The Biggest Test of My Career – Irish World Champion Rower Mark O’Donovan

Technology is empowering athletes like never before in history. In sport, the most marginal of improvements can change everything. This is especially evident in rowing, where time and synchronisation is all important, miniscule adjustments can make all the difference. Irish rower Mark O’Donovan is now embarking on a challenge where every detail counts. Technology has played its part in what is sure to be a heroic journey. We caught up with Mark to talk all things rowing, technology, upskilling and taking on the biggest challenge of his career.

On Top of the World

2017 was a great year for rower Mark O’Donovan and his teammate Shane O’Driscoll. The pair were standing on top of the world having won gold medals at both the European and World Championships in the lightweight division. An unbeatable year like that doesn’t happen by accident. Years of training and competing had propelled them to the very top of their sport.

After hitting those great heights, 2018 represents a whole new challenge. They might be world champions but a change in structure meant their lightweight doubles category was no longer an Olympic event. A decision had to be made, there were options available but as Mark explained, really, there was only one.

After winning the World Championships last year we had to sit down and think about what’s next. Do we want to win another World Championships at lightweight or do we want to go to the Olympics? That decision was easy as Olympics has always been the dream.

We then had to think of the route there. Do we join up with a new crew at lightweight or stay in the same category together and move up to heavyweight. There really was only one option, we had to stick together. 2017 showed us that we had something special. We believe we have what it takes, it’s just a matter of moving up and embracing the challenge.

Taking on the Heavyweights

Deciding to move up to heavyweight is no mean feat. From being world champions, they now have to compete against much bigger men. At 5’10, Mark is the taller of the two and it’s not uncommon to face rowers of 6’7, as was the case recently in the Irish National Finals. In rowing, that kind of advantage counts for an awful lot. The challenge that Mark and Shane are embarking on could be one of the great Irish sporting stories if it goes their way.

At the National Rowing Centre in Farron Woods, sipping on a smoothie, in what now must be a common sight given the enormous 4,000+ calories they have to eat each day to gain weight, Mark spoke of the challenges behind the transition.

There are a lot of them. Qualification for the Olympics will come down to the World Championships in August 2019 where we have to finish in the top 11. We’ve only been at this “heavyweight project” for a couple of months now. That doesn’t give us much time. The big challenge at the minute is trying to put on mass while staying as aerobically fit as we can. We are eating all day to compensate for the training. It’s definitely tough to stomach at times.

Most of the guys that we’ll be up against will be naturally bigger. They would be around 90-95 kg while we are currently 76-78 kg. It’s not just weight, it’s lung capacity, VO2max, lever length and the experience of competing at heavyweight. We will be on the back foot for sure, we just have to row better and be technically more efficient than the rest. It is about being smarter, that’s our tactic anyway. We are well used to having the gun to our head so it doesn’t phase us too much.”

Train Like An Olympian

Competing at an elite level and undertaking such a big challenge is a full-time commitment. Mark’s schedule is jam packed, for six days a week every minute is accounted for. Mark explained the full-time training schedule that they hope will launch them into unchartered territory.

“We train six days a week. Monday, Wednesday and Friday it’s three session a day and Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday we go twice a day.

Most days are pretty similar. Up early and out the door around half 8. Usually we are pushing our boats off around 9/9:30 and we’re in the water for 90 minutes. After that it’s either off to the weights room or home depending on the day. In between you are trying to get a bit of food in but it’s difficult to eat with all the exercise we’d be doing. All you can stomach is porridge and maybe some supplements that are high in calories.

Once we get home after that we try to properly refuel and rest. If you can, you get another hour or so of sleep. That’s just to increase the overall hours of sleep which are obviously very important when training so much.

We try to get back down to the rowing centre before 5 o’clock  for an evening session. We push out as many sessions as we can in the water. If the water’s not rowable, we go indoors and use the rowing machines. It’s the time on the water and getting that mileage in that’s all important. Once that session is done, it’s evening and it’s home time again. That’s pretty much it. In between it all you try to get as much food into you and plenty of caffeine!”

