How elite Irish athletes bring their best game to develop business careers

Stamina, focus and perseverance – skills that transfer from the pitch to the boardroom

Liam Sheedy Photograph: ©INPHO

Elite sportspeople always draw big crowds on the speaking circuit. There is something compelling about their single-minded commitment that if bottled would make them multibillionaires.

For those who go to listen, there is a sneaking hope that some of their energy might rub off or that they might offer a short cut to high achievement. Dream on. As any elite athlete will tell you, there is no quick fix for low motivation or a lack of focus.

"Success doesn't just arrive at your door. It's all about the work ethic and putting in the hours," says Liam Sheedy, who played hurling for Tipperary and then coached its minor and senior teams to national success.

Sheedy is provincial director, Munster, with Bank of Ireland and uses the same management tools in business as he did in sport.


“Managing a team is managing a team – it’s all about building trust and getting the players or the members to give of their best,” he says. “Ensuring equality among members so that everyone feels included is also crucial. You may not be in the 15 out front, but you’re still part of the team that’s pushing them to achieve.

“I am a big believer in managing through positivity and in constantly looking at how things can be improved. Self-belief is also key and is something Irish people often have to work on as we can be reluctant to show real conviction until our backs are against the wall.”

Sheedy says Bank of Ireland was a very accommodating employer during his playing and managing career.

Rebecca Barry

“There were logistical challenges around getting the sport-work balance right and I was putting in days that started at 5.30am and I didn’t see home again until after 1am. But if I needed to be somewhere, the bank was willing to let me make up the time.”

However, Sheedy eventually blew the whistle on this pressured existence after three years to focus on his career.

“Inter-county management is very time consuming and there was a danger I would fall between the two stools of work and sport,” he says. “Overall I think my sporting profile was good for the bank and gave a very positive message about strength and leadership within the organisation.”

Maureen King has more than 25 years' experience working in high performance environments both professionally and through her lifelong involvement with the GAA as a player and volunteer.

King is also the founder and chief executive of iTrust Ethics which helps companies manage the compliance and risks associated with the control of sensitive data.

Sport at the university is played at a professional level with all that involves around daily training. A lot is expected of you

“Sport is the best apprenticeship you can undertake to help you succeed in anything you do in life,” she says. “My approach in sport and in business has always been to create an environment that enables me and my team to perform to the best of our ability.

“So what does that environment look like? It must have a clear purpose, core values of integrity and trust and involve people with a desire to win and to do good.”

King says there are five key lessons that are transferable from sport to business: “positive attitude (attitude is everything); a hard work ethic; commitment; courage; and curiosity. I have found that by having the courage to commit, I was more likely to achieve success.

Liam Sheedy Photograph: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

“Another sporting technique I use when I feel pressured at work is called box breathing (taking slow, deep breaths). It is used by athletes to improve concentration and enhance performance. But the single most important lesson I learned from sport and value most is that ‘the whole player comes to training’ and by extension the ‘whole person comes to work’. Learning self-awareness was a key lesson as by understanding yourself you can better understand others and are better equipped to listen and support or to intervene when necessary. It is the people who commit to the process that you need to motivate to deliver it but you also need to care about them.”

Rebecca Barry works with PwC and plays hockey for Ireland. She left home straight after school to take up a hockey sports scholarship at the University of Richmond in Virginia, in the United States, where she studied psychology.

“Sport at the university is played at a professional level with all that involves around daily training. A lot is expected of you,” Barry says. “They train you to be very focused on planning and setting goals and you become very achievement oriented.

“I think the skills I learned through sport have translated well to working with PwC as it too is a performance driven environment. From sport you learn to deal with the good days and the tough days, you become resilient, punctual and ambitious and I think you develop a clarity of vision combined with a willingness to learn that has proven very beneficial to someone like me who is just starting out in their professional career.”

Former Dublin GAA footballer, Alan Brogan, is commercial director of print management company, Custodian Consultancy. He says the link between playing sport at an elite level and good management technique is clear.

“Communication is vital in both roles. Whether in business or in sport, all the team members need to be on the same wavelength to clearly understand what their role is and to understand that all roles are equally valuable in achieving the end goal.”