Katie Mullan has lately found herself on the sideline at her local GAA club, watching her old camogie team training and resisting the urge to get stuck in once again.
“I’d be a bit nervy now,” she admits. “It’s a different ball game. I do go for pucks but I haven’t got fully in the mix.” Now is not the time for that, no matter how much she’d love to give it a go.
Lockdown for Ireland’s hockey captain has been busy — and fruitful. Like many athletes in their prime, it has been an interesting experience adjusting to a new world without the demands of a strict training regime, where so much of your time is accounted for.
And like many young athletes, a prolonged spell living and working at her parents’ home in Coleraine has had its benefits. Once she overcame the initial disappointment of the Olympics being cancelled, Mullan began to realise she had been given a gift of time, and she set about making the most of it.
For a start, there were a few things needed fixing. Top of the list was a troublesome hip complaint which had been niggling at her for 18 months.
“It wasn’t restricting me but it just was not right,” she says. “So whenever lockdown happened, the physio said to me why don’t we try and strengthen this up and get you right for what the next 12 months is going to bring.
“I actually ended up doing weeks of rehab and I feel so much better for it. That gave me such a focus, such a habit, because I had to do some form of rehab every single day so it kept me in a really good routine. Obviously I wasn’t playing hockey so I was able to purely focus on that.”
So, as much as every natural inclination in her body might have been to get “fully in the mix” in the last few weeks at camogie training with Eoghan Rua, her head knew better.
“I would have been much more tempted if I wasn’t doing the rehab and the hard work with the hip. I just have to be very careful in managing my load more than anything.
“But I do know that camogie was my first love and I’d say I could well end up playing camogie long after I finish up playing hockey, just with my love for the local club and everything. My links there are still very strong.”
Opportunity, then, overtook disappointment. There was the opportunity, for instance, to address weaknesses in her game that she has been aware of but never felt like she had the time to properly focus on, working on her balance and mobility.
My dad’s a beef cattle farmer so I spent some time on the farm as well which I hadn’t been able to do in a long time.
She stayed fit by moving between the outdoor gym she set up at home and the pitches which are conveniently just across the road.
Most of all, though, Mullan’s experience of these months has been just like that of so many people, finding that pressing the pause button on the helter-skelter of daily life has largely been a good thing.
The 26-year-old is not a full-time athlete, so she balances a busy career with being captain of the most successful Irish women’s hockey team of all time. The time each day she would have spent in a car, going to and from work, and to and from training, is time that she has been able to reclaim for herself.
“I can get up and do my training before work, then work for the day, and then in the evening I’ve a bit more time for yoga, or things that I enjoy, or family time, or whatever. It’s a much better life balance for me, definitely.”
She has been in Coleraine all through this crisis with her parents and four siblings, and has savoured the quality time they have been able to spend together.
“I’m not sure how my mum and dad felt about it after a few weeks, with all the washing and the cooking and the shopping that would have lasted 10 days but is now down to two days... but yeah, it was good fun.
“My dad’s a beef cattle farmer so I spent some time on the farm as well which I hadn’t been able to do in a long time.
“It took a while to kind of switch the mindset but then, once I did, I then started really enjoying the time with my family.
“I’ve been on the road as an athlete since I was 15, so for me to get a period of time at home where I wasn’t driving to Belfast or Dublin for training every day, and just to be with them was really, really good — doing bits of different activities with them, going for long walks, going for cycles, just all the things that I wouldn’t have been physically able to do because of my hockey training plan. They discovered I wasn’t as tired and grumpy.”
When this is all over, she says she will have fond memories, adding: “I think it would have been a different story if I was an athlete living by myself.”
With body and mind now refreshed, Mullan’s thoughts have been returning to the challenges which lie ahead.
She has been part of a squad that has broken new ground in Irish hockey, reaching a World Cup final and being ranked eighth in the world, and while she and her team-mates are very aware of how much they have raised the bar, they remain determined to keep pushing harder.
Qualifying for the Olympics last November was another significant moment in their journey.
“We have said from day dot that yes, the goal was to go to the Olympics, but following our success in London and realising that we’re more than capable of doing something special at an Olympic Games, we’re very much driven towards that now. It’s by no means about just getting there.”
