Ken Robinson: From kickarounds with Def Leppard to developing Dublin football

From playing soccer with Def Leppard to rugby under Joe Schmidt, Ken Robinson enjoyed an eclectic sporting education. And now he is transferring his skills to developing a new generation of young Irish sporting talents in the capital.

Ken Robinson: From kickarounds with Def Leppard to developing Dublin football

To a generation of serial All-Ireland winning Dublin footballers and many others involved in Irish third-level sport, he’s Mr DCU Sport, but the rest of the nation has come to know Ken Robinson as that zany bald guy from Blue Sisters.

Just as Raymond Babbitt could list off every aviation disaster, Pat Comer’s documentary highlighted Robinson’s astonishing, show-stealing capacity to rattle off the exact dimensions of any GAA pitch the Dublin ladies footballers set foot on.

How did he develop it? Sure, it’s the easiest thing in the world to do, he smiles. When he’s setting up the cones for the warm-up in his role as team trainer, he just walks half the length of the pitch, then walks halfway across — hey, if you can multiply by two, why go the whole way? — and there you have it. And anyway, his brain is just trained to think that way, from the day job as chief executive of DCU Sport.

“I walked into a room yesterday with a company I’m doing some work for and I said ‘This is a 600 square foot room.’ The woman looked at me but I walked it out and that’s exactly what it was.

“Probably from being in the gym and facilities business all my life, I know square footage. Like, I know we’ve got a 1,000 square foot aerobic studio [in DCU]. I know we’ve got an 800-square foot spinning studio.”

And, in no small part to his visionary work in transforming the college’s grounds into one of the most impressive training centres in the country, he can tell you each of the three GAA pitches in DCU are 144 ½ metres x 88 — the same dimensions as Croke Park.

“I always remember standing on the goalline in Semple Stadium with Ballymun [ahead of their 2013 All-Ireland semi-final upset of Dr Crokes] and thinking, ‘Wow, this is impressive!’ Because people always say, ‘Oh, Croke Park is a much bigger pitch than anywhere else.’ No, it’s not. Thurles is the same length as Croke Park. Abbotstown is the same size as Croke Park. And the three pitches in DCU are the same size as Croke Park!”

For Robinson though that was part of the charm of Dublin’s journey to last year’s All-Ireland title — the variety of grounds and pitches they came across along the way. Each had their own coordinates, charms, and challenges.

Something he picked up from his time training the Ballymun lads was to frame everything in the positive, in keeping with his own sunny personality. When they saw just how big a pitch Thurles was on a reccie a week out from that semi-final against Crokes, Curran rubbed his hands: Lads, this is perfect for a team as mobile and as fit as us! Then whenever they found themselves on a tight, small pitch Curran’s tone didn’t deviate: Lads, this is ideal for a team as gritty and physical as us!

Under Robinson and team manager Mick Bohan, the Dublin ladies were similarly able to have it both ways. The writer Christy O’Connor recently identified the 2013 All-Ireland final clash of Ballymun and one-point victors St Brigid’s as a watershed in the club game, the pace, running power, strength and endurance of the two sides being “on a different level to anything seen at that level”.

Under Robinson’s expertise, the Dublin ladies have likewise made a quantum leap in their conditioning.

Robinson credits the previous management of Greg McGonigle as doing “an excellent job” in making Dublin so competitive again during his tenure, bringing a county that had gone three years without reaching even an All-Ireland semi-final to three consecutive All-Ireland finals, but he and Bohan quickly realised just how much gains needed to be made in their skill and fitness levels.

For sustained success and for the overall development of each player, the gym couldn’t be an optional or seasonal activity. And as they’d educate the players and their clubs, it didn’t have to be a torture chamber either.

Last week Bohan and Robinson invited every club manager in the county to a meeting — where else, but DCU? — where they all sat down together and, with some of the county players present, went through the logic and science behind the players’ training and club championship schedule for the weeks and months ahead. Club versus county? In Dublin ladies football, they’d like to think it’s club and county, so they’ve come up with a system that complements both.

After tomorrow’s national league final against Mayo, the players return to the clubs. Next Friday, they’ll play club championship and then every Wednesday for the rest of the month. So Mondays will be with the club, nothing heavy, just working on sharpness, shape, tactics. Wednesdays: Club championship. Fridays, a debriefing and a light session with the club.

Sunday mornings then will be gym and light skills with the county out in DCU, all with a view of being ready for their July 1 Leinster championship clash against Westmeath while simultaneously complementing their activity with the club.

“It’s management. Ultimately, we want it to work for the player — because that’s who it’s all about. I’ve lectured rugby players in UCD [on the sports management degree] and it’s all managed — club, school, college, academy, province, Ireland. In the GAA you can have dual players out every night between club, school and county, and the burnout is massive because it’s not managed.

