GAA Football

That's where the learning is, it's out of your comfort zone - Gary Keegan

Gary Keegan on stage in Belfast as part of the NI Chamber and Electric Ireland’s 'Growing Something Brilliant' leadership series.
Pic: Kelvin Boyes

That’s where the learning is, it’s out of your comfort zone.

If one sentence could sum up Gary Keegan’s philosophy it would be those words above; perhaps just the last five.

Success in sport, in life, is rarely easy, usually involving extremely hard work.

For the man who helped transform Irish boxing, and is currently involved with the best teams in Gaelic football and hurling – Dublin and Tipperary – there’s no secret formula to winning silverware or precious medals.

Key ingredients in the required alchemical mix are buckets of sweat and lactic acid. If those are produced in clean, modern surroundings, all the better.

The first five words in that phrase above matter too, of course.

Effort has to be combined with a clear direction, a purpose.

Everything that we were doing was trying to feed the mind-set, trying to feed the self-belief within the athletes and the belief in what was around in terms of the environment.

Lack of ambition

When Keegan first became involved in Irish boxing at national level, he discerned that the focus of most boxers was on domestic achievement, no longer on the international stage.

As he put it, “it looked like we were going to fall off the international map.”

There was no system in place, little hope, no dream – no vision.

“The knowledge was easy, learning how to punch better, be more powerful, be more effective in the ring.

“The hard part was connecting people emotionally with something that was much bigger than where we were at that time.”

The vision they set out was ambitious: ‘To consistently stand on world podiums’.

“World class was our purpose - whatever role you perform you have to be world class at it."

Sports psychology

Keegan says he was “always interested” in the mental aspect of coaching: “That was the question I was always asking the national guys, ‘How do you deal with the psychological side of performance?’, because I was very comfortable with the physical, the technical, the tactical ends.

“I felt I had my athletes very well-prepared, but often I felt some of my athletes were falling below the performance levels due to their own capacity mentally to manage the pressure.

“When I stepped into high performance, I dove deep into it.

“In many ways it was about getting the ambition out there, front and centre – we had to have a personal vision for ourselves, so therefore we had to build our capacity mentally in order to be able to handle that growth and that exposure to those higher levels of competition and success. Mindset is huge, huge for us.”

Obstacles to be overcome included “the opposition within – we were in our own way.”

Among the ‘limiting beliefs’ voiced were that Ireland was ‘too small’, that ‘others have bigger talent pools’, that ambitious targets should not be publicised.

The boxers themselves had to break from their routines too.

Changes to the routine

Certain changes seem obvious now, but sparring always used to take place at the end of training sessions, when boxers were tired.

The new men in charge of Irish boxing moved it to straight after the warm-up, when boxers were sharp. Hydration was resisted because water meant ‘weight’.

Although Ireland would in time be labelled ‘the Cuba of Europe’, they actually modelled themselves on Russia. One reason for that choice? “The Cubans box like they dance, with flair. The Russians boxed clean and simple – we could copy that.” Among other aspects…

Keegan even engaged in what was tantamount to sporting espionage, sweet talking his way to getting performance date from leading Russian boxers

“We were using heart rate monitors in training, taking blood for testing in between rounds. Testing heart rate before bouts, heart rate when asleep – was broken sleep causing under-performance?

“The Russian head coach asked us what we were doing. I offered to test some of the Russian boxers.

“We gave him a Powerpoint presentation, gave him a CD – and retained the data on the best team in the world…I remember leaving Moscow Airport thinking someone was going to tap me on the shoulder and take it away.”

Learning lessons

Getting onto world podiums involved a journey, of course – out of the comfort zone, learning lessons along the way. For everyone.

“We had a sense that everyone was an apprentice. OK, you might have a qualification as a psychologist or as a strength and conditioning coach but you’re an apprentice in the world of boxing and you’ve got to walk the journey and learn our context and understand what our needs are.

“We shape our practice on the basis of what we’re dealing with, right? That was what was asked of everybody, where they were a doctor or a manager or a coach or an athlete.

“I think that served us very well on the programme because we managed a change at psychology level and also kept everyone else on board. This desire for personal development of everyone on the team was critical.

