A month or so before the London Olympics, Billy Walsh travelled down to the Garda Training College in Templemore for a coaching course with a difference.
To help prepare him for some of the pressure situations he might encounter ahead, the organisers hired method actors. One simulation took place in the men’s room, with an actor-athlete locked inside a lavatory, the scenario being the eve of an Olympic fight. “It’s always about you,” the athlete seethed. “It’s always about Billy Walsh.”
That moment right there told you everything about the kind of coach Billy Walsh is and what kind of coach he isn’t.
When Garry Keegan and Walsh established the high performance boxing unit a decade ago and started espousing the Japanese term ‘kaizen’ — the idea of continuously seeking improvement — they knew it had to apply to the man in the mirror as much as the fighter in the ring. And so just weeks before the Olympics, Walsh was still looking for ways he could better serve Irish boxing and boxers.
It’s always been about Irish boxing, never Billy Walsh and how good or clever he might look.
Everyone could learn something from him. Even Giovanni Trapattoni. Especially Giovanni Trapattoni. The old maestro’s place in the pantheon of great football managers is assured, but for most of 2012 he was shown to be out of date and prone to look outward when the real answers lay within. Only when he was on the verge of losing his job did he show flexibility yet even now it’s hard to imagine him being humble enough to go to a workshop like the one in Templemore.
Coaching Ireland’s leading education officer Liam Moggan defined a great coach as one “who helps athletes become independent so that they are able to identify options and find solutions for the changing demands of their sport”.
Walsh wasn’t always a great coach. Five years ago, when the Irish boxing team had a disappointing outing at the first of the Beijing Olympic qualifiers, Walsh and his support staff revaluated their entire approach.
“We’d over-coached the boys,” Walsh reflected. “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 that, everything changed. Between rounds Walsh would ask them, not tell them, what they were going to do next. Sometimes he’d say nothing at all, his silence prompting their thoughts, their decisions.
For Walsh, the athlete is the centre of everything. Athletes aren’t pawns. They have feelings, ideas and setbacks.
Exactly a year out from the London Games, I interviewed him in his office in the National Stadium. The gym below was deserted, the fighters were home with their clubs and families, but Walsh knew it was the calm before the storm. “Next week we’ll have 30 lads here and inevitably there’ll be something wrong with somebody!” he smiled.
Eleven months later John Joe Nevin sat in the same chair I had. He was just back from a warm-up tournament in France in which he’d shown up overweight. A less understanding coach would have sent Nevin home. Instead Walsh let Nevin fight three fights above his weight. Nevin lost two of them. Now he didn’t want to go to the Olympics. His form and mindset just wasn’t up to it.
Again Walsh showed compassion. Only days after his trip to Templemore he’d also recently learned that four in every five Olympians experienced a pre-Olympics wobble. Walsh smiled, reminding Nevin he also had a couple of wobbles on the eve of the two world championships he’d medalled at.
Nevin medalled at London too, just like three other Irish boxers. Imagine what this sporting year would have been like without the Olympics. Imagine what our Olympics would have been like without the boxers. Imagine what the boxers would have been like without Walsh.
He still retains a beautiful humility. While he’s not afraid to share what he and the boxers did well, he’s not afraid to admit where they could be better too.
A few weeks after London, Walsh and a close confidant went for a walk on Curracloe Beach, that same strip of Wexford sand Spielberg shot those opening scenes in Saving Private Ryan to reflect on the year. They came up with three categories; the critical timeline, the critical event and the critical learning outcome. One critical timeline was the last 24 hours of the Olympics — John Joe’s gold medal fight. He lost it.
He lost it because Walsh was speaking about medals in public when he never had before. John Joe didn’t adequately fear Luke Campbell because he had beaten him before. And he had been distracted by all the signs and parties around him in the Olympic village that screamed this thing was all over. When Walsh has to do it again, the learning outcomes are obvious: no talk of medals, no signs, hitting that right balance of fear and respect.
Does Trap engage in that level of reflective practice? He could learn to. We could all learn from Walsh, the King of Kaizen, just like he’s always out to learn more.
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