Lesson from the coach’s coach

The name probably means nothing. If some radio sports show were to have a panel discussion about top coaching and top coaches in this country, it’s doubtful Liam Moggan’s name would crop up. His profile is hardly prominent.

Lesson from the coach’s coach

His influence, however, is vast.

He was a close advisor to Ken Doherty when Doherty was ranked the number one snooker player in the world. He was part of Anthony Daly’s backroom team when the Clarecastle man guided both Clare and Dublin to All-Ireland semi-finals. These last two seasons, he’s acted as performance coach to Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s Kerry footballers.

For the likes of Billy Walsh in the Irish boxing high performance unit, Moggan is the coach’s coach. Literally.

His day job is coach education officer with Coaching Ireland, coaching coaches to coach coaches, and of course, players. Gary Keegan, the director of the Institute of Sport, would also have participated on one of the tutor courses Moggan would have facilitated. From show jumping there’s been Gerry Mullins, who Moggan continues to work with, abroad. From Gaelic Games, the likes of Eamon Ryan and Pat O’Shea.

Brian Kerr and Noel O’Reilly would have been learning from Moggan around the time they were leading Ireland to two European underage titles and a World U20 semi-final, though Moggan will say he learned even more from them. Packie Bonner first learned to use a laptop on one of Moggan’s courses.

“Liam is an unsung hero,” says Walsh. “He’s been behind a lot of the top coaches in this country. He’s got them to think in a less conventional, traditional way. Back in the day people thought coaching was all about the big stick and the whip. With Liam it’s more about helping the athletes to find the solutions themselves. Some of it is very simple, like questioning rather than telling the athlete: ‘how do you feel about that?’ But there’s so much power from that because it empowers the athlete to become decision-makers. Liam just has a way of educating that breeds confidence into you. And the other thing is he’s always there for you in an advisory capacity, even when it’s years after you’d have done one of his courses.”

Every year he facilitates a course or two in which 28 or so coaching tutors from about 16 different sports meet up in the University of Limerick over five weekends.

It’s off the radar. He actually likes that, prefers that, because nearly all sport and coaching is. It’s when there are no TV cameras or crowds or public scrutiny. It’s someone coaching a kid to swim or how to catch a ball, or how some adult can run faster, like his good friend Br Colm O’Connell has guided David Rushida out in Kenya.

The course is a little off the wall too. At some point over the five weekends, all those coaches will have coached a little in nearly all those 16 sports. Walsh would have coached some camogie and karate down there; Bonner, some badminton and rowing. And at some stage they’d nearly all have had to sing a song, because even in that, there’s coaching going on too. For Moggan it’s not all about WHAT you’re coaching but HOW you’re coaching.

“One weekend I asked [former national hurling coach coordinator] Paudie Butler to come down where he gave the coaches hurling equipment and let them deliver the activity. One of the boxing coaches had no background in hurling and there were sliotars going everywhere. I was thinking to myself, ‘This is chaos’. But Paudie let them go on and then pulled them in. ‘Right, you planned it, we’ve done it, now we’re going to review it. Well, what was good about that? How could it improve?’

“Your man says, ‘God, it was terrible! Help me, what should I do?’ It was then Paudie was able to go in and demonstrate because now they were far more attuned. Then Paudie said to the fella, ‘Would you like to do it again?’ I was thinking, ‘Paudie, don’t!’ But your man said, ‘Yes’ and he did it and it was wonderful! I used to think the doing was the be-all and end-all. Paudie showed me that reflection is so important.

“The goal is to get them to start thinking. Early on, I divide them off into groups, give them words to a song and they’ve 25 minutes to prepare to sing a song. The first five minutes are always the same. ‘What’s this about?’ Then they realise, ‘Right, we’ll get this out of the way so’ and then they waste the last 10 minutes: ‘Sure look, you’ll start, we’ll join in and we’ll be fine’. Then I’ll ask them what was good about it. And there’ll always be reasons how it could have been better. Then I go to the next group and the next one. At the end then I’ll say, ‘Right, you’re going to do it again!’ This time I give them 40 minutes to prepare for it. And when they come back, they’re always better.”

For you, that could seem like a waste of two hours. For virtually everyone who takes the course, it is not. They develop an appreciation that whenever you review any performance, you can improve on any performance, even — especially — Brian Kerr’s singing.

