JUST HOW did a Presbyterian church built over 200 years ago in a small Donegal town become such a hotbed for Irish badminton? Raphoe only has a population of a couple of thousand yet its Badminton Club has produced Irish Olympians and multiple European medals. The local badminton club now primarily trains on the four courts at local secondary Deele College but its members still also use its unusual birthplace which was built in 1806 and a place of worship until 1949.
“It was an old Presbyterian church hall that was unused after a new church was built,” explains Daniel Magee, outlining the happy accident of its suitability. “It was just a one-court hall in the town’s ‘diamond’ but it had a good wooden sprung floor and blue walls, which are essential for seeing the shuttle. There was plenty of height to the roof which you also need. And it was a small town; you either went to the pub or played badminton!”
His father Sammy was one of Raphoe BC’s founding fathers so no surprise that four of the family (Daniel, Chloe, Sam and Joshua) immersed themselves in the game and rose to the top of the Irish ranks.
All have represented Ireland with distinction and their niece Rachael Darragh, the current Irish women’s number one, is another graduate of Raphoe BC. Since Chloe’s international retirement the three-time Olympian has moved back home and is coaching the club’s underage talent. Sam is now one of Badminton Ireland’s two elite coaches (concentrating on doubles) with Malaysian Iskandar Zulkarnain and Daniel is the sport’s High Performance Director. “I was lucky enough to first play (for Ireland) back in 2007 alongside players like Scott Evans and Sam, Huang Bing and Mark Topping when we won our division (fifth) in the Sudirman Cup, the World Mixed Team Championships.”
After completing a degree in geography at the University of Coleraine his road divided: should he keep playing or become a coach? Magee chose the latter and first worked for Badminton Ireland, as an assistant coach, in 2009-2010, when most of Ireland’s top players were still based in Dennmark or Sweden because there was no elite training centre here.
“The goal then was could we build a home-based training centre and qualify someone for an Olympics from here. Chloe was at a point where she wanted to move home from Sweden so that was the task.”
Badminton Ireland initially set up that high performance training system in Baldoyle, Dublin and Chloe not only qualified for Beijing 2008 but made history by becoming the first Irish player to win an Olympic match.
Badminton Ireland’s elite players subsequently moved to train at the Marino Institute of Education and, post-Rio, they established their high performance training centre in the National Indoor Arena on the Sport Ireland campus. Facilities and strategy are one thing but how has Magee, personally, improved his own coaching and leadership to elite level? He obtained his international federation’s (BWF) top coaching badge (level three) over a year and a half, through Denmark, but credits some other important local initiatives.
“Before London 2012 Sport Ireland set up a ‘Pursuit of Excellence’ group for high performance coaches which was led at the time by Daragh Sheridan in the Institute (of Sport). “Daragh was brilliant, he really challenged you as to what your shortfalls were as a coach. We did lots of different things, like training with the Gardai in Templemore, lots of simulation training for reacting in high pressure situations similar to what could happen at an Olympics. “In sports like badminton and boxing you have very small intervals where you might have 90 seconds to chat to your athlete between rounds so we did a lot of work on that; how to debrief properly after matches and after tournaments, how to prioritise what would impact on the final result. It really got you thinking about how you could shape and maximise our time at the Games.”
Magee says this type of peer-led in-service has proved invaluable and continues to benefit from it. “There’s now a group called ‘Sparking Performance’, led by Gary Ryan (Head of Capability and Expertise) from Sport Ireland which is a fantastic course. “It’s a group of high performance directors, all working with Olympic sports, who meet on a regular basis. For me to work with people who’ve been doing this for maybe two or three Olympic cycles, and from different countries and sporting environments, is just invaluable. “There’s a wealth of experience there which you need to lead a system, rather than be in the day-to-day grind of ‘managing’ it,” he stresses. “The Sparking Performance group is key for me to continue to develop myself and aligned with that, you’re visiting top nations to try and get ideas off them. Events like the World Coaches Conference when it comes around are also invaluable.” “There’s a lot to high performance in terms of logistics and culture in your performance centre (HPC) and your vision of where you want your sport to go.
“Having our own HPC on the same campus as Sport Ireland, the Sport Institute and now the Olympic Federation also has huge advantages for us. “We now have six fulltime athletes training here who have access to all the support systems they need at the Institute of Sport, which cuts out all the logistics for them. “We also have a ‘Podium Potential’ group underneath that, of athletes on the European underage circuit who training there as well daily. It’s been a really big project for us to grow our centre to this state and we’re in a very good place.”
But equally, for a HPD, there are also huge advantages to this centralised place of excellence. “There’s such high level personnel on campus now that you can reach out to any one at any time for information. Before maybe we were working in a bit of a silo but now there’s a much better exchange of knowledge across all the directors and sports. I feel really lucky to have come in to this role at this time.”
Life in Dublin may be a far cry from Raphoe yet the Magee family’s remarkable Olympic history will continue if Joshua (with doubles partner Paul Reynolds) and Rachael Darragh qualify for Paris 2024. So could it yet continue to the next generation? “Well my two are only two and four so there’s no badminton yet but there’s a few racquets about that they like to pick up and use more as a weapon,” he chuckles.