World-renowned High-Performance coach, John McGrath, has positively changed the lives of many athletes globally for almost two decades and he plans to continue making an impact for years to come.
Born in Ireland, McGrath discovered the sport of rowing which radically transformed his life, as he began to travel across the world at an early age.
Coming from a poverty-stricken background, McGrath was determined to break the chain to provide a better future for his family and himself.
As he competed for his country, McGrath was awarded a sports scholarship from the Waterford Institute of Technology, allowing him to study Sport Management and Science.
He could then extend his sport knowledge with academic theory.
At 23, during the International Open Championship in Belgium, McGrath was struck with excruciating pain, his lower back betraying him with a bulging, leaking disc.
This setback did not deter him as doctors wrote off his sports career. Instead, McGrath challenged himself as he returned to his earlier interest in martial arts.
Under the master tutelage of DoJuNim Ji – Bruce Lee’s teacher – McGrath earned his black belt in Hapkido – as well as in four other styles of martial arts: Karate, Kombatan, Kung Fu and kickboxing.
At 39, John fought for Ireland in the European Kickboxing Champions in Macedonia, making the semi-finals.
In 2008, a recession in Ireland struck, leaving McGrath with little to nothing after years of grafting.
Determined to get back on his feet, he made a conscious decision to start over in South Africa.
With no network, McGrath started from the bottom but reveals that the challenge allowed him to turn out to be the man that he is today.
Speaking with Celine Abrahams, McGrath chats about the importance of High-Performance training and reveals what is preventing South African athletes from being the best in the world.
John, thank you for chatting to us! Please tell us about yourself and how you got involved in High-Performance coaching?
Hi, Celine. Well, I have been an athlete myself, so I have always been interested in High-Performance – being a rower and a kickboxer. So, I had a great personal interest in it and been really curious. Albert Einstein had a quote on this saying that he was not really brilliant at anything but was just super curious and I felt the same way.
I was super curious about how this could work, and I knew that it was, uhm, in a world where everyone is close to the physical limitations, the preparations and it’s very professional in terms of prehab, rehab, you know from the physical perspective. But I felt that there was this whole area that people weren’t looking at and I was just absolutely amazed and intrigued by it.
I saw this gap when I began to realize many athletes that I was working with, the problems or should I say the blockers to their further growth and achievement were more often than not off the pitch, the court, the track than on it. That’s when I began to realize that there was a real need for this.
I had a life-long interest in it, as I mentioned. I started reading my first books around 1987/88 on the subjects and there wasn’t a whole lot about it at that time in terms of High-Performance, etc…But, I started doing an awful lot of research particularly when I came to South Africa.
I realized that you’ve got to treat the athlete holistically and often times it is what goes on off field that has a profound effect and can be a massive support system. If the support system is not correct, the athlete regardless of talent is going to struggle. So, for me it’s about putting those little pieces together in what you would call a support system.
What are some of the benefits athletes get from working with you?
Well, for starters if I work with someone, I’m all in! I’m all in or nothing. They have my full support and that is a great part of establishing a support system around an athlete. And, being an athlete before, I know what it is like. I know what the feelings are, I know what the struggles are like. So, I come from a place of empathy with the athlete because I know that the struggle is real. I know what doubt is, I know what fear is and because of that I really understand from a practical view and not just on an academic level.
I struggled myself to break through and I guess that helps enormously as well on top of all the others, you know, travel, working with various coaches around the world, but that is one of the things that they can see that I can help and map out a path for them. We all need to be guided and there’s a path that each of us will get to take and often we are focused on outcomes, whether we win this or position or get into a final. So, I focus on more long-term, yes, we need to account for the short-term, but I love to have a long-term view of where the athlete needs to go and I mean that in a wholistic sense as well, in all areas of their life.
Over the years, we know you have come across many athletes who are facing various challenges. What are some of the most common challenges among athletes?
I guess the most common challenge is that they can’t see the wood from the trees! They are too busy doing it and too busy in it to have any perspective on it. One thing I have is perspective from above and to be able to look down and see where they need to go, see what the next steps are.
