Dr. Olivia Hurley

Dr. Olivia Hurley is Assistant Professor of Psychology and Sport Psychology in IADT (& a Visiting Assistant Professor in UCD). She is a Chartered Psychologist with the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI) and an accredited Sport Psychologist with the Sport Ireland Institute (SII). Olivia has just had her first solo book, Sport Cyberpsychology, published (March 2018) by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group). It is the first text devoted to assessing the influence of technology on human interaction, behaviour and mental health in a sport context, gathering research on the use of technology and the Internet by athletes, coaches and sport science support staff. A former elite athlete, Olivia won a number of National Sprint titles at Intervarsity and juvenile level. She holds one of the longest standing Irish sprint records to this day (the U13 Indoor 60m sprint).

Can leadership be taught? If so, how?

It has been said within psychology academic circles that ‘leadership’ is one of the most fascinating, yet least understood concepts. Research studies in psychology support the notion that leadership roles may be more ‘naturally’ for some people to fill, but leadership is not all ‘nature’ and no ‘nurture’. I believe that anyone can develop and improve upon all of their life skills, mental and physical, including their leadership skills. Good leaders tend to be action-based; they often ‘lead by example’. Many leaders are also good communicators – they seem to know what to say and when to say it. Good leaders also tend to take responsibility for their actions and are typically prepared to ask for help or delegate when the situation calls for it. However, there is not a research study, a book or a person who can provide us with the ‘proven’ qualities or behaviours that can make someone a great leader, and anyone who claims to have those answers should be looked upon with caution and scepticism. No one person knows everything, about anything, and as the recently departed, and in my opinion, great academic leader, Professor Stephen Hawking said: “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge”.

What has sport taught you about leadership?

What often makes sport so fascinating and enjoyable to partake in, and to watch, is that there are no certainties – ‘Favourites’ fail and ‘Underdogs’ succeed. Sport has taught me that leadership is often much more about serving than leading – serving the team, serving the nation, serving the company. It is about making good decisions for the benefit of the collective, knowing that you cannot please all of the people, all of the time. Good leaders in sport seem to accept and apply these principles.

The world around us is changing faster than at any time in human history and we need more leaders to emerge. How do we make this happen?

I believe we need to learn from past mistakes, understand why things have happened in the past by analysing the data available to us from science and research, and then aim to do better next time. Growth in knowledge comes from an ability to adapt, to change when and where the situation calls for it. Reflection and performance analysis, often referred to as ‘debriefings’ in sport settings, are encouraged by many of us working in the arena of sport and performance psychology. The purpose of this process of analysis is not to identify the failings in any performance in order to damage the mental health and well-being of the athlete/employee/student. Rather, it is a process of analysis aimed at identifying lessons to be learned from past mistakes (which we all make, as there is no such thing as ‘perfection’ in anything, in my opinion), and then moving on in a positive way to the next challenge, where excellence in the performance is the aim. I believe great leaders in sport, and in all other areas, understand and apply such standards for themselves, while also encouraging them in those around them.

What is the one mistake you witness leaders making more frequently than others?

I don’t think there is any ‘one’ key mistake leaders make. I personally would like to see more ‘leaders’ using language that encourages creativity and trust in those they are privileged to ‘lead’ because being given a role of leadership should be viewed as a privilege, not a right. Often the athletes and players I work with speak about being afraid to try out new things or take some calculated risks during their performances for fear of the repercussions of doing so by their coaches, or managers, if they are not deemed to be ‘successful’ in their attempts. We cannot know what we are capable of unless we ‘give it a go’. We talk in sport, business and life about developing resilience skills in ourselves and in others, but resilience, now known as mental fortitude [a suggested amendment by one of the top researchers in this area, Dr. Mustafa Sarkar], relies on us having the courage to be imperfect, to ‘have a go’ and just see what happens. Providing a supportive and facilitative environment for individuals to engage in such activities, which should include the setting of challenging targets, is what is needed from our leaders, in my opinion.

What advice would you give to someone dealing with a high-pressure situation in their life or work?

My advice would be: (i) Ask for help if you need it – Having a supportive ‘team’ around you, whether that consists of other players, your team’s support staff, family or friends you trust, is so important I believe. Talking to such ‘significant others’ about ‘pressure situations’ is a great way to help clarify them in your own mind; (ii) Be prepared to listen to the advice of your ‘significant others’ – You do not always have to act upon their advice, but keeping your options open is important; (iii) Learn how to manage pressure, not try to avoid it because, like perfection, that is pretty much unattainable in today’s society – and also remember that pressure is not always a bad thing! – It can help us to achieve challenging goals and enable us to see what we are really capable of when faced with the uncertainty that a pressure situation often poses; (iv) rest and recovery are also very important (schedule in some fun-time!). I find things like exercising, having a coffee with a friend or watching a movie, as part of a daily or weekly routine, are great ways to manage the various high pressures situations our high-paced lives presents to us all at times.

What are a few resources (books, blogs, podcasts, courses etc) you would recommend to someone looking to gain insight into becoming a better leader?

There are so many to choose from, but I personally would recommend sources like any of the You-Tube available ‘TED Talks’ on Leadership, the writings of my great sport psychology mentor, Professor Aidan Moran (UCD), as well as the work of amazing women in Ireland such as Dr. Norah Patten (who is ‘leading the way’ into Space as Ireland’s first potential astronaut) and our current female athletes in sport – such as our rugby, soccer, hockey, track and field athletes, as well as some of our great female para-athletes. I would also recommend the work and writings of some of my colleagues in the UK, such as Dr. Stewart Cotterill and Dr. Mustafa Sarkar.