Getting a Technical Edge With Kitman Labs

This gruelling schedule works in tandem with a company well known to Sportstech Ireland – Kitman Labs. Operating out of Dublin, Kitman Labs is a leading sports and analytics company used to help elite athletes optimize their training. (We spoke with Kitman Labs at the official launch of SportsTech Ireland.)

The Institute of Sport use Kitman Labs to track our training data. We put our entire schedule, training loads and recovery down on that. If something isn’t right we get flagged and make changes off the back of that. It’s very reassuring to get a report back every now and again. The software confirms your mileage and breaks down the intensity levels of your training. It helps to give your training a steer definitely.”

When asked if there was any other pieces of technology that he used to gain an advantage, his answer was an app you might not expect.

I use a meditation app called “Calm” as much as I can. I try to use it every day. The app guides you through a meditation session and helps to relax the mind. It’s all about following your breath and slowing down. It’s only a small thing but helps to calm the nerves and get a mental edge.”

Life Outside of Rowing

This type of professionalism and volume of training seems to leave little time for anything else. Mark spoke of life outside of sport and the importance of upskilling.

Thankfully, we currently get Sports Council Funding and that helps to keep us afloat. I used to work with EMC but found it difficult to mix the two. It’s great now to be able to put full focus on rowing and the World Championships. Upskilling is definitely important and I took a year out in 2013/2014 to do a Masters in Sports Performance which I found great.

At the moment, as you probably noticed from our schedule, there is little time for much else. During the Winter, I do try to train others. I usually take up strength and conditioning training for a few different clubs. Rowing Ireland also run a coaching programme that the coaches attend. I teach the Level 1 Strength & Conditioning through that which is great learning experience also.

During the Summer it is hard to do that but it’s important to get a positive distraction during the Winter months. That could be in trying to get some external studies or ways to further yourself. You don’t want to be stagnant. Thankfully, I have a degree behind me but you want to keep your coaching and Continued Professional Development (CPD) up while you are competing.”

A Promising Start to Heavyweight Life

Mark and his teammate Shane have a challenge of David vs Goliath proportions ahead of them as they try to bag a spot at Tokyo 2020. The early signs are quite encouraging however.

On July 15th, it was Irish Olympic heroes the O’Donovan brothers that grabbed the headlines winning gold at the World Cup 3 in Lucerne. Somewhat under the radar there was another impressive milestone for a pair of heavyweight newcomers. Only months after making the unprecedented jump from lightweight, Mark O’Donovan and Shane O’Driscoll finished third in the Men’s B Final and 9th out of 28th overall. In the overall context of what they are trying to achieve, 9th in the world was a major signal of intent. The first rumblings of what may well be one of the great Irish underdog stories.

Thanks to Mark O’Donovan for speaking with us and we wish him all the best for the year ahead. We initially caught up with Mark to discuss our upcoming MasterClass in Sports Entrepreneurship. The two-day MasterClass is perfect for all those passionate about sports who would like to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset. For full-time or part-time athletes it’s a launchpad into entrepreneurial life. You can find full details for the September event here.

Photo Cred – @artofrowing.nz, balintczucz

Masterclass in Sports Entrepreneurship

When Passions Collide: Rugby, Technology and Performance Analytics.

 

When Passions Collide: Rugby, Technology and Performance Analytics.

An Interview with Andrew Sullivan, former coach/performance analyst with New Zealand Rugby and STATS.com Director.

Andrew Sullivan was destined for a career in SportsTech, even if he didn’t foresee how two of his passions would eventually collide, back in his days as a sports performance analyst in New Zealand.

“I had three loves, that of sports, the Crusaders, and Information Technology,” says Andrew, who had originally begun a career as a Systems Analyst in IT, before being snapped up by New Zealand Rugby.

Andrew spent almost a decade working as a coach and sports performance analyst for the Crusaders and Canterbury Rugby, working with the Crusaders, New Zealand Rugby and of course, the All Blacks. He went on to advise Australian Rugby Union for a further 6 years, before being headhunted by STATS, to work as a multi-sport product manager.

