National Sports Policy – High Performance

Gary and Paul O'Donovan celebrate winning a silver medal 12/8/2016

The Government has sought input from those with an interest in Irish Sport on how to frame a new national Sports policy for the next decade.  

This is the first time in 20 years that such a framework will be adopted at Government level and it is a crucial opportunity to put sport into its important context as part of overall Government thinking.

Over the coming days Sport for Business will publish a series looking at each of the fifteen areas in which contributions have been sought.

The closing date for making your views known has been extended to January 16th.  Details on the Consultation process and how to make a submission can be found here.

The Key Areas of interest and the Sport for Business views on each as they are published over the next week are as follows:

Questions for consideration in high performance

What targets should be set for high performance sport e.g. number of medals won, podium finishes, impact on participation levels, others?

In a world of finite financial resource and investment there has to be a strong and obvious relationship between the twin pillars of participation and high performance.

There is a clear relationship between the amount of money invested in a high performance programme and the output in terms of medals.  To wish for one without the other is naive in the modern world of technology, nutrition and performance coaching.

Likewise to spread investment too thin across all sports without heed of their potential to yield medals will end in general disappointment occasionally punctured by an exception albeit largely singular performance.

Looking at a metric to judge high performance in isolation is not an exercise that will give rise to any satisfaction unless it is a first step towards an integrated approach.  Whether it is the first place to start is open to debate.

jamieIt is critical that a strong link needs to be identified between success at the highest level and participation.  In big team sports that can be easier done.  Children see Jamie Heaslip, Bernard Brogan or Stephanie Roche and they want to emulate them.  Running on a piece of grass and kicking a ball is natural and easy.  There is a mature club structure to accommodate them.

In the less mainstream sports the challenges are bigger and the resources smaller.

Rowers Paul and Gary O’Donovan set the nation alight in Rio and anecdotally that has led to a surge in interest in signing up to try rowing.

Irish Rowing is meeting the demand on the ground with school and other programmes getting rowing machines front of mind and creating a halo effect around high performance and beneficial physical activity.

Translating that onto the water will be the next challenge and the success there may provide learning for how others can emulate and build on success.

Medals are the gold standard and what catches the attention in a busy sporting world.  Podium finishes, personal best performances and qualifications are rightly measured and treasured within the high performance camp but they are of fleeting interest to the wider public and should always be seen in the context of this debate as stepping stones rather than an end goal, painful though that may sound.

What are the strengths of the current high performance structures i.e. talent identification and management process for elite athletes, supports for elite athletes during and post their sporting career etc., and how can these be further enhanced?

Once again there is a divide here between the bigger, better funded major field sports and the ‘Olympic’ sports that represent the greater diversity of sporting endeavour.

Talent identification in most sports comes through a pyramid structure of local and regional coaches developing talent and than handing off to a higher level of coaching.  In a largely volunteer driven sporting culture this can give rise to issues of ‘credit’ as was seen in the case of Irish Boxing at the time of Billy Walsh’s departure.

It’s something that has to be accepted though and works as well as the talent of the coaches at every level.  The GAA is working through a stepped programme of coach up skilling so as to provide the best possible input from the earliest stages of development.

Other sports run similar coach education and this is an area we will address later in this look at the consultation.

Liam Harbison 18/5/2015The Institute of Sport as part of Sport Ireland at the national Sports campus has been a major advance since it’s introduction after the Athens Olympics of 2004.  The development of facilities and programmes to provide the high level of support that is needed to deliver performance is there.  The appointment of Liam Harbison to replace Gary Keegan at the helm should see further advances in this key area.

A programme of athlete support in ‘rest of life’ terms has been in place since Beijing for those who want to be part of it and while greater investment will improve the scale of this, there is at least a structure in place that has provided good results already.

Is the balance right as to the focus of Government spending on the various elements of high performance (carding scheme, coaching, NGBs, support services etc.)?

