How do you motivate yourself when there’s nothing to be motivated for?

Ciara Mageean, Denise O’Sullivan, Scott Fardy and Brendan Maher give their answer

Sport is a stopped clock just now. But sportspeople are still there, the twitching second hand, straining to get going again. The global pause has made civilians out of them all but given them none of our leeway. They can stop but they can’t relax. They can dial it back but they can’t tune out. If and when the whistle blows, they have to be ready.

The Irish Times checked in with four of them. Playing different sports, living in different countries, muddling through different personal situations and scenarios. Each of them stressed that they felt lucky and that there were far bigger problems in the world than their own small concerns. Yet all four are nonetheless trying to answer the same question. How do you motivate yourself when there’s nothing to be motivated for?

Ciara Mageean, Athlete

There is a pattern to virtually everyone’s response. Like the others, Ciara Mageean had no real issue with motivation at the beginning. The crisis offered an opportunity, in fact. The world may be upside down but here, finally, was an offer of the one thing there’s never enough of. Time.

“I was very much, ‘Look, it is how it is,’” says Ciara Mageean. “’We just have to carry on.’ I still felt quite motivated for my athletics. I was excited to have another year to get ready for the Olympics and even the fact that there was going to be no racing this summer was fine.

“Then as it started getting on, I definitely started to have a bit more of a wane in how I was feeling and struggling a little for motivation. It’s when you come to that realisation that it’s going to be a long, long run of it. I’m basically doing next year’s training now and it’s a broad base of training. And that kind of training is what tires you out. You’re doing more miles, you’re doing longer stuff. So I’m quite tired a lot of the time. And that weighs on you.”

There are no dates in the calendar. There is no calendar, full-stop. The reset targets are so far away in the future as to feel unreal. Just being able to see Everest off in the distance doesn’t make you a mountaineer.

“I would be lying if I said I was finding it easy or that I’ve kept my motivation. There have been days when I have felt quite low and not wanted to go out and train and thought, ‘Well what the hell is the point?’ I’ve been tired at the end of a hard training week for nothing.

“Sometimes I worry a little, just because I don’t like it. I don’t like this feeling. I find that if my motivation for athletics starts to lag, then my motivation for other things goes the same way. I might be learning to play the guitar and if I don’t feel like running then I don’t feel like doing that either. Or even simple things like I’ve been meaning to tidy my room and hoover that floor and in my head I’m going, ‘I’ve been meaning to do that for a week, why haven’t I done it?’ And then suddenly you start being annoyed at yourself for not doing basic tasks.

“Then I chat to my coach [Steve Vernon] about it and he says all the things I know to be true. ‘It’s miles in the bank, it’s going to stand to you next year, it's going to make you really strong.’ And I’m going, ‘I know these things, Steve. I’m not stupid.’ But it’s one thing knowing the facts, it’s another thing feeling what you feel.

“Having honest conversations is important. I’ve said to Steve, ‘Look, I know what you’re saying is correct. But really, honest to God now, I’m not enjoying it. I’m feeling sad, I’m feeling down, I miss home, I miss my boyfriend. And right now, Steve, my motivation is at an all-time low. And you know what? Right now, I really, really don’t need anybody to tell me to keep my head up and be positive and this will all stand to me. I know it’s all true - but right now, I just want to be sad.’”

The key is to know that’s okay. To really know it - not to just say it and wallow for the lack of anything else to do. She’s long enough at this now to know herself. She can let it wash over her without drowning in it.

“On the days I don’t feel motivated, I remind myself that it is discipline that keeps me the athlete I am in this sport. Some days I am going to lack the motivation to get out and fully enjoy it. But I tell myself, ‘I want to do this. I am going to do this. I am going to get myself out the door.’

“Routine is fantastic. The body and the brain love routine. For me, sometimes when that starts breaking down, I make myself start a new routine. Something as simple as just writing a list for the day. Or just being a bit more focused on, say, two tasks and being happy with that.

“Whenever it does happen, it can make you feel down and worried but I do tend to feel that it’s normal and that it’s important not to beat yourself up about it. And to remind yourself that you’re in control of your own emotions. It’s okay to let that little rollercoaster wave go through and then to get it back on the other side.”

Scott Fardy, Leinster rugby

If there is an upside to the crisis, it is manifested in Scott Fardy’s body. It has gone 10 full weeks now without being pummelled and it would like to thank the global pandemic for this unexpectedly pleasurable spring. His mind, not unreasonably, takes a different view.

He has no more clarity than the rest of us over when and where and how rugby will start again. But he has his gym programmes and his team meetings and his personal responsibilities to uphold. It’s not always easy. No point claiming otherwise.

“The uncertainty is what makes your motivation wane. At the start, you were thinking we were maybe training to play at the start of May. And then it’s June and then it’s later and later. And in your head you’re going, ‘What am I preparing for? What am I training for? Should I just have a couple of weeks on the drink?! Those sort of thoughts go through your head. Should I rest now? Where’s my head at?

“My motivation wanes, like anyone’s. You wake up in the morning and you’re not feeling the best. Some days you can feel quite hopeless and other days you can spring out of bed and get straight into your training or whatever you’ve got in your day. Like anyone, it’s a very testing time without that structure that we usually have.”

The lack of a team setting is the real downer. Fardy has a two-year-old son to chase around the place so the days don’t feel too long - he thinks he’d struggle a lot more if he was one of the younger lads with only a PlayStation for company. But he has the sense not to punish himself. The bad days will come. The bad days will go.