STATS geographic reach extends to Europe, China, Australia, and Africa, and its tech analyses athletic performance to deliver commercial insights, enabling coaches and front-office personnel to make intelligent decisions and gain competitive advantage. STATS boasts a database of over 100,000 players, and captures proprietary data from around 12,000 sporting events each year. Their software combines data analytics and video tracking to analyse matches, trends, opposition scouting opportunities and more.

“I have to admit, the transition from sports to sportstech was tough. My first role with STATS had almost as steep a learning curve as the one I faced at the start of my coaching career. My very first technology role focussed heavily on content, streaming video and live events. There was a lot to learn on the software side, but it was also incredibly exciting. With technology changing so quickly it meant that each day was about finding new opportunities – finding an edge – something that I was used to when working with athletes.”

Andrew has thrived in the STATS environment, though travel has been inevitable. With a HQ in Chicago, and a new office in Limerick, it means some time on the road. However, this isn’t too much of a change, life on the road with the Crusaders, and the All Blacks, took him all over the world, working with their high performance athletes. 

We discussed the challenge athletes face, when retiring from a sporting career. Professional athletes are often faced with serious career challenges once they reach their 30’s. Many athletes have begun to address the lack of meaningful support following high profile athletic careers, highlighted by recent press and interviews with the likes of Olympic badminton player  Gail Emms and others. 

Andrew believes that player welfare is key. He highlights how clubs like the Crusaders are leading the way.

“The life of a pro athlete is short, and player welfare is key. For example, the Crusaders are totally committed to ensuring players make the transition from performance to post-performance smoothly. The player welfare officer will help athletes identify a new role, they will look at financial planning, and ensure that players can make that transition smoothly and effectively.”

One example of an athlete-turned-entrepreneur is JP Hartigan, a Limerick native and rugby player who turned to product design in college, and launched his rugby tackle dummy back in 2009. JP was pro-active in his efforts, and sought out Andrew’s advice back in the early days of product development, when Andrew was working with New Zealand Rugby.

“It’s great to be back in Limerick again, in fact, one of the most promising startups I’ve seen in the space came from here. I met JP Hartigan of Shadowman back in 2010 as he was beginning to launch his tackle dummy into the US market.  I was here with Australian Rugby, and he got in touch. I think JP got it right – he identified a problem, and then he helped to solve it. He has managed to effectively control the load on players as they tackled. I have watched his progress with interest, and I’m delighted that he’s made such a big impact on US football.”

Concussion in rugby, and American football, is a topical subject.

When asked his opinion, Andrew said;

“It’s very important to address the issue of concussion and brain injury at the very earliest coaching opportunity, from day one for the youngest athletes. Prevention and coaching methodology is key.”

However, many clubs rely on volunteer and amateur coaches. And in this Andrew says that the education starts from the top with World Rugby and governing bodies and he emphasises that they are doing a good job with online coaching tools and education.  The severity of risk is such that the best practice must be applied throughout coaching systems, to protect all of those that play. SportsTech has generated interesting examples in this space – such as mouth guards that measure the impact of a tackle, however, this is a diagnostic rather than a preventative tool. It will be interesting to see how wearables, smart fabrics and player analytics are applied to solve this problem in the future.

 STATS has a fairly international scope, so how big a part does rugby play in that mix?

“STATS has a global focus, but the major elements would be worldwide soccer, international rugby and then the major US sports. The work we’re doing around optical tracking and pixel tracking is immensely fascinating, the data we are drawing down on player performance is second to none. When we also consider the new advantages available from machine learning and player outcome tracking, the future is wide open. Not only can we automate data analysis, we can start to understand playing styles, player performance and so much more.”

“Working with players gave me the euphoria and satisfaction of helping people to achieve their goals. Yes I miss that, however, working on the technology side is a new kind of exciting. There really is no limit to how much we can learn and I’m very happy to be in the heart of that kind of action.”

 

In conversation with Emily Ross of SportsTech Ireland, Limerick Oct, 2017, at the Savoy Hotel. Limerick welcomes the Barbarians to Limerick for their game against Tonga on the 10th of November. Follow Andrew on twitter @sydneydigit for more rugby and sportstech insights.