Cian O’Connor is a familiar name to many of us as the Olympic showjumper medallist. He sits in the centre of a three circle Venn diagram of activity through competing at a high level, coaching different riders, and trading horses. IIBN’s Fiona Craughan interviewed Cian this week and here were my fifteen takeaways.

  1. Narrow the band of emotional volatility.

In the area of sport, there are many more bad days than good. In show jumping, there isn’t any room at all for mistakes – make one and the prize is gone. It’s a very unforgiving sport. Therefore, don’t get too high when things go goes well and don’t get too low when they don’t.

  1. A one-person sport needs an army of people to make a success

Vets, groundspeople, administration staff are just the start of who you contribute to a showjumper’s success. While it looks like a solitary experience, it takes a whole team to work together in unison. (I remember making a similar analogy to about being an author.)  However, it’s important to trust yourself above all others and have trust in those you’re working with (particularly the horse). It’s important to build and develop trust that allows you to jump all parts of the arena (physical and metaphorical).

  1. If you’re a busy person, then you need to put the right structures in your place.

Cian juggles a lot of balls. He needs to make sure that he buys the right horses and sells them at the right time. Clients want to reach their own goals. He needs to take care of his fitness and mindset. He travels about 25 week per year and is building an arena at home. He must be able to handle a lot of pressure, emotional attachment to the horses and the economics of running a business. He says that it’s important to find any techniques to build your confidence and face your problems. Try and deal with it. Make a list and prioritise. Don’t let things get to you. Be positive. Take the best out of every situation. Don’t lie down. Control the controllables.

  1. Use the lockdown period to get key tasks done.

I was struck by Cian’s attitude to this period. Other speakers have said they’re not phased by it or didn’t mention it. He spoke about it as a chapter in the business’s journey and how he had a specific objective to achieve using the characteristics of the time.

  1. Plan your career by milestones.

Cian “missed the cut” in Rio in 2016 and therefore, the to him, the change in the Tokyo Olympics date means a wait that takes all the more patience. He spent a lot of time looking for the right horse and now that he has him, he’s very hopeful the games go ahead next year. He also has his sights firmly set on Paris 2024 and will then give more consideration to other parts of the career.

  1. The Covid19 restrictions have their own long-term implications

Cian shares the view of other riders that no sport is more important than other people’s health. The sport can’t go straight back to main events and he expects a weak calendar before Christmas. He needs to focus on regional now as planes pose a threat. To keep the horses in shape, he is building the aforementioned arena and that is his long-term plan to bring international standards to Kildare.

  1. Look to peripheral sectors (and siblings!) for inspiration

Cian runs “pop up shows” where he brings the arenas on the back of a truck. Pippa O’Connor has pop up shops and this inspired him to bring the sports tour to a global audience.

  1. There is finite horsepower in us all and we need to use it wisely

You need to be cognisant of how many events do you attend with a horse. The more you do it, the more you take out of them and the shorter they will last. Cian himself didn’t even become a team member for the Global Championships as he wanted to focus his energy on the Olympics. He quotes “If you run around every event without a plan, the big days and titles will elude you”.

  1. We need to cultivate opportunities for young people.

It’s not alright to complain that there aren’t enough young people pipelining for the industry, you need to give them a platform. A lot of Irish riders are based abroad and thus together, they can put together the opportunities for rising stars to travel abroad to compete and build experience. (This reminded me of the cybersecurity discussion when the panel alluded to the fact that there is a 1 million specialist shortage). He also clear that understanding the responsibility for feeding and taking care of a horse is very important for those interested and recommends Pony Club for young people.

  1. If you’re a “man with a plan”, then prepare fully for to execute it.

Cian always wants more and to be as good as he can be. He is 41 years old this year. At 21, he just got up and did a show, but now everything is done with the precision of the final outcome he has his eyes firmly fixed on. The international arena he is building at home is a replica of that as he want to be better prepared than ever.

  1. The equation of work life balance changes over the different chapters of your career.

It’s hard in every industry to find that perfect life balance, says Cian. He is going to keep riding while he can but then he will move on to a new chapter. He predicts his thoughts will be “I’ve done my bit and now somebody else takes over”.

  1. Understand your USP

When asked why he has never raced, he smiles wryly as he answers that he was too heavy. He liked the work ethic and the challenge of show jumping. He notes that Ruby Walsh was a few fields away but they both knew what they were good at!

  1. The early bird gets the worm

Cian enthusiastically states that “I will be the first person at the horsehow. I like to be organised and get my bearings. I write down the type of detail. If the competition is at 3 p.m. and then I write down the full day from 6 a… The day is as organised and structured as I can imagine. If anything goes off track, the plan is there to take it back”. Cian shared one superstition with us. Other ride the horses in the morning in their competing clothes. “I never do that!” he retorts. “I change the clothes. I like to be as fresh. Maybe it’s because others don’t get up as early as me!”

  1. Balance youth and experience

“The younger you buy the horse, the cheaper it will be … and the more that it’s unknown” muses Cian. As you consider buying a horse, you need check his record, look at videos of him jumping and then try him out. With a younger horse, there is a longer road and more can go wrong, but you also have more time to mould them.

  1. Feed off the momentum of your support.

Channel pressure in the right way, don’t let it make you nervous. He told us a story of a horse who always tipped his head towards the crowd to enjoy the adulation before a performance. Like people, horses feed off the energy when everybody is behind them. We can all learn from that.

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