Monday 16 September 2019

'I came through adversity... sports and fitness saved my life' - Footballer Philly McMahon

Footballer Philly McMahon believes everyone should have the chance to keep active. Here the Dublin native talks to Katie Byrne about the role fitness plays in changing your mindset, your perspective and your future.

Philly McMahon at his BeDo7 Gym in Finglas. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Philly McMahon at his BeDo7 Gym in Finglas. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

I’M barely in the door of the BeDo7 head office when the gaffer makes himself known. There’s a brief stand-off, a once-over and a few cursory sniffs before Hugo the chow-chow succumbs to the rubs and tickles.

Philly McMahon, Hugo’s adoring owner, and the owner of BeDo7 Fitness Club, watches on from behind crossed-arms. “Hugo is always in the office,” he laughs. “He lifts the energy and puts everyone in a better mood.”

“Why don’t you lift him up like a baby like you always do,” teases one of his colleagues. “Show them what you’re really like!”

Philly doesn’t take him up on this suggestion and instead guides me to a quieter area where we can have a chat.

It’s a dull Monday morning but Philly is no less chipper than usual. He likes Mondays, and thinks the Sunday night ‘fear’ is, in most cases, a hangover from the days of not having done your homework. It helps that he doesn’t drink alcohol — he never liked the taste. And the bright-side thinking can’t hurt either...

When people ask, ‘How are you?’, I always answer, ‘I feel great’,” he explains. “It doesn’t mean you have to be feeling great but when you fake it you change that negative to a positive. Other times, I just think about how grateful I am.”

Philly certainly has a lot to be grateful for: he’s an accomplished sportsman and a successful fitness entrepreneur. But he’s had his fair share of adversity too — most notably the loss of his older brother, John, who died, aged 31, after a long battle with drug addiction.

There was a time when Philly felt ashamed that his brother was a heroin addict, but as he came to terms with his grief, and reflected on the different choices he and his brother made, he began to realise that sharing his story could help people.

“When people started asking me to speak at certain events, I realised that maybe my story is powerful enough to influence change,” says the Ballymun-born footballer. “And from there I realised I’ve been doing this all along. If someone asked me what I do, it’s not a gym or a food company — we help people. That’s the business I’m in.”

The footballer went on to share the story of his relationship with his brother, and the different paths they took, in The Choice, an absorbing autobiography that examines the ripple effect of small choices.

“If you didn’t play sport there was really nothing else for you growing up in Ballymun,” explains Philly, who was playing football as soon as he was old enough to join a team. His brother, on the other hand, didn’t have much interest in sport. Anything he took up he gave up soon afterwards.  

At the age of 14, Philly began to derive his identity from football. He had a trial with Nottingham Forest and the girls in his class started calling him ‘Golden Balls’. The up-and-coming footballer felt like he belonged to his team; his brother, meanwhile, found a sense of belonging in drug culture and his gang of much-older friends.

John went on to leave school at 16; Philly went on to repeat his Leaving Certificate and get enough points for an Education & Training course in DCU.

Crucially, Philly had an older brother who “made the mistakes for him”. John never let his little brother experiment with drugs and Philly often wonders how different his life might have been without his older sibling’s influence. The footballer now strongly believes that everyone needs a positive role model. It’s the philosophy that guides Half Time Talk, a charitable movement he set up to connect unemployed adults with mentors who lead them on towards a better path in life.

“That was one of the big realisations for me when John passed,” he says. “Look, you have loads of regrets and one regret that I had was could I have done more? I know now that I can.”

Philly’s ideas are progressive. As a social activist, he has called for the government to “decriminalise the human being behind the addiction”. As an entrepreneur, he wants to reimagine the fitness industry.

This brings us back to BeDo7 (formerly BK Fitness), a sprawling industrial-style fitness club in Finglas that somehow doesn’t feel like a typical gym. The first giveaway is when I peek my head into the 10am class and hear the soft cries of a baby coming from a carry-cot.

“We don’t advertise it as such,” explains Philly, “but basically we want to give every member the opportunity to get to the gym, especially if they can’t get a babysitter at that time of day.” The mother leaves five minutes before the class ends, beaming from ear to ear.

The 30-year-old Dublin footballer says he never wants to see a conveyer belt of members queuing for treadmills and haphazardly trying equipment that they were never properly taught to use. He’s more interested in cultivating an ethos: getting to know his members by name and offering a personalised service.

“I’ve worked for a couple of big mainstream gyms,” he explains, “and one of them was a high-volume-low-cost model. But as a member, unless you know what you’re doing, you’re just renting space.