“Many of the times it’s just having that belief in themselves that is one of their biggest obstacles.” – High-Performance coach, John McGrath
Many of the times it’s just having that belief in themselves that is one of their biggest obstacles. Also, it’s not having a strong enough support system and I have seen that with so many athletes in this country that have a ridiculous amount of talent but not enough support system to get the best out of them. This is what is preventing South Africa from becoming a Jamaica on the athletics track – support systems…
What have been your challenges? We know that you moved to South Africa due to a recession that took place in Ireland?
I had many challenges in my life and many difficult circumstances growing up in poverty. The crash in 2008 that you speak of in Ireland was very real and it particularly hit me bad at that time. I suppose the saying that when everything changes, change everything…
At that time, I had been to 47 different countries around the world and I knew one day when I came to Africa, that South Africa was going to be where I was going to spend the rest of my life. I absolutely love it here, I love the diversity of it, I just love the freedom – there’s a freedom in Africa to be yourself that isn’t necessarily recognized or realized in other countries. So yeah, I moved, and I am happy that I moved.
What was it like starting from ground zero in another country?
In a nutshell…Very, very, very difficult! I had no network, nobody that I knew, and it just was incredibly difficult. It was a case of you don’t know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have. So, when it’s the only choice you have to make things happen in your life then you have to do it by all costs. And, that’s what I did! It was really difficult to be honest about it but also incredible.
“I wouldn’t be the coach that I am in any shape or form without all of those difficulties.” – McGrath speaks on his challenges moving to South Africa after suffering from a recession in Ireland which negatively impacted his life.
Incredible in a sense that it gave me life experiences and learnings that I would have never had before, and I have grown so much in the 10 years that I have been here. I wouldn’t be the coach that I am in any shape or form without all of those difficulties. Life always throws you curveballs, there’s always rough seas but it’s how you deal with them that matters and I chose to deal with that in the best way that I could. I am always grateful for everything that happens.
In your professional world, in order for you to motivate others, you need to be motivated yourself. Where do you draw inspiration from, especially during difficult times?
Yeah, in my previous case losing all the physical things, the house, the car, etc, you learn that you will always have yourself and that is the most important asset that you will ever have. Who you are, your own unique self, that’s one thing that I learnt.
I then set a goal to positively impact a million people in my lifetime, to impose a direct impact and that is still my goal today. That is what keeps me on my toes, it keeps me on my feet, it gets me up in the morning. These goals are critical to have, goals that you continue to move towards.
I made my mind up that my life was going to stand for something because I want to live an impactful life. A life where I can leave a mark in this world before I depart from earth. Once you make your mind up to do something like that, the rest will follow. If you can find the ‘why’, the ‘how’ will follow.
What are some moments that have taken place in your career that you will always cherish?
I suppose in rowing, I won a silver medal in the Mexican Grand Prix Regatta. That was incredible! My first Black Belt in kickboxing, training with Grand Master DoJuNim Ji – Bruce Lee’s coach – and getting my Black Belt from him.
The athletes that I worked with back in Ireland in the sport of hurling, winning various titles and championships. One team I worked with, we only had two losses in 3 years – that was absolutely amazing!
The athletes that I worked with here in South Africa, such as Dawid Malan, the cricket player. Also, Luvo Manyonga – the night that he became an Olympic silver medalist and ultimately a world champion, the journey that I had travelled with him is a memory that I will never forget. These are some of the highlights that I will always remember.
2020 has been a difficult year for athletes due to the global Coronavirus pandemic and with sport making its way back, what advice would you give to them to end the year on a high?
“If you decide to turn things around, you will be amazed at what one can do if you have a goal to do so.” – McGrath speaks on athletes having the mindset to end 2020 on a high.
It has been difficult indeed, but difficulties create opportunities. It is always what you decide to do with that, and it is up to each individual. You can either say, “Write the year off,” or “I’m going to in some way improve myself.” If you decide to turn things around, you will be amazed at what one can do if you have a goal to do so. Or, you can just relax because the next year will come and competition will be there. The opportunities are going to be there in the months and years ahead. It is all up to the individual…
What plans are you working on for the future, especially in uplifting female athletes?
I would love to work with a national federation and one that is an underdog, athletes that are underdogs, that’s what I am aiming for and that’s where my passion is. I’m going to keep looking for that opportunity as well. Also, I have to keep myself both mentally and physically strong. These are my plans to stay ready for the opportunities that’s inevitably going to come my way.
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