Hugh Torpey recounts boxer Bernard Dunne’s advice on performance to a recent IMI Advante-edge event in Cork
BERNARD Dunne, as a young man, found that he had a fondness for hitting people.
For a long time, as one of the world’s best technical boxers, this was enough — but not quite enough to become a world champion. A failure during a defence of his European title that gave him that realisation.
Against the Spanish challenger Kiko ‘La Sensacion’ Martinez, Bernard was knocked down in the first round, the fight being stopped after 86 seconds.
“Technically, I was the best in the world. In people’s eyes, the day before Kiko came to Dublin I was the best thing since sliced bread; the day after I was washed up,” Bernard told Advant-edge attendees. “Kiko made me realise that my programme wasn’t right for me. I looked at my team and begin looking strategically at how I trained. I changed my whole programme after that.”
For Bernard, winning had led to a complacency in thinking. After winning 13 amateur titles in Ireland and rising through the ranks as a professional to become European champion, becoming world champion would require a new way to reach the top.
Focus on performance
In 2017, Bernard was made high-performance director of the Irish Athletic Boxing Association (IABA). As a team that had delivered 50% of Ireland’s entire Olympic medal collection, it was a high-profile, high-pressure role.
At the beginning, Bernard decided to give himself a purely watching brief for the first eight weeks or so; he stayed quiet for two.
‘There wasn’t enough cohesiveness within the team, nobody was communicating with each other and nobody had the athlete in the middle of it all as the focus’ said Bernard.
Communication was a problem for the group. Operating in silos, information wasn’t being shared and athletes’ programmes had conflicting elements, such as one coach trying to build muscle mass within an athlete, while their nutritionist was designing a diet that wouldn’t support that goal.
His next step was to centralise communications into one, single area, allowing for conflicting information to be rooted out and dealt with, while also filtering it all through the common goal; improving the performance of the individual athlete.
Suddenly, each individual athlete had their own individual teams around them, based on their own needs. No longer was an athlete going to the nutritionists to get independent advice or work from a generic programme, the nutritionists were coming to the athlete and devising a plan based on their performance needs.
The biggest challenge came from getting all stakeholders to buy into this change in culture. From a place where people tended to protect their own area of expertise, the culture shifted into one where different teams worked together based on the overall guiding mission — improving the athletes’ performance.
The IABA was founded in 1911 and has remained volunteer-led during that time. As a country with an abundance of talent but limited resources, Bernard decided that a clarity of focus needed to be put around the top echelons of the sport in the country. In the last year, he has helped create the high-performance unit within the IABA, focused purely on the international stage.
“When you take that control away from volunteers, you generally get resistance to it,” said Bernard. “Managing that and getting buy-in from the association and other stakeholders was a real challenge. Communication was the key thing for me; that everybody understood what was going on.”
With a singular mission — improved athletes’ performance — alongside a clarity of communication about roles — everybody knowing where they fit into the overall system — resistance was significantly lessened and the organisation was able to move forward in a single direction, with the high-performance unit now being the tip of the spear.
To mitigate against the dangers of a system become overly-reliant on individuals, Bernard has set in motion a system where an elite set of coaches under each key area of the IABA high-performance programme are being trained across the country.
“If I was to lose one of the heads of our support teams, our programme would be in danger of collapse,” said Bernard.
Boxing clubs and potential coaches were contacted throughout the country looking for people who wanted to work towards becoming a member of the high-performance unit, and there are currently eighteen coaches being mentored and trained over a three-year period to become the next generation of unit leaders.
These next generation of leaders are not only being trained in sports high-performance but have also committed to 12 CPD (continuing professional development) days that emphasise leadership skills such as communication and conflict resolution.
We go out to perform, not to win
In March 2009, Bernard Dunne stepped into the Dublin ring to face Ricardo Cordoba for the world championship title. A little under 18 months before in the same arena, he had been knocked down in the first round and the fight had been stopped.
That setback put Bernard on the road to where he is now, and the lessons he’s learnt along the way have given real insight into how teams should be built and directed. Using a clarity of mission, clearly communicating that and people’s roles within it, and creating a system where high-performance is sustained in both the people and the practices they implement, can lead to the very top.
During the 11th round Cordoba hit the canvas and Bernard Dunne, lifted by his teammates on their shoulders, was declared world champion to the roaring Dublin crowd.
* This article was based on Advant-edge session on high-performance teams delivered to IMI members in Cork by Bernard Dunne. For more on 2019 events in Cork and Dublin, go to imi.ie/events.