Friday 20 September 2019

All-Star Ashling Thompson: 'I envy Katie Taylor and Simon Zebo who can earn a living from their sport'

Cork star Ashling Thompson tells our reporter how her beloved sport helped her cope with some of the bleakest periods in her life

Aisling Thompson. Photo: Sebastian Marko
Aisling Thompson. Photo: Sebastian Marko
Ashling focuses on full-body workouts during regular gym sessions. Photo: Dan Sheridan
Ashling strength training at the gym. Photo: Dan Sheridan

Joe O'Shea

It is a paradox that only athletes at the very top of their game will understand. There may be few environments as stressful as elite-level competition, an often unforgiving arena which tests skill, character and mental strength to extreme limits.

But for some, crossing that white line brings them not to a place of chaos but a place of calm, a zone where they know exactly what is expected of them and where the problems of day-to-day life (for a brief period at least) are put aside.

When Cork camogie star Ashling Thompson talks about her life as effectively a full-time athlete (the game is amateur but the demands are professional) she keeps coming back to the same theme: For as long as she can remember, in a young life that has had its challenges and dark times, her sport has been her place of clarity, calm and on occasion, refuge.

Camogie has kept her physically healthy - especially after a bad car crash when she was 19 left her with significant injuries - and given her mental and emotional resilience. More recently, it has brought her into contact with mentors who have been helping her on her own journey towards mental wellbeing.

Ashling will be 28 this year ("Don't remind me!") and sometimes feels the wear and tear of the miles she has put on the clock, both in game-play and in training.

As the last days of January tick by slowly, she is already in pretty intensive training with Cork, the reigning All-Ireland champions, as they start their league campaign.

"It's three days a week at the moment with Cork, with at least one gym session added to that; pretty soon it will be four training sessions a week with the gym as well," she says.

It is a familiar routine for the sportswoman, who has captained her club and county to multiple All-Ireland success. Between playing for her club, Milford in north Cork, and for her county, Ashling is effectively in a full-time, year-round routine of training and competition.

"Between the training, games and the sessions you do yourself, at the height of the season you're looking at six days a week, really," she says.

"We've won All-Irelands... you get maybe a week where you can take it easy, then you are straight back into it again. Win an All-Ireland; the following weekend you are out playing a championship game with your club".

The Cork star has always been a fiercely committed competitor, always ready to put herself on the line. But now that she is in her late twenties and the physical and mental demands have - if anything - increased, Ashling says she is learning to listen more to her body.

"Over the years, I know there have been times when I have done too much in the gym. As you get older, you get to know your body, how far you can push it and when you need recovery time," she says.

"I have been hard on myself, I've felt strains or niggles and I'll just try to play through it. My mentality has been that, if my leg isn't actually hanging off, I'll play on.

"But I know now that if I am going to extend my career, to play for as many years as I can, I can't ignore strains or injuries, I've got to mind myself."

A typical day for Ashling Thompson

Aisling Thompson. Photo: Sebastian Marko

Breakfast: Porridge with seeds and fruit.

Throughout the day: As a full-time athlete, Ashling often has to 'carb load' before training or gym sessions. This can be with chicken and pasta, or a simple sandwich on wholemeal bread.

Post workout: Protein to help with muscle regeneration and repair.

The aim is to strike a balance between protein, carbs, fats and sugars.

Favourite foods: Avocado and peanut butter.

Training - With Cork: Two to three days on the pitch, depending on the time of year. Then a game at the weekends, plus gym programme during the week. There will also be regular training with her club, so at the height of the long season, she might get just one day a week to rest.

Ashling says she also has her own regular and intensive 'ball alley' sessions to work on her skills, plus "the odd 20-minute run".

In the gym: Ashling believes in a full-body workout, not just concentrating on building muscle and upper body strength. She does plenty of core exercises, such as squats and lunges. GAA players ideally will have strength, stamina and resilience but also a lean body with agility and a good turn of speed. Camogie and hurling are fast-burn sports.

The 27-year-old has studied sports massage therapy and injury management. She intends to work in this area in the future but for the moment, she's all about the game.

"I consider myself a professional athlete," she says with a smile, perhaps knowing that the concept might alarm GAA traditionalists.

"Most of the girls are in college, they've got degrees or careers outside the sport. But from day one, it's all I've ever wanted to be, a full-time athlete. It's just a pity - for me - that my sport is not professional.

