People first, musicians second

Derek McGrath gave the keynote speech at the recent GAA Coaching Conference. He recently retired as Waterford hurling manager after 5 years in the job.

His speech (you can watch it here) didn’t focus on drills, tactics, discipline or matches, but rather on people, their wellbeing, and how the relationships he had with his players and that they had with each other contributed to the special Waterford hurling team he built.


Many of his points hit home with me, He could have been talking about many genres within music when he spoke of the importance of fusing the old traditional methods and attitudes with innovation and evolution.

Likewise when he spoke of getting the balance between emotion and instruction right – both musicians and athletes must get the emotional pitch just right in their performances as overstepping the mark may inhibit their ability to complete what they have been instructed to do.

Musicians, like sportsmen and women, also want to perform to the best of their ability on the big stage. They have a two-way relationship with the people who come to see them perform, where they firstly must feed and then feed off the crowd’s energy. They also often need others around them to perform in order for them to be at their best.

McGrath felt the best way to achieve this level of performance was to fuse the ME and the WE – not to deny the ego, but to channel it towards the collaborative, towards the team. Honesty, authenticity, integrity were most important to him and he created these values in his team culture.

But the key, according to him, was to treat his players as people first, sportsmen second, and as a result he believes he got the best out of a group of young men, on and off the field.

McGrath’s team never won an All-Ireland. But the legacy and lessons he left with his group of players about their mental and physical wellbeing will stay with them for life.

Which is more important?


I'm Kieran and I play piano. Actually I do a bit more than just playing - I teach others how to play, and I write music, arrange it and host/produce shows.

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