Liam Moggan retired last month from his position with Coaching Ireland. Known as the ‘coach’s coach’, he worked with everyone from Billy Walsh to Brian Kerr to Éamonn Fitzmaurice. But he believes Ireland’s focus on elite sport at the expense of physical education means a generation of kids have been lost
While tutoring everyone from Billy Walsh and Brian Kerr to badminton coaches you’ve never heard of, Liam Moggan in his time with Coaching Ireland would invariably ask them to reflect on a poem penned over a century ago.
As they were all operating in the field of sport, they were naturally striving for success. But what was success?
In opening their eyes to a new way of looking at the word, he was also broadening their minds to a new way of looking at coaching, even a new way of looking at the world.
"To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded."
This pearl of wisdom is often attributed to the great American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, though others have accredited passages of it to a less-heralded writer called Bessy Stanley. Whichever of them it was, their words still resonate deeply with Moggan.
He knows what it’s like to have athletes ‘succeed’ in the more conventional, obvious sense.
Three years ago he was the performance coach to Éamonn Fitzmaurice’s Kerry team that won the senior football All-Ireland, a role he now performs for Cian O’Neill’s Kildare, who have won two consecutive league promotions.
A decade earlier he served in a similar role to Ken Doherty when the Ranelagh man was ranked the number one snooker player in the world.
Walsh, a world boxing coach of the year, has described him as “the coach’s coach” and a sounding board to him to this day. Just as Walsh knows what it takes to help and get athletes onto that podium, Moggan understands too.
But for him sport and coaching is about a lot more than the podium, high performance, the ‘winners’. It’s just as much about what he terms The Lost Souls and Poor Créatúrs and those who coach and cater for them.
“What’s more valuable on the All Ireland football final weekend?” he says in his soft voice. “The hundreds that take part in the Sevens out in Kilmacud or the 30 or 40 that will play in Croke Park?
"The answer is they’re both important. Same with the women’s final weekend. They had 46,000 in Croke Park but they also hundreds taking part in their sevens equivalent out in Naomh Mearnóg.
"There wasn’t a mention of that. It’s not valued. It’s ‘Well, that’s nice.’ That’s not nice! That’s bloody great!”
For all the high-profile figures Moggan worked with both in and outside his role as coach education officer for Coaching Ireland prior to his retirement last month, he’s no name dropper. A couple of unknown athletics coaches in Meath crop up in conversation quicker than a Fitzmaurice or Walsh.
“There’s a guy called Pat Diskin who set up Kiltale Ladies On The Run,” he enthuses. “On the day of any Dublin race series, there mustn’t be a woman left in Kiltale. Now, they’re not at the top of the race, but they’re together.
“Same with David Carrie’s group out in Dunleer. You’ll never see a David Carrie team member run alone. They’re paired off with someone their equal and off they go, running together.
“To me, that’s the essence of sport. You and I might be together for five or six miles, we might not really know each other, but we’ve been brought together in this challenge. And the number of people who do that, who cross the line giving a high five or a hug and then shake hands and part, I think it’s beautiful.
"I love that in sport, that connection it allows us make with others. It crosses all countries, all sport. But I don’t think we value that enough.”
DEV AND THE BISHOP: STILL PAYING FOR THEIR SINS
There’s much more Moggan feels we’re missing out when it comes to sport and physical activity.
If he had one wish for sport in Irish life it would be that by Monday morning there would be specialist PE teachers in every primary school in the country.
Moggan was one of the first wave of graduates out of the old Thomond College, eager to spread word of the importance of physical literacy.
And for 20 years he taught PE — in secondary school only. Primary school PE is the norm in virtually every other developed European country. Why’s Ireland different? He traces it all the way back to the drafting of the Constitution in 1937.
“De Valera and [Archbishop] McQuaid were passing over various versions to each other and at one point Article 42 included that the state had a role in the physical development as well as the religious and intellectual and moral development of the child. But in the very last draft then they removed the reference to physical development. And that’s why there’s no PE teachers in primary schools. There’s no expectations on the government to have them in there.”
