Relentless is a powerful word and you can picture something that never stops, wave after wave, determination, a powerful, unstoppable force.
For some reason the book “Relentless” by Mary White about the Cork ladies GAA team caught my attention.
This wasn’t a book about the success of a glamorous Premiership team, a World Cup team, a famous boxer or even a high profile GAA team – it was the incredible, largely under the radar, success story of the Cork ladies GAA team.
I think what grabbed me about this story is that there had been a huge transformation from decades of virtually zero success to an 11 year period whereby 29 titles were won including 10 All Ireland finals, nine Division One titles and 10 Munster titles.
Without a doubt Cork always had huge potential with a large selection of talented players to choose from, many who had enjoyed success at Club level but for some reason this never transformed itself into a successful county team.
Surely there was some magic behind this transformation, one thing that we could point to, one secret that we might all learn from that could help us in all aspects of our lives?
I eagerly turned the pages to search for the secret..
Instead of one “thing” I discovered lots of factors that contributed to this incredible achievement:
Pride in the Jersey
There was a really interesting incident after another miserable defeat against Kerry, which could have been a turning point. After the match the players one by one were throwing their jerseys on the dressing room floor and a leader appeared.
Mary O’Connor, the only player to have won a medal with Cork ‘lost it’ at this point “We don’t throw the Cork jersey on the ground any more. We earn those jerseys and we need to respect that. Fold them and put them back into the bag for the person kind enough to wash them for us. Our attitude needs to change, and it changes now!”
Step up a leader – well done Mary O’Connor.
The right people on the bus
Some of the key individuals who were involved from the previous era had to be removed as they were identified as part of the problem – there had to be changes and even though this was a painful process it had to happen in order for real change to occur.
The need for this change to occur was identified as being necessary.
An unwavering belief was instilled in this group – while this seems like an obvious one it was a huge achievement to make a team of disbelievers actually believe that success was possible.
How do you change this mindset?
Clear vision and goals
This group of players were given a clear vision and goals by the manager. The manager produced a paper, which was distributed to the group, which outlined clearly what his vision was for the group.
This is what I want – who is with me?
This Cork team trained more than any of the other teams. This training improved the team. Lets repeat this – they trained more than any of the other teams. Train more, win more – that’s a big lesson!
While this is a very simple factor this group of players were inspired and motivated to want to give so much of themselves. Cork is a big county and many of the players were travelling huge distances on a regular basis just to get to training.
How do you get a group to want to do this?
Over this 11 year period this large group of players were inspired to give total commitment to the team – this wasn’t a glamorous ‘premiership’ project whereby stardom would be guaranteed. It was about something totally different.
How do you change a group to suddenly make them want to give absolutely everything?
Comradery not Rivalry
In the early days these individual talents used come together and stick to their own club cliques, sitting together and not mixing. It’s simple to see how this behaviour would not lead to a successful formula.
This changed and in time this bunch of individuals and cliques were playing for each other – how did this change occur?
Dealing with disagreements
Disagreements used happen as you could imagine but instead of these leading to divisions and a disjointed group a fair mechanism of dealing with these occurred and the group got tighter with problems being solved without festering resentments.
This was a big achievement that cannot be underestimated.
Coping with disappointment
Success was not immediate and there were some early disappointments that could easily have meant that heads would drop and the rebuilding project would derail.
This was not allowed to happen and instead valuable learning’s were banked from every disappointment to help towards future success.
Later on there were further setbacks, which could easily have demoralised the team and end the run of success. This team always rebounded from every single setback.
Evolution and Experience
The management team had a lot of experience and a very clever thing they seemed to achieve was a powerful blend of experience and youth at all times in the team. Over 11 years this balance always seemed to be there with new faces, youth and energy carefully and constantly being introduced to an experienced group producing a winning formula.
Judging the need for fresh faces and getting the timing of their introduction right is a huge skill.
Playing for each other – friends?
At the Dublin Momentum Summit I heard Munster and Irish rugby legend Paul O’Connell speaking about the importance of ‘playing for each other‘.
This element was abundantly clear in Relentless. This team made up of club rivals who initially wouldn’t sit together would end up doing anything for each other.
