Issues and Recommendations: Sport Ireland release Rio Review

Sport Ireland have today made public their Rio Review of Ireland’s Olympic performance, and the Irish boxing set-up has been heavily criticised.

Despite having a qualification-era record sized squad of eight, Ireland came home from Brazil empty handed.

This lack of medals came after a period of unprecedented success, where the High Performance Unit-propelled Irish team claimed seven medals in total at the Beijing and London Olympics, solidifying boxing’s claim as Ireland’s #1 Olympic sport with over half the country’s total medals throughout history.

The Rio Review posed the question: Was this a blip in an otherwise outstanding success story or was the Rio result symptomatic of underlying failings in the High Performance programme?

The investigation concluded that “The answer is unequivocally the latter. There are fundamental weaknesses that have been exposed by the Rio outcome.”

This is one of the many sentiments that the Rio Review shares with the Irish Athletic Boxing Association’s (IABA’s) ‘Boxing Clever’ strategic plan for Tokyo 2020.

Warning against blaming the seemingly obvious causes – such as the loss of Billy Walsh, questionable judging, and the failed drugs test of Michael O’Reilly – entirely for the lack of medals, the Review described how there have been “fault lines” in the High Performance Unit for a long time now.

Outlining the major areas of concern, the Rio Review listed the following:

– The absence of a dedicated High Performance Director since the departure of Gary Keegan in 2008.
– An over stretching of Head Coaches expected to perform dual roles of coaching and leading the programme
– A lack of autonomy for decision making within the High Performance Programme.
– The slippage of boxer discipline and a commitment to the culture of high performance within the programme
– The maintenance of accurate records of key boxer data within the programme
– The need to expedite the move into state of the art facilities in Abbottstown
Access to high quality, well co-ordinated support service providers challenged to continually improve in the service of the boxers.
– A focus on developing more high performance coaches throughout the system and the introduction of past HP athletes into coaching roles.
Embracing the changed landscape of boxing especially with the emergence of WSB franchises.

The Review concluded that “the potential exists to restore the programme to its former status as the best and most productive (in medal terms) Irish sports programme. Key changes are required to make this happen.”

“The conveyor belt of talent exists, as evidenced by the continued success of the youth programmes internationally. If the key issues identified in this review are addressed and significant changes implemented, then the High Performance Programme can recover its status with the new batch of boxers.”

These recommendations are as follows.

1. Set a target for Tokyo 2020 to be within the Top 3 countries in terms of numbers of boxers qualified and set an ambition to qualify a boxer in every available weight category.

2. Re-commit to the goal of 5th (in London) to 1st in the World in the future and use this to continually challenge every aspect of the High Performance programme to ensure World Class standards apply throughout.

3. Appoint an experienced and qualified High Performance Director to lead the programme, separate to the role of Head Coach.

4. Establish a revised organisation structure for the core High Performance Programme Team.
The core team should consist of:
– Performance Director (with overall responsibility for the vision, strategy, plan and
operations of the programme);
– Head Coach (with overall responsibility for the lead in terms of technical and tactical
coaching across the programme);
– High Performance Coaches (working with Senior & Junior Men’s and Women’s squads)
– High Performance Administration Manager (supporting the team on all operational
matters across the programme);
– The core High Performance team will be supplemented with Pool Coaches based on the demand of the programme at any point in time.

The Performance Director will have direct line management responsibility for all staff within the programme including the Head Coach, High Performance Coaches, High Performance Administration manager and Pool Coaches. The Performance Director will report directly to the CEO.

5. The High Performance Programme, under the leadership of an experienced and qualified High Performance Director, should have full autonomy for all elements of the programme including management of the Board approved budget and finances assigned to the programme, selection of squads and athletes participating in the programme and disciplinary issues of participants within the programme.

6. No member of the High Performance Coaching Team should act in the corner of a boxer in the National Championships.

7. Establish a High Performance Advisory Board (HPAB) to act as an oversight body, a sounding board for and to provide advice and challenge to the High Performance Programme.

8. The High Performance Programme should adopt a stricter monitoring and control of weight management across the athletes within the programme. Boxers should be managed in a controlled way to maintain an agreed target weight limit (e.g. within 5% of their fighting weight) an ongoing basis.

9. Formalise the boxer code of conduct and commit to a ‘back to basics’ philosophy to re-establish a strong high performance culture and set of behaviours across the programme.

10. The High Performance Programme should develop a scale of disciplinary offences based on the code of conduct and be empowered to discipline boxers for breaches as appropriate. In the case of the most serious level of breach the High Performance Advisory Board will conduct a disciplinary hearing and determine the appropriate sanction.

11. Ensure accurate and up-to-date records of key data relating to each boxer in the programme is maintained within the programme.

12. Appoint a full-time physio to the programme and ensure this service is available at all times when the High Performance squad are in training camp or in competition to guarantee immediate access to and increased quality of service to the athletes.

13. Coaches should take a more hands on approach in directing the input of service providers to ensure that they can deliver their service more effectively.

14. Tailor S&C programmes to the individual needs of each athlete within the programme and expand the range of physiological tests conducted.

15. The High Performance Director should have ultimate responsibility for deciding on the make-up of the support service providers that travel with the team for each competition based on the perceived value/priority of the team and the available budget within the programme for such services.

16. Ensure that performance analysis services are available to coaches in competition, either directly or remotely.

17. Explore the possibility of establishing an innovative partnership with a data analytics company to deliver a world-leading performance analysis capability to the High Performance Programme.

18. Continue the practice of including a niche medical expert in managing cuts within the support team for all major championships.

19. Offer, on a proactive basis, a range of development programmes to athletes to maximise their personal development throughout their participation within the High Performance Unit.

20. The High Performance Director should manage directly and co-ordinate the provision of services by all support providers to the programme. An agreed set of KPIs should be established and monitored closely to ensure quality of service, delivery of agreed outcomes and value for money. Each provider should be challenged to assess their service and how it can be improved heading into the Tokyo cycle.

21. Relocate the High Performance Unit in full to the High Performance Centre at the Sport Ireland Institute in Abbottstown.

22. Ensure that adequate catering arrangements are put in place at Abbottstown to service the requirements of the HP Unit.

23. Examine alternative options for accommodation closer to Abbottstown in the short-term at a similar cost to the existing arrangement with the IABA hotel provider.

24. Explore the optimum long-term solution to provide on-site accommodation and rest & recovery facilities on site at Abbottstown.

25. The role of Team Manager at Olympic Games and other key international events should be assigned to the High Performance Director. In the event the HPD is unable to perform the role of Team Manager for an event, then the role should be appointed by the HPD.

26. Identify past graduates of the High Performance Programme as potential new coaches and focus on their development to attract ‘new blood’ into the coaching ranks across the HP and provincial programmes.

27. The High Performance Programme should play a role in the development of provincial coaches through education masterclasses, invitations to attend training days/camps and mentoring of coaches.

28. Carry out a feasibility study with a consortium of partners to assess the viability of establishing an Irish based WSB Franchise.

29. Develop a strategy to build confidence in the IABA and High Performance brand and build positive relationships with potential commercial partners.

30. The IABA, led by the CEO, should develop a detailed implementation roadmap outlining the critical path and timetable for change as a result of the Rio Review

Joe O'Neill

Reporting on Irish boxing the past five years. Work has appeared on irish-boxing.com, Boxing News, the42.ie, and local and national media. Provide live ringside updates, occasional interviews, and special features on the future of Irish boxing. email: joneill6@tcd.ie