Before he ever influenced the likes of Kerr, Moggan was influenced himself by great, unsung coaches. He grew up in Tuam, went to the local CBS where a Brother Willie Morgan told them they’d become All-Ireland basketball champions, even though they had never played the sport. They would win that All-Ireland. Such vision and ambition would inform Moggan’s own coaching; a decade later after graduating from Thomond College, he would guide Ardscoil Rís in Dublin to several All-Ireland cross-country titles. His work there would perk the interest of Lar Foley, then coach to the Dublin hurling team, forever a Dublin GAA legend.

“Lar was a genius,” Moggan smiles softly and fondly. “He talked like a farmer, looked like a farmer and fought like a farmer but he was as gentle as a lamb. A fly was flickering around the lamplight behind his head and caught my attention. Suddenly Lar snapped out, caught the fly and without a pause put his hand to his mouth and munched away. Good God, I thought, everything they say about him is true! A few minutes later he asked me about the fly: ‘You thought I ate it.’ I said I did. And with that he unfurled his huge farmer’s hand and the fly flew back towards the light.

“I would still meet some of that team who would tell me things I never knew at the time what he did for them when they were in trouble. Yet he’d challenge them. Players that he felt weren’t working hard enough, he’d invite over to his house in Kinsealy and connect with them. He’d throw them a big bag of spuds. ‘Throw that back to me! Look! You’re sweating! You’re not training hard enough! Now bring those spuds home and train harder!’

“Lar used to love on a Saturday to have games between what he called the pen pushers — the lads who went to college, worked in the banks, were teachers — and what he’d call real workers. And he loved it when the real workers thrashed the pen pushers! Then he’d bring them into a huddle to say that showed how they depended on one another. He used say life was a 100-piece jigsaw. People who went to college got a cert with 99 pieces of the jigsaw. He only got the one piece. But the pen pushers needed fellas like him to complete the picture.

“I used to think it was all about getting fellas fit. I learned from Lar that the real effective coaching is the ability to get into the heart and soul of the person.”

Lar’s way would take them a long way, if not quite all the way; in 1991, Dublin would reach the Leinster final for the first time in 27 years, losing by two points to a Kilkenny team that would win an All-Ireland the following year.

Other coaches would make a big impression upon Moggan. In his early years in Ardscoil Rís, the athletics programme was a long way off contending for All-Irelands. Moggan would receive help from an unlikely source. Coaching in St David’s in Artane was a man called John Shields. Any other coach would have seen Moggan’s school as rivals. Shields saw them as neighbours.

“He embraced the fact there was a fella trying to promote athletics and helped me at every turn. And when we started to catch and overtake David’s, he still supported us. John saw the bigger picture.”

Brian Kerr and his late great sidekick Noel O’Reilly were two other wonderful teachers as well as students.

Shortly after Pat Duffy would bring Moggan into the Coaching Ireland fold, or the National Coaching and Training Centre as it was known, he’d team up with the two amigos.

“Noel would often ask you as a coach: ‘What would the players be doing if you weren’t there?’ Answer: they’d organise some game among themselves. So sometimes just let them off and spot. It might look like you’re doing nothing, but it’s not all about you. Observe what players like, to be in the thick of it. What humour are they in? Noel saw the value of sussing out the mood.”

In a way, O’Reilly was a prophet in his own land. Certainly Kerr is. Eddie O’Sullivan and Packie Bonner and Gerry Mullins aren’t coaching in Ireland either. Pat Duffy, one of the leading coach educators in Europe, lives in Limerick yet in recent years has worked primarily in the UK. Brother Colm has never been asked to take a coaching clinic in his native country. There’s a trend there that disturbs Moggan.

“Some of our best exponents in the art of coaching aren’t active in Ireland. 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. Riverdance was here [in UL] a few months ago. That was triggered by a boyo [Michael Flatley] who said to hell with keeping your arms down by your sides — let’s rip the skirts off. We diminish that. We dismiss it in our education. ‘Sit down, shut up’.

“Look at what Brian Kerr and Noel O’Reilly did. They won two underage European titles. Two! When are Ireland ever going to win a European football title again?

“Brian lost only four senior games out of 33. And he has nothing to offer the system here? But 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.”

He wonders do we fully appreciate our athletes too. You might win a European indoor medal but your funding isn’t increased. You might make it out of the heat of a major championship but we barely acknowledge it. We’re a country that has gone from celebrating moral victories to being outright hostile towards them.

“A lot of our Olympians come back very upset because people haven’t shared in what should be this great sense of satisfaction in making progress. Even when an athlete does reach the summit, how do we really recognise them in the long run?