And so generations of kids have lost out. Too many of them have been unable to swim or take part in any other water sport when they’ve been away on holidays with their family and friends.#
Too many have shied away from sport because they felt incompetent at throwing a ball or running or just staying on their feet. It’s reduced the number of medals Ireland could have won too.
“In other countries they might do an hour of formal as well as informal physical activity every day. Every day! So when they’re 17 and 18 and competing against some of our best who get up there, it’s like the engine of a Ferrari competing with the engine of a Lada. Different models entirely.
“In school if you never have access to learning how to throw a ball or how to run, it’s a big jump to say ‘I’ll go down to the club.’ Whereas if they feel from the formal and informal approach in school ‘God, I can do it!’ they’ll bound down to the local club. That foundation is missing.”
‘I THINK THE FUNDING MODEL IS WRONG’
If Liam Moggan had his way there’d be more money going towards coaching than administration and more of a focus on participation than elite competition.
This country has a proud tradition of athletics and yet it has not a single paid full-time coach.
He looks at UK Sport and how it pours millions into minority sports where GB can medal because fewer countries take part in them, then gives negligible funding to a mass sport like basketball in which GB are hardly going to be Team USA anytime soon but which could save plenty of urban kids from delinquency, it being hard to access rowing and a river in their parts.
Is that UK model really the path we want to follow?
“If you look at Irish sport, there’s very few paid coaches. We have a big number of paid administrators in sport. I’m not making a judgement on how good or bad they are but they have the safety nets of employment law and pensions.
"There’s only about 200 paid coaches in Ireland and when they go to the bank manager they’ll struggle to get a loan because they’re likely at some point to get sacked.
“So we need greater supports for coaches. They need to feel valued and valuable. We need to pay and put in people who are there for coaching. Not doing the administration to set up structures for coaching. Real coaches who can put on their tracksuits and get stuck in a meaningful way.
“At the moment the government bodies are primarily financed by their success at what is called high performance — European, worlds, Olympic standard. And so what you’re really saying is that what’s happening elsewhere really isn’t high performance. But of course it is. What happens with the seven-year-olds in a club, a field, a swimming pool, that’s high performance.
“I think the funding model is wrong. I mean, so what if we win so many gold medals? It’s funding in reverse. If you funded the governing bodies on a trusting basis, where you could see it was about maximising enjoyment and participation and having proper competitive structures, the elite would come out of that and you would get your high performers.
"But at the moment we’re looking to nearly bypass that and the whole thing is you get the high performers, then you’ll get the money.
“My question would be: why should the paid coaches be only working at that level? I think we need to help fund governing bodies to have full-time coaches in secure jobs for the long term who could then be the ones teaming up with the primary-school kids who have had good PE and whose flame of enthusiasm for sport has been aroused.”
COACHING: CHAOS, NOT ORDER; CHARACTERS, NOT AUTOMATONS
The other week Moggan exchanged texts with Brian Kerr. It was the ninth anniversary of Noel O’Reilly’s death, Kerr’s great partner in crime and success and laughter and fun.
O’Reilly would have been tutored by Moggan having gone through the Coaching Ireland system but Moggan will swear he learned much more from O’Reilly.
As his texts with Kerr reaffirmed, everyone could still learn from Noel.
“At Noel’s funeral Brian gave the oration and it was very difficult for him. And I remember he went up to the microphone and said, ‘Give me some slack here. This is tough.
"Give me some rope!’ And then he said, ‘You know, that’s what Noel used to ask him.
"He could have all the grids and cones ready, which the bean-counters and assessors would see as a sign of planning, but he knew that after there could be chaos. There had to be some chaos.”
