Giving Dublin players the licence to fly high

My philosophy of sport has always been about the future, about the horizon.”

Dublin manager Jim Gavin outlines his managerial philosophy at the HPX Conference in the Sport Ireland Indoor Arena at Abbotstown last Saturday.

— Jim Gavin, Sport Ireland HPX High Performance Conference, October 7

When the Dublin players made sure that no Mayo man was available to David Clarke for a kickout in the dying moments of the All-Ireland final by wrestling them to the ground, having held up Clarke’s initial attempt to get going quickly by throwing away his tee, it may have been something that was practised.

It might also have been the players self-actualising, taking matters into their own hands, having been encouraged to develop the ability to make decisions for themselves in the white heat of battle.

Perhaps it was a combination of the two.

Either way, Clarke was forced into an error and the Dubs saw out the game to cement their place in the annals with a first three in a row in 31 years of the All-Ireland senior football championship.

As their manager, Jim Gavin joins them in the pantheon but in the aftermath, he has become a strange focus of disaffection for some.

Sure, not showing any external signs of satisfaction at the final whistle is very unusual, but the reaction to that, and the aforementioned grappling, was staggeringly over the top.

Gavin was painted as a boring drone leading a squadron of boring drones.

And that is the plan.

Yes, the media would love if he and his players offered a bit more than a stone wall while dealing with the press. That was why we flocked to his keynote speech at the HPX Conference in the Sport Ireland Indoor Arena last Saturday.

We weren’t naive enough to think he would draw the curtain back for the world to see but what we got was a glimpse of a personality that is normally unavailable.

Gavin proved an eloquent communicator who had the audience in the palm of his hands without ever referring to notes. His 24 minutes and change of a talk was compelling, funny, engaging. It came as no surprise as most successful leaders are charismatic.

He regaled us with stories of how his philosophies on sport were shaped by experience in cadet school as he trained to be an officer and his subsequent work as a flight instructor before becoming an assistant director of the Irish Aviation Authority, as well as the academic theories he learned.

His influences mentioned included Dermot Earley Snr, Nelson Mandela, Dwight D Eisenhower, Alex Ferguson, and Martin Luther King.

For the high-performance cognoscenti, the theory was familiar but it was riveting to listen to Gavin riffing without ever telling us how this all worked within the Dublin camp.

Gavin espouses inclusiveness rather than autocracy. He prefers to give players responsibility, to be a facilitator for them and not a dictator for himself.

Players are not penalised for making mistakes. He is always planning ahead, looking to the future.

Even now.

“I was given a great challenge by Sport Ireland in terms of trying to interpret what they want from me bearing in mind that I understand there are some competitors in the room and we do have a season that’s only around the corner for us as well and we’re in preparation for that too,” he said.

Gavin is said to have told his players that most airplane crashes were the result of complacency.

He did not reference that in this auditorium but how much he has applied to sport from aviation was evident.

“I’m fortunate enough in my profession that I work in a really strong high-performance environment, with high-performance teams.

“One of the things I’ve always learned from aviation and I’ve transferred to sport is the preparation piece. I’m going to fly next week to Rome. I’ll spend a good two hours before you see me on the flight deck preparing the flight and briefing my crew before we get airborne.

“I’ll be talking about what happens if the engine fails taking out of Dublin. On the climb up, I’ll be talking about what happens if the engine fails on the climb up into Cardiff, I’ll talk what happens if the engine fails or any system fails on the cruise past the Bay of Biscay. So it’s preparation and something that I’ve learned and transferred in sport.”

Take the safety record for example.

“The reason it’s so safe is because we have learned from our lessons.”

Perhaps like Dublin did from losing the league final to Kerry.

“I see my job as a football manager simply as a performance coach. It’s my job to get those players to be their very best. That’s the challenge I have each season, from season to season, to get those guys to self-actualise. And there’s three main models that I’ve used.”

He learned about the leadership models of McGregor, Herzberg, and Maslow nearly 30 years ago in cadet school.

McGregor split leaders into X and Y.

“Some head coaches might be on the ‘X’ side, you believe you have to crack the whip, you believe that people in general are demotivated and you push them along. You’re not using the carrot.

“On the ‘Y’ side is the coach that serves to lead. That he empowers his players to make the right decisions. (Ireland rugby head coach) Joe (Schmidt) spoke about it yesterday, other speakers spoke about it today, about giving the players the responsibility on the field of play.”

While preferring the ‘Y’ transformational leadership, Gavin understands that sometimes a leader needs to step into the other side to influence behaviours and establish a culture, environment and values.

Herzberg had a motivational theory.

“He’s not talking about the motivation to get airborne. He’s talking about the things that might hold him on the ground. And that’s what he calls hygiene factors. These things that impact motivation.

“So for example, these fine facilities that Sport Ireland now have, they’re not a motivator for athletes but they’re certainly not a demotivator, whereas conditions before might have been a demotivator.”

You remove excuses, provide a professional environment, lay everything on. In Dublin’s case, that stretches to having their meals delivered.

And then there is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which is illustrated as a pyramid, starting with physiological requirements, moving through security, a sense of belonging, the development of esteem and ending at the top with self-actualisation.

“Maslow said that the history of the human race is the history of men and women selling themselves short.

“Your job as head coach is to get those athletes to perform on a consistent basis and use something that’s called the hierarchy of needs.

“I’ve seen this work in the military and I’ve seen it work with the Dublin football team. So for me, if you ask me what my philosophy is of coaching, this is it here.”

He referred to a Tour of Duty in Chad around 10 years ago, and seeing local communities thrive despite the difficult environment.

“We had crannógs in Ireland a thousand years ago but they still have them in Africa. Really harsh conditions. For every five kids that are born, three will be dead by the age of five. No sanitation, no water, no electricity yet people can self-actualise and be their very best in their environment on a regular basis.”

It is all about the detail at the highest level of leadership. Gavin’s professional job is performance continuity on a daily basis. So too with Dublin. Everything gets the fine-tooth-comb treatment, “a root cause analysis”.

Absolutely imperative is that the players are never singled out for blame. They must feel secure in their environment.

Fear inhibits success.

Gavin was drawn to John Wooden’s pyramid of success because it targets competitive greatness rather than winning.

Wooden said “success is a peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming. Sounds very much like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, becoming your very, very best”.

It was a message Gavin first heard delivered by Army and GAA legend Earley.

“When I was in cadet school, four weeks in, my head was shaved off, Full Metal Jacket experience; the previous four weeks I’d been roared and shouted at in a very aggressive way… He comes into a football dressing room.

“He doesn’t talk about tactics. He doesn’t talk to us about how we’re going to beat Mary I today. All he said was ‘the greatest satisfaction that you’ll ever get in life is the satisfaction of doing something well and doing it to the best of your ability’.

“Lt General Dermot Earley’s words always rung out with me. That’s what I say to Dublin footballers on a continual basis. Be your very best. We are there to facilitate your journey to be the best and if we meet a team that’s better than us on any given day, well that’s just sport and that’s just life.”

As Van Morrison said in his classic song Coney Island, “Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?”


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