"I'm not saying I'd want the GAA to go pro, not at all. I wouldn't want it to change. But I often think, what if I'd been really into, say, boxing? I look at Katie Taylor and think about somebody who can be a full-time professional, because I think that's what I was always meant to do."

"I do envy the likes of Simon Zebo, Conor Murray, Katie Taylor or Ronda Rousey," adds Ashling, listing off three Irish pro-athletes and the biggest female star in mixed martial arts (Rousey is from the US).

"They get to wake up every morning and do what they love, they get to play sports as their occupation, they earn a living from it and they can make it their career".

Ashling does see herself as being extremely fortunate, having a number of sponsors, including Volkswagen and Red Bull which allows her to concentrate virtually full-time on her sports career.

"I know I'm lucky - I can train and play pretty much when I want and dedicate myself to my sport. And I'm very thankful for that," she admits.

Ashling had been thinking of going back to college to continue her studies this year, in the area of sports therapy and physical education. But the siren call of club and county has won out for another season at least.

"When I looked at studying in UCC, the PE courses, they had actually brought in a mental health element to the course and that really attracted me," she says.

"Putting wellbeing, mental health and sport in one circle, that's definitely where I see myself going. I've made the decision not to do it right now - but I can always go back in the future".

Mental health is an issue that animates the camogie player, who has known some tough times in her past.

The car crash she suffered when aged 19 left her with neck injuries. She was forced to stop playing and there was a period of around three years when she says she felt "lost and very isolated".

"Looking back, it's just, what, seven or eight years ago? But we didn't talk about depression then. Or at least I didn't talk about what I was going through like that," she says.

"It was a scary place. I didn't know what to do. I cut myself off from everything and everybody, just stayed cooped up in my room all day. I wasn't eating properly, or at all. I lost so much weight."

A tragic event, the suicide of a young man who was an on-off boyfriend and a close friend, left Ashling feeling overwhelmed.

"I think it was when I hit rock bottom that I thought about camogie, the one thing that I enjoyed in life," she says.

"So I thought I'd go back, do my best, see what happened. And things started to get better. It wasn't overnight. It was still tough. But sport, being around people, working with them, training hard and playing together, it made a big difference".

In the years since, Ashling has thought about the journey she has been on and the lessons learnt.

"In the last couple of years, when I've talked to younger people, I've gone into schools, I've talked about never giving up on that one thing you love to do, never forgetting how happy it's made you," she says.

"Whether it's music, art, sport. It doesn't matter. Hold on to that one thing, even if it's been five years since you last played a game. When times get tough, you can use it.

"And you'll find people, at your local club, who'll welcome you. And a lot of the time, you'll find people who understand what you've been through because they have been there themselves".

Ashling has recently been looking at how talk therapy or regular counselling could help her work on her mental wellbeing.

"It can get so stressful throughout the year. I don't see anything wrong with going to counselling or therapy every now and again, just to have a chat, if you are having bad day. That's something I definitely want to take up in 2018," she says.

"From my personal experiences in the past, I still have a little mistrust in my system, when it comes to opening up. I do tell my friends when I have had a bad day, an argument, but I don't always feel that I get the response that I need.

"And that's nothing to do with them, they are great listeners and they really care. But I think it would be good for me to talk to somebody with experience in taking people through issues, giving you good advice; I think a lot of people could do with that in their lives."

Recently, Ashling was talking to an old friend she also considers to be a mentor, a person who has experience in the field of mental health.

"We had a good chat and he said I'm the type who worries about everyone else, who wants to make sure that everybody else is happy, and I won't think about myself," says Ashling.

"He said it might be a good idea for me to have somebody to talk to regularly, about where I am at and how I am doing. I think you can benefit from somebody who is trained, who has experience in that area. I'm very open to that."

Ashling has been thinking a lot about the future. Still at the top of her game, she feels in great physical shape and has a positive body image, saying she rarely bothers with the weighing scales.

"I don't obsess about it, about having perfect abs or being in perfect shape all of the time," she says.

"I know when I feel right in myself and if I need to do a bit of work, I know I can get to where I want to be. I'll eat healthy, but I'll allow myself treats.

"Training relieves a lot - you always feel much happier, you know you have done the hard work, you are reaching your goals."

The future is a unknown for her.

"I honestly couldn't tell you right now what I want to do with my future. And I'm 28 in March. I just know that I want to keep playing for as long as I can".

Ashling says she will always be involved in her sport. And she's equally as committed to working on her own mental wellbeing. For her, the two go hand in hand.


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