Self-belief puts opponents on the ropes
Irish Boxing’s head coach Billy Walsh’s philosophy that ‘you can only achieve what you believe’ delivered four medals at London 2012, including Katie Taylor’s historic gold
A DEFEAT AT the hands of Kilkenny helped Billy Walsh make up his mind. In 1981, he was one of a Wexford minor team that at one stage led the Cats by five points, only to see their fortunes turned around in the game’s closing stages.
“After that, I thought I’d prefer to rely on myself,” he says.
Walsh turned his focus to boxing, a sport he had been practising since he was seven, and at which he had already proved himself at national level.
The decision wasn’t made lightly and it brought its share of disappointment along with achievement. But if there was a first step on the road to his appointment as Irish Boxing’s head coach, and to the team’s success in bringing home four medals from London 2012, including Katie Taylor’s historic gold, that was it.
It seems hard to believe now, but when he took the job in 2003, Irish amateur boxing looked to be on its last legs. Only one boxer had represented the country at each of the two previous Olympics.
Walsh recalls that the year before, just a decade after winning gold and silver at the 1992 games in Barcelona, some of the boxers representing the country seemed less interested in fighting than in some of the frills that went with being on a national team. There was a need for a change in culture, he says.
“We drew a line down there,” he gestures at what is now the centre of excellence training facility below his office in the National Stadium. “We said, ‘Anybody who wants to be a high performer step over the line’.” Eleven did.
They lost five along the way, but it left them with the beginnings of the team that ultimately went to London. Walsh and his colleagues had to build that new culture from the ground up. Its central plank was continuous improvement.
This involved working with the fighters’ physical and mental fitness. “You can only achieve what you believe,” Walsh says. He points out that boxers’ self-belief is critical in bridging the gap from being good to being world class. And that “belief piece” was often the hardest to nail and involved working closely with each individual. “They need to be challenged and you have to keep challenging them,” he says.
The first goal was to get Irish boxers on podiums. That took three years, and Walsh describes the process as a “massive turnaround”. He acknowledges that he was learning as much as anyone else.
“I made mistakes and I had to look at what I was doing,” he says.
Between then and now, at least part of his own learning process involved taking the Irish Management Institute’s strategic management in human resources course. He says that this helped him focus on the structures he had in place and look at what he was doing that was good and what was not so good.
Fundamentally, Walsh’s role is about managing people and getting the best out of them. This means working closely with the boxers, listening to them and helping them in getting the best out of themselves.