#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: our game?



The word happenchance delights me. It brings together coincidence, serendipity and synchronicity for me.

Some time ago, I came across Seth Baker’s approach to Happenchance:

Happenchance is for anyone who wants to do things better: creative people, adventurers, travelers, wanderers, and dreamers. Anyone who won’t settle for the status quo, who wants to rise above mediocrity and conformity, and do something exciting, amazing, or engaging.

This site is for people with an open and relaxed attitude towards life.

  • People whose passion and interests take them in new and unexpected directions.
  • People who don’t mind trying new things.
  • People who aren’t afraid of failing.
  • People willing to embrace chance and serendipity.

I believe that by making our own luck, embracing chance, and working hard, we all have the opportunity to make our lives richer, more satisfying, and more fun.

By happenchance, I have come across a rich seam of ideas of late prompted by the mob at myfastestmile. Through them, I have been introduced to the remarkable Sporticus.



Overnight, I saw this alert

I thought it was an outstanding reflection on the conversations stimulated by the recent #relearn meeting in Marlow hosted by myfastestmile.

In his post, Sporticus discusses a conversation with a former pupil, Josh, on a train. Josh played rugby for Sporticus’s school and was coached by him. Josh’s story told by Sporticus includes this:

Josh finished by saying that he stopped playing because he no longer wanted to play my game. MY GAME. We shook hands and parted at Paddington, but that train journey made me start to question many of my approaches I had to both teaching and coaching. I no longer wanted it to be MY GAME, I wanted to ensure it was their game. I wanted to see if there was another way, one that didn’t make children fall out of love with THEIR GAME.

This is a great story to share. I have been thinking all day about how as a meddler-in-the-middle I might be part of a process of building OUR GAME as a teacher and a coach.

This does involve  a concerted attempt to engage in meta-learning (learning about learning). I think storytelling is a great way to do this. I see the creation of OUR GAME as a wonderful co-operative venture.

As a teacher and coach, I aspire to have a compelling story to share. The older I become (and perhaps more experienced in life matters), the more I want to be part of the co-creation of the game that is inclusive, exciting and sensitive to personal differences.

It has an OURNESS about it.



In the late 1980s, I was completing my PhD in Physical Education. I decided to craft my thesis as a collection of stories about five teachers in two schools.

I was fortunate that at that time John van Maanen was writing about writing in anthropology. One observer wrote of John van Maanen’s approach:

His goal is not to establish one true way to write ethnography, but rather to make ethnographers of all varieties examine their assumptions about what constitutes a truthful cultural portrait and select consciously and carefully the voice most appropriate for their tales.

Sporticus’s story of Josh and the reflection prompted by their meeting is a great example of John van Maanen’s confessional tale. I have been fascinated how this kind of approach has produced autoethnographic accounts in the last thirty years.

Sporticus ends his post with these two sentences:

The start of that journey started with a story. What’s yours?

My response is to share a story that helped me think about OUR GAME.

May I introduce you to Anush and basketball fever?



This story created a significantly long conversation in my PhD viva voce examination. My examiner wanted to know if this was a fictional account. I produced my fieldwork diary for the lesson and the storm passed.

It is a lesson enabled by an expert pedagogue. Anush is one of the pupils in the lesson.

This is the introduction to it:


The story appeared in print in 1992. The reference is:

Lyons, K. (1992). Telling stories from the field? A discussion of an ethnographic approach to researching the teaching of physical education. Research in physical education and sport: Exploring alternative visions, 248-270.


Bob helped me understand how the craft of teaching could create a most wonderful world of learning. His clarity enabled all his mixed ability classes to flourish.

Real Learning

Just after I received Sporticus’s tweet, I noticed an alert from Jay Cross about Real Learning. I think his video (3 minutes) might be a good way to end this post about stories and OUR GAME.

Al, Andrew and Mark at myfastest mile and Sporticus have made my day by nudging me towards my own reflection on learning. I am hopeful that my sense of learning resonates with them and has affinities with Jay’s views.

An inescapable OURNESS.

Photo Credits

Adelaide Oval (Jack Tanner, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

#relearn (Andrew Gillott)

Autoethnography (St. Blaize, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Red Basketball Hoop (Acid Pix, CC BY 2.0)