Des Golden is talking about what it’s like to share a gym with tennis icon Rafa Nadal when you call a halt.
How did a Mallow native end up teaching in Nadal’s tennis academy in the first place?
Golden’s background is GAA: “Hurling, football with Mallow — I played with the Cork minor footballers one year, Tom Kenny was on the team.
“Teddy Holland coached us, Diarmuid O’Donovan and Christy Collins were involved. When I went to college I became a PE teacher.”
After spells teaching in Wesley College in Dublin and Gaelcholáiste Mhuire in Cork, Golden took a career break and ended up in Colombia, where he met his wife.
“I was teaching a bit of English out there, and she moved her startup to Majorca, and then she said ‘get a job in Majorca’.
“And so I reached out to Rafa’s academy, who was newish at the time, and I got signed up by those guys.”
In mentoring the kids in the Rafa Nadal Academy (“I wasn’t a tennis coach, it was more about teaching the kids to deal with the pressure they were under”), Golden came to appreciate just how competitive the environment was for the aspiring tennis professionals.
“The kids were under severe pressure between the pressure from their parents, the pressure from the coaches down there, and pressure and competition amongst themselves.
“It’s a tough slog. It’s every day… the intensity of tennis is just incredible. There were a lot of lower-level tournaments in the academy and I’ve never seen so many sportspeople freak out in my life because it’s such a slog.
“Even in football and hurling and rugby, there’s a break in the play, where you can chat in the corner and it’s grand. But tennis, there’s no relaxing. The ball is coming at you, coming at you, coming at you.
“It’s very technical, and any kind of psychological change will affect co-ordination and next thing, your game is destroyed for the day. So they’re trying to deal with massive frustration and the intensity of the game.
“Then there’s early specialisation on top of that, which is a kinda controversial topic.”
The ongoing debate about early specialisation is relevant to tennis, given Roger Federer — who didn’t specialise in tennis until his teens — is often compared to Tiger Woods’ single-minded focus on golf as the best-known examples of the two approaches.
“I’d be more of the Federer camp,” says Golden.
“There’s something kind of unnatural about a young boy or girl leathering a tennis ball for hours and hours every day. One side is that they develop imbalance in their bodies.
“I think socialisation is
important, and to play the different games, and learn the fundamental skills, I’m a big believer in that. In some sports, you need that early specialisation, and tennis maybe a bit earlier than others, maybe, but not from the age of 12.
“Of course some kids love it, and they’re able to do it, and they’re able to drive on, but, from my observations, it’s trying to impose the Woods approach onto mortals, if that makes sense.”
Talk about Nadal, then. What sets someone like him apart?
“In his case, I think he’s got the physicality — look at his uncle who played for Barcelona. Rafa himself and his uncle Tony, and his father, they’re horses of men. Rafa is taller than you’d think, for
“So, they’ve got the physical attributes, number one, and number two, on top of that, they’ve got this kind of brutishness about them, they’re hardcore, tough as nails, that attitude.
“He’s got a technical ability of course, and a flair with it, though he mightn’t be as good as Federer or Djokovic, which most people recognise that.
“But of the top three or so he probably has the best capacity mentally, and it’s helped him. His surface is clay, and why? Because clay is a slower game, and it’s more of a slog of a fight, and of course that’s going to suit him with his
“So in his case he’s got the physical attributes, and then he’s got this amazing kind of attitude as well. Jimmy Connor had a great line about Rafa. He said, ‘He plays like he’s broke, man.’
“And it’s true, and you’d think, ‘Jesus, if this guy loses he’ll be distraught,’ but he’s able to emerge out of defeat very quickly as well, which is interesting.”
If you go into the gym and he’s there working out, is it a matter of clearing out to let him work?
“No, in the gym he’d be quite relaxed in that sense. The physio arrives first into the gym and sets up the gym for Rafa, and then he comes in to work — but he shares it with the other people, he wouldn’t have people leave so he can be on his own. He’s a good guy that way.
“He doesn’t train in the gym with the intensity he plays with, though. He’s very much about maintenance — maintaining fitness and avoiding chronic injuries.
“Having said that, the room changes or the atmosphere changes when he comes in. I often say if a martian came down and you put a group of people in front of them and Rafa was there, they’d say, ‘There’s something different about that guy.’”
Given he spent a couple of years in Nadal’s company, presumably Golden went out onto the courts a couple of times to knock the ball around with the Spaniard?
“No, no, I wouldn’t be able to handle it, no. They do it, they bring out the young fellas now and then to hit around with him, and there’d often be tennis professionals around — they’d always be bringing people in to practice with him, but me, no. I wouldn’t do it with him.”
Golden’s moved out of working in sport directly.
“I’m mentoring doctors, lawyers, business owners — people who are just very, very busy. They take time out to use me as a sounding board, like a partner, to strategise and just get a bit of clarity about where they’re going, where they need to put their energy.
“So I’m taking a lot of what I’ve learned in education, sport, you know, helping people to get from A to B.
“That applies to sport as well: You’d ask in some contexts, who’s coaching the coach? The coaches of big teams, who are they talking to and getting clarity from about how they’re going to run the season? It’s a big, big area now that’s going to come into focus.”