The building blocks of a successful Athletes’ Commission

Olympian and former snow sports athlete Shane O’Connor was elected Chair of the Ireland Athletes’ Commission (AC) in 2017. Since then, the AC has been highly successful in making tangible, positive differences to athletes’ lives. Here, Shane outlines his advice for how other ACs can best support their athletes and achieve their goals.

  • Shane O’Connor is Chair of the Ireland Athletes’ Commission, which has enjoyed significant success in helping its athletes over the last few years.
  • ACs should have a solution-focused mindset when it comes to athlete issues, says Shane, and he insists that collaboration and compromise are fundamental.
  • Here, he outlines some of the initiatives implemented by the AC and offers his advice for other commissions looking to enact change.

Collaboration

One of the main things that has been key to our success as a commission is the support of our NOC, and its investment in the AC’s structures which gives us capacity to do more work. Without these we would definitely not be as effective as we are.

We’ve recently got really involved with the preparation for Tokyo 2020, including a collaborative partnership with the NOC to help provide sports science and medical services for all of our Olympic hopefuls. Alongside that we also held an event for Tokyo hopefuls in December 2018 that about 70 athletes from a number of sports attended, where members of the AC spoke about the challenges they faced at the halfway stage of an Olympic cycle and tools they used to overcome them.

On top of that of work with the NOC, we consult with a range of national and international organisations on key challenges relevant to athletes such as clean sport, Rule 40, athlete agreements, the establishment of sports science and medical partnerships, and athlete welfare initiatives. We don’t shy away from contentious issues which is important as you should look to consider and collaborate on all issues that impact athletes.

It’s also important to recognise where you should lead versus where you should support – looking back to 2017 I recall one of the first things we did when we were formed which was to sit down with the Sport Ireland Institute to see what they do and work out how we could engage with each other. They already had an athlete welfare programme in place, but they didn’t have access to a wide group of athletes, nor the Olympic mandate that the AC does. So, we act as a sounding board for them and we help input into the programmes that they build. Then once the programmes are rolled out, we help increase awareness by endorsing it to the wider athlete body.

Look for solutions, not problems

Don’t just highlight issues. Look for solutions. That is a key piece of advice I have for any AC. I work in a non-sport environment day-to-day, in which we have to continually evolve in terms of strategies and technology. If we just talked about problems and never looked for solutions, we’d never make any money. It’s the same for ACs. If you just talk about the problems and then complain about them without ever actually proposing solutions – and I mean practical solutions that have some level of collaboration and compromise in them – then you’re never going to be successful.

For a practical example, one of the very first things we discussed when we met as the commission was the tax situation for athletes in Ireland, including whether athletes, in recognition for the commitment and dedication to their sport, should be included into the social support networks on retirement to ensure a smooth transition post-retirement. We proposed some feasible changes to the Irish government. Their response was that it wasn’t going to happen anytime soon because it would be such a significant change to the system, but the conversation is started now, and it’s something we’re going to keep chipping away at.

It all comes back to finding solutions, and the need to find a solution that works for all sides and if that’s not possible at least compromise. Over time I think we’ve earned the respect of the right people, and they will listen and at least discuss ideas with us. Ultimately much of our success to date is founded on our approach to seek out solutions, collaborate and compromise rather than just raise issues.

Ultimately much of our success to date is founded on our approach to seek out solutions, collaborate and compromise rather than just raise issues.

Be prepared to look at the bigger picture

When we’re debating an athlete issue, there’s always a back story. We try to have open conversations as a commission and we always try to take a step back from whatever issue we’re looking at. If it’s something that we all feel strongly about then somebody has to play devil’s advocate and put forward the other side of the argument. You shouldn’t dive into a subject headfirst just because a big name or someone with lots of experience in the sport is saying that it’s an issue or an injustice. We need to ask if there’s something behind the headline. Is there an alternative agenda or somebody else driving the conversation?

I’m reluctant to say this, because it’s a bit like blowing your own trumpet, but having a strong chair and one who doesn’t have divisive or strong views on the key issues is important. It brings a balance where the chair’s job is to moderate the discussion, and to make sure that the group reaches a consensus and a position that the group have agreed on, even if there are some dissenting voices. That allows us to move forward.

Be part of the conversation

The best way to find solutions is to get involved in the bodies and organisations that make the systems and make the decisions by placing AC members in decision-making groups. For example, I’m an active member of the board for the Olympic Federation of Ireland, and one of our members, David Gillick, regularly represents Sport Ireland as an athlete representative at WADA events. Our vice-chair Gavin Noble is one of the Deputy Chefs de Mission for Tokyo 2020, which is great as he brings the athlete perspective to the logistics that are being planned round the Games, which is really powerful.

Gavin also sat on a Sport Ireland high-performance planning group which essentially came up with the plan for how support would be delivered and structured as part of Ireland’s national sports policy. And, similarly, I sat on a government steering committee for the implementation of our National Sports Policy. That gave us, as athlete representatives, a direct say in how the government policy for sport might be implemented over the next 10 years or so, which is pretty significant!

Are you involved in an Athletes’ Commission? Explore our collection of resources designed specifically to empower and inspire ACs here.