Power of positive thinking still fuelling Philly McMahon’s ambition
Decorated defender will embrace the task of holding his place in Dublin’s defence
Philly McMahon in action at Croke Park last summer. This season he will be bidding to win a seventh senior All-Ireland medal with Dublin. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
“I’m lucky to be part of an amazing group, aspiring to achieve a goal, a much bigger cause than me just getting a jersey...”
Already the first and last words you’ll hear out of any Dublin footballer for the rest of summer. Possibly beyond that too. Only coming from Philly McMahon they are words that carry a little more gravitas, all part of his life journey well chronicled so far, and otherwise known as The Choice.
These days that choice typically begins first thing in the morning, when McMahon steps out of bed and walks across the floor towards the bathroom. Has that right hamstring just tweaked a little bit? Is his left Achilles tendon trying to tell him something?
It’s what happens to most players over the age of 30 and for McMahon the choice here is simple: ignore or embrace the pain; be open or shut towards suffering.
“Sometimes you want to feel that bit of pain, because it’s like a reward, knowing you’ve done something good,” he says. “Most people still shy away from physical and mental pain, when you have to embrace it, learn from it.
“And too many people start off the day on a negative, giving out about going to work, school, or the weather. If you start negative, the day will likely continue that way. What you do in the morning sets you up for the day. Start with one thing positive, and that can start a cycle, to stay motivated for the day. Start on a negative, and that might continue, and suddenly the day is gone.
“So for me that bit of pain in the morning is a good thing, also gives you a warning, a reminder to have a stretch out, get the right nutrition in, start the recovery. The days you wake up and you aren’t sore are the ones to worry about. You need the little alarm bells. That bit of stress can help you. And I have my own little rituals in the morning to deal with that.”
Which McMahon will talk about later, openly practicing what he preaches from the heart. Meanwhile at age 31 (32 in September) he gets other little reminders these days that no Dublin jersey will come easy this summer, including his own.
McMahon was the only starting player from last September’s All-Ireland winning team not to start in any of Dublin’s seven games in the Allianz Football League, in part while recovering from a cracked metacarpal in his hand, sustained while boxing in the gym just before last Christmas. His only game time was the last 15 minutes in the last round against Cavan, that younger, fresher Dublin full-back line made up of Darren Daly, Davy Byrne and Cian O’Connor.
Last Saturday evening at Parnell Park came another little reminder when playing with his club Ballymun Kickhams against reigning champions Kilmacud Crokes in the first round of the Dublin championship. Kilmacud won 2-13 to 0-14,
McMahon’s former Dublin team-mate Rory O’Carroll, back from a three-year sojourn in New Zealand, was central to the Kilmacud defence and, still only 29, already putting his hand up to win back a jersey in the Dublin defence, the three-time All-Ireland winner and two-time All-Star clearly rediscovering his grá for football.
All part of the challenge McMahon is openly embracing, willing to accept, whether that ultimate choice is actually his. His sixth All-Ireland in 2018 carried its own special significance, won two months to the day after his father Phil Snr died after a long battle with stomach cancer. His illness was diagnosed during Dublin’s 2017 All-Ireland run, and only now is McMahon realising the impact that had on his own game, and again it’s nothing blasé.
“The last two years, definitely, I was struggling a bit in training, there was a bit of an overload, physically and mentally. But I already feel I have the energy back this year. Ultimately I’d love to start, continue that on, but I’ll do whatever works for the team. That all depends on so many variables. Some you can control, some you can’t. Does the manager still want you? Is the body still fresh?
“I still enjoy it, and for me, it’s always year by year, focusing on the club for the next few weeks, then come May, going back in, giving it everything, seeing what more I can give. If you’ve been around adversity, death, I think you do understand that a little more. You have to be selfless in thinking ‘I want to be still here’, and to make the most of that.
“So I’ll play on for as long as I’m needed. And if I walked away now I’d be hugely grateful for all I’ve achieved. If I wasn’t grateful for that it would be very disrespectful, I think, to all other county players, past and present. To me it’s also about striving for the unknown, for things that maybe I didn’t think I still had in me, trying to gain something with every chance I get.”
