Make a pledge and go for it, you might never get another chance

Every year provides an opportunity to reach a new height. Once you go past your prime, that’s it. You can never scale those summits again, writes Paddy Heaney.

“You’ll regret it. Maybe not today. And maybe not tomorrow. But some day soon and for the rest of your life.”

— Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca

If any of my neighbours were up on Sunday morning at 7am they would have seen me walking my bike gingerly down our street. The road was still frozen, as were the footpaths, so it was too dangerous to actually get on the bike. I had to wait until I got onto the main road.

With hindsight, I must have looked like a right idiot. But the thought never really crossed my mind. I had to train. I needed to do a two-hour ride, and at that precise moment, my only concern was to clock up the necessary miles.

Sunday was my seventh bike session of last week. This year I am planning to join the racing fraternity. I have never raced before so the prospect is both exciting and terrifying.

Fear is a great motivator because I don’t want to fail. My friend, an experienced cyclist, is coaching me. He sets the plan. I follow it. Nothing is being left to chance. Most of my sessions start at 6.30am. While the rest of the house sleeps, I sit on a turbo trainer in the garage. I listen to music, but I am rarely bored. I love it.

I love it so much that when I drove to Ballyshannon on Sunday for Donegal’s game against Fermanagh, I brought a packed lunch – a flask of vegetable soup and a tuna salad.

Salads bore me. I prefer buns. But I don’t like the idea of watching skinny ass competitors riding off into distance, so I have no choice. It’s salads or humiliation.

In the days before I got the bug for triathlons, then cycling, I used to tip the scales at around 16st. I’m now 13st 5lbs. By April, my coach wants me to be 12st 7lbs. That’s the plan.

It needs to be stressed I am not seeking praise or admiration. There’s absolutely nothing unique about my weekly schedule. Across the country, there are hundreds of amateur cyclists, runners and triathletes who subscribe to similar and much more demanding schedules. Neither is it a chore. Some people like to exercise. Others like to complete challenges. I like to compete. Without the spur of competition, I couldn’t summon the motivation which is required to train so often. My only regret, and it is a major regret, is that I didn’t exercise the same discipline when I was playing football.

Okay, I was never going to be the next Jack O’Shea. As a footballer, I was limited. That’s not the point. At 18, I played midfield for the Derry minors. In my first year at university, I was on the Jordanstown freshers’ team which beat Queen’s in the All-Ireland final. I marked Paul McGrane (and never gave him a kick). But by 20, my progress stalled.

At university, while other players went to the gym, I went other places. I went anywhere but the gym. Other things become more important. I never played Sigerson football. I never played for the Derry U21s.

When I look back on my playing career, I can accept what I won and what I lost. The real pain comes from knowing I failed to realise my full potential. And most ex-players I talk to about this issue are the same. Like the Nike adverts say, sport is about being the best you can be. But how many of us actually fulfil that challenge? Young footballers and hurlers reading this column should take note. This is the time of year when the new manager will haul the squad into the clubrooms for the annual pre-season sermon. In time-honoured fashion, these men will outline what went wrong last year and they will unveil the grand plan for how everything will be rectified in the coming season.

A big commitment will be demanded. Players will be expected to go the gym on their own. They will have to eat properly and never miss a session. The club must come first. Everything else is secondary.

All too often in these annual speeches, the managers depict themselves as the rulers and the players are his serfs.

Everything revolves around punishment and criticism. If a player is caught drinking before a game, he will be left off the team. If a player misses a training session, he will be reprimanded. And on it goes.

Managers would be better served if they simply informed players his job is to help them achieve their full potential. They should also acknowledge that fact that it is difficult for young players to meet all the demands which are placed on them. Training v nightclubs. Training v the x-box. Training v the cinema. It’s not always an easy choice.

When you are married and have children, it’s easier to live the life of a monk. There are fewer distractions. When you are younger, it’s a different ball game.

A 40-year-old likes to train because it gets him away from the woman in his life. The 20-year-old misses training because he is chasing after a woman.

What you fail to realise in your youth is that your playing days are gone in the blink of an eye. Every year is incredibly precious. Every year provides an opportunity to reach a new height. Once you go past your prime, that’s it. You can never scale those summits again.

So, to every player who sits in a clubroom later this month and listens to a manager demanding a 100% commitment, I would urge you to listen to him. Make a pledge to go for it. You might never get another chance.

Trust me, if you don’t, those words of Humphrey Bogart will haunt you.

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