The time has come to finally realise coaching is an art

Even now, after he’s gone and the Oireachtas hearing and the forest of newsprint his name and departure triggered, we don’t know what we’ve lost in Billy Walsh.

The time has come to finally realise coaching is an art

We know alright that he helped make the National Stadium a medal factory, boxing our most reliant source of Olympic glory, that he was obviously good at something.

But just what that something was, we don’t seem to have grasped. We just know he helped all those Irish boxers achieve, and very little idea how.

Even some of his biggest supporters can’t seem to appreciate just what he did, so well. Over the past couple of weeks we’ve been told that Billy’s reliable colleague Zaur Antia is more of a coach in the purest sense. That Billy was more of a ‘coordinator’ than a ‘coach’ per se.

And there might be the nub of what happened. The under-appreciation the IABA had of Billy Walsh stems from a misunderstanding most of us have for what coaching is.

Gary Keegan doesn’t. Together with Walsh he founded and led the high performance unit, and while he too was misunderstood and underappreciated by the IABA blazers, enough other people in Irish sport grasped what he had to make him performance director of the Irish Institute of Sport.

About this time last year I interviewed him in that capacity and he’d explain that was one of his biggest challenges and goals was to widen the understanding of what coaching is.

“Too often we see the role of a coach far too narrow,” he’d say. “We think it’s someone who teaches someone else how to row a boat or throw a punch.

"We need to see them as managers and leaders at different times. They now need to be able to communicate better: with their athletes and how to ask better questions and draw feedback; with service providers, and upwards into senior management.”

Walsh was a master at that, partly because he had an awareness of when he wasn’t so great at that. Within the boxing high performance unit, they’ll say their turning point was after the first qualifying tournament for the 2008 Olympics.

Only Paddy Barnes had qualified in Chicago when at least another two had been expected.

“We’d over-coached the boys,” Walsh would tell me when I interviewed him four years ago. “Kenny Egan had got to the stage where he was standing there between rounds, waiting for me to call out the instructions what punches to throw.”

After Chicago, it all changed. The athletes decided when they’d train and how to train. In between rounds Walsh would ask them, not tell them, what they were going to do next.

The penny had dropped with all of them, and especially Walsh. You’re not so much coaching a sport as coaching people.

And every person is different. He got to know which of them liked to stand between rounds and who preferred to sit. Up to Chicago, they all warmed up the same way. After Chicago, Walsh and his team allowed for greater individuality.

They each warmed up differently. They each found their way into the zone differently. While Paddy Barnes liked to be wound up entering the ring, other fighters preferred, needed, to be looser.

The best example was Ray Moylette, who won gold at the 2011 Europeans. As Walsh would be putting in Moylette’s gumshield, Moylette would ask for him to tell the same corny joke his club coach back in Mayo would crack before every fight.

“Go on, Billy,” he’d grin, “tell me the one about the two mice.” So Walsh would oblige. Two mice live in a tyre. The tyre gets punctured. Now they’re living in a flat.

Boom, boom. With that Moylette was away, smiling, fighting, performing, winning. That might sound simple. Small. Insignificant.

But that’s coaching. Knowing that it’s something of a science and the various theories of performance activation and the individual zone of optimal functioning. And knowing it’s even more of an art, the art of knowing your athletes and the right thing to say to them.

It’s knowing what to say and putting the face on that the team needs to see at that moment. Take the 2011 Olympic qualifiers in Baku. With only four seconds to go in his fight David Oliver Joyce was called for a public warning. Only for it, he’d have been going to the London Games.

Inside Walsh was devastated for his fighter and the programme but he had to park it because Michael Conlan was heading into the ring.

After Conlan had qualified, Walsh had to immediately switch his attention to Connie Sheehan. Walsh would end up throwing in the towel because he felt Sheehan wasn’t fighting to win, which wasn’t being true to the programme’s standards.

Do the IABA really think they have 20 coaches who’d be able to process that spectrum of scenarios and emotions in a high-pressure environment? That was what Walsh was so good at.

Asking, moving on to, answering, the President Bartlett line, “What’s next?” What’s next for Irish boxing? Over the weekend the team’s highly-valued performance psychologist Gerry Husseysaid something that told you so much about Billy Walsh.

On his final night in Ireland he’d sent a lengthy memo to the team outlining his recommendations, views, vision of how to achieve success at Rio. Even then he was thinking of What’s Next for his team and athletes.

He was not perfect. That’s what made him excellent. In an interview I did with him after London, he was still disappointed that none of the men’s team’s medals had been gold.

Because after a couple of the semi-finals he’d spoken in the press about gold. Outcome instead of process. His communication could have been better.

In Doha last month it was, culminating in Conlan delivering gold. That victory was a testament to Walsh’s tactical competence; within 12 seconds of the start of that gold medal fight Conlan switched from Plan A to Plan B, southpaw.

But as Coaching Ireland’s coach education officer Liam Moggan, whom Walsh would have tutored and mentored through the years, often says, coaching is not so much about what we coach as how we coach.

It’s how we review, prepare, plan; how we care and connect with athletes so they can become independent.

We interviewed Moggan as well last year when he said something that has a clear resonance now. A worrying trend he’d noticed was the amount of prophets no longer coaching in this land.

Brian Kerr. Eddie O’Sullivan. Gerry Mullins. Pat Duffy, one of the leading coach educators in Europe, lived in Limerick up until his premature death last year yet had been employed primarily in the UK in recent years.

“Some of our best exponents in the art of coaching aren’t active in Ireland,” he’d lament. “Which tells us we’re miles away from understanding what that art is. These people are mavericks in a way, but it’s boyos who push things to the limits that make the difference.

“The Brian Kerrs, Gerry Mullins, they would question a lot of the structures already there. And some people don’t like that, so we dismiss them. We want compliance.”

To that list we can now add Billy Walsh, someone who the other governing bodies and the Institute of Sport will tell you, was by his advice and generosity coaching coaches in all sports.

Now that he’s gone, isn’t it time we realise what that art is?

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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

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