Enda McNulty on standing guard at the door of your own mind

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Enda McNulty pictured at the launch of his book in 2017. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

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In the autumn of 1929, Frank McNulty from Mullaghbawn tried the door of the Manhattan bank where he had lodged his savings to find it locked for good. His money had vanished. A mood of resigned panic drifted through the metropolis.

The Armagh man was one of the countless immigrants whose American future was instantly destroyed in the cold fire of the economic depression. And Frank McNulty was lucky. He and his wife scraped the fare for passage back home. A small triangle of land under Slieve Gullion awaited them. They farmed the land, raised a family.

“He worked his finger to the bone to buy more land,” his grandson remembers. He died there in 1984. Through the decades, the story of how their grandfather had lost his money in the Great Crash flitted loosely around the minds of the McNulty grandchildren. It was a tale; black and white, trilby-decorated, vaguely fabulous and exciting.

Last December, Enda McNulty was in New York on a work trip. He’s there fairly regularly through work and a hazy vision of his grandfather – the optimism, the striving, the youth – must pass through his mind when he walks the glittering city canyons. He went along to Madison Square Garden to watch the San Antonio Spurs play against the blighted New York Knicks. The athleticism was as expected: polished and phenomenal. But he couldn’t keep his eyes off the coaches.

Greg Popovich in the huddle. Here is a master. You are always trying to learn. You could tell the Knicks were in trouble that evening. There was a lack of coaching poise. And shortly after that, their coach was fired.”

Over the past month, the world has come to understand the pure luxury of caring deeply about the storylines of elite sport. It has disappeared along with so much of the backdrop of regular life. Much of McNulty’s public profile revolves around sport: the former Armagh All-Ireland winner has acquired the reputation as a leading performance coach. But in truth, elite sport is only a small part of his company portfolio client list which features financial and corporate behemoths.

Potential

McNulty is an unapologetic evangelist for the power of positive mental and physical energy. The growth mindset industry was booming before the pandemic. His fascination lies in unlocking the potential within people and his message is persuasive. But what about now when all the old co-ordinates and certainties have been hijacked by a pandemic?

It’s an early morning on the phone – although you suspect McNulty has already been up for hours. You are asking him what he would say to the hundreds of thousands across Ireland who are feeling lost and anxious and frightened now that the world is, not to put too fine a point on it, f**ked. And he admits that this is different.

“Well, firstly, everyone at some stage during this crisis will feel like that. That is normal and that is okay. We are all going to suffer. We do have a major advantage in Ireland, I think, in that we are resilient. Whether in the Famine or the Troubles or the English occupation, we have natural inborn resilience. We have had to continually fight to survive. Every elite athlete I have ever worked with have come and said at some stage: ‘I am struggling here. I am suffering.’ I am talking about the best and the toughest.

“And so in this . . . we are facing the challenge of a lifetime. It’s okay to wake up and wonder how am I going to get the power to get out of bed. But the whole point of positive psychology is that we have an opportunity to respond to the adversity we are going through. There are small choices to be made all the time. It takes discipline but the thing is, discipline doesn’t have great stamina. Purpose does.

“So, what is your sense of purpose during this? Is there anyone you can help? Can you go for a 15 minute walk? Can you make a healthy breakfast? I have a friend in Armagh who speaks of ‘winning the morning’. Get up and move a bit earlier. Movement will change your emotional state. And we will be afraid and anxious and that’s okay. But if you walk, or if you run or meditate or yoga, that will allow you to shift that state to a more resilient state.

“So you make decisions. What am I going to do before I lift that mobile or turn on the radio or buy a paper or read about the news stories online? Do we stand guard at the doorway of our own mind? Because if we do stand guard firmly and positively it is amazing how well we can get through this.”

McNulty speaks in these composed, incantatory passages when he talks about positive thinking. Over the course of two long conversations, he repeatedly says that if he could help to flip the mindset of just one person who happened to read this, he would be thrilled. He’s solemn about his message but not humourless, laughing out loud when you put it to him that if you tell someone – a publican, say, whose has nothing but bills coming in the door or a worker on indefinite furlough – that sticking on a half hour of Yoga With Adrienne on the iPad will make life seem better, you are likely to get the two-fingered reply. That it’s easy for him to say because he’s not in their shoes.

“But I am in their shoes,” he says. “I am. I am running a business employing 15 people who are reliant on their monthly salaries but they are working their backsides off to make a difference to people’s lives around the world in corporate and sports and in charitable world. So yes, I think I am wearing their shoes every day.”