“I coach the minors [ladies football] in the club [Lucan Sarsfields] and last Monday we had a club game when one of our players had played the Leinster final on the Sunday. We didn’t start her. With 15 minutes to go, we asked her, ‘Do you want to go on?’ She said, ‘Yeah, I feel good, I want to go on.’ ‘Okay, off you go.’ Now, we lost the game but you know what, it’s about development. Someone else got to start instead of her while she didn’t get flogged.

“At the meeting with the clubs we had a slide: ‘We look after the recovery and regeneration of the player.’ That is critical. When people talk about players going to the gym ‘Oh God, the poor things, they have to go the gym!’, what they don’t understand is that the gym is the oasis in the desert to get recuperation [after a match]. If they played a game the day before, you’re not going to get into dynamic power plyometric work, you’ll deload.”

Robinson is living proof of the transformational benefits the gym can offer. A son of Fairview, he moved to Mullingar with his parents at the start of secondary school where he played football and rugby throughout his teens yet still found himself considerably overweight. In the rugby he was a 15 stone loosehead prop while whenever he wore his beloved Dublin jersey at Gaelic training invariably there were unflattering comparisons to Jimmy Keaveney. After leaving school he joined a gym on Abbey Street and within six months he lost three and a half stone.

For Robinson it was a Road to Damascus moment and within a year he was spreading the word himself, working in City Gym. By the end of the ‘80s he was managing their Donnybrook branch. He’d quite an “eclectic mix of clients”. Not only did your average Joe Soap work out there, so did Joe Elliott, the frontman of Def Leppard, one of the world’s biggest acts at the time.

Robinson had already some experience of how the gym and rock ‘n’ roll worlds could collide and combine. His trainer in Abbey Street had been Tony McGuinness, the bass player with a band called Aslan who at the time had just cut a certain track titled This Is.

City Gym meanwhile was coming down with rock stars, availing of Ireland’s generous tax breaks for artists. There was Elliott, guitarist Phil Collen and bass player Rick Savage, all of Def, and then the lads from Spandau Ballet.

“I saw Def three years ago on the TV and Phil Collen was looking great; he always looked after himself, Phil did, as did Rick Savage. We ended up playing football with these guys, fielded a team in a local league and everything.

“John Keeble, the drummer from Spandau, was in goals. Super goalkeeper, John.

“I was right full. Left full was a local guy called Ken Conlon. At centre-half, another gym member called Tony McCarthy. Then in midfield you had Martin Kemp who had trials with Arsenal. He was a huge Arsenal supporter, as was John Keeble. Steve Norman, the saxophonist, was a Spurs fan. Joe Elliott then played top of the left, while Rick Savage played as a 10; Rick was a very good player.”

Tony Hadley and Gary Kemp sat the football out, but sometimes they’d go along to watch, while one night they brought a special friend along as well. There on the touchline of Herbert Park, cheering Robinson and the rest of Def Ballet/Spandau Leppard on, was the owner of Watford Football Club, one Elton John. How more rock’ n’ roll can you get than that?

Only a short while after that, Robinson would encounter another exceptional performer on the international stage, even if this particular individual was then operating a good bit further off Broadway than those stars. A young English teacher from New Zealand by the name of Joe Schmidt was spending his year overseas in Mullingar where Robinson was still making his way back to play for the local rugby team, allowing him the honour of being one of Coach Schmidt’s first guinea pigs.

“Right away you could tell Joe Schmidt was going to be a magnificent coach. First, he had a smile for everyone. Second, he knew everyone’s name, even if he tended to call me ‘Kin’. And he was brilliant at communicating. He would encourage you even when you weren’t one of the rock stars. ‘Great hands, Kin!’ ‘Great decision, Kin!’ Then on the quiet he might say, ‘Look, try this next time.’

“He’d do the encouragement loud and then give the feedback on the quiet.”

Their paths have crossed a few times in recent years. One night Schmidt was giving a presentation in Carton House and an old team-mate from the Mullingar team of ’91-92 raised his hand. “Joe, what would you do with a player who was talented but an energy sapper?”

And with his customary blend of humour and wisdom, Schmidt answered, “Well, I haven’t worked with too many players of them, Kin, apart from yourself! But I’d squeeze the juice and if they were still bitter at the end, I’d get rid of them.”

Robinson himself likes to communicate and work along Schmidt’s lines. Early on in his work as a fitness instructor and facilities’ manager he learned the importance of smile, name, and listen. Smile — even at the counter; a lot of people can be daunted entering a gym. Name — use it, every chance you get, because it makes that person feel all the more welcome and uninhibited. And then listen, because if you do, you’ll find out why they’re not getting the results they want — and in turn, the solutions to how they will.

A little while after his 30th birthday though Robinson realised he needed more than the smile-name-listen formula to advance, and had to listen instead to his wife, Mary. After a couple of enjoyable years as the assistant county club director of the old Kilternan Sports Hotel, he was sounded out about going for the general manager’s job of the ESB Sportsco in Ringsend. As he struggled filling out his application, Mary baldly told him what some of the blank spots in his CV were implying: You’re weak on paper.