“I think there should be a state obligation that if we card an athlete we should take them on for 10 years after their career has ended. We should be saying ‘Right, for taking you away from a social milieu of family work and education, we’ll support you down the line to catch up on that’. Instead we say ‘Come on, come on, come on, we’ll give you money but if you get injured we don’t want to know you and if you don’t set a record, we don’t want to know you and when you’re finished, we don’t want to know you’.

“Sport is getting to know people and involving people and connecting with people. That’s what we have to remember. And if we miss that, we miss everything. At the moment, we’re missing that. We’re only valuing the winners, the winners, the winners. Yet at international level, we’re acknowledging it’s corrupt up there.

“In Ireland, we spend €1.7 million on drug testing every year. We spend only €1.8m on coach education every year. So what we’re essentially saying is we’re trying to bring through a select, elite group of people into a world that is so corrupt, that we’re putting in systems from law and order for criminals. A lot of the awe of sport is gone now. When I was a kid, my dad would mimic Olympic finals and we loved it, but if I learned now that someone ran an event in such a time, I’d believe it, but not necessarily in them.”

He still sees pure sport. He still believes in David Rushida. He heard Br Colm talk about Rushida for seven years before he ever made it big and he can see how grounded and rounded the man is.

“I asked him [Rushida] last winter ‘When are you going to run again?’ And he said ‘When my knee is better’. Here is the fastest 800m runner ever and he accepts there is a greater order of things. He’ll run not because there’s a major championship this year but when his knee is better.”

The GAA also warms his heart because of how it is connected with its community. But even the essence of Gaelic Games he feels can be misunderstood. Last year he came to know Aidan O’Shea from some mutual acquaintances in Dublin IT. Moggan finds him a gentleman off the field, a giant in his community; something wonderful. Yet over the winter Moggan noticed nearly every photo of the Mayo man was of him on his knees in tears after last year’s All-Ireland final.

“It’s as if we’re portraying this young man as some kind of failure. He’s played in two All-Ireland finals in the past two years. I would love to have been involved in last year’s All-Ireland final: the build up to it, the day itself. We’re too closed. It all goes back to the processes it takes to try to win. You’ll always have those, whether you win or lose.

“I hate when county players say ‘We’ve been training so hard and we didn’t win’. You’ve been training so hard and look at all you’ve gained! You should value every day you’re out there. In playing the game you play, dealing with the people you deal with, the opportunity to travel and grow, all the while not forgetting, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do it here! We’ve got to do it!’ Because driving for that destination makes the journey all the better too.”

He tells you about a journey he made last summer. He was in his car driving home to Ashbourne from Killarney, having seen Kerry win the Munster football final. On the radio was the Leinster hurling final.

Dublin won it, and when team captain John McCaffrey paid tribute to team selector Ciaran Hetherton, Moggan found himself pulling over to the side of the road and breaking into tears. Hetherton had been on the team of ’91. Some of that team had since died. Lar had passed away too. But something he had sparked had lived on.

“I was surprised that it meant so much. It brought me back to those days, great days, when a group of people were passionately pursuing a dream and believing in a man who kept telling us, ‘!We’ll do it!’ Now, we didn’t do it. But are we any worse for having tried? No. We’re better. And Dublin hurling probably is too. And the fact I was moved like that shows the impact a great coach like Lar can make — forever.”

Moggan made another trip the summer before that, which again reaffirmed to him what sport is about.

He serves as vice-president to Paralympics Ireland and was in the Olympic Park Stadium for the 1500m Paralympics final for arm amputees. In the third lane, was a Houssein Omar Hassan from the small African state of Djibouti. By the time the second-to-last runner crossed the line, a visibly-limping Hassan still had two laps to go.

“Then the commentator tells us that he had injured his ankle, that the physio had told him that morning that he couldn’t run, but because he’s the only runner from Djibouti, he insisted on running.

“So this section, when he was passing stood up and cheered. Next thing the next section did. And so on. It was the slowest Mexican Wave ever. It got louder and louder and louder and by the time he finished, the whole stadium was on its feet. I was bawling. I looked over to my left and I saw Seb Coe crying. Now Seb Coe is the only man to have won the 1500m gold medal twice. And here he was crying, watching the slowest 1500m ever; a time of 11:23.

“We often talk about ‘high performance’ and put some figure on it. But you can’t tell me I was crying about nothing there. Seb Coe, who had another measure of high performance, cried because he knew something special had happened. So that taught me a lot.

“High performance is whatever we make it. High performance is what happens out there today. Right there, today.

“It happens in gyms and fields and swimming pools all over the country every day. It’s just a matter of whether we’re open to seeing it every day.”

One of our great invisible leaders does.

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