Alien territory

He reckons he is speaking with around 25 company CEO’s around the world each week at the moment. He can hear in their voices and by the language that they are in completely alien territory. “Young alpha males and females from New York ringing and using phrases like: ‘I don’t know how to handle this’; ‘There is blood on the streets.’ ‘This feels like a heavyweight boxing match.’

“But for some reason I feel a calm in the middle of that. For some reason I feel optimistic about the Irish; that we can and will get through this. We are naturally connected. We are good at thinking of the old lady up the street. Always. So even if my business does go bust: who cares? It is irrelevant. It’s about can I make a difference to some person’s life here?”

***

McNulty came through with a remarkable crew. He’s a South Armagh boy and because he left school in 1995 is among the last of the Troubles generations. He is a good raconteur and he can return to the byzantine laneways between Mullaghbawn and Camlough and Crossmaglen with instant clarity: the epic training sessions under Val Kane on twilight afternoons in St Colman’s when sometimes they’d be too cold and shattered to run for the bus and have to thumb a lift; the motivational tape his father would play on loop when he and his brother Justin sat in the back.

“In this old Renault we had. I remember vividly the old wrecked radio he had plugged into the dashboard with two plugs and timber. Dad would use the Phil Jackson philosophy of positive coaching. If I had a terrible game, he would say nothing. If I had a good day, he would talk about the positive and ask what we could have done better.”

He has spoken during talks of the morning when the mirror in front of him exploded while he was brushing his teeth, leaving glass fragments in his mouth. A bomb had gone off so close to the house that the mirror shattered. He was a kid and remembers that everyone in the house was panicked and disoriented, except for his mother.

In that instant, she took on an icy calm he hadn’t seen before. Once she was assured that they were all unharmed, she set about reimposing normality. She asked the boys if they had football training. When they nodded, she told them to go and get their bags. It was a lesson that lodged. You keep going. You don’t get knocked off.

It’s to that past McNulty returns again and again when speaking about influences and shapers: his brothers, his parents, teammate Kieran McGeeney, his Queens coach Dessie Ryan and Val Kane. McNulty says he was an outlier to make it onto the Armagh senior first team.

“Nobody in the club thought I’d come within a mile of it.” He was a teak-tough versatile defender with an agile mind and a set of forearms that made the milk curdle in the gut of many a summertime forward. He bided his time, earning a debut against Meath because someone else was injured and became a fixture on the team after that.

Armagh from 1999-2006 were exceptional: it’s a minor scandal that they only won that lone All-Ireland in 2002. McNulty is unblinking in reviewing those failures. He is quiet when you put it to him that they were closer to a three-in-row than has been acknowledged: champions in 2002, they lost the All-Ireland final to their nemesis Tyrone by the kick of a ball a year later and were in rampant form when Fermanagh outwitted them in the quarter final of 2004, arguably the biggest GAA shock ever.

“There is not a day I don’t think about it. When you ask me about that series I feel a shiver in my bones at the effort we put in. There is huge regret. We now use that energy to make a positive impact with people we are involved with. But if you were to write a thesis on it, on the front page, gold embossed I would have Adapt, Adopt or Die.

“When you become number one, people are going to study you. It happened with Ireland after winning the Grand Slam. Other teams are going to forensically analyse and look at your strength and conditioning to mental condition, tactical and training camps and leaders. That is what happened with Armagh. Who is on the backroom staff? What are your leaders doing? Why does (Stephen) McDonnell get so much space? How come Oisín (McConville) scores so much?

“We made mistakes, too. We spoke far too openly about what we were doing. We should always have been respectful to media but don’t give away our training methods, our tactical methods, the backroom work on team chemistry by Hugh Campbell and Des Jennings, the work we did to develop our mental toughness. The T-Cup that Woodward was using: we gave it all away.

“So Tyrone and everyone else were saying: okay we will get fitter. We will study you. Like, I can see when Aidan O’Rourke holds that ball up in the air I know it is going on the diagonal to Ronan Clarke and Diarmuid (Marsden) will win the break. We had worked on that almost like a rugby set piece.”

Earth’s core

But what comes through when he revisits that GAA period is how under-appreciated it was. For a few years, the Armagh/Tyrone border was the earth’s core of the All-Ireland championship. It was molten. Two absurdly talented teams played the game with a fierceness that was close to zealotry.

Of course, in some unspoken way, it was a response to the oppression of the three decades of violence. It was a liberation and a carnival of noise and self-expression. When McNulty talks about the preparation he put into the task of defending Peter Canavan, you get some small idea of the level of detail they were putting in. It started in the back garden, with his younger brother Patrick carrying a football at him at speed one on side and his friend Eugene McVerry attacking the other side. McNulty had to remain static and use only his hands to try and pop the ball.

