Commitment, Focus and a Drive To Do Better – Ryan Baird: Trinity Business School
Determination, resilience, an appetite for success and a dedication to self-improvement. Such qualities can be typically found on the CV or personal statement of anyone seeking to gain entry to the C-Suite – a seat at the table in the boardroom. The same skillset can also be found in the locker rooms and on the courts and pitches of any sport in the world – from ping-pong to football.
Indeed, professional athletes share a skillset and an attitude akin to many of the most successful and ambitious leaders in industry today, so it’s hardly a surprise that so many of the world’s sporting elite find their way to business education, and excel at it. Whether to satisfy their consistent desire for professional growth and improvement or to set in place a plan B – a way to continue their legacies when their sporting glories are behind them, business schools around the world are opening their doors to students from less stereotypical backgrounds such as sports, recognising the value such individuals can bring.
In this BlueSky Thinking mini-series, we sit down with sporting stars around the world, transforming the attitudes, values and ambitions developed through lifelong competition to the classroom. Here they share how their own experiences have helped to shape their futures, and provide learning opportunities for those around them.
Name: Ryan Baird
School: Trinity Business School
Programme: BSc Computer Science and Business
Tell us a little about yourself. Where did your journey in competitive sports begin? How have you grown as an athlete over the years?
All I’ve ever known is competition. Growing up with two younger brothers, our lives revolved around playing multiple sports: athletics, soccer, tennis, GAA, golf, and rugby. All were packed into a weekend’s activity with the highlight being the annual Baird Cup Tennis Trophy. This was a handicapped event that pitted the five family members against each other in a winner-takes-all tournament. First won by my younger brother at age five, there were many tears shed over defeats and many hotly contested line calls. It wasn’t for the faint-hearted but was great fun. It’s where it all began!
Unlike most parents, who would bring their kids to games and cheer from the sidelines, my dad would analyse our games, capturing stats. He would have his review done by the end of the day, not mincing words about where we fell short and how we could improve. He cared deeply about us and wanted us to fulfil our potential. This was one of the ways he showed it. His feedback, though occasionally harsh, was always warranted and constructive. It still benefits me to this day (only when I allow him though!).
My parents were big believers in playing many sports. They believed it provides a well-rounded skill set – hand-eye coordination from GAA and golf, speed and acceleration from athletics, mental toughness from tennis, and the importance of being part of a team from GAA and rugby.
I’ve found that these varied skills from different sports have helped me succeed on the rugby pitch. Around the ages of 13/14, I started to specialise in rugby, as it was the main sport at my school, St. Michael’s College, and at my dad’s club, Old Wesley RFC.
The greatest part of being a professional athlete is the person and athlete you become. At an early age, all you are doing is playing and having fun, and of course, you want to keep that at the heart of why you play professionally. But there’s more going on at a professional level. It’s your job, the stakes are higher, there’s more competition for selection, and you’re expected to win.
I’ve developed strategies for this by focusing more on my preparation and my mind. I’ve worked with various sports psychologists and performance coaches, both individually and with teams in Ireland and Leinster (where there is a world-class team led by Leo Cullen). I’m beginning to understand what puts me in the best headspace to perform, balancing emotion with the process. Because at the end of the day, if you aren’t 100% committed to the game and to the moment in front of you, you won’t perform to your potential.
I’m a big believer in habits. My Ireland coach, Paul O’Connell, always says, “Under pressure, we are our habits.” So, I focus on building the right ones. This starts with planning my training day. As Richard Williams (Serena’s father) said, “Fail to plan, plan to fail”. This involves gym work to keep my body strong, any video work for scouting the opposition, what visualisation I need to practise to get me mentally primed for training and game days, what skills I need to practise pre and post training to become world-class and finally, what my focus is for the training session itself.
Everything must be done with purpose. During a game, you don’t want to be thinking internally about technique. You want to be outward-thinking and play what’s in front of you. You must trust in your preparation. The phrase ‘9/10 of High Performance is preparation and the other 1/10 is trusting the preparation to allow you to flow’ really resonates with me. All high performance is deliberate and consistent practice over a sustained period of time.
I don’t always complete everything as its planned because you must leave a margin of error for life and the path it takes you down. However, having an objective to complete focuses my attention and increases my productivity and success.
Studying and training for competitions must take up a lot of time. How do you balance your busy timetable, so that you are able to perform both academically and athletically?
It’s not easy, but it’s certainly doable. It’s all about prioritising what’s important to you. If you look at some of the most successful people in the world and what they’re achieving, you might ask, “How do they have time for that?” It’s because they prioritise and plan. Everyone has the same number of hours in the day; it’s all about how you use them.
For me, I know that some days training is so intense that I won’t have the mental capacity to study. So, I plan any college work or meetings for my recovery day when I can focus better. Again, for me, it comes back to preparation. The decisions you make now can have a positive or negative effect on your future, so set yourself up for success.
It’s been drilled into me that sports won’t last forever and that it’s better to prepare now for my next phase. That’s when academic training and qualifications will become really important to me.
Are there scholarships/schemes/facilities at Trinity that have helped you keep competing in sports while studying? If so, how have they helped you?
At Trinity, I’ve been able to slow-track my college degree, allowing me to spread the normal annual workload over a two-year period. This significantly lightens the load and helps me strike the right balance between sport and academia.
I am very fortunate to be a professional athlete, so time and flexibility are the things that I value most from the scholarship program. If I’m selected for the Rugby World Cup, it’s going to be a very demanding time, both mentally and physically. Having exams around the first match could be a potential stressor, so having the ability to sit them earlier in the month allows for commitment to both.
Also, having my tutor, Donncdha Carroll, on both sides of the fence in respect to academia and sport allows for seamless communication between departments, which is so important.
Business and sports are both highly competitive environments. Have you found there are advantages from having a foot in both worlds? And if so, how have these advantages shaped your time at business school?
Being involved in sports and recognising the interest people have in it has given me a great opportunity to meet some extraordinary individuals in the business world. While I don’t possess the business experience that others do, I compete every day, either with myself, my teammates, or in matches.
What I have learned from these encounters is that much of what I experience daily is transferable to the business world. As athletes, we frequently face high-pressure situations that demand both physical and mental execution. We are met with adversity on a regular basis, be it injury, selection, form, etc. Consequently, we are compelled to be resilient, reflective, and to learn from these experiences, or else we get passed over by the next in line. This has given me the tools to manage my academics in a way that I wouldn’t have had if not for sports, particularly resilience during challenging assignments when the finish line seems out of sight but you trust you’ll figure out the path.
With elite sports, you are forced to adapt quickly, encapsulated by the old adage, ‘sink or swim.’ This stands to benefit you outside of sports, regardless of whether you sink or swim, because viewed through a different lens, all failure is an opportunity. If you can grasp that, you’re on a journey to fulfilling your potential, which as athletes, and more importantly as people, is all we desire.
Finally, what are your future plans? How do you see your time as a sportsperson shaping the rest of your career? And how will your studies also provide career opportunities in the short and the long-term?
I have a great interest in leadership and human performance and that has led me to converse with many different people outside of the sporting world as mentioned above. For me there is nothing more pleasing than following the process and seeing the results. I have ambitions to be a leader who leads himself first and foremost but then leads others to reach their full potential too. My degree (Computer Science and Business) has given me exposure to some areas of which I have huge interest, notably Organisational Behaviour. As a leader, how do you want your business to run? The culture and environment that you create are everything. They define, in my case, the teams I’m involved with.