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Audience enchanted as Jim Gavin’s oratorical powers take flight

Dublin boss outlines his coaching philosophy at HPX High Performance Conference

Dublin senior football manager Jim Gavin addressing the HPX conference at the Sport Ireland National Indoor Arena, Abbotstown, Dublin. Picture: Diarmuid Greene

If Jim Gavin spoke in public like this all the time, he wouldn’t have the staid, no-insight reputation for giving interviews that he does. Hence, he doesn’t speak in public like this all the time.

But on Saturday, as the afternoon keynote speaker at the HPX High Performance Conference in hosted by Sport Ireland, Gavin held his audience to rapt attention throughout a 25-minute presentation on his coaching philosophy.

True, anyone who has followed Gavin closely since he became Dublin manager five years ago this weekend wouldn’t have learned a huge amount they didn’t already know.

As a football coach, he has always applied the principles he learned first in the armed forces and later in the aviation industry. Pretty much all the names he quoted along the way are ones he has dropped in the past – Maslow, Eisenhower, Mandela, Wooden.

And it will amaze no one to hear that he didn’t mention a single player by name. He didn’t even use the word ‘ball’ at any point.

But, over the course of his address, the four-time All-Ireland winning manager did show a side that is usually hidden from public view, leaving the gathered audience of coaches, athletes and administrators from across the sporting spectrum in no doubt as to why players follow him.

His core principles – humility, honesty, leading from the front – are nothing ground-breaking. But in his delivery, Gavin was thoroughly captivating, even funny at times.

He talked about learning coaching skills during his time as the chief flying instructor in the Air Corp.

“My classroom was in the sky, not on the ground, but the environment is the same. That posed its own communication challenges – how do you talk to a guy when you’re flying upside down at 300 miles an hour and he isn’t feeling too well? So all the communication challenges that every coach in every sport faces, certainly I would have learned from that.”

Aeroplanes featured heavily, to nobody’s surprise. Gavin’s day job as an assistant director of the Irish Aviation Authority puts him in charge of the safety of an enormous and incredibly busy chunk of airspace. The IAA has responsibility for half a million square kilometres of airspace through which a million flights pass every year. The title given to his address was ‘High Performance – The Continuity Challenge’ and he drew heavily –and even playfully –from his occupational experience to give context.

Large hair-dryers

“I’ve learned an awful lot from aviation and, specifically, how aviation has become so safe. That aircraft on the screen weighs 80 tonnes. In both wings are probably five tonnes of fuel on a normal flight. The engines that hang – by two bolts, by the way, from the wing – they rotate at 35,000 rpm.

“The internal combustion engine works by sucking air in, compressing it and igniting fuel into it causing an explosion that pushes it along. When you suck the air in, two thirds of that air doesn’t go into the engine, it goes around it and pushes you along. So essentially when you are flying, you are being flown by two large hair-dryers. That’s the good news.

“But that exhaust that comes out of those engines, it’s at 850 degrees Celsius. And it’s surrounded by 10 tonnes of fuel. And you’re happy to sit there, with your cappuccino and your Irish Times, reading the paper and everyone’s safe. The reason it’s so safe is because we have learned from our lessons.

“It’s performance continuity on a daily basis. Not every week, not every month, 364 days a year – Christmas Day is a little bit quiet. It’s root cause analysis. And how that applies to sport is, we don’t blame players – ultimately the responsibility lies with me as the head coach and then with some of my coaching staff.

“In the aviation industry, I probably get through my inbox 1,000 emails reports from pilots, air-traffic controllers, engineers and so on. By hard law, by European law, they have to report mistakes. It’s accepted in aviation that humans make mistakes. So we don’t blame humans. Once you have the competency, the skill-set and the aptitude, once you have that framework, if you make a mistake, we learn from the mistake.

“In accident investigations, by law, I can’t apportion blame or liability on that pilot. All I can do is find out why it happened, the root cause and let industry know, spreading the word out among the global community to make sure that accident doesn’t happen again.

“So that just culture, applied to sport, is about creating an environment where athletes know that you are not going to slap their hand when they put their hand up. And likewise you as a coach are humble enough to understand that you will make mistakes as well.”

Conscious of the fact that there were, as he put it, “some competitors in the audience”, he was naturally light enough on specific details as he went along. it wasn’t that kind of talk. Instead, he talked about the influence of people like Dermot Earley and Nelson Mandela on him.

On the night Mandela died in 2013, Gavin was watching the news when a quote flashed up on screen that caused him to pause the TV and snap a picture on his phone.

“I saw it and thought, ‘This is gold-dust,’” he said. “’What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.’ That’s a powerful, powerful statement from one of the great leaders of our time.”

And with that, he wrapped up and thanked everyone for coming.

The GAA hacks in the crowd walked off into their weekend, imagining what covering the O’Byrne Cup would be like if it came with Mandela quotes attached.