“I’d say once a week I have a moment where I’m not motivated. But that’s probably normal. You’re sitting there and you’re exhausted even just from something like looking after your child. You’re tired and you find yourself doing something you normally wouldn’t, like looking too far ahead.

“I get over it pretty quick. It’s probably something that I’m pretty good at, personally. But it’s something that you’ve got to work on every day as well. I think you have to allow yourself get frustrated, to have a bit of a bitch to your partner or whoever you’re with and to know that it’s not a normal situation.”

Denise O’Sullivan, Ireland soccer player

In North Carolina, the back-to-back National Women's Soccer League champions are waiting and wondering just like everyone else. They may or may not get a chance to start their three-in-a-row season. Their salaries may or may not get hammered. The league itself may or may not survive in its current form.

For Denise O’Sullivan, the team’s two-time MVP, the uncertainty can be crippling. On Wednesday, they were finally given the go-ahead to start training as individuals using club facilities after several false starts. That would appear to be the first step towards getting some actual games played but, in truth, nobody really has a clue. Staying motivated takes every ounce of professionalism she can muster.

“I think that’s the worst part really. You’re in the unknown. You don’t know what’s going to happen, when pre-season is going to start, nothing. It changes every hour here. You get phonecalls saying we’ll be back on this date and then another later in the day saying it’s pushed back another week. That’s the hardest part - not knowing when you’re going to be back with your teammates, not knowing when you’re going to see them again.

“My mindset right now is really just that I believe that pre-season is going to start in three weeks. That’s what I’m telling myself. So every day I’m going out training, running, doing ballwork by myself - that’s my motivation.

“I’m promising myself that I am going to be prepared going into pre-season. If I wasn’t doing that every day and all of a sudden we got the call and they said we could go back, I’d feel terrible if I wasn’t prepared. So for my own head and for my own mental health, it’s best for me to get out and do the work.”

O’Sullivan’s world has been shrunk to the basics. Her partner, the training she does on her own and the daily Facetime calls back home. Staying connected keeps her spirits up, be it to her Mam in Cork or her Ireland teammates dotted around the place. The 26-year-old is one of the best midfielders in the world but women’s pro soccer is no paradise and nothing is guaranteed. Some days, she gets motivated out of pure necessity.

“On unmotivated days, I probably feel a bit more down in myself. It would be a day where I’m missing my family, that would be the big one. Or missing my teammates. But I think no matter how unmotivated I am, I just always find a way to pick myself up and go out and get the work done.

“Our coach sends us a programme for the week. There’s a lot of running in it, a lot of ballwork too. It’s our responsibility to go and do it, even if it’s just by yourself. It’s our job to keep in shape.

“I don’t worry. You just have to try and get one with it and do your best. I still have the goal to be the best version of myself. I want to arrive at the start of pre-season in shape. I just have to do the work and do anything I can to stay positive.”

Brendan Maher, Tipperary hurler

Every night before bed, Brendan Maher opens the Notes app on his phone and reads through at the day’s schedule, ticking off the things he got done from the list he set himself the night before. When he’s done, he writes up the next day’s list. The alarm pings at 7.15 the following morning and he goes again. When hurling comes back, the schedule will be different. But the habit of doing it up and ticking it off won’t change.

“It gives me a sense of accomplishment and a bit of self-satisfaction to say, ‘You got a bit out of today. Today was a good day. You did something worthwhile. You got done what you set out to do.’ That’s what works for me. It gives me self-satisfaction, coming through those little daily wins.

“There’s still physical goals I’ve set myself, conditioning goals that I’m working on in the gym and in terms of my running. The sporting goals or the hurling goals that are not there anymore in any immediate sense, I have replaced them with personal, daily goals.

“They could be something as simple as telling myself I’m going to powerhose the house tomorrow. Even something as small as little daily jobs like that can help.”

Routine is everything. In a rootless, anchorless world, Maher takes it upon himself to build himself some structure. He's job-sharing a teaching gig so there's plenty of Zoom work to get through and he has a gym business in Borrisoleigh that he's in the process of migrating online. He has no trouble filling the days.

Hurling is out there in the ether for him somewhere and he won't go a day without spending some time pucking against a wall. In normal times, Tipperary would be headed to Walsh Park this weekend for their Munster opener against Waterford. But really and truly, hurling is too intangible right now for him to say he's motivated by it in any focussed kind of way.

“I am exercising, more than training. You still have that goal of, I want to be physically fit whenever sport returns. But really, on a day-to-day basis, my motivation is to stay fit and healthy so that I’m performing better in terms of my work and getting the best out of myself off the pitch.

“The group interaction is a big loss. The Zoom meetings are grand but it’s not the same. The thing about a collective is that nearly without trying, it acts as motivation. You push yourself not to let a fella down or to compete with him or you see a fella flagging and you push him. There is a collective buzz there that just naturally helps with motivation and so you do feel the loss of that.

“But you can’t be feeling sorry for yourself either. It’s a sh*t situation. It is! But perspective is very important. There are people in far worse situations than us and I have to remind myself that I’m lucky. My fiancée is a frontline worker. She’s as physio in the regional hospital and at the end of a week’s work on a Friday, she puts her scrubs in a plastic bag and brings them home with her and they have to be washed separately at a high temperature. So little reminders like that tell you that you’ve little to be giving out about.”