A lot of the success, she believes, has been down to the fact that the same panel has been together for a long time.
“It’s the same group of players that failed to qualify for Rio that then went to the World Cup and now have qualified for Tokyo.”
Their journey has resonated too, particularly at a time when the focus on women in sport has never been so pronounced. The 20x20 campaign — which coined the powerful slogan, ‘If she can’t see it, she can’t be it’ — targeted 20 per cent more participation in sport, 20% more media coverage and 20% more attendance by this year as part of its goal to create a healthier more inclusive Ireland, and to change perceptions and attitudes around women in sport.
Mullan has been one of the faces of the campaign and, as a Lidl ambassador, is also promoting an offshoot which is currently running, ‘Lidl Moves for 20x20’. The idea is to encourage women of all ages to take up some form of exercise — walking, jogging, cycling, yoga, home workouts, dancing — and forge a lasting habit by doing it for 21 consecutive days, based on the popular notion that it takes 21 days to form a habit.
We won’t be together forever and we’re very aware of that so there’s definitely a lot to be said for enjoying the next 12 months.
Being physically active is the biggest gift you can give yourself, with far-reaching benefits to your physical and mental wellbeing. But for Mullan, there’s another aspect to being active which she is hugely grateful for.
“I’ve had an incredible number of friendships formed through physical activity and that’s not just with team-mates who are like-minded, like me, and will want to go out and go for long walks, or go out and go for a bike ride or do whatever.
“It’s an incredible way for people now to socialise, as opposed to traditionally, maybe sitting in and eating or drinking. It’s about getting more people to realise the benefits of that.
“Where I live, there are three different swimming groups, only women. My mum’s in one of them, but there are three different sea swimming groups (that) have been set up.
“There are 20 or 30 ladies in these groups. Some mornings I come down the stairs to have my breakfast and my mum’s been out, she’s run up and down the beach and gone for a swim. She’s not breaking any records with speeds, but she just feels so good after it. She has formed a habit of doing that.
“It’s important that you don’t set the target of running a half-marathon every day. You’ll get sick of it very quickly. It’s just about finding something you can be consistent with and not over-cooking it to the point where you get sick of it.”
Mullan will soon be back in the hockey habit too, and is looking forward to getting on the pitch with her Ireland team-mates in the coming weeks as they slowly return to something approaching normal.
Seeing her camogie friends back in the swing of things has whetted her appetite. And there is work to be done. The European championships will come first next summer, followed by the Olympics.
“The Europeans are normally in August, so they’ve moved them forward because of the delay with the Games, which is brilliant actually because it gives us a tournament to go to a couple of months before the Games and get some really high quality opposition,” she explains.
“We were delighted when that announcement was made.”
Her take on things now is that the team has been given an extra 12 months to prepare, presenting an opportunity to close the gap between them and the top three or four teams in the world.
Little lessons have already been learned since qualification which can help fine-tune preparations.
“For example, we were away in January this year in South Africa. When we came back from South Africa, the weather in Ireland was horrendous and it was really hard for us to train in so now we’re looking maybe do we need to be away slightly later, or just little things that we’ve learned the first time around that we’re going to correct for the next time around.”
Sometimes there are second chances.
The players, she says, know what they expect of themselves, but they know too that it’s a year to be savoured.
“Every athlete that’s been to the Games that we spoke to, especially from Ireland, said that they didn’t enjoy the build-up to it and that the second time they did.
“I think that’s something that we really want to do and make sure that we do, in order to then hopefully perform when we’re there.
“We won’t be together forever and we’re very aware of that so there’s definitely a lot to be said for enjoying the next 12 months.
“Maybe it’s been a blessing...” she concludes.
Katie Mullan is a Lidl ambassador and 20x20 supporter. ‘Lidl Moves for 20x20’ is a new exercise programme and microsite which was launched as part of their support for 20x20’s ‘No Proving. Just Moving.’ initiative. Participants are invited to start their journey by taking the physical activity questionnaire to get a relevant starting point on the road to a new habit. You can visit the new microsite at www.lidl.ie/20x20