Lessons From a Decade in Sport

Karl O’Shaughnessy has blown the whistle on his ten-year career working in sport here in Ireland and today he shares with us some of the lessons he learned before moving into the different environment of further education at Trinity College.

There are points which will be familiar to those on the inside and others that will perhaps surprise those looking to break into this world.

These are the experiences of one individual but we thought it worth sharing with you for what might be gleaned

I was privileged to spend a decade working in the wonderful world of sports but I’m happy to report, I’m alright now!

Here are 10 things from my experience that the sports management courses in college never told you!

I left a career in sports after 10 long, enjoyable years in late January 2017. I love sport (I mean, really love sport!) and I learned a great deal over that time but I’d be lying a little if I said I wasn’t happy to move on after a decade at the coalface. As my career in sport headed into injury time, it was clear to me that a decade in sport had taken its toll in many ways.

Working in sport can often take over your life. Some days that’s amazing, other days it’s soul destroying. I’m not complaining about that, that’s just the harsh reality of working in sport. It’s very much a staple diet of long hours, late nights, lots of big egos and ironically, missing a lot of the big sporting events due to work commitments!

I often get asked by people now about what working in sport was really like. Was it all glamour and glitz as one might imagine? Was it the dream job? The answer to all this is “yes and no”. It’s an exciting environment to work in but it’s also a tough environment and it’s not always for the faint-hearted.

So anyway, here’s a few things I learned during my time working in sport. I’ve shied away from telling you all the great stories of events worked and celebrities and heroes met (and believe me, there are many). I’m bored of that stuff though and you would be quickly bored too of 1000 words of name dropping!

What I am going to tell you though might shed some light on what life in sport was really like and it does come 100% from my own real-life experience. It might surprise some of you but then again it might not. I don’t know if sports is really that different from any other industry but it certainly has it’s quirks!

I was extremely privileged in my time in sport working for and directly with some great international sporting institutions. They are all great organisations with many talented people working in them. In some rare cases, some of that talent isn’t allowed to be expressed or developed as it should be but that’s another day’s work.

Importantly, I should point out though that there are people in all of the sporting organisations I’ve worked for who really do care a great deal about the sport they represent. It may not always seem like that from the outside looking in but it really is true. Almost all of my direct colleagues cared deeply about the products and services they worked on. Well, except for the ones who only cared for themselves! There’s always those guys. And some gals, it must be said. Again, maybe some other time!

So anyway, here are those 10 home truths about working in sports you were looking for from my decade in sport:

1. Administrator is a dirty word — my experience in sport is that if you’re unfortunate enough to have the title administrator or a title that even hints at some level of administration, you’re effectively an outcast. Administrators don’t have minds of their own and nor should they think they do. Your job is to serve and serve you shall. Don’t even think about bringing any expertise you may have gained elsewhere. Sure what would you know, you’re only an administrator! And for god’s sake, don’t even try to encroach on the technical side of things. Nobody likes a driven, intelligent person who can turn their hand to the technical side of sport without having “played” the game at a level your colleagues appreciate!

2. Banter is your friend — The whole banter thing is overplayed in popular culture these days but there’s an air of truth to it when it comes to working in sport. I really miss some of the madness that went around the sports offices I worked in. Whether it was the “door-ball challenge” or the “look-a-like wall of fame” — the madness was generally always welcome. When you’re in the middle of long days and even longer nights of work, the “craic” has got me through to the end on more than one occasion. There’s a fine line though and I’ve seen it crossed many a time. Don’t let banter become bullying and it really should go without saying but don’t be offensive, racist or misogynistic. You’d be surprised (or would you?) how prevalent that stuff can sometimes be!

3. You share ideas but you’ll never own yours — “credit, where credit is due” is one of my favourite phrases. It’s one of my favourites largely because it was almost non-existent in some roles. I often best describe a good idea in sport as “an idea that someone else can easily take credit for”. I’m being a little facetious but I’ve certainly lost count of the times I sat in meetings where someone took credit for my work. Hell, I once had a colleague who grilled me in-depth on the future of digital sports and then put all in my thoughts into an article in a European governing body’s newsletter as his own! There’s an old saying that goes “it’s amazing what can be achieved when you don’t care who gets the credit”. The truth is, we all care when the credit isn’t warranted!

