Tuesday 17 September 2019

'Sometimes you want the ground to swallow you'

For many years Ciara Mageean has struggled with anxiety on the biggest stage, but it's a war the two-time European medallist is slowly winning

Highs and lows: Ciara Mageean celebrates after winning bronze in the 1,500m at the European Indoor Championships in Glasgow in March this year. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Highs and lows: Ciara Mageean celebrates after winning bronze in the 1,500m at the European Indoor Championships in Glasgow in March this year. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

From an athlete of her calibre, it's a startling admission. "Sometimes," says Ciara Mageean, "when you put your foot on the line, you want the ground to swallow you up. You want anything to stop you running that race."

The 27-year-old is a two-time European medallist, a seasoned international, yet when it matters most she sometimes can't stop certain voices making a loutish intrusion in her mind. But the best way to conquer your demons is to get to know them.

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

Berlin, August 2018, the night before the 1,500m heats at the European Championships: as the German capital bakes in a heatwave, Mageean is experiencing what she refers to now, in her Portaferry lilt, as a "wee meltdown". Wracked by anxiety, she calls her coach, Steve Vernon, who arrives to find Mageean in tears. He's been coaching her for almost a year, but this is his first glimpse into the nerves which grip her tight like a vice at major championships.

"He didn't know what the hell to do," says Mageean. "Why now, the night before, is this all coming to a head?" asked Vernon. "Why are you sabotaging all your hard work? What's the worst thing that's going to happen?"

Vernon is a big believer in the chimp paradox - a theory developed by British psychiatrist Steve Peters that divides the mind into three elements: the human (rational, evidence-based), the computer (a repository of past experiences) and the chimp (irrational, emotional).

Many times in the past, that chimp had run the show in Mageean's mind and, for all her physical gifts, psychological self-sabotage had been a risk. Was it a by-product of outside expectation? Mageean, after all, had a bright and brilliant teenage career, so much that many labelled her the next big thing.

Ciara after her fourth-place finish in Berlin at the 2018 European Championships. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Ciara after her fourth-place finish in Berlin at the 2018 European Championships. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

"To be honest, I'm a bigger problem myself than any external factor - I put an awful lot of pressure on my shoulders. I've always been that nervous person and I've had to realise that that can be fuel for me, it's not always a negative thing. But if I let it be negative then it can take hold."

Rocky

It was always this way, at least in athletics. Growing up, she was a keen camogie player but never experienced there what she does on the track.

"In camogie, you had a job to do and if you made a mistake you could make up for it, whereas in athletics you can pay hugely for a mistake."

To say her journey to senior success was rocky would undersell it. For many years her talent was at risk of becoming a full-blown shipwreck. A bone spur in her heel meant that by the age of 21 she couldn't run a step without piercing pain. Through 2013 and 2014 she'd show up to watch friends race and overhear the comments: "She used to be a good runner."

Used to.

"That hurt, but it makes me laugh now because they're the same people who say, 'Ah sure, she's brilliant!'" Mageean laughs.

Jerry Kiernan was there through it all, the gentle hand steering her back to fitness with a careful, common-sense approach. Mageean won her first senior medal in 2016, taking bronze over 1,500m at the European Championships in Amsterdam. The future looked safe, secure, successful. It wasn't.

The following year was a let-down: Mageean came apart in the European Indoor final in Belgrade and after she dropped out with a few laps to run, tears began to flow in torrents. In the mental battle her chimp was the champ.

"I carried that race into other races because I feared it would happen again," she admits. "But it's about realising that what happens in a race is your decision and you're in control of it."

In August 2017, she went to the World Championships in London but wasn't physically right - the result was another haymaker as she tailed off in 4:10.60. It was time for a change, and so she left her family, friends and boyfriend behind to prioritise her potential, joining Team New Balance Manchester, a group of professional athletes coached by Vernon.

As her physical ability bounced back, she began to bulletproof her mind. Mageean worked with renowned sport psychologist Kate Kirby at the Sport Ireland Institute, breaking down what happens before and during races to find the best strategies to thrive on the big day - and every other day.

"Athletes are extremely resilient and we put our bodies through an awful lot but we have to look after our mental health too," says Mageean.

"Sometimes the talks I have with Kate and Steve aren't about performance and my mentality to racing; it can be my mentality towards my life. Am I happy and content as a professional athlete? Because for a while I didn't enjoy athletics, I did it because I was good at it. But that's not how to get the best out of yourself. It's like a prison sentence if you're just in athletics because you're good at it. You feel trapped."

Over time her confidence began to fill up like a vat and now, before her races, Mageean jots down a race plan. It accounts for unexpected twists, how she'll react if plan A, B and C go awry. She visualises how she'll respond to it, how she'll tell herself the right story.

"It's been a big step for me to be happy and confident racing on that stage, and that might surprise a lot of people because they see you up there and think you naturally belong," she explains.

In Berlin last year, a few days after that mini-meltdown, she told herself all the right things ahead of the European 1,500m final. Despite running one of her best races, she came up just shy of a medal in fourth place. But that was OK.

"Sometimes your best is a gold medal, sometimes it's fourth and sometimes it's 10th," she says. "But if you've tried your God's honest best, everyone else's opinion is irrelevant."

Earlier this year she put in a rock-solid period of base training, logging more than 70 miles a week in the winter and when she walked out for the European Indoor 1,500m final in March, she felt she belonged. The last thing she told herself? "You want to be here, Ciara, you're going to go out and enjoy it."

Improving

She went on to win bronze in 4:08.15, her first international medal since 2016. Since then she's only got better. In Monaco this month, she clocked the second fastest mile in history by an Irish woman, 4:19.03, blazing through 1,500m en route in a lifetime best of 4:01.21.

This weekend she will choose between the 800m and 1,500m at Irish nationals and after that, she will race the Morton Games before returning to altitude in St Moritz to finalise preparations for the World Championships.

"I need to be getting into a world final if I want to be up there come (the 2020 Olympics in) Tokyo. I absolutely love racing in my Irish vest and that's why I do athletics - trying to win medals for Ireland."

She'll give it her best, empty the tank the way she always does, but no matter the destination, her journey has become a lot more enjoyable. The chimp is in its box, the demons fading to nothing but background noise.

"I've realised it's an absolute privilege and I love being an athlete," she says. "I want to be here. I choose to be here."

Irish Independent

The Throw-In: 'Jim Gavin has achieved what Mick O'Dwyer and Brian Cody couldn't do'

In association with Bord Gáis Energy

Also in Sport