Enda McNulty is painting a Christmas scene. As only he can. The question was about leadership and after an answer that included him player-managing his under-14 team away, way back in the day, he stops to tell a story from a couple of weeks ago.
“An interesting thing happened at Christmas,” he says.
“We were out in the back garden of the house in Armagh where we would have grown up and played football our whole lives. As you know, the leaves fell late this year so we were in the back garden with my wee nephews sweeping them up. My little nephew Jay is about eight or nine, the other wee fella is seven and the other one is two.
“I said to Jay: ‘you’re the leader now – you take control’. So I was giving Jay an opportunity to lead. His instinctive reaction was to start shouting. ‘Okay Grandpa Joe, you do this. Uncle Enda you do this. Conal, you do this.’ He started screaming and so I stopped him and sat him down.
“I said, ‘Jay, why are you screaming at everybody? Now, I want you to approach this differently. I want you to bring everybody in and give different roles to people in terms of who’s raking what, who’s driving the tractor, etc.’ The point is I believe Ireland – and the GAA in particular – has a major opportunity to develop great leaders.”
And you listen to him talk with such untethered enthusiasm and you understand completely why people like Brian O’Driscoll and Luke Fitzgerald and Annalise Murphy and David Gillick swear by him.
But at the same time, you can’t help laughing. Seriously, Enda? You life-coached your eight-year-old nephew in the ways of organising a leaf-gathering operation? Have you any idea how preposterous that is going to look written down?
“Ha ha, yeah,” he says. “I would have to be critical of myself there. Am I too driven in that capacity? Definitely. I have to force myself to step back at times. In terms of what I’m saying there about leadership and young kids, of course people are going to read that and say it’s over the top.
“But why are we not considering how we educate young kids? Why are we not changing the way we coach young kids? When I was coaching director in Ballyboden St Enda’s, we were absolutely doing stuff like that. We were building in mental training into the school of excellence for 16-year-old kids. That was back in 2004, 2005.”
McNulty has a book out, a collection of his theories and strategies on what he sees as his professional mission – unlocking human potential.
Commit! took him two years to write and is, like the man himself, an onslaught of positivity from start to finish. Some of it is sports psychology, some of it is basic life-organisation, some of it is anecdotal stuff drawn from his life and those of other high-achievers.
The store the reader puts in any of it will depend more on the reader than it will on him. Plenty will find something in it to help them along. Plenty will think it’s the most half-baked self-help poppycock in the shop. It is the sort of book that will most likely confirm your inclinations, one way or the other.
“Of course there’s scepticism. I love the scepticism. First of all because it grounds you. Second, it makes you question yourself. Do you really believe in what you do? I 100 per cent believe in what we’re doing – because of the impact we’re seeing on people’s lives.
“Be open-minded. Listen. When someone is ridiculing you or condemning you, sit back and listen and keep your mouth shut. The old Mandela tactic – let everyone else talk while you’re formulating your thoughts.
“Now, normally you know after four or five minutes if this person’s ridiculing you because of their own toxicity, if it’s venomous. Have an open mind and then decide that either this person can add a huge amount of value to me or actually I don’t think this person has done enough pre-work, I don’t think they’re knowledgeable enough themselves, I don’t think they’ve done enough study on this to allow them to critique or challenge or to grow my thinking.”
Which brings us, as it must, onto
. McNulty’s back has felt the lash from the
columnist repeatedly in recent months. He knows the question is coming – it would be impossible to read his book and imagine he wouldn’t have an answer ready.
“Joe Brolly has now written four articles about me. I get much more reaction to it from family and friends and clients than my own reaction.
“My initial reaction was, I laughed. I thought, ‘How come I’m being ridiculed for what I’m writing on Twitter?’ Twitter isn’t supposed to be a scientific study. It’s not supposed to be grounded in science and research. I would quote something on Twitter regularly after running when I’m upbeat and energised. I would tend to spit out something after a run or a cycle or a kayak or a hill walk or a yoga session.
“So in terms of Joe’s four articles, mostly about my Twitter feed and now about my book, I don’t take it too seriously. I don’t in any way criticise Joe – I wouldn’t condemn him or I wouldn’t in any way complain. To be honest, I haven’t spent any time dissecting a paragraph or a word.”
It has to hurt though. If not his feelings, then surely his bottom line. What has been most interesting about Brolly’s occasional take-downs of not just him but his line of work, is the weight and heft of the follow-on. There’s always a certain type of reaction that applauds the fact that finally somebody is willing to take a stand against this psychobabble mumbo-jumbo. Can’t be great for business.
“Well, they’re probably people who are pre-ordained to be sceptical. They’re probably people who are pre-ordained not to think about the mental aspect of preparation being a significant competitive advantage. If you’ve competed at the highest level, whether it’s in sport or business or whatever, you’re striving for every competitive advantage.
“If you’re working with an Olympic athlete who has won a medal at the Olympics and they’re saying to you, ‘Please advise me on the mental conditioning I need to do over the next four years that will help my success’ you know you’re talking to someone who sees it as a part of a wider approach.
“It will go alongside their physical aspect and their rejuvenation aspect and their nutrition aspect and their media strategy aspect. The best of the best are the ones who aren’t sceptical. They’re the ones who want to push it forward. They’re incredibly open as to the opportunity to grow.”
And it’s when he starts talking like this, getting on a roll, the words tumbling out unchecked, that he’s at his most convincing.
“The people who have closed their minds to all aspects of improvement, never mind just the mental side, I’m not surprised that they jump on the bandwagon and say this is all psychobabble.
“If we want to live in a world where nobody criticises you, complains about you or holds you up for ridicule, then don’t try anything. Don’t take risks and don’t put your head above the parapet. Stay in a the corner of a small bar in south Armagh and don’t say boo to anybody.
“The book does leave me open to ridicule. Of course it does, just as any article you write in the paper leave you open to ridicule. But I’m willing to take the risk because I believe in what I’m talking about. I believe firmly in the people I’ve learned from over the years.
“Whether I’ve communicated that well enough in the book, with enough substance – that’s up to the reader to decide. But what I’m really confident in is the fact that in order to make a big change, there has to be a meaning attached to it.”
Resistance is futile.
Commit! By Enda McNulty is published by Penguin Ireland