here's a fella who knows how to organise a team."

After that they met regularly at athletics events and a strong friendship was nurtured. Kilty recalls a summer he spent working in a community centre in Howth, Hennessy knocking at the door one night, en route to England to find work and spread his wings. By then Hennessy had completed an athletics scholarship in New Mexico and tried unsuccessfully to qualify for the Moscow Olympics. He had a deep vault of stories that kept them talking into the night.

Hennessy had loved the ferociously competitive nature of American athletics, but the drugs culture that underpinned it embittered him and drove him towards the scientific end of the spectrum. He returned home and completed a PE degree at Thomond College and then a masters at Loughborough. He worked with soccer players in Germany and Italy. He talked to coaches in the Eastern Bloc. He devoured coaching manuals from Australia and New Zealand. He read and observed and consulted.

Every step opened his eyes to something new and wonderful. In Thomond, he encountered athletes and would-be coaches whose lives revolved completely around the pursuit of sporting excellence. They talked about it morning, noon and night. Eddie O'Sullivan was a friend and classmate. He remembers the time they introduced a resistance-training and weights room, the first of its kind officially in Ireland. He and O'Sullivan colonised it.

"Myself and Eddie set it up and virtually took it over," he says. "You'd see the Kerry fellas coming up to use it. The likes of Jimmy Deenihan, Ogie Moran and Pat Spillane. They'd all been in Thomond years before but they'd still come up to do their own training. They were at the height of their powers then, incredible athletes. And me and Eddie there supervising them."

Kilty's path was different. He'd been a Christian Brother for 14 years, a primary school teacher by profession until he started coaching athletes in the mid-1970s and realised he'd found his vocation. He drew his knowledge from the GAA pitches of Meath where he'd grown up and from the athletes he helped nurture, from Ciaran Coakley to TJ Kearns, learning as much from them as they did from him.

And, in a way, it made them the perfect combination: Hennessy's academic learning and Kilty's hands-on experience. When Kilty became director of coaching for Athletics Ireland in 1990, Hennessy was his "go-to guy". And when Hennessy set about researching and compiling the first detailed scientific studies on Irish sports, Kilty's athletes provided willing subjects. Even when they took different turns in the road, they never strayed far apart.

If you were to consider many of Ireland's recent sporting achievements, it's a fair bet that either Kilty's or Hennessy's fingerprints will be somewhere on them. Derval O'Rourke's gold in Moscow in 2006. Pádraig Harrington's three Majors. Irish rugby's Grand Slam. Wexford's last Leinster title in 2004. And as they sit together in the Tipperary Institute, a stone's throw from Semple Stadium, you realise that you are in the company of the last two men to train Tipperary to win an All-Ireland title -- in 1991 and 2001 respectively.

A small detail in a rich and complex tapestry.

* * * * * *

THAT morning, Hennessy had pointed his car north from Waterford to Tipperary and, as he drove through Piltown, a strange and wonderful sight greeted him. There in the early morning Kilkenny sunshine, he watched Kilkenny kids walking to school from the nearby hurling field, Kilkenny helmets on their heads, Kilkenny hurls in their hands, tapping away to each other as they went. Hours later, he's still buzzing at the memory.

Tomorrow, he thinks, it could be something different. A while back, he got an email from a pole-vaulter he'd once trained to a national title and, for the whole day, he was totally absorbed by the sport he'd once tried to master. Yet hurling has always been a part of him. "It's where I come from," he says. "I come from a hurling place. When I go home all we talk about are the Cappawhile hurlers and how Tipp are doing."

The sport intrigues him more than ever. It perplexes him that no one is conducting truly meaningful research into hurling or Gaelic football. He doesn't mean the history of the games or basic things like who has won the most titles or banked the most All Stars. He's talking about the really interesting stuff: science, genetics, physiology. The big questions.

"Nobody knows how fast Henry Shefflin strikes a ball. Think about it. I can tell you how fast Pádraig Harrington swings a club. I can tell you his speed at impact. We make these outlandish claims sometimes, like hurling is the fastest field sport in the world. But what do you make that claim on? Oh, because it looks fast and the ball is zipping up and down the field?"

He wonders incessantly. What is it, he asks, that makes Shefflin or Eoin Kelly so special? What separates them from the herd? Did they share common traits when they were young? He thinks of the possibilities. Taking a swab, maybe, and seeing if there is a gene associated with them. "Ridiculous stuff like that," he smiles. Answering questions that nobody has yet dared to ask.

With Kilty, he shares a vision. Three years ago they established Setanta College, which offers online diploma courses in strength and conditioning for sport. The venture has been an unqualified success, numbering professional rugby players, soccer managers, prominent GAA players and coaches among its clientele. Now they dream of taking it a step further.

It mystifies them that, as of yet, there is no available degree course in strength and conditioning either here or in the UK. Sports science degrees are all very well, but they don't enable students to immerse themselves fully in the practical side of games. That's their vision now: students with enquiring minds and time and resources getting beneath the grandiose claims and assumptions and finding out what the games are really about.

For all the studies they have conducted, Hennessy has found conclusive answers hard to come by. Hurling, in particular, has defied analysis. And as he dashes around the boardroom, explaining theories, demonstrating skills -- just as he does in the coaching conferences he addresses -- he finds himself inexorably drawn to the kids he'd seen in Piltown that morning.

You'll notice it this afternoon, he thinks, when Kilkenny play Dublin in the Leinster championship in Croke Park, the superior artfulness of the All-Ireland champions in possession. When he worked with the Tipperary hurlers, he loved watching Nicky English and Pat Fox mucking around before training and realised that was where they honed their skills. Free play, he calls it, the hurling equivalent of street soccer. That is where it's at.