It took Moggan some time to appreciate that. He started his teaching in Ardscoil Rís whose school field was on the corner of the Malahide Road and Griffith Avenue and overlooked by what felt like half the classrooms in the school and people walking by.
“I wanted it to look so good. I wanted the drills to be good, I wanted the pitches to be the same size, I didn’t want fellas dropping footballs, I didn’t want any pass going astray. But as my daughter Roisín once said to me, ‘It’s not all about you, Daddy!’ And it took me a long time to cop that.
“There needs to be fellas running left, right and centre. There has to be balls going all over the place. It has to have the fella going by on the footpath, ‘Good God, what’s going on in there?’ And then from that chaos, comes a little bit of order.
“For Noel, training sessions weren’t about cones, they were about people. Even before training would start he’d be building up an engagement and relationship with the players. ‘Where you were coming from today, John?’ ‘Where are you going after?’
“Noel was great to slag me about Coaching Ireland words and was a great barometer of crap. If you came to him talking about adult-learning principles he’d blow that out of the water very quickly. Instead he said you could boil coaching down to three words, all with the same four letters — SPOT, STOP and OPTS.
"It started with spotting. Let them play. It wasn’t about ‘I’ve gone to a course and I know this drill and this game.’ He had them playing and look to see who was in form today, who was a bit off, who was left-footed, who liked going through the middle.
“Then there was when to stop the session. You can’t stop a good session 20 times. There’s not going to be chaos and learning that way.
"But there are times when you can stop it, and ask and demonstrate. Noel worked in a school for the blind so a lot of his teaching was tactile. He’d be pushing people around to face different directions and how their body position should be when receiving the ball.
“And then the last bit was OPTS — your options. Allow and encourage the players to make decisions. You saw it at the World Championships there, a pole-vaulter consulting their coach between jumps. If they’re looking to the sideline they should be on the sideline. Let the athlete fix it. Be happy to even leave a training session without a fix being found. The really good lessons take time to learn.”
Moggan wonders though now if coach education would allow for an O’Reilly and his ways and sing-songs.
“The really good coaches have a character. We admire characters, a Brian Cody, a Gerry McEntee. They’re very different but they’re characters. And a lot of our formal coach education can knock the magic out of people.
"We’ve brought in procedures that the person who gets the job must have this licence or this level of coaching. And on that course they must have done it this way. It sort of gives the message, ‘Not here. You’re okay but here you have to be different [from your true self].’
So people start to think, ‘Well, this is what the tutor wants me to do, I’ll get approval by a nod or a certificate by doing it this way so I’ll do it that way.’
“The ability to help someone to think for themselves and to learn for themselves sounds great but you might not think at the end of it all how I want you to think.
"Sure, it’s none of my business what you think! Character is best when it’s released, in a measured way. We tend to bring it back to the other polar end, ‘Well, we’ll let you know much you can be released.’ Let them off!
“And let the market rule. You won’t get a job because you have a top-grade licence; you’ll get a job because you’re good at what you do.”
It’s why Moggan will still be in demand even after retiring from the day job. This month the world’s equestrian governing body has him up for an award for coaching.
The great Italian soccer coach Arrigo Sacchi once said about his lack of playing experience, “I never realised that to be a jockey you had to be a horse first.”
Well, Moggan could go one better.
He’s never even been on a horse and yet he’s one of only four people up for that coaching award where the winner will be honoured at a gala in Montevideo next month. He coaches the coaches to help the rider ride the horse.
He sees plenty of other challenges and possibilities for Irish sport. He loves the GAA and its sense of community but he wonders is it missing a beat when it comes to social sport.
There’s tag rugby, Masters basketball with men and women playing into their fifties, even sixties.
Why isn’t there more seven-a-side Gaelic for fortysomethings like there’s five-a-side soccer?
Wouldn’t seven-a-side inter-firm hurling keep the game alive for so many more people than the standard 15-a-side?
To cater that bit more forThe Lost Souls andPoor Créatúrs , that is to have succeeded.
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