“Of course, being a male, my ego lashed out. ‘What?!’ But she was right. ‘You have no degree, just two [fitness] certs. You need to educate yourself more.’ And lo and behold in the ESB head office in Fitzwilliam Street in the top boardroom, a wonderful gentleman, the late Ed Harding said in the interview, ‘You’re weak on paper!’ I’d to look around to see if my wife was in the room! But I suppose because of what she’d said, I was ready, so I said, ‘Yeah, academically I’m weak, but if I’ve 11 years’ experience of sport and people and managing facilities and if you pay me for my degree, I’ll have it in three years – and then I won’t be weak on paper!’”

Robinson got the job, and three years later, he had got his business degree as well from the Irish Management Institute.

A year after enrolling in the IMI, he was lecturing in sports management out in UCD on the invite of the late great Dr Tony O’Neill; nearly 20 years on and he’s still teaching there. When he agreed in late 2004 to take up the newly-created position of DCU Sport chief executive, it was on the proviso he could undertake the college’s MBA programme. Next weekend he’ll submit a 6,000 word dissertation to complete his Masters in Strength and Conditioning from St Mary’s College, Twickenham.

In September he starts a PhD in education in St Patrick’s College. Not a bad for a guy who managed only the one honour in the Leaving Cert and went his whole 20s without darkening the door of a third-level institution.

By being humble enough to transform himself, he’s been emboldened enough to transform the DCU sports infrastructure into one of the most impressive in the country. Robinson is a great friend and admirer of UL’s Dave Mahedy, the trailblazer and standard-setter, he maintains, in the development of third-level facilities in this country, but if UL has the best hall in Ireland, Robinson would like to think DCU has the best student gym in Ireland. The fading old hockey pitch was turned into a giant 3G astro pitch. The dressing rooms, lights, are all state of the art but again he’d like to think the 43-member staff and culture supersedes all.

He’s as proud that Dr Noel McCaffrey’s and Catherine Woods’ medical wellness programme, inspired by the work and life of the late Marian Fenton, mother of All-Star Brian, as he is of any of their high-performance programmes; every week over 700 people from the public with cardiac, pulmonary, vascular, and diabetic issues are greeted with a smile at the reception desk and undergo workouts like HeartSmart, BreatheSmart, SmartSteps, and Move On, underlining that Sport For All isn’t just some slogan.

Under Robinson’s leadership, the college strategically chose several focal sports. The college has made huge strides in athletics, though a running track is badly needed. By linking up with Mark Ingle and Mercy, DCU have been a stronghold in women’s basketball for over a decade. The college has also been a hub for the country’s leading tennis players though he can see golf overtaking it as a focal sport. The big one though is GAA.

Only weeks after Robinson assumed his job with the college, Paul Caffrey assumed his position as Dublin manager, and along with Paul Clarke, a partnership between the college and the county team was formed. It was strengthened all the further in Pat Gilroy’s time when they built ‘The Bunker’, an exclusive hideaway from May to September that Jim Gavin still uses today.

Personally speaking as a Dub, he’d love if the county board roll out a centre of excellence in Spawell, a fantastic location he feels and a fitting legacy of the county’s current success, but in the meantime DCU will continue to do its best, for the best.

“The players are putting themselves through so much having come from work, it’s nice to have an environment that’s good.

“I remember Stephen Cluxton saying to me when I did an audit with the players asking what they wanted in the facilities, ‘Ken, just get us warm showers that work.’ Talk about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. ‘Get us showers that work and are warm.’ The girls now after training are fed, they have their protein. You’ve got to create that environment.’”

Under Bohan he certainly feels the ladies have as good a coach — as well as a brilliant and underrated manager — as there is in football. Robinson considers himself blessed to have teamed up with some great coaches in his time as a trainer, from Aidan Kidney, brother of Declan, with Glennane hockey, to Curran with Ballymun and Ross Munnelly with the DCU freshers, but he shares an especially close bond with Bohan, whom he also worked with at the start of the decade out in Lucan Sarsfields.

Robinson lost his own father Frank 30 years ago this month, but one of his keenest losses in life was the passing of Bohan’s own father, Mick Snr who used to be a regular client of the college gym.

“He was a lot like Mick himself — an absolute gentleman. I have his mass card on my desk. He’s buried down in Liscannor, upon his specific request, because he wanted to be washed twice a day — when the tide comes in and the tide comes out!”

In that way, Bohan Snr was like Robinson — precise in his co-ordinates.

Tomorrow, ahead of the clash with Mayo, coached by his old Mullingar rugby colleague Peter Leahy, Robinson will again set up the cones for Bohan Junior and their special group of players, though, no, he won’t have to measure the pitch.

Before you ask, he already knows. Parnell Park is 134 x 82.

Just perfect!

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