“Or the hand. Dessie Ryan would always say: don’t pop the ball down, pop the hand so the ball deflects to you.”

Armagh had a basketball coach, Darren Campbell, working at that time. They studied film. “Darren would show me Peter’s sweet spot for shooting.” McNulty can still hear the instructions. “Don’t let him move into that space whatever you do. This is where he turns so you need to be positioned here . . . your foot here, this hand here. You can’t use your physical dominance here Enda. You’ll give the free away. Work your feet. Move your feet.’

He practiced this for hundreds of hours over a 10-year period with Armagh. And then he discovered what they all discover. That it ends.

***

Earlier this year, McNulty gave a presentation to a Premier League football club. They had asked him to deliver it on his experiences in failure. He was thrilled by the idea. He worked as a performance coach for Ireland’s extraordinary seasons under Joe Schmidt and was in Japan for the World Cup when the worst fears were confirmed. He says now that he wasn’t stressed by the environment.

“I thrived. I am comfortable in that place. But did I do a good enough job? No, I didn’t. Would I do things differently? Yes. Would Joe do things differently? Yes.”

You ask him how he dealt with all the free time that these major tournaments involve: were there hours just sitting in the hotel room staring at the wall and fretting. And then he gives this snapshot of a coaching staff during crisis.

“No. I am out running. I am in the gym. I can see Andy Farrell in the corner lifting. I can see Simon Easterby running. Joe is on the treadmill alongside me running hard. I go lift with Greg Feek. Jason Cowman is in the studio in front of me doing yoga in the morning. This is on down days. Joe’s t-shirt is wringing with sweat and we would have a 10-minute chat and arrange to meet for coffee. Your job is to deal with the pressure. And anyway, who gives a damn about Enda McNulty in that situation. It was more the pressure on Joe and the players that I was concerned about. I’m pretty good at managing my mind.”

A few weeks ago, McNulty found himself cycling around the perimeter of a hospital about 10 minutes from his home. He wanted to try and see Brian Cowen, the former taoiseach, who is recuperating after an illness. They had met about five years ago at an event for Seamus Mallon and just clicked. McNulty has visited Cowen off and on in hospital.

“I have profound respect for the man. What he has come through, irrespective of what your politics might be.” The staff, of course, wouldn’t allow him past the front door. But he figured they could maybe have a chat through the window, if he could find the right one. He texted Cowan for advice about the whereabouts of the relevant window. “Brian got back to me saying: ‘you’ll get me thrown out of here McNulty. Get out!’”

So he cycled around the perimeter, moseying home.

“And then I see a hospital worker who is from the Philippines in a Toyota Starlet sleeping with his mask still on. To me, the doctors and nurses have been unbelievable through this but these are the unseen heroes - people working on the edge of minimum wage, maybe away from family. And you know, if you have a tight network, then straight away you are more resilient than people who are on their own. And in Ireland we have big extended families. But here are Filipino workers cleaning the hospitals and their families are thousands of miles away at home. And they carry out these unseen vital jobs. With a great spirit.”

Sharp anxiety

He isn’t sure what’s around the corner. He gets that we have all been plunged into an age of sharp anxiety. And he experiences all the doubts and fears and uncertainties. It’s just that he believes, fervently, that the key is to guide yourself through each hour and day.

“You just manage your spirit by asking yourself what you want to achieve in all of this. There’s a possibility that any business can go. But I always knew I would do this thing of trying to help people reach their full potential. And I will do that until I go to the grave.

“So you have to be agile, be ready to reinvent yourself. We have to get through the rest of this storm. And it’s about starting to get ready for life after this crisis. What is the future for the small café? Or the small sports club? If you are only starting to think about this now, then I would say to people: ‘wake up and take massive action.’ It is not the government’s responsibility to take control of your mind or your resilience. It’s not your mother or father’s or your school’s or your company’s. It’s yours.”

It can sound at once simple and impossible but the energy in his voice is burning even down the phone because he believes that if people can just listen to themselves and be aware of where their thoughts are taking them, then nothing is insurmountable. He is quiet for a moment when asked about one wish he would have for people today, the one thing he would wish for them to do. It’s a silent morning where he lives in Dublin. Croke Park, the great furnace, will be cold all summer.

“Just stand guard,” Enda McNulty would ask.

“Stand guard at the door of your own mind.”