An unbridled enthusiasm for life

Sometimes, when I see a baby or a toddler and they give me a certain look, I know that they’ve been here before. They’re old souls. This isn’t their first go around. They may have been on earth for only a few weeks, but they seem old, wise, experienced.

Rarer still, though, is to meet someone at the other end of the age spectrum who has managed to retain that unbridled enthusiasm for life more commonly associated with those too young to be cynical, too energetic to be tired, too inexperienced to be jaded.

It was 2010. Budapest. The café above the Alexandra bookstore at Nyugati tér. A friend of mine had asked me to meet one of her dad’s friends who was writing a book in English and needed some help/advice on getting published. He was, she told me, an Olympian.

I’d never met an Olympian before, someone who’d not only competed in the Olympic Games but had also won medals. Someone who not only won medals but had gone on to coach others to win them, too. I’ll admit to being a little stagestruck. What I knew about water polo could be written on one lens of a pair of swimming goggles. What I knew about Olympic history would have fit on the other. As for István Görgényi, I’d never heard of him.

Photo: Török Attila

I arrived with a list of questions, questions I never got to ask. It was long after that coffee that I began to amass snippets of information about the man who made such a lasting impression on me.

Görgényi was one the fastest players in the world with a 55.2-second personal best at 100 metres. He represented Hungary in the water 96 times and medalled in European and World Championships. His silver medal from the Munich Olympics in 1972 though, was a highlight as was coaching the Australian Women’s Water Polo Olympic Team to gold in 2000.

Outside the pool, Görgényi graduated in law and wrote his dissertation on criminology, regularly visiting the psych department at Pest County Hospital to gather material. He was so taken with the psychology of life that he studied the subject and then worked as a social worker, family, and group therapist. It was all about the team.

But water polo was still in his blood. After missing out on the Hungarian National Coach position by just two votes, he was offered a job in Nice. During his four successful years there, he reported on the Cannes Film Festival for the Hungarian magazine Élet és Irodalmat (Life and Literature) for no other reason than he liked to write, and he was there. A man of many talents indeed and not one to turn a blind eye to opportunity.

But why is this 75-year-old still full of life and energy and enthusiasm? When others his age or younger no longer dip as much as a toe in the pool, Görgényi is still making waves.

Adding up all his experiences as a player, a coach, and a group therapist,  Görgényi has a better handle than most on why we do what we do, both as individuals and as members of a team. At the turn of the millennium, he developed the  Hunting Territory™ model and method of group dynamics founding the Hunting Territory Institute in Australia in 2005 and Hunting Territory Ltd in Hungary in 2009. And this, this is what makes him tick.

He used the story of Deepwater Horizon to explain the method to me. Billed as the world’s largest oil spill, the 2010 disaster off the coast of Louisiana could well have been avoided had the players been more aware of their territorial overlaps. It’s a fascinating story.

At heart, we’re all territorial beings. We like our space. At best we share our knowledge freely with our colleagues and co-workers; at worst we zealously guard what we know for fear that someone might replace us. In an ideal world, we’d all cooperate and work together, each of us doing what we do best, each of us adding our unique piece to the same jigsaw puzzle.

Our world, though, is far from ideal. Instead, too many of us work on one thing and not enough work on another. We look to our bosses for appreciation instead of to our experts for feedback. Some part of us is still that child desperately seeking parental approval, wanting to get things done without upsetting the powers that be. We go to huge lengths to avoid confrontation when openness is what’s needed. We fail to recognise when it’s best to work by ourselves and when we need to collaborate. Indeed we are territorial animals, making our beds in organisational silos, owning everything that’s right about it and denying all that’s wrong.

As Görgényi explained how the methodology works, I thought of my time in the corporate world when I could have used something like Hunting Territory™ to successfully navigate a merger or make the best decisions possible when facing unavoidable headcount cuts. I thought of small and medium-sized businesses I’d worked with who could have done with Hunting Territory™ to avoid making the same mistakes the big corporates still make. I thought of my regional, national, and global volunteer work and how Hunting Territory™ could have saved us all from reinventing the wheel and instead leverage the expertise we had to play with.

Being the coach behind the team that beat the US Olympic Team in front of a crowd of 17000 (including royalty and heads of state) with a goal scored in the last second of the game is some achievement. But using your cumulative life experience to develop a methodology that recognises…

“a form of behaviour by which a player, or more commonly a group of players, form ownerships of parts of the team process, often subconsciously, and disdaining the broad collective interest, ultimately cause it to break down”

…and then shows people how to avoid it, that’s a legacy.

In an era where cynicism reigns, conspiracies abound, and far too much is fake, it was refreshing to be reminded there are still people working way past the final whistle, committed to figuring out what can be done differently so that bad stuff can be avoided.

István Görgényi is worth talking to.


First published in the Budapest Times 11 February 2021

5 Responses

  1. Inspiring stuff! (And I regret I’d never heard of him).
    But I did have a woah! moment on finding you have adopted ‘medal’ as a verb!

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