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James O Callaghan is the Performance Director for the Irish Sailing Association a role he has held for over 14 years. In that time ,he has seen Irish sailing secure World Champion Medals, European Titles and of course an Olympic Silver Medal.

Show Notes

Podcast episode summary: This episode reveals the indomitable spirit, resilience and mental toughness required  by Irish Sailors to perform at World Class Sailing regattas and to qualify to participate at the Olympics. James O Callaghan shares his experience of being the performance director for the Irish Sailing Association, the role he has played in building the structure for ISA and in facilitating a performance environment in which the athletes can thrive. Lessons on learning, teaming, managing the mind, energy management, perspective making, priorities, decision making and the importance of self- awareness litter this very engaging conversation.


Points made through the episode: 

  • James’ project at Trinity College Dublin –“how to manage peoples Olympic campaigns was instrumental in positioning him as a burgeoning entrepreneur. He set up Sail Coach straight out of college-where he coached two Olympic sailors from South Africa and the Seychelles -this project was hugely successful from a performance point of view and enabled James to learn loads-Joined ISA (Irish Sailing Association) as their Head Coach and quickly assumed role of full time Performance Director.
  • Tokyo 2020 will be James’s sixth Olympics
  • At the start Role was about defining Vision for ISA and building the structure to support the development of World Class Athletes. His role now is about guiding their strategy and challenging assumptions made in the  past. James also instrumental in guiding the associations foundation to raise ongoing funds for the sport.
  • Team has won 27 international medals, two of which comprise Olympic medals for Annalise Murphy, 4th at 2012 Olympics and 2nd at Rio in 2016
  • In sport you cannot look back or rest on your laurels “you are only as good as your last race”
  • Metrics vital to objectively assess how athletes are doing against the benchmarks generated
  • The dream goal is a medal, but Athletes do not go to work every day talking about medal making instead they follow a precise pathway to build performance
  • Sailing cycle is relentless
  • Organisation comprises ever increasing circles, the core team an athlete and coach, surrounded by head coach, the performance director and then the many stakeholders like Sport Ireland and the Olympic Federation
  • James is buffer between the sport and the agencies; he has to strike a keen balance between allowing athletes train and helping them promote their own disciplines on a PR train.
  • James described the Performance Pathways the athletes enter at a very young age, helping talented sailors understand what it means to be a performance athlete
  • Talent is of course a key requirement but not a distinguisher -attitude is essential
  • The Performance Pathway teaches resilience, responsibility and self -responsibility
  • Important for James and his colleagues who are supporting the athletes to be match fit. Olympics and the preparation required is an intense experience
  • Energy management is vital. You can do a good job but don’t leave all of your energy at work
  • The inner voice & self-awareness is that 5% that has to be trained.
  • Olympics for sure is a pressure cooker environment but important to remember it is not predictable, that is not reality.
  • Those who respond best to variability are the ones who will end up being an Olympian Champion
  • An athletes success will depend on their level of self -awareness, self -regulation, how they decide to react to situations and control the controllable.
  • James described the big decision Annalise made recently to quit the 49erFX category , a new campaign for ISA and to attempt to return to the discipline for which she won a medal. His message; if you have to make a decision make it and don’t expend energy pondering.
  • Some significant life lessons shaped & continue to influence James O Callaghan. The death of his father, a drowning accident while he was sailing, has helped James deal with adversity and has shifted his perspective on setback and failures
  • The courage shown by his Mum has inspired James and has shaped a lot of his views on life-family is extraordinarily important to James -talking about the “real” stuff
  • With Tokyo looming James is busy working with athletes but also with the Foundation and the Olympic Steering Group.
  • James described the auspices of the OSG and the setting up of the Foundation.
  • Earlier this year with funding ISA was able to build its first ever Performance HQ in Dunlaoighre and that has been a game changer for the Association. Athletes are now housed together and not flung across the globe, Coaches live close to the HQ, Coaches can now share ideas across the teams and a performance culture is now evident
  • The 3 containers that comprise the HQ are a very efficient use of money and the time. They are of course mobile and will be shipped to Tokyo for that “Home from Home” purpose important to the team.


Resources: the following include the resources we alluded to over the course of our conversation

  1. Irish Sailing Association
  2. Sport Ireland
  3. Olympic Federation of Ireland
Tara Nolan

Author Tara Nolan

I wasn’t always a coach, in fact I never conceived I would be a coach, the word simply wasn’t in my lexicon. I love, however, where I have landed. The truth is I really did not know what I wanted to be when I first started. I had a vague inkling I wanted to be successful but that was the sum of my plan

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