High standards in GAA are tough to reach and even harder to maintain

High standards in GAA are tough to reach and even harder to maintain

Former Dublin star Jason Sherlock, seen here in action against Noel O'Donovan of Cork in 2003, helped cultivate a high performance culture with the Dubs. Picture: INPHO/Patrick Bolger

WHEN the European players walked into the Gleneagles hotel before the 2014 Ryder Cup, the emotion was literally dripping off the walls, like wet paint.

Team captain, Paul McGinley, wanted the players to fully understand the importance of the blue and yellow European flag they were playing for, and the deep meaning it conveyed.

The imagery and reminders were everywhere; McGinley had the carpets, curtains and décor changed to the European colours; even all the fish which swam in the fish-tank in the team-room were either blue or yellow.

When the European players went into their rooms, they were greeted with pictures of their home place hung on the walls. McGinley wanted to engage their hearts. He wanted to make the players’ European identity represent more than just a faceless blue flag.

McGinley’s brilliance as a captain during that Ryder Cup win has enabled him to tell his story of that success to audiences across the corporate and international sporting world. McGinley has built up incredible experience but most of the principles he used at Gleneagles were based on his GAA background.

Before he became a golfer, McGinley was shaped as a Gaelic footballer and hurler with Ballyboden St Enda’s in south Dublin. That GAA community spirit framed a central theme of McGinley’s captaincy because the thrust of that approach was connecting with people, getting to know them better, showing them that he cared.

At one stage, McGinley showed up at a tournament in Malaysia to spend time with the Frenchman Victor Dubuisson. That enabled McGinley to work out what kind of partner would suit Dubuisson.

The level of forensic detail McGinley brought to everything was staggering. When he first put his stats team together as part of his backroom, McGinley got them to trawl through the previous ten years of the Johnny Walker Championship at Gleneagles, and look for two to three correlations. The main one was that whoever did well on the par 5s, usually won the tournament. That information was critical to McGinley for designing his match-ups.

‘Attention to detail’ is a loose endorsement for every successful coach and manager. But applying that detail in the best possible way is what really drives High Performance to another level.

The term ‘High Performance’ has become a popular reference point in elite sport but there are two parts to the concept; the high performance apparatus and structure around the squad and the culture that guides and drives it. One can’t function without the other.

Having the tools to problem solve is a key component in driving that culture. “High performance sport,” Gary Keegan once said “is all about solving problems better than your competitor.”

Everyone has heard the famous Mike Tyson phrase, about everybody having a plan until they get punched in the face. Elite sport though, requires a plan when that punch lands on the face.

That requires an ability to be honest and candid, but it mostly requires trust. Everyone must trust in what they are doing, in what their culture says about them as a group. Because, while the manager and coaches may give the players the tools, the players have to ultimately improvise, adapt and figure it out themselves on the pitch.

“I’ve never seen the perfect match,” said Jim Gavin in a recent promo for the upcoming ‘Leaders Lounge’ online interactive event on High Performance.

“But what I’ve seen is high levels of performance. You never have the perfect game, and if you understand that concept, then that builds the resilience that you’re not the finished product as a human. We think we are, but we’re not.”

The upcoming event on November 3, organised by Titan Experience, will see McGinley, Gavin, Stuart Lancaster, Fiona Coughlan and Lisa Fallon open up about their experiences as leading figures within a High Performance Environment.

The insights should be fascinating, but so should the learnings, especially when trying to drive the culture of ‘High Performance’ within elite sport has never been more challenging.

“I’d have very low expectations of any inter-county footballer at the moment because these are obviously very strange times,” said former Dublin player and coach Jason Sherlock last week. “But knowing the guys and how much they care about themselves and about playing for Dublin, they will certainly do the best that they can.”

Although the usual time spent around preparation and analysis has been seriously curtailed for most inter-county squads, elite players still think and prepare like professionals. And the best squads, irrespective of the drawbacks, still seek to operate and prosper within a high performance culture.

With backroom teams now restricted to just 12 members on inter-county match days – which will limit key game-day personnel like additional physios and performance analysts - driving that culture has never been more important.

Being flexible and able to adapt to ongoing and evolving challenges will also form a key part of managements preparations in the coming weeks and months.

“All inter-county management teams are going to have to adapt to the current environment,” said Sherlock. “It’s not ideal and it sounds like from day to day that their situations can change. So, it’s an extra layer of complexity that those guys have.”

They have but management teams have also been trying to cope with new challenges that never existed before. In that context, high performance culture now relates to much more than just performance. Because values – right across the board – equates to higher standards.

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