#coachlearninginsport: Billy, art and autonomy


Billy the Artist

Earlier this week, I received an alert to an Irish Examiner post written by Kieran Shannon. The post is titled The time has come to finally realise coaching as an art.
Kieran discusses the coaching career of Billy Walsh. Billy has left Irish boxing to take up a position in the United States as their women’s boxing coach.
Kieran’s post starts with these three sentences:

Even now, after he’s gone and the Oireachtas hearing and the forest of newsprint his name and departure triggered, we don’t know what we’ve lost in Billy Walsh.
We know alright that he helped make the National Stadium a medal factory, boxing our most reliant source of Olympic glory, that he was obviously good at something.
But just what that something was, we don’t seem to have grasped. We just know he helped all those Irish boxers achieve, and very little idea how.

Kieran tries to articulate what Ireland has lost. Part of the story starts with defeat in Chicago in 2008 at the Olympic qualification tournament. Billy’s assessment was “we’d over-coached the boys”.
After Chicago, it all changed.

  • The athletes decided when they’d train and how to train. In between rounds Walsh would ask them, not tell them, what they were going to do next.
  • Every person is different.
  • He got to know which of them liked to stand between rounds and who preferred to sit. Up to Chicago, they all warmed up the same way. After Chicago, Walsh and his team allowed for greater individuality.
  • They each found their way into the zone differently.

This paragraph in Kieran’s post is at the centre of his discussion of Billy:

But that’s coaching. Knowing that it’s something of a science and the various theories of performance activation and the individual zone of optimal functioning. And knowing it’s even more of an art, the art of knowing your athletes and the right thing to say to them.


There was a great deal of discussion in Ireland about Billy’s departure to the United States. One of the very detailed articles was written for the Independent by Vincent Hogan.
I am mindful that there are many sides to the story of Billy’s departure but Vincent’s take on events makes for fascinating reading.
It is a story about governance in a sport and how to value exceptional people. In a proposal to his national sporting organisation, Billy raised the importance of his autonomy as Head Coach/High Performance Director. This autonomy included “a right to pick teams for competition without having to submit them to committee for approval’.
Billy started boxing in Ireland as a seven-year-old and has been part of the sport for forty-five years. Vincent points out:

The evidence of Ireland’s medal haul this year at those European Games, European and World Championships suggests that he leaves behind a programme working extraordinarily well. Two years ago, Walsh decided that that programme needed an overhaul.

Billy is quoted:

On the surface, we’d just had our best year ever. Four Irish boxers reached finals at the European Championships, two claiming gold. Five got into the top eight at the Worlds, two of them winning medals.
But I’d seen a slippage. Just the nuances of what we were doing. It wasn’t complacency. I would never get complacent because, in boxing, you’re always only one punch from defeat.
And I suppose we had begun to accept some behaviours that weren’t world-class, that didn’t belong in High Performance.

Ciaran Ward, Irish judo’s high performance coach, facilitated the review. It reflected on a journey from 2003 to the present day.
The conclusion to Vincent’s article brings together the essence of the art, governance and autonomy interaction central to all sporting organisations. Vincent quotes Billy:

We didn’t know what we were looking for. We had an idea, but we didn’t know what it looked like. We didn’t know how to win medals. We had to go and learn that on the journey. Now we’re at a point of that journey where it’s almost automatic.
There’s a momentum with this team now. There are warriors there and they will carry themselves through.

My feeling is that when an organisation has a coach who practices the art of coaching from a profound understanding of the sport and the people in it then this can be the most wonderful time to unleash bottom up learning.

Art in a Learning Organisation

I see a connection here with Jay Cross’s discussions of real learning. In a post last month, Jay observed that real learners “learn to learn socially, experientially, and informally”. Such learners “are prepared to deal with the daily surprises that are part of the baggage of complex work”.
Supporting this kind of learning requires visionary leadership and learners who are prepared to accept autonomy and the responsibility that goes with it. Jay suggests that in such environments learners take charge of their own learning.
During discussions about Billy’s contractual situation in the Committee on Transport and Communication, it was reported that a senior member of staff at Irish Boxing asserted “We have 20 coaches who can do Billy’s job”.
The Irish Times observed:

Walsh is gone and a winning mindset with him. The boxing landscape has critically altered.

It is impossible to value someone with Billy’s experience and understanding of high performance. Whatever salary or terms of service are proposed for such people they must recognise that there are some people who have earned the right to be regarded as a national treasure.
I have admired Billy’s work from afar. I hope he finds a place where he can be valued and that he can access the autonomy with responsibility essential to all artists.
His experiences have given me an opportunity to think about how we address support for coaches’ learning journeys in an enlightened learning organisation.

Photo Credits

Billy Walsh (Luecking, Twitter)
Banksy (Bit Boy, CC BY 2.0)
Swimmer (Keith Lyons, CC BY 4.0)



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