Isobel O’Connor — Hockey + Gaelic Football player and international diplomat — sharing her perspective on sports and her global career
Since arriving in Hong Kong in 2015, Isobel has taken up Gaelic Football and Camogie – the sports of her country, Ireland. By day Isobel is the Deputy Consul General in the Irish Consulate to Hong Kong and Macau, and outside of work, Isobel is a multi-sport athlete. Not only does she play Gaelic Football and Camogie; she is also a hockey player — which she’s been playing for over 20 years — and Tag Rugby. She even delayed her diplomatic posting to Hong Kong in order to represent Ireland at the 2015 Tag Rugby World Cup. To say the least, Isobel takes playing sports quite seriously. Though Isobel is currently a diplomat, she didn’t study to become one; in fact she studied physiotherapy and public health for her bachelors and masters. She credits playing sports with giving her the skills that helped to make this transition into international diplomacy.
You’ve been playing hockey since you were young. What does it bring to you? What impact has it had on your life?
I was very lucky to be able to start playing hockey when I was 8 years old as my primary school has a team. Since then it has been a constant presence in my life; many of my good friends I’ve met through hockey, and it brings together people from all ages and backgrounds who I otherwise may never meet. As well as the obvious benefits of keeping me fit and healthy, it (or any team sport) is a great way to escape from any pressures or stresses – there’s no better way to escape than with a good training session or a match!
What parallels do you draw from sports to the workplace? How do they complement each other for you?
I think sports, particularly team sports, bring lots of benefits to the world of work. Team sports are hugely beneficial to soft skills like teamwork and communication skills which are useful in almost all environments. If you are playing sport to a reasonable level with a number of training sessions per week, you will invariably find that your time management skills improve and you may work more quickly to make sure you can fit everything in. Taking on roles like being a team captain can be great for leadership skills, and I’ve found that hockey coaching has been particularly beneficial to my communication skills for group situations. Above all this, I think anyone who plays team sports, or even individual sports with a support team, gain a much better sense of being part of a community and not being too individualistic. Working together with others for a common goal is something that has a positive impact on every aspect of your life.
How does your sporting career help or influence the way you behave as a diplomat and vice versa?
Communication skills are essential to my career, as is an ability to work with people from difference backgrounds/culture etc. Playing sport has been invaluable in helping me to develop these skills which I draw on every day. On a more personal level, my career requires moving abroad somewhere new every few years. Sport is one of the best ways to quickly meet new people and make a new city feel like home. In Hong Kong I have been really lucky to meet so many new friends through sport, and even having training sessions every week like home helped me settle in much more quickly.
Although you’re from Ireland and there was Gaelic football being played all the time, you didn’t really take it up as a sport until you arrived in Hong Kong. Why did you decide to start playing it in HK, and what has been easier or more difficult than you expected when taking up a new sport?
Gaelic Football was something I had always wanted to play in Ireland but the timing always clashed with other sports when I was younger, and it can be a difficult thing to take up for the first time as an adult in Ireland as most players are experienced. For Irish people living abroad, the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) club is the first port of call for many people when they move abroad, and are very welcoming to people of all abilities and experience levels. Here in Hong Kong this also includes lots of people who aren’t from Ireland but who have fallen in love with Gaelic Football or Camogie. I have really enjoyed both, particularly Gaelic Football and I was lucky enough to be selected to represent Asia at the GAA World Games last year.
As the Deputy Consul General to the Irish Consulate, you often are invited for receptions and other evening events. How does it impact you playing hockey or tag or Gaelic football? How do you manage to fit it all in?
One of the great things about life in Hong Kong is how close everything is – most of the time I can squeeze in an event and a training session or get a colleague to attend in my place. Naturally there are times when something is particularly important so work has to take priority, but most of the time I can manage to fit it all in.
What words of advice do you have for someone who’s struggling to incorporate sports and fitness into their life? How could someone build the habits that make sports and fitness a daily routine?
Firstly you need to make it a priority; even if its twenty minutes three times a week, you need to plan that time into your day and stick to it. From my own experience if you’ve planned it into your diary, 95% of the time you’ll be able to get everything else you need done if you have a target of being finished in time to do it. I firmly believe that the best way to achieve this is to get involved with a team sport or group activity. If you are accountable to others, you’re far more likely to stick to it. If a team sport isn’t for you, pair up with a friend so that you’re accountable to each other; trust me you’ll be much more committed when other people are involved.