A spirit and togetherness was instilled in this group that made them virtually unbeatable – this was demonstrated time after time throughout the 11 years, most often during times of sadness and loss.
This team had trips away in the sun, half of them ended up with food poisoning on one of these trips – did someone decide that going away together was good for team bonding?
Never say die attitude
From the outside you imagine a team that was invincible, one that blew all opposition out of the way. While there was plenty of evidence of this during the 11 years there were also many times when this team were beaten, dead on their feet and staring at certain defeat.
This team won these matches – it always seemed to find something at these moments, there was a belief deep inside enough of the team or the management to turn things around and change certain defeat to success.
At times it was the experienced players, at times it was inspired substitutions – at all times there was enough belief in the team to lift everyone. 10 points down with 15 minutes to go and being played off the park in the 2014 All Ireland final – this Cork team won these matches.
Who instilled this in this Cork team?
All players count and no stars
While this team did have its top performers and it’s “stars” there were times when matches were won by the young guns, by the unsung heroes by the solid defenders who knew how to close games out.
This was a team, not a group of talented individuals.
Injuries and comebacks
I was really shocked by the amount of injuries endured by members of the team. For some stupid reason I was thinking with ladies there wouldn’t be as many (stupid me!) – the book is littered with stories of initial despondency, motivation, resilience, hard work, incredible recoveries and determination by those who were injured and there were the teammates who wanted to win for them.
This team had steel in abundance.
When you win a big trophy for the first time do you take the foot off the gas? When you win a second time – do you notch down a gear and maybe not work quite as hard the next year, because after all, you are the best?
Managing complacency and guarding against it must have been one of the greatest achievements of this team – who was responsible for making sure this did not happen?
Someone has to make the tough decisions and have the intelligence and gut to know when the time is right to make them. Choosing who is in the squad and who isn’t, who is in the team and who isn’t, dropping big players and introducing unproven, young players. At key moments in matches knowing when changes were needed and making the right changes.
Someone made a lot of very brave decisions over and over.
These 11 years had no extraordinary factors – there were no fancy methods, definitely no fancy facilities, no fancy perks. Deliberately keeping it simple and with no frills seemed to work perfectly.
Knowing the right thing to do at the right time and knowing the right thing to say at the right time to ensure this team were always in the right frame of mind to win over and over was pure genius.
At times the team thought that the methods of their coach, former teacher, father of six, grandfather Eamonn Ryan were a little strange but ultimately they trusted him implicitly and would run through brick walls for him.
The book has many examples of inspirational things he did and said to individuals and the team such as the ‘flying V formation of geese flying‘ analogy:
By flying in V formation, the whole flock adds at least 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own.
People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going more quickly and easily because they are travelling on the trust of one another.
Finally one of the most impressive success factors evidenced in the book is the humility of the team and the management. No one was allowed get ahead of themselves and everyone treated everyone with the utmost respect.
Their rivals held the Cork team in the highest regard because of how they behaved themselves and how they ‘wore’ their considerable success.
This humility is best captured by coach Eamonn Ryan when he was asked about this incredible success story, the team and his role in it:
“I’m grateful for their cooperation, for no recriminations when I made a mess of things, and I’m grateful for their patience when things didn’t go well.
They did their best, I did my best, and we all had a great time”
I spent the whole book looking for that one thing, that one factor that could explain all of this success and it seems to be …
The Coach – Eamonn Ryan
“He created a family situation where everybody relied on everybody else, and we all new we needed each other”
He took over this team in 2004 while he was coming to the end of treatment for prostate cancer.
This former teacher had a fantastic, simple, positive way of training and motivating the team: “Whatever we did, he was praising us loads. Praise meant so much to us, particularly the older girls. When it came to Cork we had no confidence in ourselves or in the set-up and brick by brick, Eamonn built it back up. He kept telling us we were great footballers”
It seemed to work!
I highly recommend this fantastic book by Mary White which is available online and in all good bookstores!
Greg Canty is a Partner of Fuzion who offer Marketing, PR and Graphic Design services from our offices in Dublin and Cork