BERNARD Jackman, HSI’s new interim Head of High Performance Sport, freely admits that his equestrian background is nil, but he remains totally confident he can help Ireland’s riders bring home as many medals as possible from the Paris Olympics next year.
Speaking to The Irish Field, Jackman explained that he sees multiple parallels between his experience in the rugby and business spheres and his new world of Olympic equestrianism, for which he has an abundance of enthusiasm.
Leinster born and bred, Jackman, 47, won nine caps as hooker for Ireland and played for Connacht before and after a stint with the Sale Sharks. He joined Leinster in 2005 before a concussion injury ended his playing career in 2010.
Jackman went on to coach at Grenoble in France and was also head coach at Dragons in Wales. He more recently has explored the world of television analysis and has proved a popular speaker and coach in the area of high performance.
Over the moon
“I’m over the moon, it’s a unique chance to help everyone involved in the Olympic campaign to have the best possible Games they can,” he said.
“I’m busy meeting everyone, and hope to meet the riders over the next couple of weeks. My role is to help the high performance directors, they are the experts, I support them to make sure we can be best in class on the world stage – get the right people, make the right decisions and allow the talent to come to fore.
“People pigeon hole me as rugby and, in fairness, that is what taught me how to lead and to follow – but when I left school, rugby wasn’t professional, so I studied international marketing and Japanese at DCU. I was in my third year there when Warren Gatland gave me my first professional contract, so my thinking has always been that rugby was a little while thing not a forever thing. That thinking then led me, when I got out of coaching in 2017, to go and work for Refinitiv selling data, and after two years I was headhunted to Gartner.
“It was then I started to get some invitations to do key note speaking in sports and I ended up doing a masters in UCD, where my thesis was the correlation between high performance behaviour in elite sport and business teams.
“I did extensive research all over the world spending time with the All Blacks, Carlton (Australian Football League team for whom Irishmen Aiske and Setanta O’Halpin played), the Melbourne Storm (Rugby League), Toyota in Japan, the ING tennis academy in Florida. I even visited Dyson, Man United, Barcelona FC and used all of these as case studies, which led me to have a pretty good feeling around the consistent traits of highly successful people and highly successful teams.
“I tapped into my experience as a player, but more around my research and my lived experience, and ended up doing more and more keynote speaking. I had interest from Barclays, Porsche, Air BnB and they all wanted me to speak. I started to realise that I enjoyed that more than my day job, as I was getting to deal with high performing teams who just needed something to take it further – or teams that weren’t doing well and needed to turn it around, it was fascinating, coming in as an outsider to help them create a clearer path to the future. So I gave up my job to pursue that area and got clients like Pfizer, Aviva, Primark, Superbet – so I’ve been loving all of that and doing sports consultancy.
“When HSI approached me, I think I was one of four or five, I had to present a plan of what I would do and they felt I could add value to the team. I love high performance sport, elite sport, and something like the Olympics was never on my radar, so by gosh I’m excited.
“I want to do everything I can to support the athletes and the coaches. I’m incredibly impressed by what we have already done - to be number one in the world in the Longines rankings in show jumping is amazing. What Michael Blake (show jumping high performance director) and the riders have built in terms of depth, and the variety of our success, is phenomenal. Of course you want to be number one in the world and we are at that level now, so my job is just to keep turning the screw and build a ‘Team Ireland’ ethic and work on that to give the best possible chance of medalling. My main role is a narrow focus on our Olympic riders and coaches and support them to do what they do best.
“I have no equestrian background, none, but I’m learning! I had a great handover and have access to the best in the business, so my ears are open and I’m confident I can adapt. One of the things I do have is a black book of contacts – I’ll be tapping into that to make sure we are doing things the best way according to global standards.”
Does Jackman identify any challenges ahead that are unique to equestrian sport?
“There is more risk from an athlete injury and fitness point of view, but there is such depth across the board the challenge will be narrowing them down in terms of selection. These are high performers, who expect to get picked and they know their strengths. Thankfully Michael (Blake) is very clear about winning - he is driven to win – and as someone who works with high performance in business and sport, I know how important planning and communication is, so together we will leave no stone unturned to give Ireland the best possible chance of medalling.
“One of the quotes I use is that performance is your capabilities multiplied by your behaviours – my job is to make sure we understand our capabilities and work to maximise those and, in terms of behaviours, that’s how hard you work, how you behave as a team, as individuals, how you hold yourself to account. I don’t know how to improve the capability of a rider, but Michael does – I’m just here to help him bring the best out of his horses and athletes on the behaviour side.
“I’ll be listening to the main actors, facilitate them, give them clarity on what’s expected and all of that gives confidence. Elite sport is highly challenging – to medal is highly challenging – my role is to give them the support they need to do that. The high performance directors are in charge, I am there to support. I’m so lucky to come in at the end of the cycle, where everyone is already at the top of their game and to have a short term focus, so for the next nine months I’m cutting way back on other clients and making this the priority.
“There is no way I’m going to say how many medals we could win – all I can promise is that HSI will do everything in our power to facilitate the riders to have the absolute confidence in their preparation.”