Visionary Pat Duffy is gone but Hope lives on

For all the big crowds and big names that will descend upon his home place in the coming days, you may not have heard about Pat Duffy’s premature passing last weekend.

Visionary Pat Duffy is gone but Hope lives on

That would have been fine with him.

There are people teaching PE and coaching sport in this country and far beyond that coach and teach the way they do because of him, without ever knowing it or him.

There are carded athletes that have gone to Olympics and won at world championships that would never have heard of him even though it was he, along with Giles Warrington, that devised the scheme in this country.

His pioneering work — for that’s what Patrick Duffy’s was, in both an Irish and international context — was never about him. He’d often say that, that coaching was never about the coach. It was about someone else.

At conferences all around this country and all around the world, he would often show two slides to illustrate the point. One was of his long-haired, grey-haired brother Brendan at 56 years of age still playing “a mad game called Gaelic football”, kicking the ball and smiling while he was at it.

The other was of a five-year-old girl on a tricycle. He called her Hope. Look at her face, he’d say. She’s smiling, just like Brendan. So what’s her lifelong journey in sport and physical activity going to be like? How are you as a coach or educator going to help her on that journey so she’s still active and still smiling like Brendan when she’s his age?

Back in 1994 when he was head of Coaching Ireland or the National Coaching and Training Centre (NCTC) as it was known then, he wrote a paper on a vision of physical education for the 21st century. For as much as he appreciated sport science, his vision, he’d say, wasn’t rocket science. He wanted five things for Hope: to have a love and appreciation of physical activity for its own sake; a love and understanding of one’s own body; a mastery of the skills and capacities to participate effectively and safely at her chosen level; a self-reliance in decisions and choices concerning physical activity; and an appreciation of the place of physical activity in the balance of life. And it was still his vision until his death.

It was how he lived himself. He was still swimming outdoors prior to falling ill 15 months ago. It was his physical activity then, not necessarily his sport. If he had a sport, it was athletics. He was there in the early years of Thomond PE College and before anyone knew it or him, there were  anonymous notices on the board about a meeting to establish a college athletics club. All these third-and fourth-years showed up to find that their Larry Mullen was this first-year upstart from Knocklyon.

He would initiate a lot more through the years. After teaching PE in St Declan’s, Cabra he would return to Limerick to lecture in UL, his book on PE being the core text for the discipline in this country for years. Then in 1992, on the same campus, he was appointed director of the newly-founded NCTC. To roll out the best coaching education system possible in this country, he went abroad to learn from the best in the world. He learned from their wisdom, and from their mistakes.

Coaching, he discovered, was not necessarily a profession; in Ireland, with so many volunteers, it was more of an art. And just as coaching wasn’t about dictating to the athlete, the NCTC wasn’t going to dictate to the national governing bodies. Instead it was about empowering them. He and his colleagues in the NCTC like Liam Moggan weren’t going to tell Brian Kerr or Billy Walsh what to coach, they were just going to help them HOW to coach: the subtle arts like how to plan, observe, listen, communicate, care, connect. So the governing bodies would send coaches down to Limerick to become tutors, and then those tutors would go back to their sports and spread the word.

It was a model that gained international respect, recognition and imitation. In the mid-noughties he was headhunted by Sports Coach UK to be their chief executive. For the past seven years he was vice-president for Europe of the International Council for Coach Education. He combined that work with being a chief technical advisor to South African sport.

At times being an educator and coach meant being a politician was unavoidable which meant at times conflict was too. For all his importance in the formation of the Sports Council and the carding scheme, he was somewhat isolated by them later on. He would depart Sports Coach UK after opponents found he was changing too much too soon. But for the most part his gentle yet forceful manner got things done and mobilised, inspired and united people.

He helped standardise and regulate the fitness training industry with the establishment of the National Council for Exercise and Fitness (NCEF). George Mitchell would have bowed to his diplomacy skills in helping  the various martial arts come together to form IMAC. And for the last five years while in his post as professor of coaching at Leeds Metropolitan University, he would never forget his roots, serving on various committees in Irish basketball.

If there was anything as impressive as his vision, it was his ability to communicate it. YouTube his lecture on blended, not blinded, coaching two years ago; the man’s intelligence as well as integrity shines through. He speaks about Drawbridge-Up Coaches and Drawbridge-Down Coaches: the former are isolated, aloof, help or let in no one else; the former have a sense of responsibility to involve and integrate and develop others. He cites the sociologist Amitai Etzioni’s concept of the Good Society where you have relationships through bonds of affection and a healthy moral culture balanced with a powerful protection of the self; physical activity and sport and coaching was uniquely positioned to facilitate that by seeing the bigger picture.

To help others see it, he plays and cites the band Chicago that he grew to love in his days in Thomond. They had a song called Dialogue, which  asks: “Will you try to change things/Use the power that you have, the power of a million new ideas?”

Stephen Hawking, who he also cited in that talk, did. Yet at 21 he was diagnosed with MS. He could have given up on his degree, on life itself, but he didn’t. Instead he would preserve and write, “Be curious. Never give up, however difficult things might seem. Remember to look up at the stars, not down on your feet. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do to succeed. It matters that you don’t just give up.”

Duffy recited those words in 2012. In May 2013 he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Yet he did not give up. He would remain curious. He would help Keith Wood set up and found Healthy Ireland, an initiative driven to create a good, better, society. As recently as May on the day the national Special Olympics opened in Limerick, he would speak to a gathering of old colleagues and friends from Coaching Ireland and the wider sporting community in Matt the Thresher’s, the local by his home in Birdhill. He was ill, and looked ill, but he was as inspirational and inspired as ever, still intrigued by the power of a million ideas.

He did not get to keep playing sport actively like his brother Brendan until he was 56. He was 55 years and 20 days when he passed away gently under the loving eyes of his wife Deirdre and his five children. But it was important to Pat that he managed to get to 55; that was his goal, to reach at least that milestone, a way to measure that however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do to succeed, to not just give up.

What a lifelong journey he had. And after him and thanks to him, Hope lives and smiles on.

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