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Comment & Analysis | Sport

Dual duty in the Déise: Derek McGrath on balancing teaching with his hurling ‘obsession’

Waterford manager Derek McGrath is a teaher by profession [Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Ken Sutton]
Waterford manager Derek McGrath is a teaher by profession [Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Ken Sutton]
WHILE addiction causes the human mind to feel unfulfilled unless it is indulging in the object of desire, obsession is somewhat different.

Experts suggest obsession can be born of anxiety, such as fear of negative consequences if certain routines or rituals are not followed. Or, in sporting terms, the fear of failure.

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Waterford manager Derek McGrath has never been addicted to hurling, but he has been obsessed for a number of years, and combining that obsession with his profession as a secondary school teacher is finally taking its toll.

“It’s an absolute pure love of hurling, maybe even an obsession,” he told The Irish Post, tentatively, although the obsession is clear. “When someone’s obsessive, it can weigh heavy on you. It’s about getting the balance right between wanting to do something special for your county and maintaining standards within your job, but that’s hard.

“I’m finding it difficult at the moment. The general perception is that, when you’re a teacher, because you have three months off, two weeks off at Easter and two weeks at Christmas, it’s the only job that is suited to inter-county management.

“I’ve got a sixth year honours English class this year and we’re just finishing the course content at the moment. I don’t think game-plans or the format of the National League are central to their mindset right now, but sometimes I just find myself drifting off towards the match that’s happening on Sunday, even when I’m in class.”

Much has been made about the potential burnout of youngsters in GAA, and it has been quite rightly addressed, but the mental and physical wellbeing of those who have dedicated decades of service to our games often gets overlooked.

Whether we like to admit it or not, the level of input at the higher end of the inter-county scene is borderline professional. Dedicated players, managers and panellists essentially have two jobs, as McGrath alludes to.

“Going forward, I’m not sure if it’s sustainable,” he added. “I’m not sure if we’re able to combine our work with, let’s say, our other work. People will say it’s a vocation or there’s an element of altruism to it, and they’re probably right, but it’s difficult to switch from it, and I find that difficult at times.

“It’s a question of sustainability and balancing the work life with the GAA, because at the end of the day my students are just interested in getting their mark in English. I’m their facilitator in trying to get that particular mark, but at times I do find myself drifting towards thoughts of Sunday or what lies ahead in training.”

Allianz Hurling League Division 1A, Walsh Park, Waterford 14/2/2016 Waterford vs Kilkenny Waterford manager Derek McGrath Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan
Training is never far from the mind of McGrath [©INPHO/Cathal Noonan]
Describing boxing as his ‘second favourite’ sport, McGrath takes inspiration for his managerial role from all angles, but the danger that comes with being obsessive first struck him during some casual reading.

“I read Guillem Balagué’s biography of Pep Guardiola a number of years ago and I’ve read (Martí Perarnau’s book) Pep Confidential in the last couple of weeks,” he said.

“I’m not trying to link myself with Guardiola or anything like that, but I just find that he was obsessional when he was dealing with Barcelona, to the point that he realised this obsession can’t continue and that maybe he needed to step back to get better at it, and move on to the next project.

“He thinks outside the box, but then I see elements of good management in people that I work with in school that I can apply to hurling. Guardiola is just a more famous example.”

Famous indeed, and McGrath is looking forward to getting a closer look at the management techniques of the Spaniard later this year when he makes the switch from Bayern Munich to Manchester City.

“That will be interesting,” he smiles. “What’s probably helping him is that the media are reporting Manchester City as bottlers, that they’ve no heart. For me, as a manager, that would be an ideal scenario to go into, because if you can change that mindset, or their honesty and integrity, then the manager is the one that is perceived to have changed all that.”

As interesting as it may be to dive into psychological workings of a top level GAA manager, you can’t keep a genuine hurling man from talking about his own sport for long.

McGrath revealed his desire to ‘do something special’ for his county and this Sunday Waterford hope to retain the National Hurling League title for the first time in their history.

Standing in their way, though, are Clare, who recently made everyone sit up and take notice once again with a resounding 4-22 to 2-19 win over Kilkenny, which largely overshadowed Waterford’s defeat of Limerick in the other league semi-final.

The talent on show in both squads has neutral hurling fans excited at the thought of Kilkenny being denied a third straight All-Ireland in September, but McGrath stressed the importance of finishing off a good league campaign to bring confidence into the summer.

“It would,” he said, when asked if winning back-to-back league titles would be a big statement to the other All-Ireland contenders. “We would feel that our best chance [of winning the All-Ireland] is to have confidence garnered from good solid league performances. We’re not the type of team who can turn it on just in time for the championship.

“We’re coming from a lower base than the other teams in terms of tradition, I’m talking Kilkenny, Tipp and Clare, who won an All-Ireland a few years ago (2013). We feel like the best base or the best catalyst for us, in terms of success, is probably to be successful in the league, because that breeds confidence.”

That said, McGrath is not convinced that the old perception of ‘it’s only the league’ is gone from the inter-county scene.

“Other teams, over the years, have kind of considered us to be timing ourselves right for the championship. But to us, the league is actually everything. Every game means everything to us.

“We’re happy with the overall team attitude and effort – that’s the most important thing for us. We’re by no means the finished article but we’re certainly working harder towards getting better each time we go out.

“Obviously, everyone’s goal and aspiration is to win an All-Ireland – that’s without question – but within the camp we’re just going from week-to-week. That’s how we get better, and if we don’t improve then we’re not going to compete for an All-Ireland.”

Indeed, that fear of failure, as the Déise wait for a first All-Ireland Senior Hurling title since 1959, is driving the obsessive McGrath closer to the ultimate glory.


Jamie Casey

Jamie Casey is Sports Editor of The Irish Post. Follow him on Twitter @jamiecasey37

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