4. Tickets are the devil — I’m convinced Satan, if he exists, manifests himself through ticket requests from loved ones. I can’t begin to tell you how much money I lost buying tickets for people from my organisations, who then let me down and left me stuck with them. And if you’re lucky to avoid that scenario, there’s still the running around and meeting people to exchange cash and tickets. It is still my worst nightmare. If you ever find yourself in that situation, here’s what you tell your ticket hunter — “come and meet me at the office, with your money and I’ll get the tickets and hand them to you”. Anything other than that is a “cluster-feck” of epic proportions as the cool kids would say! Trust me.

5. Teamwork makes the dream work — It’s cheesy AF (that means “as feck” according to the aforementioned cool kids) but when the moons align and everyone is on the same page, sport seems to elevate teamwork to a whole new level that I just haven’t experienced in other jobs. These are the days you’ll treasure forever when you finally leave sport and you’ll talk about them much more than all of the other dramas and moments combined. If I could bottle that feeling, I’d really be onto something.

6. You are only useful when you are useful — I contemplated calling this section “there’s no friends in sport” but that’s not strictly true. I have made some lifelong friends while working in sport and I’m very grateful to have them in my life today. But it’s worth noting, when you cease to be useful, you’ll drop off many sports colleagues’ radar. People working in sport love to have your ear when you can do something for them or open certain doors. When you can’t do that anymore, you’ll be forgotten. Try not to take it personally. Most of the time it’s a blessing in disguise!

7. Ambition sometimes excuses bad behaviour — Wow, where to start with this one! Quite a few times over the years, I’ve heard bad behaviour by employees in sport brushed off and almost justified, as simply a consequence of someone’s “ambition”. Let’s be clear, there’s no where in the world where being ambitious means you should be an ass without remorse. I always took umbrage with the ambition excuse. It is possible be ambitious without being a monumental tool. Ambition is the life blood of sport. Who doesn’t want to be the best? The reality though is often that everyone wants to cross the finish line but no one wants to actually run the race!

8. If you don’t make it in politics, there’s always sport — Politics and sport don’t mix. Really? They mix quite well actually. I’m not sure how you can really prepare for the political minefield of sporting organisations. Every organisation I worked in is different and has its own set of unwritten rules. Ultimately, you often have to make one of two choices — play the game or don’t play the game! Only you can make that call but rest assured, even if you chose to not play, you’ll end up guilty by association anyway! You can’t win but you can always lose better!

9. There’s a world beyond sport — You have one life and your family deserve that you are present, healthy and happy. I wish someone had told me this a lot sooner because I lost moments of my life that I’ll never get back. Your family should always be number one. Always. Sport moves forward at a rapid pace and will forget you in a heartbeat. I’d like to think your family will be there with you to the bitter end, even if it’s just to make sure you’re finally gone!

10. Think like a fan — This is the single best piece of advise I can give to anyone working in or wanting to work in sport. Yes, it’s important to be professional and yes it’s important to use all the skills you’ve learned in college when you land in your new sports role but the biggest mistake you can make is to not take the time to consider how your work will look to a fan on the street outside. You can’t always please everyone but you can at least understand how things are going to play out with those who care so passionately about your sport. I really cringe today, when I see sports teams push out scheduled marketing messages ten minutes after an embarrassing defeat to their local rivals. How does that actually happen!? Know your audience and always be checking the temperature! If you take the time to just remove yourself from the corporate viewpoint for just a minute and “think like a fan”, you’ll not go far wrong. Fans might be idiots at times (I include myself in that!) but long before your marketing team started banging on about “influencers”, your fans as a group were living that role daily.

And there you have it. A decade of experiences in sport distilled to 10 bullet points.

In closing, I’d like to remove my tongue from my cheek and thank all of those people I worked with down through the years within sport. You all, whether intentionally or not, helped shape my future. One day I may return to a full-time role in sports but for now that chapter is closed. Sport is and always has been a wonderful institution. And like most institutions, madness is never too far behind! Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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