Former Waterford hurling manager, Derek McGrath, talks about his inspiration for management in GAA, taking a break and what happens next.
I love musical theatre. Absolutely love it. I’ve been to see Billy Elliot four times, Kinky Boots maybe five times, Miss Saigon, Les Mis, I’ve seen them all. I’m inspired by the drama, the colour, the sounds and stories, the sheer emotion of it all. As mad as it might sound to some people, it’s the same with hurling.
”Hurling is drama. And it’s played out in some of the greatest theatres of them all.
I just find myself obsessed with the game. I have often battled with that obsessive personality. But other times I comfort myself with the fact that maybe I’m a person that’s just not meant to switch off. And maybe that’s what makes me happy.
While I was Waterford manager, I was all in.
That means you have to put parts of the rest of your life on hold. Even if that has an impact on my one of my greatest inspirations – my family.
My parents are married 50 years this year and I don’t think they ever had a row. My Dad’s always been a great man to pre-empt the end of a discussion and avoid the argument. It’s a skill.
Mam’s work ethic and generosity of spirit would inspire anyone.
I grew up in a house where love was unconditional, even if we never said it. You knew it.
As a parent and husband now myself, my priority is to provide a good life for my family and keep them safe. You can’t protect them from everything of course. Especially when you’re in the public eye.
There’s always room for emotion in any line of work. But when you’re in a county, like Waterford, that’s striving to make a breakthrough, that’s not lifted the Liam MacCarthy since 1959, the emotion is that bit heightened because you’re living every moment of it and you can get consumed by it. So, the mood of the house can be dictated by a result in a match or a social media comment or something you read in the paper.
You need to find that balance between living your life to the full and being open and sensitive to criticism. We’re all sensitive to one degree or another. It doesn’t mean you’re soft or lacking a ruthless edge it’s just a natural inclination we all have to want to be affirmed and to want to be wanted. It’s fair to say that in my first year in the Waterford job I was a bit too sensitive. But I worked hard in later years to find that balance.
My wife, Sarah, has always been so understanding of that. She grew up in a hurling family. Her brother, John Mullane, is probably one of the most well-known characters in GAA circles over the last 30 years. Sarah has grown up with the ups and downs of how it can go right and how it can go wrong. She knows that whether its victory or defeat it has to be talked about and dealt with head on when you come in the door. We never have any pretense in our house. You talk about it and move on.
My only regret is that the enjoyment factor for my family wasn’t as great as it could have been on that journey with Waterford. My boys were at a League match in my first year in charge when we got a bit of a hammering from Kilkenny. The vitriolic element of the crowd was such that my wife and son left the stadium and after that my son stopped going to the games. You’d still meet people who’d say, “he needs a hard edge, cop himself on and don’t mind what people are saying!”
The Best of TSC
I think people are becoming more aware of the hurt that can come from that vitriol but we’re in danger at times of crossing the line between passion and downright nasty comments.
We live in the now. We react to moments in front of us and sometimes lack the ability to look at things from a more omniscient point of view. An aerial photograph of achievements. History shows that Waterford haven’t won a huge amount, but we made it to five finals while I was there, so you have hope. You have to believe that you can bridge that gap.
Sport can have such positive benefit, but it can also bring such acute disappointment. The Munster Final in 2016. The semi-final replay that year. In 2017 we beat Kilkenny for the first time in six decades – its pure elation. Pure freedom. Then you contrast that with what happens a few weeks later – an All-Ireland final lost.
It affects you almost like a tragedy. You ask yourself “why do I do this?”
”You do it because you’re drawn to those emotions. You do it because you love the game so much.
You just need to follow that path with honesty and do your best. No-one will every ask you to do more than your best.
Those Waterford and De La Salle teams gave everything they had. The days that they lost out, they were the victim of circumstances, not refereeing decisions or anything else. It was definitely not from lack of effort.
Looking back, in my first year in charge, I was probably a bit too sensitive to all the criticism. If I could go back, I would go with my gut feeling which was to omit some of the experienced players from the panel. There was a poisonous atmosphere from certain quarters towards the players over what was perceived as a player heave against my predecessor, Michael Ryan. That atmosphere enveloped us for the first year as many saw his removal as unjustified and it affected players, backroom staff, fans, everyone. That atmosphere needed to change, and we did change that. As a group, we moved on and focused on building a unity of effort.
That doesn’t happen overnight. First, you have to know a player. Its only when you walk in their shoes and have empathy for their situation that you can have any kind of impact or influence on their game. To make them understand that there will be peaks and troughs. There will be mistakes. You look after them in a manner that they will reciprocate with maximum effort on the field – committed to continuous improvement and ambition.
Its not all “softly, softly” either. I might be admonished for saying that, but you need to have an instinct for the approach required. A well-timed word, sometimes a hard word, sometimes not. Constructive criticism. It’s the same with the teaching profession. When it comes to motivating young people to go and do their best and be the best they can be, there is no “one size fits all” approach.
What makes that more challenging is having a sense of a person’s state of mind. When I presented to the county board about taking on the Waterford job, one of my slides was on taking a proactive approach to looking after the mental health of players. Believe it or not, it was not a much talked about subject at the time. That was only six years ago!
We’ve come a long way since. That machoism that stopped people from sharing their feelings seems to have dissipated to some extent.
Not least because of people like Maurice Shanahan who have the courage to speak out and break the silence on a subject that affects us all in one way or another. It was well documented that Maurice had contemplated suicide because, as he said himself, he “couldn’t see any other way out of it at the time”.
I wasn’t hugely proud of my initial reaction to Maurice’s situation. I thought I could take it on and help him fix things – that I had the emotional intelligence to deal with it myself. It’s bigger than that. He needed specialist counselling services from people like Pieta House, people who have a deep understanding of what he’s going through. Thankfully he got that, he’s doing well and I’m grateful for that.
That is why I teamed up with Pieta House and Electric Ireland to help promote the Darkness Into Light events. We all have mental health just the same as we have physical health. We need to keep shining a light on that because it’s too important an issue to do nothing.
When I had my decision made to leave the Waterford job, I organised a big karaoke party for the lads at my house. It was an emotional night. We had great craic, but I knew myself it was the last time I’d be with the lads as their manager. I just no longer had the energy for it, so it was time to go.
I like to think that we developed a spirit of togetherness and unity of approach. I see that living on in the group under Pádraic Fanning – he’s doing a fantastic job.
So, what’s next for me?
I used to always say to the lads, “There’s an easy life with a bag of cans on the bus to the match to take your place on the terrace. Or there’s this – the more difficult path, out of your comfort zone, but ultimately this will always be the most rewarding path.”
I won’t stay in a comfort zone for long. It’s more of an intermission. In my head, it was to be a two-year break but, in all honesty, I don’t know what will happen next from a management point of view. It would be boring if I knew.
That’s part of the drama of life.
Derek McGrath teamed up with Electric Ireland and Pieta House to encourage people to experience The Power of Hope by registering for this year’s Darkness Into Light event on 11th May at www.darknessintolight.ie #ThePowerOfHope #DIL2019. Darkness Into Light, organised by Pieta House is proudly supported by Electric Ireland since 2013.
If you enjoyed Derek’s article, you might like to read Austin Gleeson’s “The Mentality Game“.
The Sports Chronicle brings you stories from the world of sport by the players, the coaches and the unsung heroes, all in their own words.
You can also check out our Podcast. Subscribe today for more.