“The athlete wasn’t at the centre of the approach, the performance was – and the athlete was a partner in the journey.”

Keegan’s own journey took him to become Director of the Irish Institute of Sport in 2006, a role he held for eight years.

“When I left the Institute I was going to leave sport behind, to give myself a little bit of time to reflect and, I guess, absorb the learning – What was it? What have I actually learned? Has there been any wisdom coming out of this? But I got myself pulled into sport very quickly; I suppose that was natural enough.”

GAA involvement

His initial involvement in the GAA was in hurling - not Cork, nor Tipp, but his native Dublin, advising Anthony Daly and his hurling management in 2013 en route to winning their first Leinster SHC since 1961, with victories over Wexford, Kilkenny, and Galway.

That input probably played a part in a call the following year from Dublin football boss, Jim Gavin.

Even though Keegan’s time in the Army had involved a secondment to Baldonnel, home of the Air Corp, there was no history with Gavin: “No, I hadn’t met him and I hadn’t worked with the GAA prior to Dublin.

“I was Director of the Institute of Sport at the time, so I didn’t have a lot of capacity to be doing too much outside – we had around 14 Olympic sports and eight or nine Paralympic sports, so we had plenty of athletes to look after. So even though my support was the indirect leadership, I had some interface with athletes and coaches as well.

“I met Jim after 2014, we had a conversation around his philosophy and what he was trying to do with Dublin and I just, accidentally, found myself in front of the group talking about my own journey and the journeys of the teams I had worked with, and some of own philosophy around culture, mindset, and mental performance.

I was asked to come in and support the group, join the group, and I thought, ‘Why not?’”

That timing is crucial. 2014 brought a devastating defeat for a Dublin team being billed as ‘invincible’, conceding 3-14 to Donegal in the All-Ireland SFC semi-final.

Since then, they haven’t lost a single Championship match, winning 34 and drawing just three.

Leadership and discipline

Keegan insists the tone is set by Gavin: “One of the things that really attracted me was Jim, who he was and what he stood for. I also saw it as an opportunity for me to learn from him, in that environment and hopefully make a contribution.

“I never intended – I thought it would be one season, a couple of games in fact, and I found myself with the group for the five seasons leading into this year.

“I’m a full member of the backroom team, so I’m in and out of training, both group and individual work.”

His current business project is ‘Uppercut’, where “I work with senior leadership teams, I coach senior executives, about ‘team’ and how to be a really good team at that level. That’s my main focus now.”

Just about, though; his sport-work balancing act continues: “About 40 per cent of my business currently is sport and the rest is business.”

The motto of ‘Uppercut’ is ‘Always achieving better’, another way of portraying Keegan’s message about seeking constant improvement.

Leadership is not something he would claim to have taught Gavin, who embodies ‘discipline’ as a key element, says Keegan: “It’s not a difficult principle for people to consider to be important. Discipline is really important: self-discipline, unit discipline, team discipline, are all really, really important.

“It’s not one that should surprise us, but it needs a leader to live it themselves.

“Often when you see really good teams it’s because you of leaders upholding the values themselves and others aspiring to uphold them also. Jim Gavin upholds discipline in himself and through that people want to gravitate towards that.”

Dealing with pressure

Dublin made history this year by achieving an unprecedented ‘five-in-a-row’ of All-Ireland senior successes.

Keegan accepts that the mental pressure of scaling those heights may have been a factor in their drawn final with Kerry before winning the replay:

“It weighs heavily on everybody. It’s not a factor you can ignore. If you try to ignore it and put it under the carpet, it’s going to trip you up.

“You’ve got to bring that stuff into the room and people have got to learn to breathe in, accept it, embrace it – but it is a challenge.

“No one had done five in a row before, so you couldn’t turn to anyone and ask ‘What do we do next?’ That’s where the learning is, it’s out of your comfort zone.

“It’s an opportunity to grow and become better, as a group, as an individual. It’s not just about players, it’s about anyone who’s in that management and backroom team. Everybody has to bring something that’s going to add a new level of value to the context of what we face.”

