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.
It also means ensuring that they have the supports they need. The Irish team’s boxers are now well funded by the Sports Council and have the facilities they need at the National Stadium where they can stay and train.
Much like a business, Walsh has found that he and his colleagues have had to adapt to circumstances, often quite difficult ones.
“The thing for us is that we struggled here at the beginning. We did not have the gym we have now or accommodation,” he says. “We decided that we needed to be full-time, but we did not have the money for BBs, so we bought blow-up beds and put them on the floor here and slept on them at night, the team and the coaching staff. It’s got a glass roof, so it’s freezing in winter and roasting in summer.”
At that point, the team had a budget of €225,000. That has increased to €775,000 and the boxers can now stay in hotels when they need to remain overnight in Dublin. They have also been able to develop the centre of excellence at the stadium on South Circular Road.
While things have improved hugely since 2003, Walsh believes more resources, which are still slender by international standards, would help release yet more potential.
Crises were inevitable along the way. In March, with the Olympics in sight, Walsh cut short a second IMI course in executive coaching to join the team at camp at the Curragh in Co Kildare. The boxers were just back from national championships and had “lost some of their sparkle”. He felt what was needed at this stage was his own direct leadership.
To allow him focus, his colleagues set up “Team Walsh”, essentially a mechanism that dealt with anything likely to interfere with his focus on the boxers. He sets a lot of store by his colleagues, including Zaur Anita, from Georgia, who he describes as world class, and Pete Taylor, Katie’s father, who is an integral part of the operation.
One of the worst blows came just weeks before the games themselves. Joe Ward lost his qualifier in a surprise – and controversial – defeat to Turkish boxer Bahram Muzaffer. The Moate man is ranked fourth in the world and is European champion light heavyweight. His status meant he was one of the squad’s big medal hopes.
Walsh realised there was a risk the other Irish boxers were being forgotten about in the fallout. They were going to appeal the decision in any case, so he decided it was time to move on.
“I said, ‘It’s over, it’s finished, we have four others who can qualify here’, we need to focus on them,” he says. Paddy Barnes and Adam Nolan did come through, and the head coach agrees that getting two out of five from that group into the Olympics was ultimately a good result.
The games themselves presented a different management challenge. The venue, the ExCeL Arena, was a “cauldron”. Boxers trying to focus on the immediate challenge presented by their opponent went from their dressing rooms into a fevered atmosphere, accompanied by music and flashing lights on their walk to the ring itself.
Walsh and his colleagues actually recorded the sounds and got the boxers to download it to their iPods to help them acclimatise.
Outside the Olympics, Walsh’s approach has earned 60-odd world level medals for Irish amateur boxing since he took over. The sport is more or less innate to him. He began his own career in the Christian Brothers’ School in Wexford town, where the gym is in the middle of the yard. He developed an interest in all sports and played football for Sarsfields and hurling for Faythe Harriers.
In his boxing career, he represented Ireland at World and European championship level and at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul in South Korea. He won seven national titles during his time in the ring.
Always an amateur, he pursued his boxing career while working for Pierce Engineering in Wexford, one of the town’s biggest employers, before running his own business as a milk agent, which he sold to his brother before taking on his current role.
At the moment, he’s very focused on the future, which, more or less immediately, involves the Elite Tammer Multi-Nations competition in Tampere, Finland, and the World Youth Championships in Yerevan, Armenia.
Beyond that, he’s talking about 2016 and Rio, where he says the challenge facing Irish boxers will be completely different from London.
Qualification is going to be spectacularly hard, with 40 nations fighting for eight places in most divisions. “They will be going hammer and tongs to get there,” he warns.
If Irish boxers get through, they will be competing in a very different atmosphere in terms of support.
“London was a home venue for us. We’re not going to get that many Irish out there,” says Walsh.
Given that he is talking about the future, does this mean he will be staying with Irish boxing?
It was no secret that, during the Olympics, other federations had approached Walsh, Anita and Taylor, and he himself was not happy with the fact that their employer, the Irish Amateur Boxing Association, had not offered them secure long-term contracts.
They have been in talks since with the association chairman, John Lynch, and chief executive, Don Stewart. “Everything has been very positive,” says Walsh.
Assuming he stays, what else does he want to achieve? “We’re now ranked fifth in the world, I’d like to be number one.”
Job:Head coach, Irish Amateur Boxing Association
Why is he in the news?He led the management of the boxing squad that brought home four of Ireland’s five medals, including Katie Taylor’s historic gold, from London 2012, our most successful Olympics to date. Interests: Golf, hurling, football and sport of all kinds.
Something you might expect:He began his own boxing career at seven years of age.
Something that might surprise:He’s a qualified fitter welder.