PADDY HEANEY: Winning isn’t just about hard work: It’s in the genes

Kieran McGeeney can make men tick.

Intelligent, challenging and persuasive, the qualities which underpin his leadership style are evident when he speaks freely.

When McGeeney gives an interview (which isn’t often these days), and when he chooses to reveal what’s going on inside that head, he never fails to engage.

Last week, he was in vintage form. In Croke Park for a press conference to launch the Asian Games, McGeeney was quizzed about the specifics of his role with Tipperary. Naturally, he refused to divulge any details. But when questioned about the broader scope of his work with Tipp, McGeeney gave a fascinating insight into the values which form the bedrock of his management philosophy.

A man with a deep love for the rhetorical question, he started his response by saying: “What is it in a particular situation? Because it is never the fastest, the strongest or the brightest that make it. There’s something different there.

“You talk about natural talent but when you read about it there is no such thing. No matter how much science has tried to draw our physical attributes as hereditary.

“In terms of developing particular skills for a sport there doesn’t seem to be any gene that leads to that. How someone is raised, their surroundings and environment seems to have a bigger impact on that.”

No doubt, McGeeney has been deeply influenced by personal experience. Anyone who has graduated through the ranks of club, college and university football can testify that talent alone does not suffice. Every club in Ireland has a story to tell about the outrageously gifted underage star who never played senior football.

As a voracious reader, it can also be assumed that McGeeney has dipped into the recent raft of books which espouse the theory that the secret to success in sport is hard work. To be more specific, the authors contest that it’s about nurture rather than nature.

It began with Malcolm Gladwell’s best-seller, The Outliers. Gladwell drew on the work of Anders Ericsson, a psychologist who claimed that expertise in any field can be attained with 10,000 hours’ practice.

Gladwell grabbed the “10,000-hour rule” and ran with it. His book opened a debate which has spawned a slew of publications on the subject. Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice (Matthew Syed), Talent is Overrated (Geoff Colvin) and The Talent Code: Greatness isn’t Born: It’s Grown (Daniel Coyle) all reached the same conclusions.

Maybe it’s my Catholic upbringing (an altar boy for two years — and never got a wedding), but I have an innate opposition to this type of po-faced Calvinist doctrine. All this emphasis on work, work, work — I have a natural aversion to it. I prefer to believe, however, that as someone who has always loved sport, I just have a profound respect for raw, untapped talent.

Gladwell et al might claim that genetic advantages don’t exist. I disagree. So does David Epstein, the author of The Sports Gene: Inside the Talent of Extraordinary Athletic Performance.

Epstein certainly doesn’t dismiss the importance of environment and training. But he doesn’t ignore the pieces in the jigsaw puzzle which make us what we are — genes. The Sports Illustrated journalist challenges the 10,000 hour rule. If genes don’t matter, and it’s simply a question of clocking up the hours, Epstein asks “why do we separate men and women in athletic competition?”

Epstein even disputes the notion that personal traits like heart, spirit and persistence are a matter of individual choice. The underlying assumption is that every person is capable of summoning the same level of willpower.

Epstein travelled to Alaska and studied the huskies that take part in the world’s toughest sled race. The dogs might look, run and weigh the same. But in a race where the huskies’ drive and desire is considered the decisive factor, the owners believed these crucial components are governed by genetics.

It’s tempting to believe we’re all essentially the same. It’s a very democratic ideal. If exposed to the correct environment, and with proper application, we can all be Henry Shefflin or Colm Cooper. Really? I’m not a scientist, but it’s not difficult to provide examples which prove that even hard work has its limitations.

McGeeney only has to look at his team-mates who won the All-Ireland title in 2002.

How would Malcolm Gladwell explain the distinct contrast in playing style between John and Tony McEntee?

Identical twins who went to the same club, the same schools, and who were exposed to the same training regimes and coaches — the McEntees were appreciably different footballers.

For starters, John was left-footed and Tony was right-footed. Moreover, John’s left foot was a lot more reliable than Tony’s right. Are we to believe that Tony wasn’t as accurate as his twin brother because he didn’t train as often? No chance.

One of the oldest truisms in the GAA is that success is cyclical. A club can have the best coaching structures in the planet, but if the raw material isn’t available, there will be no trophies.

Some years the maternity ward is very kind to the club. And some years it isn’t.

About 22 years ago, Omagh hit the jackpot.

A collection of lads born at the start of the ’90s won every underage championship that was on offer. They didn’t just win each title once, they won it twice. The star of those teams was Ronan O’Neill.

In 2012, when Omagh won the Ulster club U21 championship, O’Neill landed the winning point.

On Sunday, when his senior team trailed by a point at the end of normal time, O’Neill slammed home the goal which secured Omagh’s first county title in 26 years.

Omagh had 50 players at their training sessions. The squad was packed with honest, hard-working lads. But as manager Lawrence Strain said: “There was only one man you wanted to have the ball in that position at that stage of the game.”

Yes, endeavour is the foundation of all championship success, but sometimes victory requires the gloss finish of an artist.

For Armagh, it was Oisín McConville. For Omagh, it was Ronan O’Neill. And these players are born. They are not manufactured. When ‘the fastest, the strongest and the brightest’ apply themselves — they do make it. Kieran McGeeney is correct when he asserts that scientists have yet to identify a sports gene. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. They just haven’t found it yet.


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