Ireland's Sam Watson on Using Data and Tech to Improve Performance (And Paying for It All Themselves)

Ireland's Sam Watson on Using Data and Tech to Improve Performance (And Paying for It All Themselves)

When Ireland earned both team and individual silver at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games™, the eventing world sat up and took notice. Determined to no longer be simply an ‘also ran’, Ireland showed up in Tryon, N.C. with something to prove. They’d taken a hard look at their program and put in the hours necessary to elevate their performances. They were ready as ever to play ball.

Ireland’s eventing team ultimately left North Carolina with serious bragging rights including: Ireland’s lowest ever WEG team score (93.0); first major team championship medal (silver) since 1966; first individual championship medal (Padraig McCarthy, silver) since 1995; two riders in the top five (Sarah Ennis finished fifth).

A 14th place result landed Sam Watson into the top 10 FEI Eventing World Athlete Rankings – another first for Ireland since the rankings have been recorded. Furthermore, Sam riding Horseware Ardagh Highlight and Padraig riding Mr Chunky were two of only four combinations in the entire eventing competition to finish on their dressage score.

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In Tryon, Sam said that for Team Ireland, everything had gone to plan or better, which is pretty profound in a sport where every goal is penciled in and expectations are fragile as glass. “We’ve been on the receiving end of that. We’ve had some hard knocks along the way. It should be our moment. We deserve it.”

The preparations for WEG had been, of course, years in the making. But this time Ireland approached the major championship from a different point of view. With the help of EquiRatings, an equestrian data and analysis company of which Sam is co-founder along with Diarm Byrne, they analyzed decades of results and identified performance weaknesses. They then set out with firm intention, using the stats to focus their training.

The Power of Analysis

Based on their analysis, Ireland realized something the rest of the world had overlooked: they had a poor cross-country record at major championships. That’s a hard fact to accept, being that Ireland is known for its scrappy riders who grew up on horseback, racing or hunting across tough country in brutal weather conditions. But on manicured courses with perfect footing, their results suffered. “That was definitely Ireland’s dirty secret.”

“We have a great reputation for being good on the cross-country, but when we analyzed our performance, that was the day that was letting us down,” Sam says. “The fact is when there are four on a team at a championship (before this year) we never had more than a 50 percent clear this century… It’s incredible to think. But that’s the power of analysis.”

Without data-based analytics, the scrutiny of performances are easily skewed – for better or worse. “We’re all human and our biases tell us things. We think things are slightly different than actuality. That’s why we started EquiRatings, to help us find the real truths that are out there.”

With the knowledge that their championship results and four-star standings were stymied by poor cross-country results, Ireland was able to reevaluate the importance of the cross-country phase during a time when many nations were desperately working to lower their dressage scores.

“I became aware of that four years ago. We kept it in-house since then,” Sam says. With the support and encouragement of Chef d'Equipe Sally Corscadden, Team Ireland was determined to flip the stats upside down. “You can’t argue with the facts. It was a real mission for the last 18 months to get better on cross-country.”

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Sam himself spent more time training than ever before. At home, he dug out holes and ditches, built up mounds and undulations to practice. “I go out and put weird and wonderful fences out and have a play once a week.” He and the other Irish riders were learning to ride more instinctively over technical questions.

“We were training reactions I would say,” Sam explains. “We were doing a lot of lines where we were not given a distance or it was built on an awkward distance. So we practiced being quick at saving a situation or being in the right place and training horses to be comfortable with either.”

For Sam, Padraig, Sarah, and Cathal Daniels, the goal on the WEG cross-country day was to produce three clears. They ended up with four clears – three within the time – moving them into medal position from seventh after the dressage phase. “It was a brilliant cross-country display. That’s what we set out first and foremost to achieve.”

A Hero’s Welcome Home

When Ireland’s eventing team returned home from Tryon, they were greeted by throngs of cheering fans at the airport. Each rider was swarmed by family and friends while camera crews captured the emotional scene.

“That was the first time it hit me that we’d done something pretty big,” Sam says. “We had been so focused on delivering our plan. We had been very analytical in the build-up. Even when we won the medal – yes it was amazing and that evening we were standing on the bar and being pretty Irish about the whole thing – but we were still out there at the WEG and it hadn’t hit home.

“When we collected our bags and were walking towards the exit to the arrival hall, I said to Padraig, ‘This could be embarrassing. There might be ten people here.’ Then we saw everybody.”

It was a sweet surprise for Sam to spot his parents there with his young sons, Archie and Toby. Sam’s own father, John Watson, won an individual eventing silver at the World Games in Lexington, Ky. four decades ago. There at the airport, the two medalists embraced.

“My dad, he’s emotional at the best of times,” Sam says. “I think he got the words ‘I’m proud of you’ out but he was holding back tears in front of the cameras. I knew as well so I just said ‘Thanks, Dad.’ My mom supported him incredibly through his career and supported all of us – myself and my two sisters – but Dad is by far the most passionate about eventing of the whole family. The emotional involvement in it is huge and sometimes overwhelming when I was growing up. I know how much it means to him though, and I love being able to make him cry for good reasons.”

For All of Ireland

It wasn’t just family, but a whole country that treated the team to a hero’s welcome home. Throughout their WEG journey, the grassroots support was tremendous, especially when it came to fundraising efforts which ranged from clinics and demos to auctioning off days spent with the riders at their yards.

“We’ve paid for a lot of our own training out of our own pockets, which is fine because we want to learn. But, you know, we weren’t coming over first class like the team ahead of us on the airplane. We’re doing this off a limited budget, we’re doing it off people from Eventing Ireland, people from the grassroots of the sport supporting us,” Sam said during the WEG.

Indeed, the team had to get creative to balance the checkbook, but the help they received was more than simply financial, and the country’s commitment made the team want to raise their game. “People who ride in 90-centimeter competitions, they’re part of this as well, because they got us that training. This is more than just the team that you see here.”

Since arriving home, Sam and the rest of the team have been enjoying reminiscing on the experience. He visited his sons’ schools and took the medal for show and tell, and as the Irish are such good storytellers, there has been plenty of recounting the story with friends over pints.

“I’ve enjoyed that the most,” Sam says. “People you know well and you’re connected to, you see what it means to them. That’s what makes it special.”

With the WEG in the history books and the 2020 Olympic Game in Tokyo on the horizon, I asked how Team Ireland would capitalize on this result and move forward to the Olympics. “We pretend like it didn’t happen,” was Sam’s reply. “From a practical and day-to-day point, we have to stay every bit as sharp and focused as we were going into [WEG]. We won that medal because we worked hard, and we worked hard because we were hungry, and we were hungry because we had something to prove.

“When we’re feeling down and unmotivated, we’ll have WEG to look back on for a boost of confidence, but we have to keep our heads down and keep working. I would be surprised if there was any nation that put in the hours we put in and was as focused… I’m proud of the fact that we really busted a gut to deliver [at WEG]. We’ll do the same for Tokyo.”

Photos of Sam Watson at the World Equestrian Games 2018 by Sportfot.