McGrath talks the talk having walked the walk with Waterford

Former Déise manager enthralls GAA conference with compelling address on player wellbeing

On the fifth floor of the Hogan Stand in Croke Park, Jamesie O’Connor is handling a hurley at one of the string of stalls along the corridor, giving the universal nodding sign for It’s A Grand Weight.

Three stalls down, a company selling electronic scoreboards has the best goals from last year’s championship running on a loop, stalling people for long enough to ask if they want to buy one even though all they’re doing is reliving the highs and lows of 2018.

In quiet corners, fellas take phonecalls about this meeting and that, debating, organising, teasing out.

Welcome to the GAA’s annual games development conference, the Committee Man’s Comic-Con. Now in its 17th year, the theme of the 2019 version was ‘Coaching for Wellbeing’, making it no surprise that the keynote speaker on Saturday was the ex-Waterford manager Derek McGrath.


Having shifted a couple of stone from his frame since the summer, McGrath took the stage looking a splendid advertisement for giving up inter-county management.

McGrath held the vast Hogan Suite in the palm of his hand for the duration of his 45-minute stint on-stage, doling out his coaching philosophies and principles with trademark enthusiasm and humility.

“I’m no expert,” he began. “I’m anything but. I’m here to learn.”

By the end, however, nobody in the room was in doubt who was the teacher.

McGrath’s presentation was called ‘Combining the ‘Me’ and the ‘We’ and Optimising Wellbeing’, proving once again that no matter how engaging the speaker, conferences remain the graveyard of titles for things.

Nonetheless, once you got past the jargony handle, McGrath’s talk was fascinating. You had no trouble understanding why Waterford were successful under him.

“For me/we to work, you have to know what you’re talking about,” McGrath said. “If you’re waffling, you’re in trouble straight away. You have to understand the importance of inclusivity and how the dynamic in the group depends on everybody being respected for what they’re bringing to the table with them. If you hit on a good idea by accident, it’s often worth going with.

Waterford manager

“Most of all, you need a positive paranoia. Brother Stephen wrote me a school report when I left De La Salle College in 1994 in which he said I was intellectually curious. I went home to my mother and asked her what that meant and she said, ‘It means you’re paranoid, Derek.’ I was always asking questions. ‘What do you mean by that?’ Not just in a defensive way, a genuinely curious way.

“I think we have to ask questions. Positive paranoia is when you’re able to see around corners. You’re perceptive, you’re sharp enough to see that something is about to happen.”

These are lessons that were hard learned. McGrath had spoken to his wife about eventually being Waterford manager fully three years before the job ever came up. When he took it over in late 2013, he had been thinking about it deeply for all that time and had a plethora of ideas and philosophies that he wanted to put into action. And still he made mistakes in his relationships with players that haunt him to this day.

"I'm up here talking about caring and being a caring person when dealing with players but four years ago, I am ashamed to say that I finished up a parent-teacher meeting in the school and rang Liam Lawlor, Jamie Nagle, Ray Barry and Richie Foley and between them I would say I gave them a total of three and a half minutes altogether to tell them they wouldn't be involved with Waterford. I didn't even have the gumption to meet them face to face.

“You have to learn from mistakes. I wanted to go in a different direction and here were guys who were giving their heart and soul to something and all I gave them was a quick phonecall as I walked out from a parent-teacher meeting. It’s not something that sits comfortably with me even now. But that’s something you have to learn from in terms of your leadership style.”

Near the end of his talk, he showed the room the message he wrote to his players on the group WhatsApp the night before new manager Padraic Fanning was appointed.

“When the appointment is confirmed, I will exit the group -–not out of ignorance but more out of respect. I’ll be there for ye until the day I die. You’re my family. The plans we made are plans for life as well as for matches. This was always my intention and we did it together. As Sun Tzu said: ‘Treat your men as you would your beloved sons and they will follow you into the deepest valley.’ I love you lads, Mac.

“I make no apologies for telling them that I love them. Absolutely none. What I’m trying to get across here is that this is the combination of the ‘me’ and the ‘we’ that I was preaching throughout my time with them. The theme here is optimising wellbeing. Why do you care for people? That made it easier for me to step away from the Waterford job when the time came.

Great relationship

“I was sitting at home over the dinner table with my mother and she said, ‘You’re stepping down?’ And I said, ‘I am, Mam.’ And she said, ‘But what if someone else comes in and they go on and win the All-Ireland without you?’

“And I’m going, ‘Sure that directly contradicts everything I tried to create!’ That would be all about me rather than we. And I said, ‘Mam, I’m okay with it. I’ve had a great relationship with the lads but we move on. Life moves on.’

“You’re looking on at it and you’re wondering how will you cope – and I do miss it terribly. But that’s the way it goes. The point being the recognition that the players grew from boys to men. Success is measured by the self-fulfilment that comes with bringing your absolute best, combining the me and we.”

And for anyone thinking that all sounds highly wishy-washy or an excuse for losing, JJ Delaney told a story about Brian Cody on a different panel on the same stage on Saturday Cody that chimed absolutely with McGrath's worldview.

Ahead of the 2011 All-Ireland final, Kilkenny were in Carton House for the weekend when Delaney was summoned to a meeting with Cody and team trainer Mick Dempsey.

“I was going in thinking, ‘Jesus, did I do something wrong in training?’ When you get called in in front of the headmaster, you’re usually in trouble. So I sat down and Brian said, ‘Well, what’s your plan?’ And I went, ‘Sure look, I want to get on the team for the final.’ And he goes, ‘No, no – what’s your plan for the future, for work? What’s the story?’

“I was between jobs at the time and he knew that obviously. So we sat down and had a conversation for half an hour about where my career path was going. Mick was involved with Carlow IT and he was talking about maybe going back to college or whatever.

“That stuck with me ever since, the fact that three weeks before an All-Ireland final, they were that interested in me to sit me down and talk to me about life outside the final. The perception would have been that it was laser focus, the match, the match, the match. But they were looking at me as a person as well as me as a player.”

The best way. The only way.