The fact that I’ve been asked on camera, hooked up to a microphone, didn’t make it any easier to answer. Or the fact that I don’t do a whole lot of coaching.
After I retired from competitive athletics in June, I was flung straight back into a competitive environment by being appointed as a coach/mentor on the RTÉ television show Ireland’s Fittest Family. In my experience the best coaches are selfless people with an abundance of patience and if I’m honest, I’m neither.
My main motivation for getting involved was that the timing was perfect, I had just decided to retire and signing up to the show meant that, for a few weeks, I had something completely new to focus on. It gave me a reprieve from wondering did I make the right decision about walking away from athletics. I had very high standards for myself when I competed and tended to lack patience when dealing with people who didn’t operate to the same high standards. Not exactly qualities of a great coach!
I have massive admiration for great coaches. They are rare and tend to do their work with such subtlety that you almost forget how good they are. I spent most of the weekend sitting on my couch watching the Ryder Cup. I love the Ryder Cup. I think it makes for amazing viewing and the amount each team wants to win is always so tangible.
The role of captain is huge in the Ryder Cup, it’s basically like being the head coach of the best golfers in the world for a few days. This Ryder Cup, I was wondering who will make a better team captain, Tom Watson or Paul McGinley. Watson was relying on his stellar career statistics to give him authority over his team and McGinley was hanging his hat on impeccable preparation with a huge amount of attention to detail.
Now that all is said and done it’s easy to say McGinley was the better captain of the Ryder Cup. With Europe winning, McGinley has been lauded for masterminding their triumph and Watson has been criticised for making bad decisions.
Both are true to a certain extent. McGinley had every angle covered before any European player had even teed off. He had done his homework and knew his players extremely well. After the victory McGinley referred to his approach as having a plan, a structure and three or four big ideas that he always stuck to. His decision to have five vice captains paid off immeasurably.
A funny and noticeable moment was when Dubuisson left his putter in a toilet on the 11th hole and vice captain Padraig Harrington was on hand to quickly retrieve it. It’s the small things that make the difference and McGinley took care of the small things very well.
Every European player was quick to pay tribute to McGinley following the win. Rory McIlroy referred to him as “immense”. But it’s easy to pay tribute to a coach following a win. Being Ryder Cup captain is one of the most visible coaching roles in sport and Tom Watson was answerable for the US failing yet again to win it.
Some of the criticism is fair. From the moment he made his captain’s pick of Webb Simpson the questions began, people thought he got that first decision wrong.
He benched the rookies Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth after their dominant win on the first day. The parking of Phil Mickelsen and Keegan Bradley for the entirety of Saturday was another questionable decision. He sent Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker out for a fourth straight match on Saturday afternoon when their fatigue was visible and contributed to the Ryder Cup swinging favourably Europe’s way on the Saturday evening.
Being a coach that suffers a big loss can be a tough place to be in. Following the defeat, Watson had to endure some harsh comments from Mickelson in the press conference. He essentially questioned Watson’s entire approach.
Despite Watson’s questionable decisions, it’s hard to know just what the America could have done differently to win the Ryder Cup. McGinley had his pick of amazing European golfers who all played extremely well. The best players in the world often don’t find their form in the Ryder Cup but this didn’t happen the European team. Without a doubt, McGinley’s preparation was tremendous and the US never really found a chink in their armour.
Here’s a funny thing about coaching, your effectiveness is often judged on something that is entirely out of your control, how someone else performs. It’s true there’s a lot that can be done before you get to the point of the actual competition to help with the performance. A coach can inspire people to believe in their own ability, they can take the time to get to know how people tick and they can have a coaching masterplan in place for the event. But people still need to perform.
One of the most well-oiled winning machines in Irish sport at the moment is the Cork ladies football team. Just as Europe wrapped up the win in Gleneagles, Cork were mounting a serious comeback in Croke Park. The Dublin ladies threw everything they had at Cork and came agonisingly close to beating them. In the end, one point separated the two teams.
This Cork team has won nine out of the last ten All-Ireland football finals. Their success is staggering and without a doubt a huge amount of it has been due to Eamonn Ryan, their coach. Ryan says he fell into the job in 2004. He introduced an emphasis on skills among other things. Ryan clearly has an outstanding group of athletes to work with and together they have become the dominant team in Ireland.
My recent stint in coaching was a far cry from Gleneagles or Croke Park. But it was an insightful experience and one that taught me lots about being on the other side of competition, although I still don’t quite know what type of coach I am!