McMahon has been giving over time elsewhere recently, including a TEDx talk at Mountjoy Prison in Dublin earlier this month as part a new leadership programme called “Unfucccked” (the three Cs standing for the programme’s guiding principles: “culture, change and community”). He’s been counselling prisoners and people living in disadvantaged areas for the last two years, as well as running two successful business of his own, Fit-Food Ireland, and the BeDo7 fitness clubs in Dublin.
The question of him giving over too much time outside football is answered when he opens a large default diary on his desk at the BeDo7 fitness club in Finglas, each part of the day and week already highlighted in different colours.
“The diary is filled out a good bit, every week, but with work, I’ve got to the point where I’m able to work from 11-4, most days. So it’s not 9-5, or even 6-5, which I used to do. The office stuff now is generally 11-4, and that then allows me to give the evenings over to football, or my girlfriend, or my family.
“And I’m very lucky to be surrounded by very self-motivated staff, a very understanding girlfriend. I’m fortunate the hard work I’ve put into my companies over the last 10 years means I am able to go off and do other things if I want to, such as the work up in Mountjoy.
“It might seem a bit stressful, but it’s actually not. Just looking at the diary means I’m always aware of where my time is going, and once you understand that time is very precious you start treating it better. It’s all about balance.
“You’re always learning about your body, and as you get older the recovery always takes that bit longer. The Dublin squad is getting younger all the time, as you’re getting older, so all the testing markers and that are also getting harder.
Football has always been about a lot more than kicking a ball
“It’s about finding ways to deal with that. A lot of athletes still look to up the physical load, but they don’t match that with the mental fatigue, and that causes injuries. So for me it’s a mixture of things, I do floating pods (soaking in a large path filled with Epsom Salts), that works on the inflammation side of things, I get a rub a week, at the Next Stage injury clinic, and after that it’s the good habits in nutrition, getting the right calories and vitamins in.”
That’s something he’s also preaching, preparing for a talk at the KBC WellFest next month, the theme being health and wellbeing in the wider community.
“From the general fitness point of view, a lot of people who join our gyms join for vanity reasons. Not like athletes, who are more into the performance end. So 90 per cent of people I deal with are there for vanity reasons. People look in the mirror, see themselves in a certain way, and are generally unhappy about that.
“It takes a long time for anyone’s physical shape to change, maybe 12 weeks, but most people aren’t that patient. But it’s about changing the mindset, the emotions, and the first stage of that is getting people to enjoy it. A lot of people might hit their target, whether it’s weight loss or weight gain, but they’re still unhappy, because they haven’t changed what’s inside them.”
That comes from his own experience too, football always being about more than just the end result: “Football for me broke the cycle. I could have gone the exact some route a lot of my friends did, my brother did [John, a heroin addict, died in 2012, the year after McMahon won the first of his now six All-Irelands].
“I had someone who believed in me, Paddy Christie, brought me to Ballymum Kickhams. I was very fortunate, in that shaped me into who I am today, and what I do today.
“Football has always been about a lot more than kicking a ball. And if you can emotionally connect to the goal, if that matters, then it’s easier to achieve it.”
All said without once mentioning the five-in-a-row, because there’s no need to. The last words you’ll hear out of any Dublin footballer for the rest of summer.
* Philly McMahon will be presenting a workout at the KBC WellFest at Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin on May 11th. For more see www.wellfest.ie
Ireland’s ‘unhealthy relationship with alcohol’
Being a dedicated non-drinker has given Philly McMahon an understanding of life without alcohol. The life he’s come from and still lives gives him an understanding in other ways too.
“From the first taste I just didn’t like it, and I didn’t need the buzz either. All the things you think you need alcohol for when you’re younger, to fit in, to go dancing, I didn’t need that. And I was fortunate the values my parents instilled helped me to say no to that.
“I know sometimes people say to me, ‘you don’t drink, it’s easy for you to say’, but I think Irish people do still have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. It’s still one of the biggest killers in the country.
“I think as a nation we’ve accepted that thought process ‘ah, sure we’re Irish, we like to drink’. We still glamorise the whole culture around it, without realising it still destroys whole families, communities. I still see that side, and part of the problem is it’s still mostly hidden, in the household, or on the streets. And I see other drugs like weed, hash, cocaine, becoming more socially acceptable, in both classes.
“The problem is when you challenge that alcohol culture. I was on The Late Late Show last year, and alcohol was mentioned, and it was like there was a cheer, ‘ah sure we’re Irish’, and I was quite offended by that.”