While Keegan downplays Dublin’s dominance, the worry for the rest of Gaelic football is that he is sure they want more success:

“I think people get carried away with Dublin, to be honest. Look at the margins of victory over the past five seasons – teams are a lot closer than they might think.

“Dublin’s challenge is always to themselves, that they can find a growth, that they can find a new learning, that they can stay motivated, that they still apply themselves fully and acquit themselves fully. The challenge is always kind of the outside world trying to bleed in on top of that.

“Anyone who has been in those spaces, it’s a very difficult space to be in and to try to keep yourself front and centre and have the hunger to want to go back again and keep growing within it.

“Probably the biggest challenge will be the group itself, that they still remain hungry - but they’re a phenomenally grounded group of men and I’ve no doubt that they will attempt to continue to do that. I think it’s the most major factor.”

GAA development

Keegan’s insights have also been sought by the GAA’s Central Council, for whom he prepared a report into its game development policies and processes last year.

As an expert on senior leadership within organisations, he asserts that those at the top of the GAA are doing a fine job:

“The GAA is a very unique organisation – I’ve never seen the likes of it in any organisation I’ve worked in, but I’ve enjoyed my immersion in it over the short time that I’ve been there.

“When we look across the GAA community, the success we see in that space is coming from leadership, it’s coming from strategic thinkers who are seeing what the game needs to be in the future, how the game needs to evolve, and what type of infrastructure, expertise, and support we need at club level and inter-county level, etc.

“What attracts me to Dublin is that leadership, that sense that people have an ambition, people are willing to put the work in, roll their sleeves up. A lot of people who are putting the work in are volunteers.

“They are professionals in their real lives, they run big businesses, they run big organisations, but they’re on the ground, they’re at club level training an U12s team or whatever, and they’re giving their all to do their best for the GAA.”

One major criticism of Croke Park in recent years is its increasing commercialisation, a perceived focus on money-making.

Keegan is confident that the GAA’s top brass are taking the Association in the right direction:

“It doesn’t concern me. I’m not a GAA person per se, but I can understand why some GAA people would feel that way.

“I think we need to use the resources that we have to effect growth and effect change. The GAA is changing, its demographic is shifting, population is moving.

“There’s a big challenge for the GAA within that space but I think they have the leadership to figure that out. They’re very community-focussed, they’re very family-focussed, they’re very much keeping everybody within that circle. I’m pretty sure they’ll do the right thing.”

Public demands

Besides, Keegan points out that the paying public drive change too: “The demands on performance are increasing. Nobody wants performance to go backwards.

“The people who turn up to see the game played at the highest level are expecting more and more from players. It’s very hard to wind that back.

“High performance in the GAA is no different to high performance anywhere else: it generally costs money, it doesn’t make money.

“So as people crave new standards, and athletes and players become more aware of other opportunities to play other sports at higher levels, the GAA needs to remain attractive.

“The GAA has the country’s best athletic talent within its organisation – most sporting organisations would recognise that that’s the case. They are the stronghold of Ireland’s athletic talent.”

Keegan concurs with the GAA’s oft-expressed concerns about that lure of other sports, competing for attention in Dublin and other cities:

“The big challenge for the GAA is to hold on to what they have. The big challenge for other organisations is to make themselves attractive to that community.

“That’s something we’re going to experience over the next decade. Sporting organisations are going to become more sophisticated in how they attract talent from other team sports.

“GAA is so attractive, so they will come under some scrutiny from other organisations. Rugby Sevens, for example, it’s attractive to have some GAA players, especially female – and Rugby Sevens is an attractive game for young kids at school level.”

One last lesson

A final lesson from Gary Keegan (for now)?

After the 2012 Olympics, a video was produced celebrating the achievements of Ireland’s boxers, especially medal-winners Katie Taylor, John Joe Nevin, Paddy Barnes, and Michael Conlan.

It concluded with this message, looking ahead to Rio 2016: ‘More of the same…’

The Irish boxers returned home empty-handed from Brazil. What Keegan learned was never to rest on laurels, never to get comfortable with the idea of success.

Dublin, Tipperary, and Irish cricket are among those reaping the rewards from his thinking, his learning.

The journey continues – out of the comfort zone and onto the winners’ podiums.

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