DERVAL O'ROURKE: Planning my year just like running a small business

As 2013 is drawing to a close, track and field athletes are busy preparing for the 2014 season.

Athletes’ plans for the forthcoming year have been made well in advance, though they only learn their financial fate when the high performance budget for 2014 funding is decided at the end of the year.

To perform at the highest level in athletics it is necessary to be able to do more than run fast. If you talk to any world-class athlete, it’s evident they are not simply competing, they are managing their own small business with the primary aim to produce results on the track. The fundamentals are similar to those of any business. To run fast I must plan, manage, review, budget and assume a certain level of risk.

Having a vision is not enough. I need to take ownership of my plans and put a structure in place to cover all necessary areas. After Rob Heffernan won gold in the World Championships last August, he attributed some of his success to the world class set-up he put together and managed himself. Every year there are advances creating a more professional set-up for Irish athletes but people at a certain stage of their careers, like Rob and I, can’t sit around waiting and must manage ourselves.

To negotiate my way to medals it is imperative to have a plan. Like most businesses, mine is the blueprint to my season. It details everything and is geared to getting the best results on the track. It encompasses things like training camps, training phases, money, nutrition and racing. The year is broken up into individual training or racing blocks, with each block having different goals. My yearly plan is the map that takes me from training to championship performances and charts my progress along the way.

Next year’s primary focus is the European outdoor championships in August. This means that I must be running my fastest in August. If I run fast in June but not in August, this reflects badly on the plan and means things went wrong somewhere. Running fast at the right time is crucial and can make or break a season.

I’m lucky to work with some great people who collaborate with me, help me plan and in turn, help me achieve my goals. Although no amount of planning can foresee the future, hindsight is as they say 20-20, and this is where coaches and advisors come in. When everything is going smoothly it’s usually thanks to the people I work with and when a problem arises those same people are on hand to find solutions.

In Ireland, there is one full-time paid athletics coaching position and that was filled this year. However, that coaching position is for endurance and distance running, which means all other athletes depend on voluntary, unpaid coaches. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a husband and wife partnership who have voluntarily helped me since 2006, but I feel for the sport to keep producing results this must change.

My coaches work out the yearly plan in terms of training and racing. Terrie Cahill puts tremendous effort into every session, every phase of training and makes it all work. One of Terrie’s greatest skills is to develop superb training schedules aimed at me peaking at the right time. Sean Cahill, Terrie’s husband, consults on all the elements in the programme and when they are both happy, I sit down with them and discuss the programme for the year.

After the Cahills set out the training plan, I review it with some of the other people who contribute to my ’business’. I work with a weights coach, a physiotherapist, a physical therapist, a doctor, a nutritionist, a race agent and I have a great friend who handles my off-track activity (media, appearances etc).

Each of these people contributes to the smooth running of my career in different ways. For example, for the past 15 weeks, my physiotherapist and weights coach have been working with me five days a week as I’m in post-surgery rehabilitation. When I transition back to full training their role will be smaller.

I am constantly evaluated on my performances and in turn I evaluate the performances of those I work with. Every year, I sit down and analyse my team. For me to succeed, sometimes I need to change the team, which can be tough because the people I collaborate with always want the best results for me, but if I think I can get better results with someone else, then I have to make that call. I have great respect for all the people I’ve worked with but it’s important for me not to be afraid of change.

Once my plan and team of top-notch advisors is in place, there’s one final essential area to deal with — money.

Managing money wisely is a skill all businesses understand. Cash is the lifeblood of business and it’s the same case for athletes. Having a plan is useless if there isn’t money coming in to fund it. I receive funding from the Irish Sports Council, it is paid on a quarterly basis. The level of funding I get in any year is either €12,000, €20,000 or €40,000 and is determined mainly by championship results from the previous year but can be influenced by other factors.

When funding is announced it is often a contentious issue. In 2013, I took a cut from €40,000 to €12,000. I knew I was getting a reduction but I was disappointed by the size of it.

Over the years I have developed budgeting skills. I know the cheapest way to get to almost everywhere in Europe and I have packing without paying for a checked bag down to a fine art. My husband competed at the last two Olympics in sailing, which demands a much higher cash injection than athletics and by the time his campaign finished he was an expert in logistics, moving boats, containers and people around the world in the most efficient way.

By the time track athletes are informed about their funding for the 2014 season in the next few days, plans and support teams should be in place. The funding allocation is the final part and unfortunately, like many businesses, this can make or break a year.

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