It is the case in sport across the board and around the world that the balance is always seen as awry and that generally it is too much geared towards ‘the others’.

Those ‘others’ are as seen through a prism of personal need and that is a natural feeling.

Every athlete will be at a particular point in their development with individual needs that are different.

There is likely an algorithm that can be produced to show a sliding scale of support and investment that will produce the optimum output and there is potential for looking at this as a project if only to define parameters and make the process of investment clear.

This could determine that an input of x across a universe of y athletes up to the age of 12 will produce m with a need per head of n to take them through an academy phase and then f with a need of g in order to produce s elite level qualifications and t medals.

Sport for Business has worked with enough experts in the field of big data and the interpretation of same to be confident that those elements can be identified.

The challenge then would be to gain buy in and acceptance from those who would inevitably lose out as individuals as sports if the numbers don’t add up at a particular point in time.

Should the high performance structure be more centralised or be devolved to individual NGB’s and how should the respective roles of the Department, Sport Ireland and NGB’s be defined?

Sport has a great capacity for seeing itself as unique.  There is of course an element of truth here but at a structural level there is far more to be gained from a collaborative approach to common challenges than in all chasing after the same solutions wearing different jerseys.

At present the line of command is that NGB’s deliver at an individual level, supported and financed by Sport Ireland, with the Department fighting for and providing that finance and seeking to provide guidance on broad themes as to how that money might be invested and tied to other areas of Government.

It is in the latter that the greatest impact can be gained if Sport, Education, Health, Finance, Tourism and Smart Transport can be better synchronised.  The Department’s ability to ‘open doors’ is it’s greatest potential contribution as was and will be seen in the bidding for hosting major events.  Similar cooperation down the line, backed up by a clearly communicated strategy and simple planning elements would make all the relationships easier.

A mission statement for sport, either incorporating or referencing once for physical activity can be the touchstone for development of sport as a key part of our society.

If this holds sway for four years then so be it.  The work that goes into getting it right before each cycle will doubtless deliver substantial benefit for those who fall inside or even outside its focused remit each time it changes.

If it changes every year though there will be little ability to build substance for the future.

What criteria should be applied when identifying what sports should qualify for High Performance support? Should the strategy be to fund a wide range of sports or focus on a smaller number of sports?

This can only be identified once a clear mission for sport is completed.  The greatest gain can be got from funding those sports who provide the greatest number with easiest access to getting active.

That statement in itself will cause spluttering in various sporting circles by virtue of inherently limiting diversity in terms of sporting pursuit.

So that needs to be an important element too.

Throwing a cake into the middle of the table favours those with the longest reach.  Cutting into too fine slices means those with the biggest appetites are unsatisfied.

Finding the right balance needs a lot of thought and modelling in order to get to a decision which is right, even if that is one which will not satisfy all those with a stake in the process.

What successful international high performance models could Ireland learn from?

New Zealand is often cited as a model to follow.  It has a similar strong indigenous sport that tends to dominate talent, in their case Rugby Union, in ours Gaelic Games.  It has a broadly similar population base and spread and the language barrier is not there to learning nuance as well as programme.

They do invest substantially more in order to do better and they also have a narrower focus on which sports they think they can do best in.

For Government or Sport Ireland to step up in the role of Solomon and determine what those sports of greatest return, either in medals, participation or some blend might be, may well be an outcome from this policy.

Are there other challenges and issues that need to be addressed in this area?

The biggest single gain can come from greater financial investment.  With sport o such a high globally in terms of attracting commercial support through sponsorship, partnerships and media rights, this is where that extra finance should be sought.

Successful programmes including in the US and UK have yet to crack the code on how this can be achieved but that does not mean we should not look.  Expertise and services can be every bit as valuable as a transfer of funds and a greater element of innovation in terms of bridging the gap between sport and business can yield positive results.

Join us for a morning of learning, networking and insight on the sporting year ahead and the sponsorship trends that will impact upon us on January 20th.  Reserve your place now. 


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