"The point I'm making is that what kids do stays with them for life and comes out at the most magical moments on any given Sunday. Coaches can't take any credit for that. There is some evidence to suggest that free play is more expansive on what it builds than what you'd do in a hurling field." Understand that, he thinks, and you find what it is that makes hurling tick.

* * * * * *

HE has time to think now. Towards the end of last year he retired from his position as Irish rugby's director of fitness. A few months earlier, he'd been diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer. He remembers the physical toil of trying to walk from the gate to his front door after his first session of radiotherapy. The notion of withdrawing completely from sport was outlandish, but something had to give.

He had spent 10 years with the IRFU, 15 in all working in rugby. He arrived at Bective Rangers in the mid-1990s on the same day as Mike Ruddock and they both wondered what they had let themselves in for. He thinks now of how far the sport has travelled and his own part in it, too humble to acknowledge the magnitude of his contribution. He imagines all some people know is the 2007 World Cup and his supposed fallout with O'Sullivan. So be it, he thinks.

"People ask me about Eddie," he says smiling. "Me and Eddie and 'the row'. Look, Eddie is a great coach and I've great time for him. And for everybody who rolled up their sleeves and tried to do the right thing. Did we have rows? Yes, but they weren't stupid, headless rows. Just strong arguments being put on the table regarding the benefits of doing this as opposed to that. We still talk. We're still friends.

"The way I look at it is everybody had the right intention. If you are player-centred in your approach you'll do right most of the time. The correct decisions will be made. So when you leave you look back and say you hope you did well. And that others will do better. Of course I miss it but you have to move on. That's life."

Around the time Hennessy was getting ready to leave Irish rugby, Kilty was preparing to address the Mayo footballers in a room in Castlebar. It was the first Saturday in October. The post mortem from the previous All-Ireland campaign was still ongoing. Some criticisms of Kilty's performance as trainer had been aired and, now, he had the opportunity to respond.

As soon as he began he sensed a problem. He could see his four fingers raised above his head but the words he needed to accompany them wouldn't come out right. Then he felt John O'Mahony's hand on his arm. "Jim," the manager said quietly, "you're not well." They brought him to hospital and, after conducting tests, they informed him that he'd suffered two strokes.

And later when the shock had subsided and he conducted a quick audit of his working life, he understood why it had happened. The Mayo job had been a hurdle too far. When O'Mahony brought him on board in 2007, he was also training the Ballyboden hurlers as well as O'Rourke and a host of other athletes, seeing no other impediments other than the lack of hours in the day.

"It was crazy stuff," he concedes now. "The travelling was too much. In my first year in Mayo I'd be there three times a week, often driving over and back from Dublin in the same day. I still had to look after Derval and that was becoming difficult. Like sometimes Johno would call a session and I'd have to drop everything and go and I think Derval was becoming a bit pissed. You couldn't blame her really."

He looks back now and considers how lucky he was. Lucky he didn't suffer paralysis as a result of his illness. Lucky that it happened at the quietest time of the season. He was back working in January. Now he just has the Dublin hurlers and the ladies football team on his books as well as Bronagh Furlong, a talented 400m athlete from Wexford. No more punishing long hauls west. He sleeps for an hour every afternoon and won't train more than one team on any given day. He has to manage himself as well as the athletes he trains.

No regrets, though. A lifetime in sport and there's not much he'd want to change or do differently. When they wheeled him into the ward in Castlebar, he remembers vaguely seeing a sign that said old and infirm and, at 65, it was the first time he'd realised his age. And yet he remains a bundle of kinetic energy and youthful enthusiasm. Age, you sense, cannot wither him.

Working with Hennessy, he thinks, has helped keep him young. He tells of the day six years ago when Hennessy returned from a trip to New Zealand studying the rugby academies in operation and, before he could go home, had called around to Kilty to regale him with the new training ideas he'd picked up and the implications he saw not just for Irish rugby but for GAA and other sports too. "That's Liam," says Kilty. "He's an innovator. I'm a practitioner. I get most of my ideas from listening to Liam."

He was others' 'go-to guy' as well. When English was casting his net for a Tipperary trainer in 1998, it was to Hennessy he went for advice. And when Anthony Daly needed a trainer for Dublin he consulted Richie Stakelum who, in turn, called Hennessy. Kilty tells of the time Ned Quinn picked Hennessy out among a crowd and said there was the reason Kilkenny had won so many All-Irelands. Hennessy is happy if his modest role in the preparation of Kilkenny -- a couple of visits a year -- is kept under wraps.

Kilty tells too of the time he and O'Rourke went to visit Harrington not long after she had won her world indoor title. "Derval," Harrington told her, "your gold medal has done so much for me. It's telling me my own success is just around the corner." A few months later Harrington, after a decade working with Hennessy, would become British Open champion.

So many strands to their lives. And so much to come too. They still meet once a week and Skype for an hour every second day. For the most part, Hennessy is confined to his home in Killaloe where he writes modules for Setanta College and, via the internet, keeps pace with the latest fitness and training innovations, trying to find the balance between keeping his brain sharp and allaying his wife Mary's fears that he is doing too much.

His course of treatment will take two years and, looking on the bright side, it will give him the chance to catch up on the reading his hectic life always precluded. By reading he doesn't mean novels or John le Carre thrillers. He means thick scientific journals, bursting with information that might spark a thought or an idea. "There'll be plenty of time to get to other stuff later on," he smiles. "Jim and I have a bit of a journey to go through yet."

The wonder of it is where it might yet take them. The body may be weaker now, but the mind carries on. Questioning, wondering, probing. Enquiring minds never cease.

Sunday Independent

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