“My model is the total opposite,” he continues. “It’s based around retention rather than acquiring new members all the time. I want to affect people’s lives so it’s not really about the numbers that are coming in the doors. If I affect people’s lives positively, they’ll tell their friends.”

Philly’s first foray into the gym industry happened almost accidentally. He took out a big car loan when he was 18 and, the following year, while repeating his Leaving Cert, he was struggling to pay it back.

He needed to find a way of making money so he started training a group of four women in the attic space of Ballymun Kickhams.

“They got results, they told their friends and it escalated from there,” explains Philly. “I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to scale up without taking on any massive loans,” he adds.

In later years, the success of the gym allowed the five-time All-Ireland winner to start FitFood, a healthy meal delivery service, and while he won’t be pressed on the details, it’s obvious that the young entrepreneur has plenty more up his sleeve.

BeDo7 offers a unique training system. We’ve all seen yoga-honed women who can wrap their legs around their heads but barely execute one push-up. Likewise, we’ve all seen buffed men who can do one-armed push-ups yet barely touch their toes.

The ‘7 system’ takes these different types of fitness abilities into account, and personalises a programme based on a client’s body composition, movement and strength, before combining it with nutrition, recovery and mindset.

‘Holistic’ is the word that Philly uses to describe their approach. “We’re not a counselling service,” he says, “but we’re a team of staff that realises we have a bigger purpose.”

A cynic might pooh-pooh this as a pitch designed to push memberships, but after just a few minutes in Philly’s company, it becomes clear that he practices what he preaches. 

He’s read plenty of books on the psychology of habit and change (The Green Platform by Declan Coyle is a particular favourite) and, over the years, he has learned how to change his mindset by reframing his perspective.

A lot of sportsmen use their cachet to become advertiser-friendly ‘influencers’, Philly prefers to use his position to influence change. It’s an admirable trait, but he insists that it isn’t unique to him — it’s the culture of the GAA world that he was brought up in.

“We represent our communities and the wider audience of GAA,” he says. “The majority of GAA players would be very grounded because they understand they represent the parish and the community so this is just the way we are — and that’s no disrespect to other sports. It’s just our culture.

“We’re more than just footballers. Maybe other sports that have a professional aspect to it — they might think that’s all they are. Are you [just] a soccer player? Are you [just] a rugby player?

“Whereas we have our careers outside of sport so we’re much more than that and we’re just very fortunate that we have a public profile from winning the All-Ireland a couple of times. But I think the most important part of that profile is to use it to help and influence in the right way.”

There has been lot of talk in recent weeks on toxic masculinity — especially within the sports industry — so it’s hard not to bring up the Belfast rape trial and the messages sent between the men at the centre of it.

Could the sports industry be doing more to teach players about acceptable behaviour and respect for women?

“What’s being sent around WhatsApp groups these days is certainly a danger to our young males,” says Philly.

“Years ago you would have had porn magazines, now it’s all on the phone. It’s changing the way young males think. But at the end of the day, it’s about not putting yourself in these positions. I think there’s a huge danger coming along the way and it’s definitely a topic that could be discussed a lot more. But for me — I have three sisters — and my father always taught me to treat women with respect.”

For the last five years, Philly has been in a relationship with PR executive Sarah Lacey. The couple don’t have kids but I’m curious about the values they would like to instil in their children were they to start trying for a family.

“Essentially, I came through adversity,” says Philly. “We should welcome adversity. It’s around us. It’s inevitable for everybody. So if we can get our kids to deal with adversity at a very young age then they’ll be bulletproof as they get older. Unfortunately I don’t think we are. We’re not equipping kids to be dealing with mental health issues.”

Cultivating healthy self-esteem “so they have a good image of themselves and don’t care about what other people say [about them]” is equally important to the footballer.

“I’m saying that’s what I’d like to do,” he’s quick to add, “but it’s probably not easy to do that as a parent either...”

And sport is at the top of the list. “It gives children discipline, an understanding of how to interact with others and team-building skills,” he concludes.

There’s a lot to like about Philly McMahon. As he might say himself, he’s more than just a footballer. He’s a go-getter, a change-maker and, like it or not, a role model to a generation.

“I am who I am, and if that means I’m a role model because of it, great,” he says.

“If I drank alcohol and I did all of these other things then I suppose I would be under a bit of pressure... but for me, it’s just about showing kids that you can be whatever you want to be.”

• Philly McMahon is an ambassador of the WellGood programme. WellGood is a 30-day wellness programme, a collaboration between WellFest and KBC Ireland, and is currently ongoing.

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