#Winx Winning the Apollo Stakes 2017

The Apollo Stakes were held at Royal Randwick Racecourse today.


In keeping with some of my posts on horse racing …

At 400 metres: Winx 5th

At 300 metres: Winx 3rd

At 200 metres: Winx takes the lead, Hartnell up to 3rd

At 100 metres: off into space, Hartnell 2nd

Finish Line: Winx, Hartnell, Endless Drama

Photo Credits

Frame grabs of 7HorseRacing coverage.

#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)

#coachlearninginsport: sharing ideas and practice


I had the good fortune to meet with a group of coach learning meddlers yesterday.

I mentioned meddling in an earlier post about #coachlearninginsport.

I like the possibilities suggested by Erica McWilliam for meddling in learning. In a 2005 paper about teaching and learning, she observes:

the idea of teacher and student as co-creators of value is compelling. Rather than teachers delivering an information product to be consumed by the student, co-creating value would see the teacher and student mutually involved in assembling and dissembling cultural products. In colloquial terms, this would frame the teacher as neither sage on the stage nor guide on the side but meddler in the middle. The teacher is in there doing and failing alongside students, rather than moving like Florence Nightingale from desk to desk or chat room to chat room, watching over her flock, encouraging and monitoring. (2005, 11)

She concludes her paper on unlearning pedagogy with this short paragraph:

I intend to save myself from another deadly habit of academic authorship – the deadly habit of summarising main points at the end of a paper. This will allow the reader to dispense with the deadly habit of needing to be reminded about them. In Bauman’s terms, the invitation is both to remember and to forget. (2005, 19)

I see this invitation at the heart of coach learning meddling. I see doing and failing as characteristics of this relationship too.


In our conversations yesterday, we explored how we might support coach learning journeys and practice at a time when high performance sport is generating specialist roles. The people in these roles, unless they are empathetic, can be overly driven by evidence-based practice.

I think we agreed as a group that whilst we could understand this imperative from a service provider’s perspective, it would be a relief to move beyond a short-term, quantitative measurement environment in order to support the coach in her or his relationship with athletes. This relationship is at the heart of play, games and sport.

Our conversation took a delightful twist when we started to explore how we might invite service providers to walk in coaches’ shoes. In sociological terms, we thought ‘taking the role of the other‘ would have an enormous impact.

On the way to the meeting, I had been listening to a discussion about the iOrchestra and the Universe of Sound:

an extraordinary free interactive digital installation, allowing you to explore an orchestra from the inside out as they perform Holst’s The Planets. Using giant visual displays, touch screens, unconventional projecting surfaces, movement-based interaction and planetarium-style projections, you can take part as musicians, conductors, arrangers and composers.

One of my colleagues at the meeting shared his discovery of the Empathy Museum. Roman Krznaric has written about his vision for the museum here.

an experiential and conversational adventure space to create a mass upsurge in empathic awareness, where you learn to see life from the perspective of people from different cultures, generations and social backgrounds.

This has some fascinating implications for coaching environments and teams, I think.

Another colleague at the meeting mentioned his profoundly moving experiences during and after a visit to Flanders. It is possible to follow an individual soldier’s story … and to have an insight into that soldier’s war. I was struck by how humbled my colleague felt about the learning opportunity he had and how moved he was by sharing it.

This gave us all time to reflect as it coincided with a minute’s silence for those murdered in Sousse.

Roman’s point is:

98% of us have the ability to empathise, but few of us put our full empathic potential to use. And as a society, we have made even less effort to harness the power of empathy to create fundamental change, from challenging prejudices and stereotypes to inspiring us to take action

We thought we might start this process in our coaching environments.

Photo Credits

Keith Lyons (CC By 4.0)