Ciara Mageean is no stranger to success. The 27-year-old from Portaferry, Co Down, has been winning medals since she was a teenager, and earlier this October finished 10th in the 1,500m final at the World Athletics Championships.
Yet despite her obvious prowess on the running track, the middle-distance runner, who has three siblings, has often felt anxiety and doubt in her own abilities, and says it’s very important to be both aware of and to deal with mental health issues.
“I started athletics in secondary school having run [just] two races in primary school,” says Ciara, who studied physio in UCD and is now a full-time athlete with Team NB in Manchester.
“My athletics career took off from about the age of 15 or 16 which wasn’t long after I started the sport. And I had a glistening under-age career, winning numerous youth and junior medals, including European Youth gold and World Junior silver.
“But my transition to senior wasn’t so smooth as at the end of my junior career I suffered a bad injury which caused me to stay out of the sport for two or three years. I had to have surgery and rehabilitation on my back, and missed out on my whole U-23 career.
“In athletics, like anything else in life, there are ups and downs, and one of the hardest things [about being in a high-profile role] is that my low days are often very public, and I have to talk to camera straight off the track.
“I’ve had some really tough days in athletics because while injuries are challenging, the mental aspect is often much harder than the physical. Missing so much time after my junior career really challenged my identity as I was always known as the runner, so I began to wonder what I was if I couldn’t run.”
Mageean, who moved to Manchester to pursue her athletics career, remembers an incident which caused her a lot of mental anguish and which prompted her to seek help in dealing with stress.
"When I made it back into the senior ranks the road wasn't always smooth," she admits. "One particular memory of European Indoors in Belgrade stands out in my mind – it was when I DNF'd (did not finish) in the final. This was a first in my career, and it really was a difficult low for me, so I started working with a sports psychologist after the event. And this was a real eye-opener for me as I had always looked after my physical fitness meticulously, but didn't take the same care for my mental wellness.
"So I started working closely with Kate Kirby in Sport Institute Ireland, as well as my coach Steve Vernon around my mentality towards sport and racing. Talking about the challenges I faced and the aspects which I interpreted as negative showed me that it isn't a weakness to talk about your worries.
“And sometimes simply the act of saying them out loud was and is often enough for me to realise that many [concerns] are silly and those that aren’t can be worked through.
“I believe this doesn’t only stand for my career in sport but for me as a person, and the lessons I’ve learnt through sport I will carry throughout my entire life.”
Having realised the importance of looking after her mental health, the athlete devised some methods to help her cope when things got tough in the future.
“I now have so many mechanisms and exercises which I use regularly in order to help me deal with the mental challenges. One example is around racing as I used to dread race day. I would be so nervous for the weeks leading up to a major race that I wouldn’t want anyone to mention it – in fact I would try to avoid thinking about it at all.
“But since working with Kate and Steve I’ve learnt to address the worries I might have, I write them down and then discuss them.
“My coach uses ‘The Chimp Paradox’ a lot, and we talk about managing my chimp. So I no longer bury my head in the sand; instead I chat about everything, even the silly doubts. I often laugh at them but I don’t avoid them any longer.
“ I find writing helps me a lot – and if my fears are around racing I will jot down what my [race] plan is, right down to the time I wake up, to my last toilet trip before the race. Organisation helps me feel in control, and I know that I can execute my plan to the best of my ability if I follow this list.
“For anyone who feels the way I did about racing, competing, or performing in any environment really I would recommend trying a few different strategies as there isn’t a one-size-fits-all. But I’ve found that routine really helps me, I stick to what I know, I write a list, and I follow it. This leaves little room for worries to creep in on race day for me.
Address the issues
“And I would encourage people to address the issues they feel are there, talk about them, because they will keep appearing if you ignore them. Write down these thoughts and logically go through why they may or may not be true.
“One example for me was that after Belgrade I worried that I would DNF again. So I wrote it down and I logically approached it. Why might that happen – because it had happened before?
“But then I looked at how many races I have run – which are hundreds – and this only happened once. Then I looked at my training, at the options I have in the race and suddenly I realised that this worry isn’t very logical and if I follow my plan, then it [not finishing] should not happen.”
With her star firmly in ascent, the Down woman is planning on keeping her mental health in check and continuing to succeed.
“After suffering from the back injury I worked hard, got back racing, moved to Manchester to join Team NB Manchester, then won European bronze indoors and outdoors and just came 10th in the world.
“So my long-term goals are to continue enjoying my sport and giving my best to it. If I wanted to be more specific, I would say that my major race goal is the Olympic Games next year.
“So I will continue to work with my coach and sport psychologist throughout my prep as I have really seen the importance of training my mind and looking after my mental wellness because as my coach always says ‘a happy athlete is a fast athlete’.”